MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review

If you are looking for a new Mac laptop there are a number of factors to consider when deciding which model is the one for you. Should you buy the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro Retina? Do you need the Retina display? Would a lighter and cheaper model be better for you? How much power do you need from your Mac laptop?

Apple last updated the MacBook Pro range in July 2014, the MacBook Air range was updated in April 2014. Both updates included quite minor processor boosts and price drops. Read our reviews of the current line up here:

The question of whether to buy a 13-inch MacBook Air (from £849) or MacBook Pro with Retina display (from £999) may look like it has an obvious answer - surely it is worth spending £150 more to get the pro model.

We've always felt that the pricing of the two models is too similar, it makes the differentiation between consumer and professional model less clear. There was a brief period after Apple updated the MacBook Air on 29 April when, having reduced the price of the MacBook Air, the price difference between the Air and Pro models was a much more significant £250. However, when Apple reduced prices on the MacBook Pro Retina in July the price difference went back to £150.

Back in 2013 when there was just £150 difference between the 2013 13in models our advice was that if you were on the market for a new laptop it was worth paying a few pounds more and getting the MacBook Pro with Retina display. Read on to find out if we still think the same way about this year's generation of MacBooks.

Apple also launched a low-cost iMac that offers comparable specs and a comparable price. We compare the new entry-level iMac and the MacBook Air here. We also share our 5 reasons to buy a MacBook Air and 5 reasons NOT to buy a MacBook Air. Read our 11in MacBook Air benchmarks.

Wondering when Apple will update the MacBook Air to include a Retina display. Read this article where look at the rumours and speculation surrounding the launch of the rumoured Retina MacBook Air which may still come this year. Not sure which Mac to buy? Read our Which Mac buyers guide

Watch our comparison of the 13-inch MacBook Air from 2013 and the 13-inch 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display. Many of the factors in the decision of which MacBook to buy are still the same...

 

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: dimensions and weight

When it launched in 2008 the MacBook Air was the lightest laptop available. Over the years that followed the weight of the MacBook Pro has also declined. We weigh up the differences between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display weighs the same as the 2013 model, both are 50g lighter than the 2012 Retina MacBook, at 1.57 kg.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is a bit heavier than the 13-inch, at 2.02 kg, and the same weight as the 2012 model.

Both models are just 1.8 cm thick. In 2012 the 13-inch model was a tiny bit thicker at 1.9 cm, the thickness of the 15-inch model hasn't changed.

The 2014 11-inch MacBook Air is 490g lighter than the lightest Retina MacBook Pro, at 1.08 kg. While the MacBook Air gives the impression of being slimmer thanks to its tapered edge, it's still 1.7 cm at the thickest point, just one millimeter different. The 2013 11-inch MacBook Air weighs the same as the 2014 model.

The 2014 13-inch MacBook Air model is probably a farer comparison with the 13in MacBook Pro Retina, and that weighs in at 1.35 kg, just 220 g less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina. The 2013 13-inch MacBook Air weighs the same as the 2014 model.

You might presume that the dimensions of both 13in MacBooks would be the same, but you may be surprised to learn that not only are they not the same, the MacBook Air is actually a fraction bigger. The 13in Retina MacBook Pro is 31.4cm by 21.9cm, while the 13in MacBook Air is 32.5cm by 22.7cm.

Read our review of the 2014 13in MacBook Air here and our review of the 2014 11in MacBook Air here.


2014 MacBook Air, 11-inch dimensions

  • Height 0.3-1.7 cm
  • Width 30cm
  • Depth 19.2
  • Weight 1.08 kg

2014 MacBook Air, 13-inch dimensions

  • Height 0.3-1.7 cm
  • Width 32.5cm
  • Depth 22.7
  • Weight 1.35 kg

2014 Retina MacBook Pro, 13-inch dimensions

  • Height 1.8 cm
  • Width 31.4cm
  • Depth 21.9cm
  • Weight 1.57 kg

2014 Retina MacBook Pro, 15-inch dimensions

  • Height 1.8 cm
  • Width 35.89cm
  • Depth 24.71cm
  • Weight 2.02 kg

Buying Advice

The MacBook Air is still the lightest, but the MacBook Pro is catching up. The surprising thing is that the MacBook Pro with Retina display is actually slightly smaller in terms of width and depth, and only one milimeter thicker than the MacBook Air at it's thickest point. You no longer need to sacrifice power for portability.


MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: price and specs comparison

When it first launched in October 2012, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display started at £1,449. This was reduced to £1,249 a few months later when the range received a processor upgrade. Until recently the entry-level MacBook Pro with Retina display cost £1,099, then in July 2014 Apple dropped the entry-level price to an even more compelling £999.

Since 29 April 2014, the MacBook Air pricing has started at £749 for the 11in model, that's £100 less than the 2013 equivalent, which started at £849. However, if you wanted to compare like-for-like, the 13-inch MacBook Air pricing starts at £849, £150 less than the Retina display model.

In fact the closest comparison is the £999 13in MacBook Air with 256GB PCIe flash storage, 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, Intel HD Graphics 5000, 4GB memory and 12 hour battery.

The £999 MacBook Pro with Retina display offers less flash storage, at 128GB and the battery doesn't last as long, but it features a 2.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, Intel Iris Graphics and 8GB memory (up from 4GB in the 2013 model).

The key differences are the faster processor (2.6GHz compared to 1.4GHz), Intel Iris Graphics as opposed to the Intel HD Graphics, and 8GB RAM rather than 4GB RAM. If you are set on the bigger SSD then you could always opt for the £1,199 model with the 256GB flash drive.

Admittedly there is a bigger leap from £999 to £1,199 (£200), but If it's storage that you need then you might prefer to buy an external hard drive or NAS drive and use that - it will likely cost you less than £200.

On the other hand, if it's the RAM you are interested in, it costs £80 to boost the RAM in a MacBook Air to 8GB (which we would recommend you do).


2014 MacBook Air, 13-inch, £849

  • 128GB PCIe flash storage
  • 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz
  • Intel HD Graphics 5000
  • 4GB memory
  • 12 hour battery

2014 MacBook Air, 13-inch, £999

  • 256GB PCIe flash storage
  • 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz
  • Intel HD Graphics 5000
  • 4GB memory
  • 12 hour battery

2014 MacBook Pro, 13-inch, £999

  • 128GB PCIe flash storage
  • 2.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz
  • Intel Iris Graphics
  • 8GB memory (up from 4GB in 2013 model)
  • 9 hour battery

2014 MacBook Pro, 13-inch, £1,099

  • 256GB PCIe flash storage
  • 2.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz
  • Intel Iris Graphics
  • 8GB memory
  • 9 hour battery

2014 MacBook Pro, 13-inch, £1,399

  • 512GB PCIe flash storage
  • 2.8 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz
  • Intel Iris Graphics
  • 8GB memory
  • 9 hour battery

Buying Advice

The MacBook Air might be the cheapest option, but you get a lot more power and features from the MacBook Pro with Retina display. The one place where the £999 Retina model lets itself down is that the storage space is less than the £999 Air. If the storage space is crucial to you, you might prefer to spend £200 more on the £1,199 MacBook Pro Retina, or you could purchase a separate external hard drive.


MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: Power and processors 

There's an even bigger difference between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro than the size of the SSD and the amount of RAM included. The 1.4GHz of the MacBook Air compared to the 2.6GHz MacBook Pro looks like a massive difference. 

Although with Turbo Boost the difference is less pronounced: 2.7GHz compare to 3.1GHz. Turbo Boost is a function offered by Intel's processors that overclocks the core frequency when you are running an application that requires more power.

Whether you notice any difference depends a lot on what kind of tasks you are using the MacBook for. If you do little more than surf the web stream TV shows and movies, and send emails, you probably won't notice a huge difference. If you are playing games, or doing intensive work, like editing the next Hollywood blockbuster, then you will probably find the MacBook Air struggling at times.

Both processors are from Intel's Haswell range that first appeared in Macs in 2013. Intel is set to launch a new processor, codename Broadwell, later this year and this new processor is likely to find its way into Apple's Macs before long.


2014 MacBook Air, 13-inch - price & processor

  • 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, £849
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz 

2014 MacBook Pro, 13-inch - price & processor

  • 2.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, £999
  • Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz 

Buying Advice

If you want the best processor available then the MacBook Pro with Retina display is still the obvious choice, but note that when the Mac needs to power up Turbo Boost should make a big difference.


Read:

Will Apple discontinue the non-Retina MacBook Pro?

