Apple MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Which Mac is Best?


A new silicone cover is hidden inside each key of the 2018 MacBook Pro.

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If you want to join the Apple family, the question is, do you opt for the MacBook Air, or the MacBook Pro? The answer, in very simple terms, is this:

There’s some nuance to this – including which of the MacBook Pro variants to choose between. The most important thing is to understand what your own needs are ahead of picking up a MacBook. If you’re keen to invest in an Apple laptop, it’s now a decision that boils down to the MacBook Pro or the MacBook Air, as Apple ditched the 12-inch MacBook in 2019.

Known for their premium design, and a mainstay of socially-distanced coffee shops everywhere, MacBooks have a reputation as speedy, capable laptops that are a joy to use. You’re unlikely to meet a MacBook user with much negative to say about their laptop of choice. Whether you end up with the Air or the Pro, we’re confident you’ll be over the moon with it, and join the legions of MacBook owners who speak so lovingly about their laptops.

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Head to Head

Below, we compare the key specs of the MacBook Air and the various MacBook Pro models to help you decide which is best. The good news? There’s no such thing as “a bad MacBook”. The most important thing is not choosing a model that’s overkill for your own needs – as the prices get very steep, very fast.

Lots of power, a brilliant screen and an improved keyboard make this the perfect MacBook for demanding users, though the Air is cheaper

The absolute pinnacle of MacBooks, and everything a design professional could want – but at an eye-watering price

MacBook Air or MacBook Pro: Which is Best?

Both the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro are excellent laptops in their own right, but which one to opt for depends on what you’ll be using it for.

Both the Pro and the Air are beautifully designed and offer excellent battery life, at around 15 – 17 hours between charges. This makes them excellent travel companions, no matter which model you go for.

As for which is best? We’ve got you covered. Our guide will help you work out exactly which model will work best for you.

MacBook Air: Highlights, Pros and Cons

It would be fair to say that Apple neglected the MacBook Air for some time, but in 2018, it got serious overhaul, and since then, Apple has shown it some real affection. The latest 2020 model has been kitted out with Apple’s dedicated M1 processor, instead of the Intel processors of old, and it’s better than it has ever been.

Recent redesigns have taken cues from the MacBook Pro too, including finally getting a highly detailed Retina screen. It’s also had its speakers moved to the sides of the keyboard, rather than underneath, making the sound more impactful and clearer.

As you might expect, the Air is light and slim. It’s a great option for anyone who travels a lot with their laptop and doesn’t want to be inconvenienced by a weighty set-up. It also boasts incredible battery life, at 15 hours – an achievement that has other laptop manufacturers drooling.

The Air doesn’t have the necessary grunt for heavy lifting tasks – think graphics editing, giant spreadsheets full of macros, or video work. For those tasks, that’s why the Pro exists.

MacBook Pro: Highlights, Pros and Cons

In the MacBook line up, the Pro is the pinnacle, making it the most desirable (and costly) laptop bearing the Apple badge. The reason for this is that it is stuffed with tech, from fast Intel processors (up to i7 if you can afford it), to dedicated Radeon graphics cards

The MacBook Pro is a beast of a laptop, designed to tackle complex video editing and graphical processing with ease.

The Pro models are also home to Apple’s Touch Bar, a feature you won’t find on the MacBook Air. This is a thin touch screen that sits at the top of the keyboard and offers a context sensitive control panel. Uses include using it to scrub through the frames on a video file, or quickly add emojis to your messages. Is it essential? No. Is it cool? Yes, it really is.

It all sounds rosy for the Pro, but it comes at a price. Literally. The Pro is the priciest laptop in the MacBook line up, and can run you up to $2,800 if you opt for the 16-inch model with 512GB of storage and a blisteringly fast 8-core i9 processor. That’s not one for the budget conscious, but it’s a serious asset for design professionals.

To keep your budget down, but still get plenty of power, we’d recommend the 13-inch MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar. This model is the cheapest Pro, but still packs in enough power for all but the most demanding users.

One other thing – if you were impressed with the Air’s 15 hour battery life, then please stand to applaud the Pro, which can manage an incredible 17 hours battery life between charges.

The MacBook Pro line starts from around $1,300 – click to compare MacBook Pro prices on Amazon

Best All Rounder: MacBook Air

The MacBook Air is pitched as Apple’s entry-level laptop. That’s a slight misnomer, as tech-wise, it blows most entry-level Windows models out of the water. With the Air, you’re paying for a laptop that will cruise its way through your daily tasks. It will let you juggle your social media activity, Netflix binging, web browsing and daily work with ease.

So okay, the MacBook Pro can do all that too. But, it would be like buying a flamethrower to make toast – impressive, but overkill.

The MacBook Air represents the best of Apple’s laptop line up for the everyday user, suiting their needs, and their pocket, too.

Best for Value: MacBook Air

The term ‘value’ might not seem like it has a place in Apple’s line up – if you’re looking for a bargain, you won’t find one here. Apple has long built its reputation on offering high end computing equipment that is desirable, not affordable.

However, its cheapest laptop is the MacBook Air, at $999. We know that’s hardly pocket change, but trust us, for what you get here, it’s a great investment. Treat it well, and the Air will last you years of daily use, with stunning battery life and buttery smooth performance.

You’re saving a couple of hundred dollars compared to the entry level Pro, which admittedly is a more powerful machine, but unless you’re looking to take on some intensive work and put your laptop through its paces, the Air will do you proud.

