MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro

If you're looking to buy a new MacBook, there are a few options to choose between - right now there's the MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro - with more options within each model.

Only two of them come in 13in sizes, though, so if you know you want a laptop with a 13in screen, you've got to pick between the MacBook Air and the smaller size of MacBook Pro. In this article we compare the two, leaving out the 12in MacBook. 

That means you've got a few decisions to make. Would you rather a lighter, more portable laptop? How much power do you need? How much are you happy to spend?

We're going to break down the differences and similarities between the two laptops step by step to help you decide which is right for you - though if you're still considering the regular MacBook too, you might find our general MacBook buyers' guide more helpful. We also have a Best MacBook article.

Once you've made your mind up, you can head straight to Apple to buy the MacBook Air or 13in MacBook Pro.

Price

Price is one area where there's a stark difference between the MacBook Air and the 13in MacBook Pro, as the former is  cheaper.

The MacBook Air is available in three default configurations. The cheapest model is priced at £949/$999, but it is an older model with a processor that dates back to 2014. If you shop around you can actually get some very good deals for this model since the new Air arrived, many UK retailers are selling the older model for under £800 and it's likely US retailers are offering similar deals. Under no circumstances buy the entry-level MacBook Air from Apple where it will cost you nearly £200 more. YOu can see some deals above, we also have a best MacBook Air deals article.

The MacBook Air was updated in October 2018, so if you want the newer model, then prices start at £1,199/$1,199 for the 128GB model, or £1,399/$1,399 for the models with 256GB (the only difference between the new models is how much storage they have).

If you fully kit out the MacBook Air with 16GB RAM, and a huge 1.5TB SSD, the highest price you can hit is £2,579/2,559. That 1.5TB SSD costs £1,000/$1,000! The extra RAM is £180 in the UK and $200 in the US.

The cheapest 13-inch MacBook Pro is priced at £1,249/$1,299 for a version without the Touch Bar - bear in mind that this model was last updated in 2017, while the MacBook Pro models with a Touch Bar were updated in July 2018. Upping the storage takes it to £1,449/$1,499. You can add build-to-order options to this model (2.5GHz processor, 16GB RAM, 1TB storage) which takes the price to £2,499/$2,599.

The MacBook Pro models with the Touch Bar, start at £1,799/$1,799. You can add a slightly faster processor, upgrade to 16GB RAM, and add a 1TB SSD for £2,799/$2,899. If you maxed out the storage with a 2TB SSD, it costs £3,599/$3,699

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, so the difference is a lot less than it was.

That said, the 2018 MacBook Air weighs less than the older MacBook Air model. 1.25kg compared to 1.35kg. 100g less. In comparison the 13in MacBook Pro weighs 1.37kg. If weight is an important factor to you, then you might want to also consider the 12in MacBook, which weighs just 0.92kg.

As for size, the 2018 MacBook Air is 30.41cm x 21.24cm, and 1.56cm thin, tapering to 0.41cm at its narrowest point.

New MacBook Air

The older MacBook Air is 32.5cm x 22.7cm, and 1.7cm thin, tapering to 0.30cm at its narrowest point

Old MacBook Air

The 13in MacBook Pro is 1.49cm thick, while the main body is 30.41cm x 21.24cm. That's narrower over all than both of the  MacBook Air models, but those laptops have a design that tapers to the edge, giving them the appearance of being slimmer. 

MacBook Pro dimensions

The MacBook Air is now exactly the same length and width as the 13in MacBook Pro, but the older MacBook Air model is actually both wider and longer. You can see why Apple needed to update the MacBook Air (or discontinue it).

If you're curious about how the 12in MacBook fits in to this, it weighs 0.92kg, and its dimensions are 28.05 x 19.65cm, and just 0.35-1.31cm thick.

Processor and RAM

The biggest difference between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro is processing power. However, it's not just a simple comparison of MacBook Air to MacBook Pro, there is a world of difference between the older MacBook Air that is still on sale and the 2018 MacBook Air, and a significant difference between the non-Touch Bar and Touch Bar 13in MacBook Pro.