Apple Mac i5 vs i7 processor buying advice

Which MacBook should I buy?

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: Battery life

Where processor speed is clearly in the MacBook Pro's favour, another potentially critical feature is battery life, and this time it is the MacBook Air that shines.

The Haswell processor requires less power than the Ivy Bridge processor of the 2012 generations of MacBooks; as a result Apple offers very decent battery life in these new models.

With regards to the 13in Retina MacBook Pro, in 2012 you could get 7 hours; but in the past two generations of MacBooks battery life of the 13in model is at 9 hours, according to Apple. In our tests we found battery life to be even better. The 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina we tested actually lasted just shy of 10 hours – 9 hrs 55 mins in fact. Our test procedure includes no natural pauses – and this is where new power savings are made in both the new Haswell chipset and in the OS X Mavericks operating system, so in practice you may get much more battery life. 

Since the 2013 MacBook Air launch, Apple has been able to claim that the 13-inch MacBook Air offers battery life that will last a full working day.

The 13in MacBook Air offers 12 hours of battery life, basically a whole day, while the 11in model offers 9 hours. That compares to seven hours for the 2012 MacBook Air.

In our battery tests back when the 2013 MacBook Air models we found that the battery life was even better than that claimed by Apple. In our MobileMark 2007 Productivity Test the MacBook Air ran for 13 hours and 57 minutes.


2014 Retina MacBook Pro, 13-inch

  • 9 hour battery

2014 MacBook Air, 13-inch

  • 12 hour battery

Buying Advice

If it's the maximum battery life you need then there is still a significant difference between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, it's how important those extra hours are to you that matters. If you will be using the MacBook on the move then both the weight of the MacBook Air, and it's superb battery life are likely to swing it in your favour.


MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: specs and build-to-order options

There are three 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro options available and two 13-inch MacBook Air options. There are also a number of build-to-order options across both ranges. You may, for example, wish to add more RAM to your MacBook Air at point of purchase because you will not be able to upgrade it later, and 4GB may not prove to be enough in a few years time.

In the MacBook Pro Retina line up you have the £999, 2.6 GHz, 8GB memory, and 128GB flash storage already mentioned. The mid-range model is also 2.6 GHz, 8GB RAM, but boasts 256GB flash storage, that extra storage brings the cost to £1,199.(That's a bump of £200 to get you from 128GB to 256GB storage, while on the MacBook Air range the bump from 128GB to 256GB storage costs an extra £150).

The flagship 13-inch model offers 2.8GHz (up from 2.6GHz in 2013), 8GB RAM, 512GB flash storage for £1,399 (£100 less than in 2013). You can max out the top of the range 13-inch Retina model with a 3.0GHz i7 processor for an extra £150, 16GB RAM for £160, and 1TB flash storage for £400.

The two 2014 13-inch MacBook Air options include the £849, 1.3 GHz, with 4GB memory, 128GB storage and the top-of-the-range 1.3GHz, 4GB memory, 256GB flash storage option, which is £150 more at £999. You are paying £150 extra for a higher capacity flash drive; there is no other difference between the two models.

In both cases you can max out your processor to the 1.7GHz Intel i7 for an extra £120 (this upgrade was £130 for the 2013 model), and 8GB memory for £80. There's a 512GB flash storage option on the high-end model for an additional £240. 


MacBook Pro Retina line up

  • £999: 2.6GHz, 4GB RAM, 128GB flash storage
  • £1,199: 2.6Hz, 8GB RAM, 256GB flash storage
  • £1,399: 2.8GHz, 8GB RAM, 512GB flash storage

Build-to-order options:

  • £150: 3.0 GHz i7
  • £160: 16GB RAM
  • £400: 1TB flash storage

2014 MacBook Air line up

  • £849: 1.4 GHz, 4GB memory, 128GB storage
  • £999: 1.4 GHz, 4GB memory, 256GB storage

Build-to-order options:

  • £120: 1.7GHz i7
  • £80: 8GB RAM
  • £240: 512GB flash storage

So at the most maxed out, the 13-inch Retina display model costs £2,109 (in 2013 it would have cost £130 more at £2,239) and comes with 3.0GHz Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM and 1TB flash storage. The ultimate build to order 2014 MacBook Air costs £1,449 (£660 less).  This build to order model comes with 1.7GHz Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM and 512GB flash storage. In 2013 the ultimate MacBook Air would have cost £1,579.

