Apple MacBook Pro (2020) M1 vs Apple MacBook Air (i3, early 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 - including new models with Apple's M1 chip released in November 2020.

But what is the difference between the MacBook Air and Pro? In this article we compare design, features and specs, the main areas where the MacBooks differ, the pros and cons of each and the factors you need to consider when making a buying decision.

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.

You may also find our Which MacBook article helpful.

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. Today the 2020 MacBook Air weighs slightly less than 13in MacBook Pro; at 1.29kg compared to 1.4kg (and 2kg for the 16in).

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Air (2020)

The 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. The 16in MacBook Pro 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
  • 13in MacBook Pro: 304.1 x 212.4 x 15.6mm; 1.4kg
  • 13in MacBook Pro: 357.9 x 245.9 x 16.2mm; 2kg

Both styles of Apple 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.

The other difference is the colour choices. You can choose from silver, space grey and gold for the MacBook Air, but the MacBook Pro offers only the silver and space grey options.

Following updates early in 2020 all MacBooks come with Apple's Magic Keyboard, which has a scissor-switch design to replace the problematic butterfly keyboard mechanism.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Dimensions

Processor

The November 2020 MacBook Air runs on Apple's M1 processors, as does the November 2020 13in MacBook Pro. There are also 13in MacBook Pro models with Intel chips, and the 16in MacBook Pro currently only offers Intel processors.

Apple has revealed plans to transition its entire line from Intel to it's own processors. You can expect this transition to be completed within two years. For now the only Macs to feature these new chips are at the entry-level, but the processors are impressively powerful.

Here's how those processors line up:

MacBook Air:

  • M1 Chip with 8‑Core CPU and 7‑Core GPU
  • M1 Chip with 8‑Core CPU and 8‑Core GPU

13in MacBook Pro:

  • M1 Chip with 8‑Core CPU and 8‑Core GPU 
  • 2.0GHz Quad-Core 10th gen Intel i5 processor, Intel Iris Plus Graphics

16in MacBook Pro:

  • 2.6GHz 6-Core 9th gen Intel i7 processor, AMD Radeon Pro 5300M
  • 2.3GHz 8-Core 9th gen Intel i9 processor, AMD Radeon Pro 5500M

The entry-level Air's chip options are designed to get stuff done while also maximising battery life by not consuming too much power. You'll also notice that the GPU has fewer cores in this model, while the other MacBook Air has an 8-core GPU. We'll go into more detail with regards to graphics below, sticking primarily to the differences between the CPUs here.

The CPUs are the big story after all, with Apple's new M1 chips seeing some excellent benchmarks even when compared to the super-fast Intel processors in the more expensive models.

When Apple introduced the M1 chip in November 2020 it made some big claims about it being the "world’s fastest CPU core" with the "world's best CPU performance per watt" as well as "numerous powerful technologies" and "improved performance and efficiency".

Not only that, but Apple says that the M1 delivers up to 3.5x faster CPU performance compared to previous-generation Macs. That's not only in comparison to the MacBook Air from earlier in 2020, but also in comparison with older MacBook Pro models.

It also hints at some impressive comparisons with the Intel processors being used in the 13in MacBook Pro models still on sale that feature the 10th generation Intel processors.

We are in the process of testing the new M1 Macs so we will update this as soon as we have the results of our own testing, but what we are seeing is impressive.

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Air (2020) screen

For the truly power-hungry the 16in MacBook Pro offers 9th-gen Intel processors with either six or eight cores. While we aren't about to suggest that the 13in M1 MacBook Pro could give the 16in model a run for its money is it worth hanging on before making a purchase right now because those 9th generation CPUs are now a few years old, having initially featured in the 15in MacBook Pro that Apple discontinued in November 2019 when it introduced the 16in model.

RAM

All the M1 MacBooks - both Pro and Air - come with 8GB of RAM at their base configuration. There is an option to upgrade to 16GB at point of sale. This RAM is part of the M1 chip, so it's accessible to both the CPU and the GPU. It's what Apple is referring to as unified memory architecture, or UMA.

