Apple 13in MacBook Pro (2020) vs Apple MacBook Air (2020) full review

Apple currently sells two laptop lines: the MacBook Pro (which comes in 13in and 16in screen sizes) and the MacBook Air (which is always 13in). The larger MacBook Pro was last updated in November 2019, while new versions of the smaller Pro and Air have been released in 2020.

But which model is right for you? In this article we compare design, features and specs, the areas where the MacBooks differ, the pros and cons of each and the factors you need to consider when making a buying decision.

Are you looking for a lighter, more portable laptop? How much power do you need? How much are you happy to spend?

We will focus primarily on the 13in models (since this is the common size offered by both the Pro and Air), but with occasional comparisons with the 16in option where relevant.

Read our MacBook Air (2020) review for more information. We also have a review of the 2020 MacBook Pro here.

Price

Price is one area where there's a stark difference between the MacBook Air and the 13in MacBook Pro: the latter is simply much more expensive.

MacBook Air prices

The MacBook Air is available in two default configurations:

  • 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-gen Intel Core i3, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD: £999/$999.
  • 1.1GHz quad-core 10th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD: £1,299/$1,299

MacBook Pro prices

Every model of the MacBook Pro has a Touch Bar. If you're not keen on it, tough! Here are the default 13in configurations - watch out for the older chips in the cheaper models:

  • 1.4GHz 8th-gen quad-core Intel i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB: £1,299/$1,299
  • 1.4GHz 8th-gen quad-core Intel i5, 8GB RAM, 512GB: £1,499/$1,499
  • 2.0GHz 10th-gen quad-core Intel i5, 16GB RAM, 512GB: £1,799/$1,799
  • 2.0GHz 10th-gen quad-core Intel i5, 16GB RAM, 1TB: £1,999/$1,999

This is interesting as now the dearest Air and cheapest Pro models cost the same.

If you're tempted with a larger screen and more power then the MacBook Pro 16in is available in two configurations. The 2.6GHz 6-core 9th-gen Intel i7 model will set you back £2,399/$2,399, whereas the 2.3GHz 8-core 9th-gen Intel i9 variant doubles the storage to 1TB SSD and costs £2,799/$2,799.

Options to consider

For £999/$999 you get the following 13in MacBook Air:

  • 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-generation Intel Core i3 processor
  • 256GB SSD
  • 8GB 3733MHz RAM
  • Intel Iris Plus Graphics
  • Magic Keyboard
  • Touch ID
  • Two Thunderbolt 3 (USB‑C) ports
  • 720p FaceTime HD camera

For £1,299/$1,299 you get the following 13in MacBook Pro:

  • 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor
  • 256GB SSD
  • 8GB 2133MHz RAM
  • Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645
  • Two Thunderbolt 3 (USB‑C) ports
  • 720p FaceTime HD camera
  • Touch Bar & Touch ID

For £2,399/$2,399 you get the following 16in MacBook Pro:

  • 2.6GHz six-core 9th-generation Intel Core i7 processor
  • 512GB SSD
  • 16GB 2666MHz RAM
  • AMD Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB RAM
  • Four Thunderbolt 3 (USB‑C) ports
  • 720p FaceTime HD camera
  • Touch Bar & Touch ID

We'll look at how the MacBooks compare in detail below but note the most obvious difference: the cheapest Air has a newer processor than the cheapest Pro, but it's a dual- rather than a quad-core chip.

If you aren't on such a tight budget, there are a lot of build-to-order options to consider for all MacBooks. Each can be customised with a higher-spec processors, more memory, more storage and so on. Of course the MacBook Pro 16in is a step up again with six and eight-core processors and even stronger graphics performance.

Special deals

The prices above are those offered when you buy direct from Apple; check our roundup of the best MacBook deals for discounts available elsewhere. Also, check the Apple Refurbished Store to see if you could pick up a discounted Mac with better specs than the MacBook Air offers.

Design & Build

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, so the difference is a lot less than it was. That said, the 2020 MacBook Air still weighs less than Pro; at 1.29kg compared to 1.4kg (and 2kg for the 16in).

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Air (2020)

As for size, the 2019 MacBook Air is 304.1 x 212.4mm, and 16.1mm thick, tapering to 4.1mm at its narrowest point. The 13in MacBook Pro is 304.1 x 212.4mm so it has the same footprint but is a little thicker overall at 15.6mm as it doesn't taper. For comparison, the MacBook Pro 16in is 357.9 x 245.9mm with a thickness of 16.2mm and a 2kg weight.

  • MacBook Air: 304.1 x 212.4 x 16.1-4.1mm; 1.29kg
  • MacBook Pro 13in: 304.1 x 212.4 x 15.6mm; 1.4kg
  • MacBook Pro 16in: 357.9 x 245.9 x 16.2mm; 2kg

Both styles of laptop come with Touch ID and things like the Force Touch trackpad, but the Touch Bar on the Pro is really the major design difference between the two. This multi-touch strip replaces the F keys, and can provide different contextual controls depending on the application open.

Whether or not you'll find it useful comes down to a combination of personal preference and what software you use. Read about what you can do with the Touch Bar.