Incidentally, that gives us a build-to-order MacBook Air at £1,449, and a top-of-the-range MacBook Pro with Retina Display at £1,399. How do these Macs compare? The only difference (other than the Retina display) being the processor - one an i5 the other an i7. Read about the difference between the i5 and i7 processor range here.


£1,399: MacBook Pro

  • Retina display, 2.8GHz Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 512GB flash storage

£1,449: 2014 MacBook Air BTO

  • 1.7GHz Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM and 512GB flash storage

Buying advice

As a point of comparison, the maxed out MacBook Air offers a similar spec to the high-end 13-inch Retina model, apart from processor speed, with the Air featuring an Core i7, and the Pro offering a faster clock speed. [Read about the difference between i5 and i7 processors here].You could basically save yourself £100 and get Retina display. We will endeavour to run tests on the i5 and i7 processors to see what a difference the higher rated i7 processor makes. 


MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: screen and resolution

The biggest difference between the Apple's two MacBook models is the display. The MacBook Air screens aren't Retina displays, so the pixel density is lower. The 13-inch Air has a native 1,440-x-900 screen resolution compared to the 2,560-by-1,600 resolution on the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina. That is nearly double the resolution in both axes as the familiar 1,280 x 800 size, and hits a pixel density of 227 ppi (pixels per inch) that makes individual pixels invisible to the eye at reading distances.

However, the screen on the Air is by no means inferior to the vast majority of laptop screens.

The Retina MacBook Air features a LED-backlit display, but only the Retina MacBook Pro adds IPS technology to this. The IPS panel means very wide viewing angles and richer, more accurate colours. In our tests we found it could cover 98 percent of the simple sRGB gamut, and 69 and 75 percent of NTSC and AdobeRGB.

Another thing to note is the aspect ratio. The MacBook Pro with Retina display and the 13in MacBook Air both offers a 16:10 ratio rather than the 16:9 screens that most other laptops use, including the MacBook Air. We think 16:10 is the best for laptop productivity and comfort.


2014 13-inch MacBook Air

  • 1,440-x-900 resolution

2014 MacBook Pro with Retina display

  • 2,560-by-1,600 resolution

Buying advice

If you need the best screen available then the Retina MacBook Pro is unbeatable. In a few years from now we expect all of Apple's devices will feature Retina displays. Indeed, Apple may have plans to introduce a new MacBook Air with a Retina display at some point in 2014.


Read: Is Retina Display worth the money?/ Will Apple release a Retina MacBook Air?

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: Graphics and games

Improved graphics performance is one of the key changes for the Haswell processor line. The 13-inch MacBook Pro has always relied on Intel integrated graphics, unlike the high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which offers switching graphics processors to balance performance with battery economy.

This 2014 Retina MacBook Pro features Intel Iris Graphics, which can use 1024MB of system memory (the 2013 model featured the same graphics capabilities).

Note that along with the NVIDIA graphics card in the high-end 15-inch model, the 15-inch MacBook Pros feature Iris Pro Graphics, which includes its own dedicated DRAM to accelerate performance.

In our tests the regular Intel Iris graphics proved capable of playing the Batman: Arkham City benchmark at an average of 31 fps at High detail using the screen’s ‘native’ resolution of 1,280 x 800 pixels. Reducing detail to Medium actually changed little, rewarding us with an average of 32 fps.

The 2014 MacBook Air features the less powerful Intel's HD Graphics 5000, as did the 2013 model, although these showed a marked improvement on the HD Graphics 4000 from the 2012 generation of MacBook Air. 


2014 MacBook Pro Retina line up

  • 13-inch: Intel Iris Graphics
  • 15-inch: Intel Iris Pro Graphics 

2014 & 2013 MacBook Air line up

  • Intel HD Graphics 5000

Buying Advice

The 13-inch MacBook Air is without a doubt better for playing games than the 2012 model, but the 2014 model is unlikely to offer much of a difference when compared to the 2013 model. If you want to play games on a MacBook you are best advised to consider the 15-inch MacBook Pro.


MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: capacity concerns, flash verses HD

The MacBook Air is available with a choice of 128GB or 256GB flash storage, as well as a 512GB build-to-order option. The MacBook Pro with Retina display offers 128GB, 256GB and 512GB flash storage, and a 1TB build-to-order option.