We'll start with the MacBook Air. If you were to compare the older and newer models you might be confused by the fact that the older MacBook Air has a 1.8GHz processor while the 2018 MacBook Air has a 1.6GHz processor. This is why it is so important to note the age of the machine - and specifically the generation of the processor. The processor in the older MacBook Air was first manufactured by Intel in 2014. Processors have come on a fair bit since then, so a 1.8GHz processor made today would be a lot more powerful, and so would the integrated graphics card. You may not think you need a powerful machine, but today's faster processors will make a difference to all sorts of things, including surfing the web and especially playing games.

The new MacBook Air's processor is a more powerful 1.6GHz, but it's an Amber Lake chip, which is a generation of low-powered chips that are the successor to the Kaby Lake Y chips found in the 12in MacBook. These processors are great for every-day users because they aren't so power hungry, so they should help you eke out more battery life.

As we said, Apple updated only the Touch Bar MacBook Pros in 2018, so the models with Touch Bar have a newer processor. But it's just a generational leap, the non-Touch Bar models have a 2.3GHz dual-core processor while the 2018 Touch Bar MacBook Pro has 2.3GHz quad-core processors. That's twice as many processors. We always said that to be truly considered pro machines the MacBook Pro needed a quad-core processor and in 2018 Apple did just that. At the same time, the 15in MacBook Pro got six-cores. You might not need that much power though.

This does mean that there is a clear leap between each of the four options we are looking at here: old MacBook Air as the least powerful, a leap to the 2018 MacBook Air (which incidentally would be faster than the MacBook if we were considering that), then a leap to the 2017 MacBook Pro without Touch Bar, and another leap to the 2018 MacBook Pro.

When it comes to RAM. At first glance the laptops look similar - all the default configurations come with 8GB. However, the 2018 MacBook Air and all the MacBook Pro models are configurable up to 16GB. Also note that the Pro uses RAM running at 2133MHz, compared to 1600MHz, meaning even with 8GB the Pro and 2018 Air models have a speed advantage over the older MacBook Air

We haven't yet been able to run benchmark tests on the laptops side by side to make a detailed comparison, but we'll update this article when we do. However, from the specs alone it's pretty clear that the MacBook Pro will outperform the Air.

How much that matters depends on what you need the laptop 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're playing games, or doing intensive work like editing the next Hollywood blockbuster, then you will probably find even the 2018 MacBook Air struggling at times.

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.

We haven't yet been able to run thorough battery tests on the latest models of the Air or Pro, but Apple's own tech specs suggest that the Air will last a bit longer.

The company claims that the 2018 Air can handle 12 hours of wireless web browsing and 13 hours of video playback - essentially a full day. That's compared to 10 hours of each from the 13in Pro - less, but not by a huge amount.

Screen and resolution

One of the biggest differences between Apple's 13in MacBook laptops is the display. The older MacBook Air doesn't have a Retina display, so the pixel density is lower. That Air has a native 1440x900 screen resolution compared to the 2560x1600 Retina resolution on the 13in MacBook Pro and the new 2018 MacBook Air.

You can definitely notice the differences between the screens, so if you want the best quality display the older Air model will not be for you.

The older MacBook Air features a LED-backlit display, while the 2018 MacBook Air and the 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. All the laptops use a 16:10 ratio, rather than the 16:9 screens that some other laptops use. We think 16:10 is the best for laptop productivity and comfort.

Graphics and gaming

Unlike the higher-spec 15in models, the 13in MacBook Pro follows the Air in exclusively using integrated Intel graphics - though they're not identical.

The Pro uses either Intel Iris Plus 640 on the non-touch bar model and the Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655 for the 2018 Touch-Bar model. The 2018 MacBook Air has an Intel UHD Graphics 617 which can support Thunderbolt 3–enabled external graphics processors (eGPUs), while the older £949/$999 Air just has Intel HD Graphics 6000, which is a few generations behind.