Since the 2020 updates, all of the MacBooks come with Apple's new Magic Keyboard, which has a scissor-switch design to replaces the problematic butterfly mechanism.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Dimensions

Processor and RAM

The MacBook Air runs on 10th-gen Intel processors, which (perhaps surprisingly) gives it the edge over the 8th-gen chips in the cheapest 13in Pro and even the 9th-gen chips in the 16in - although the 13in Pro is available with 10th-gen chips if you're willing to pay more. And of course, the Air's chips are only dual-core by default.

Starting at a dual-core 1.1GHz Core i3, the Air's chip options are clearly designed to get stuff done while also maximising battery life by not consuming too much power. You can jump to a quad-core i5 but it remains at a base clock speed of 1.1GHz.

Still, Apple says you can get up to twice the performance compared to the 2019 model. The Air is also more customisable now, with up to Core i7 if you want extra power.

The 13in MacBook Pro still starts with the rather dated 8th-generation Intel Core i5; these are quad-core and start at 1.4GHz, with Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz. But as of the 2020 update there are now 10th-gen chips available in the default configurations: a 2GHz i5 or a 2.3GHz i7. These are also quad-core chips.

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Air (2020) screen

For the truly power-hungry the MacBook Pro 16in offers 9th-gen Intel processors with either six or eight cores and AMD Radeon graphics cards. We'll talk more about graphics below.

All the 13in MacBooks come with 8GB of RAM at their base configuration but the Air's RAM is faster than that of the cheapest Pro: it's 3733MHz LPDDR4X. The 10th-gen Pro configuration gets an upgrade to 3733MHz LPDDR4X, though, and a bump to 16GB too.

  • MacBook Air: 8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X RAM, configurable to 16GB
  • MacBook Pro 13in (8th-gen): 8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM, configurable to 16GB
  • MacBook Pro 13in (10th-gen): 16GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X RAM, configurable to 32GB

The larger 16in Pro starts with 16GB as standard, and this can be configured up to a maximum of 64GB.

Storage

The Air and 13in Pro both come with 256GB of storage as standard but the Pro can be upgraded more: it goes as high as 4TB, whereas the Air is capped at 2TB.

Over on the 16in MacBook Pro, storage starts at 512GB and can be upgraded all the way up to 8TB.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Speed comparisons

Battery life

Where processor speed is clearly in the MacBook Pro's favour, another potentially critical feature is battery life, and this time it's the MacBook Air that wins - though not by much.

The company claims that the Air can handle 11 hours of wireless web browsing and 12 hours of video playback - essentially a full day. That's compared to 10/10 from the 13in Pro and 11/11 for the 16in Pro; less, but not by a huge amount.

Screens

The display was previously an area where the Air and Pro were quite different, but Apple has brought them much closer these days. Apple upgraded the Air to a Retina Display with True Tone technology in 2019.

They both have 13.3in LED-backlit displays with IPS technology at a resolution of 2560x1600 making them 227ppi. The only difference is that the Pro boasts a 500nit brightness level and wide colour (P3), with the Air on 400nits and sRGB.

The 16in Pro features the same technology as the 13in Pro, but the larger area means it can display resolutions of 3072x1920 with a PPI of 226 again at 500nits.

As usual, Apple does not offer touchscreen displays in its MacBooks.

Graphics & Gaming

Unlike the higher-spec 16in models, the 13in MacBook Pro follows the Air in exclusively using integrated Intel graphics - though they're not identical.

The cheapest Pro models use Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645. In contrast, the MacBook Air and 10th-gen 13in Pro use the regular-grade Iris Plus Graphics, but it's a whopping 80% faster than the previous generation.

If you need some extra grunt then you can plug in an eGPU via Thunderbolt on either laptop - or you can opt for the 16in MacBook Pro which has Intel UHD Graphics 630 and AMD Radeon Pro discrete graphics cards.

Read about how to use an eGPU with your Mac.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Image editing

Ports & Peripherals

Laptops used to come with a range of ports but Apple has gradually moved to a very simple approach using USB-C (which supports Thunderbolt 3 and DisplayPort) on MacBooks. Things like full-size USB (Type A) and even SD card slots are long gone.

The cheapest two MacBook Pro models have exactly the same setup at the 2020 Air so you get two USB-C ports along with a headphone jack. Bear in mind that one will be needed for charging.

The two most expensive 13in MacBook Pro models come with four USB-C ports instead of two, which might come in useful depending on what you need the laptop for. This matches all the 16in Pro models.

It's worth remembering that there are plenty of USB-C adapters and accessories on the market to expand the ports, allowing you to use HDMI, VGA, USB 3.0 and more.

Verdict

The 16in MacBook Pro is clearly the option for those that need lots of power, including a dedicated graphics card, and features like four USB-C ports. But for most laptop buyers, the choice is between the 13in Pro and the MacBook Air.

If battery life, portability or price (or a combination of the three) are your priority, the Air ticks all the boxes.

But the Pro, especially now it's gained the option of 10th-gen Intel processors - and quad-core chips, not the dual-core versions in the Air - is a better bet for speed. It can also be upgraded further if you need more RAM or storage, and also has a slightly better screen.

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