Thin, powerful and portable, it’s a great package for $999, and have you ever met an Apple owner who regretted their purchase? Exactly.

Best for Power Users: MacBook Pro 16

Let’s be clear – while the Pro has more raw processing muscle, the Air is still no slouch, and will happily breeze through most of the tasks that you throw at it without breaking a sweat.

However, it’s the Pro that really kicks things up a gear. If you’re looking to do anything graphically intense, or some serious number crunching, this is the one to go for.

First up, the Pro has a more capable graphics processor than the Air, which relies on its integrated chip. Upgrade to the 16-inch Pro model and it comes with a dedicated Radeon Pro graphics card – this gives the 16-inch Pro a significant boost when handling graphics. Sure, you can play Fortnite on it at a decent frame rate, but, more importantly, it can power through intensive media editing or graphic rendering with relative ease.

Then, there’s the processors. The Air comes with a dedicated Apple M1 processor. If all you tend to do is browse the web, stream and email, then this really is more than enough.

The Pro, though goes up to a mighty 2.3GHz 8-core Intel i9 in the 16-inch model (should your wallet allow it).

In basic terms, this means that the Pro is a powerhouse. The MacBook Pro series is scalable depending on what your needs (and budget) are. In a 100 meter race, the 16-inch Pro would be signing autographs at the finish line while the Air was still listening for the starting gun.

Best for Portability: MacBook Air

If there’s one thing that Apple is famed for, it’s design. The company has been responsible for spawning thousands of imitators and a lot of modern tech devices owe their shells to Apple’s influence in some way. Most tablets look like iPads, most phones look like iPhones, and there certainly isn’t a lack of high-end laptops that look rather familiar…

Portability is a key element of Apple’s design philosophy, with its teams constantly shaving millimetres and ounces from line up. The peak of this was the launch of the original Air, which at the time was heavily advertised as being able to fit into an A4 envelope. It might have lost some impact today, but at a time when most laptops were knee-crushing behemoths, it was practically black magic. While there has been some friendly rivalry in recent years between the Air and MacBook models, with both vying to be the thinnest and lightest, the Air holds the current crown, and it is as svelte as an Instagram model’s airbrushed beach shot.

Weighing in at 1.29kg and with a height of 0.63-inches, it’s a great laptop for slipping into a bag (or A4 envelope, if you prefer). That’s not to say that the MacBook Pro is a chunky brick, by any means. It’s also been shaved down to a satisfyingly slim and compact shape, but the Air is the ultimate laptop for portability.

Best for Screen Quality: MacBook Pro

If screen quality is important to you, then you’ve come to the right brand. Apple’s laptop displays are hard to beat. Even the Air has now been bestowed its Retina display, with a 2560×1600 screen that is vibrant and offers stunning color reproduction.

It’s the Pro though that goes the extra mile, though. While the Pro models have the same Retina display as the Air, it’s notably brighter, and also offers ‘True Tone Technology’ on the Touch Bar Pro models. This is effectively a sensor that monitors your environment and then adjusts the display accordingly. It’s a familiar technology for mobile devices, but it’s still rare to find it on laptops.

Best MacBook for Working from Home

The ongoing pandemic has seen many of us swapping our desks and coffeeshops for the kitchen counter and couch. Ironically, one of the MacBook’s biggest strength, it’s battery life, is somewhat moot for many of us working from home, although it is nice to know you can move from room to room without restraint.

As for the best model for home working, realistically, any of them will do you proud, although designers and anyone with the need for beefy processor power will need a Pro – and we’d suggest that the 16-inch model will give the benefit of comfort as you’re spending all day looking at a screen, thanks to those extra 3-inches.

Don’t forget to consider how you want your MacBook to fit into your home set up. A second monitor, keyboard and mouse can really make a big difference for little outlay, and it’s easy to set up the MacBook this way (though you’ll probably need to invest in a Thunderbolt to HDMI convertor, depending on your second display).

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro for College

If you’re stepping onto campus with either a MacBook Air or Pro under your arm, then you’ll be the envy of plenty of students. But, which one to opt for depends on what you’re studying.

For most students, the Air is a perfect fit, thanks to its lower price point and portability. Chances are that many of your textbooks will outweigh the Air – you’ll barely notice it in your backpack. Its snappy start time and long battery life mean that it’s a great companion during lectures, or throughout those late night study sessions.

Yes, the Pro can do all this, too. But, the caveat is that the Pro is notably more expensive, and likely to be overkill for most students. However, there will be some that find the extra graphical prowess and number crunching beneficial. Media students who are tackling video editing projects, or anyone taking on computer programming or graphic design, will find the extra muscle of the Pro beneficial.

If you’re not sure what sort of specs you’ll need for your course, check with the college ahead of time, who should be able to advise you on what most students use. You can also see our guide to laptop specs explained.

It’s also worth noting that Apple offers discounts for students, meaning that you can make a saving on a new MacBook. Check out its Apple Education site for offers.

More on this – see our guide to the Best Laptops for College

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Jack is the Content Manager for Tech.co. He has been writing about a broad variety of technology subjects for over a decade, both in print and online, including laptops and tablets, gaming, and tech scams. As well as years of experience reviewing the latest tech devices, Jack has also conducted investigative research into a number of tech-related issues, including privacy and fraud.