There are preformance benefits this UMA, so it shouldn't matter that there is 8GB RAM in the M1 models rather than the 16GB RAM found in the other 13in MacBook Pro, and the 16in models.

There is one indisputable difference though. The M1 MacBooks can be configured at point of sale to have 16GB RAM, the 13in MacBook Pro with Intel processors can take up to 32GB RAM.

The larger 16in MacBook Pro 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

If you think you are likely to need that extra GPU core you may think that the best option is to buy the more expensive Air, which also offers more storage. But the MacBook Pro might be a better option, as we will explain.

The reason why the MacBook Pro is a better option for graphic intensive operations is that it includes a fan for cooling and as a result you will be able to push it a little further. The MacBook Air will be perfectly find for normal operations, but because it lacks a fan you may find that things slow down in order for it not to overheat while you are pushing it.

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.

Price

Price is one area where there's a stark difference between the MacBook Air and the 13in MacBook Pro, not because there is a gigantic leap between the entry-level pricing for the Air and the Pro, but because there is a huge range of pricing for the MacBook Pro that takes that model into a whole new terratory.

MacBook Air prices

The MacBook Air is available in two default configurations:

  • M1 Chip with 8‑Core CPU and 7‑Core GPU
    256GB SSD: £999/$999.
  • M1 Chip with 8‑Core CPU and 7‑Core GPU
    256GB SSD: £1,249/$1,249

Buy directly from Apple, or look below for the best prices right now:

M1 MacBook Air, 8-core CPU/7-core GPU, £999/$999

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For deals on even more MacBook Air check out our best MacBook Air deals article for discounts available elsewhere.

13in MacBook Pro prices

There are four 13in configurations and two 16in options. Note that some of these models feature the Apple M1 chip, while others are using Intel processors:

  • M1 Chip with 8‑Core CPU and 8‑Core GPU
    256GB Storage: £1,299/$1,299
  • M1 Chip with 8‑Core CPU and 8‑Core GPU
    512GB Storage: £1,499/$1,499
  • 2.0GHz Intel Core i5 Quad-Core Processor, Intel Iris Plus Graphics, 512GB Storage: £1,799/$1,799
  • 2.0GHz Intel Core i5 Quad-Core Processor, Intel Iris Plus Graphics, 1TB Storage: £1,999/$1,999

You'll notice that the more expensive Air is only £50 less than the entry-level MacBook Pro - but the latter has half the storage.

There is a lot to differentiate all these models - much more than you might think if you were to just glance at the specs. Read on to find out why the MacBook Pro costs more than the MacBook Air and whether it's worth the extra money.

Buy directly from Apple, or look below for the best prices right now:

2020 M1 MacBook Pro Deals, £1,299/$1,299

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2020 2.0GHz MacBook Pro Deals, £1,799/$1,799

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For even more MacBook Pro deals check our roundup of the best MacBook Pro deals.

16in MacBook Pro prices

If you're tempted with a larger screen and more power then the MacBook Pro 16in is available in two configurations: 

  • 2.6GHz 6-Core Processor, 512GB Storage, AMD Radeon Pro 5300M: £2,399/$2,399
  • 2.3GHz 8-Core Processor, 1TB Storage, AMD Radeon Pro 5500M: £2,799/$2,799

Buy directly from Apple, or look below for the best prices right now:

2019 2.6GHz 16in MacBook Pro Deals, £2,399/$2,399

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These 16in models are a far cry from the 13in models, with dedicated graphics, up to 8-core processors and more pro-oriented features.

We recomment checking the Apple Refurbished Store to see if you could pick up a discounted MacBook - Apple often sells older models with specs that are just as good as some of the newer models. You may for example find a 15in MacBook Pro with idenitcal processor to one of the current 16in models.

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.

Got a MacBook, Pro or Air? Check out the best accessories for MacBooks.

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