Some people will have no problem fitting their data within the 128GB capacity of the low-end models. However, there will be plenty of people with ever increasing photo and media libraries who are concerned that even 256GB isn't enough storage for their needs and they may wish to turn to the £1,399 Retina MacBook Pro with 512GB storage, rather than pay £240 extra for the build-to-order 512GB storage option on the Air (bringing that price to £1,239). Why do that when you can pay £160 extra for not only the increased storage, but all the other features of the £1,399 512GB Retina MacBook Pro with its faster processor and extra RAM.

If it's the maximum storage you need, at the minimum cost, you could opt for the old MacBook Pro with its 500 GB hard drive. That non-Retina model costs £899 (it's recently seen a £100 price drop), but we advise that if you really need the extra storage space you consider a separate external hard drive - you could get 1TB for less than £100.

Storage needs aside, the PCIe-connected solid-state flash plays a huge role in the performance of both the MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro. This new PCIe technology bypasses the usual Serial ATA interface entirely and offers significantly faster data throughput.

Apple claims this next-generation PCIe flash storage is up to 9x faster than a traditional 5400-rpm notebook hard drive (as found in the non retina MacBook Pro) and up to 45 per cent faster than the flash storage in the 2012 MacBook Air.

All this adds up to a big change in speed and reduced startup times. For more information on the differences between a Flash or SSD verses a HDD hard drive read our which is the best storage to have in a Mac feature.


2014 13-inch MacBook Air

  • £849: 128GB storage
  • £999: 256GB storage
  • + £240: 512GB flash storage (£1,239)

2014 MacBook Pro with Retina display

  • £999: 128GB flash storage
  • £1,199: 256GB flash storage
  • £1,399: 512GB flash storage
  • + £400: 1TB flash storage (£1,799)

Buying Advice

Flash storage has increased in capacity over the past few years to the point where for most users the capacity of the entry level MacBooks will be adequate. Those who really feel the need for extra storage are advised to get an external hard drive and take advantage of the quicker start up and faster access times for flash storage. 


Read: 4 reasons to buy the non-Retina MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro v MacBook Air: Ports and peripherals

If you are looking for a laptop with a built in optical drive your only choice is the old £899 MacBook Pro without Retina display. However, we don't think that an optical drive is necessary in these days of software and music downloads and movie streaming. If you really need that optical drive, we suggest that you factor in the cost of an Apple Superdrive, which costs £65.

Both the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro and the 13-inch MacBook Air offer an SDXC card slot for downloading photographs from your memory stick. Both models also offer two USB 3 ports each. The Retina MacBook Pro features two Thunderbolt 2 ports, to the Air's one Thunderbolt port. The Pro also offers an HDMI port, while you'll need Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter for the Air.

Retina MacBook Pro

  • Two Thunderbolt 2 ports
  • Two USB 3 ports
  • HDMI port
  • SDXC card slot

MacBook Air

  • Two USB 3 ports
  • Thunderbolt port
  • SDXC card slot
  • HDMI audio and video output via third-party Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter

Buying Advice

We know that a lot of people are attached to the CD and DVD but we think that sacrificing the optical drive for a slimmer, lighter laptop is a good move on Apple's part. The big difference is the inclusion of Thunderbolt 2 on the Retina MacBook Pro, verses the Thunderbolt 1 on the Air. For now, while few peripherals use Thunderbolt, this will make little difference. If you are likely to be plugging your laptop into your TV you might prefer the ease of the HDMI port on the Retina MacBook Pro, you'll need a separate adaptor for the Air.  


OUR VERDICT

In 2013, when Apple reduced the price of the MacBook Pro with Retina display range, we stopped recommending the 13-inch MacBook Air on the basis that there was only £150 difference in price. As Apple has continued to drop prices we are still looking at just a £150 difference between the two ranges at the entry level. It's great to see Apple reducing prices across its MacBook ranges, but the lower prices of the MacBook Pro Retina range do have the effect of making the MacBook Air look less attractive in comparison. However, we still love the MacBook Air, which is lighter and thinner, although a fraction bigger than the MacBook Pro with Retina display. If it's the MacBook Air that you have your heart set on, you can't go wrong with it, but if you have a little more in your budget, then consider the MacBook Pro with Retina display because it's a really good deal in comparison.

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