In practical terms, it means that the older Air won't really be usable for gaming or intense graphical work, while the Pro will. The addition of support for an eGPU on the 2018 MacBook Air is interesting because it essentially opens up that Mac to a faster external processor (you can also do this with a MacBook Pro). If you don't want to plug in an external graphics  card you'd be wise to look at a Mac with a discreet graphics card such as the 15-inch MacBook Pro, or the iMac.

In terms of gaming, the 13in Pro models and the newer Air should be able to play modern games, though not on high graphics settings or with top frame rates. Realistically, the older Air is limited to older games or simple titles.

Storage

Storage is one area where there's less of a difference between the different models.

The MacBook Air is available with a choice of 128GB or 256GB storage, as well as a 512GB and 1.5TB build-to-order option.

The MacBook Pro offers 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB storage, as well as 1TB and 2TB build-to-order options. All Apple's laptops use SSD (a.k.a. flash storage), meaning you can expect fast (and quiet) storage.

If storage is your chief concern, if you upgrade the Air to the 1.5GB hard drive that runs the total cost to £2,399/$2,399 - while the MacBook Pro with 1TB would cost £2,049, or £3,149 for the 2TB model. At those kind of prices you might prefer to look at external storage though.

Ports and peripherals

Your preference between the two models when it comes to ports will depend a lot on how you feel about Apple's heavy push for the adoption of Thunderbolt 3 (a.k.a. USB-C) as a universal standard.

The older MacBook Air chassis is from before the big move to USB-C, so it packs a rather traditional set of ports: a MagSafe 2 for charging, two USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2, an SDXC card slot, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. If you want the older USB then this is the only Mac laptop that offers it.

The new MacBook Air has two Thunderbolt 3 (USB‑C) ports and a headphone jack.

On the Pro, along with the 3.5mm headphone jack, you either get two or four USB-C ports, depending on whether or not you opt for the Touch Bar.

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. You'll also need those USB-C ports to take full advantage of any recent tech you own that uses the new standard.

It's also worth mentioning the addition of a Force Touch trackpad on the MacBook Pro and the 2018 MacBook Air - a feature that is absent from the older MacBook Air. 

The Force Touch trackpad is sensitive to varying degrees of touch pressure: you can set it to respond to harder/deeper presses to activate different features. It also provides haptic feedback - a tangible, tactile response that in theory allows you to 'feel' what you are interacting with, which means that you feel like you are pressing the trackpad in when actually the pad isn’t moving at all.

Speaking of touch-based hardware, on a MacBook Pro and the 2018 MacBook Air you have the option of Touch ID. Only the 13in MacBook Pro models with the Touch Bar have this feature though. The Touch ID pad adds a layer of security and makes it possible to unlock your Mac with your fingertip. This makes it particularly useful if you want to authorise payments on your MacBook Pro - now directly with your fingerprint.

When it comes to the Touch Bar, this is the stand-out features on the newer MacBook Pro, although it's been part of that line up for a few years now. The Touch Bar can be customised and be used alongside certain programs to provide a more personalised macOS experience. This Touch Bar is a multi-touch strip replacing the F keys that can provide different contextual controls depending on the application open - though it doesn't yet have universal support. We don't really think that the feature itself is worth buying those models for, but there is a lot else that sells them. Read about what you can do with the Touch Bar here.

How to get the best deal

One final point. Before you decide on the MacBook Air because you are looking for a cheap Mac, read this article: Best cheap Mac. We have the best MacBook deals here, plus we also have a best MacBook Air deals story here.

Also, check the Apple Refurbished Store to see if you could pick up a newer Mac with better specs than the MacBook Air offers.

OUR VERDICT

There is still a big difference between the different models, but since Apple updated the MacBook Air in October 2018, and two of the 13in MacBook Pro models in 2018, the question of which 13in MacBook isn't as clear cut as it once was.

We think that the 2018 MacBook Air is definately worthy of attention now that Apple has updated it. In our opinion it beats the entry-level MacBook Pro because it costs slighly less.

If you're looking for the best performance and feature-rich MacBook, the Pro is the clear winner, though. However, if you're going to be using it only for documents and browsing, even the older MacBook Air is still a capable alternative, although we think that it's overpriced for such an old machine.

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