With the powerful Apple MacBook Pro, available in multiple screen sizes, and the slim, efficient MacBook Air, there are two broad Mac laptop families to chose between nowadays. They’re both excellent ones. With similar specs and exterior styling across both the Air and the Pro, deciding which one is best for you largely comes down to which size screen you need and how much processing power your typical computing tasks require.
With Apple expected to launch new 14-inch and 16-inch laptops this fall, the MacBook lineup could be about to change significantly. Rumors suggest new features like a faster M1X processor and higher-density displays. But if you’d rather not wait, you’ve got two excellent MacBook product families from which to choose right now.
Picking between the two families is the easy part. Getting down to the nitty gritty within each family is trickier, though. The 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are now available with Apple’s M1 processor, which promises speedy performance but might not be the right choice for everyone. We’ll walk you through the processor choices as well as all the different CPU, memory, storage, and other component options that Apple offers on its latest MacBook laptops.
The MacBook Air: The More Portable Pick
Apple’s smallest laptop is the MacBook Air. It’s a slim, sleek machine that measures 0.63 inch at its thickest point and weighs just 2.8 pounds. The MacBook Air is also Apple’s cheapest laptop, starting at $899 for students and teachers or $999 for the general public. The cheapest and most portable entry point into the macOS ecosystem obviously has enormous appeal.
A low price doesn’t mean the MacBook Air’s screen is low quality, though. Despite the fact that it’s not the highest-resolution 13-inch display you can buy, the LED-backlit panel impresses with its brightness and clarity. The native resolution is 2,560 by 1,600 pixels. The display uses in-plane switching (IPS) technology, which means that the remarkable picture you see while sitting in front of it doesn’t degrade much if you turn it to show a colleague what you’re working on. Its True Tone feature automatically adapts the color temperature to match ambient lighting conditions, and support for the P3 color gamut means brilliant colors and the ability to perform basic color correcting for photos and videos.
The current version of the MacBook Air sports the same Magic Keyboard you’ll find on the MacBook Pro. It offers a far more comfortable typing experience than previous MacBook Air and MacBook Pro keyboard designs, which suffered from extraordinarily shallow key presses.
To fit everything into the small enclosure, Apple made a few sacrifices in terms of the MacBook Air’s connectivity and power. The most limiting factor is the pair of USB Type-C ports, which handle pretty much every connection apart from audio output, from recharging the battery to connecting an external display or hard drive. You may well need to buy a third-party expansion dock with additional ports if you choose the MacBook Air.
Inside the laptop, there’s a single processor option: the Apple M1 chip. It has an eyebrow-raising maximum of 16 processor cores, but don’t think of these in the same way as classic Intel processor specs. Four of the cores are compute cores dedicated to complex calculations that require lots of processing power. Four more are dedicated to lighter tasks that don’t require as much power, to ensure that the chip doesn’t consume more energy than it needs to. Tasks get shunted to the appropriate core set on the fly.
Finally, as many as eight additional cores of the M1 chip are dedicated to graphics processing, similar to how Intel’s Iris integrated graphics work. The entry-level $999 MacBook Air has seven graphics cores, while the $1,249 model comes with eight graphics cores. Either is sufficient for casual games, and both graphics options are capable of powering an external monitor at 60Hz and up to a 6K resolution. Overall, M1 performance is excellent, but it varies depending on which app you’re running.
The base model MacBook Air comes with 8GB of memory and 256GB of solid-state storage, while the $1,249 one doubles both of those amounts. While the memory limit is 16GB, you can pay extra to increase the storage space of either model up to a 2TB SSD.
The MacBook Air is an ideal travel companion, and given its sleek styling and Apple’s cachet, a bit of a status symbol to boot. It’s the Mac laptop we recommend for most people. But since you’ll spend at least $999 on it, you’ll want to make sure to look at the other, larger Apple portables that offer more connectivity and—in some cases—more computing power.
The MacBook Air vs. the MacBook Pro
The closest Apple alternative to the MacBook Air is the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, which tips the scales at 3 pounds. In return for a slightly higher starting price ($1,299) and a bit of extra weight, the entry-level MacBook Pro offers a choice of either the Apple M1 or Intel Core processors. Most MacBook Pro buyers will probably be better off with the M1, but some may be interested in the Intel Core i5 or Core i7 options. Not all Mac software runs natively on the M1 chip yet, so the Intel MacBook Pro could a better option if you need to run apps that haven’t been updated so far. (Some parts of Adobe’s key Creative Suite, for example, run natively on M1; others run in Rosetta 2 emulation.)
The base model of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 processor has just two USB Type-C ports, while the upgraded $1,799 Intel version has four. The additional ports could come in handy if you need to connect to multiple peripherals and external displays. You’ll still need adapters or special cables, since all of the ports use the same oval-shaped USB-C connector, but with four of them you might not need to buy an expensive docking station.
Both the Intel and the M1 versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro come with an active cooling fan, which is something the MacBook Air lacks. The MacBook Air instead uses passive cooling, which works just fine for basic tasks like browsing the web, but might hamper performance of more intensive tasks like video encoding. The memory and storage options of the 13-inch MacBook Pro are the same as those of the MacBook Air.
Touch Bar, But No Touching
There’s a unique aspect to the MacBook Pro models that you must consider if the “Pro” part of the name applies to you: the Touch Bar. This is a long, thin, touch-enabled OLED screen that comes mounted forward of the MacBook Pro’s keyboard. The Touch Bar is unique to Apple and highly specialized. It’s Apple’s answer to touch gestures in Windows 10, and it’s most useful in professional apps like the Adobe Creative Suite and Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, which let you use the Touch Bar to scrub through a video timeline, switch tool selections, and much more. This feature is not available on the MacBook Air.
The Touch Bar is not a substitute for the touch screens that you’ll find on many Windows ultraportables, however. You cannot use it to interact with basic screen elements like the menu buttons on websites, nor can you use it to draw on the screen. An Apple iPad or a Windows laptop is your best alternative for these tasks. Fortunately, the trackpads on all Apple laptops are excellent, with oversize glass surfaces and virtual “haptic” feedback instead of a physical click mechanism.
If you are a multimedia professional who might benefit from the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, you’ll need to consider whether you want the 13-inch or the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The factors to consider here are more than just the three extra screen inches, which help push the 16-incher’s weight above 4 pounds. You also need to decide whether you need the extra horsepower that a discrete GPU and an optional Intel Core i9 CPU can provide. The 16-Inch MacBook Pro currently does not offer the Apple M1 chip as an option.
If you’re a video or photo editor, you’ll want to strongly consider the 16-inch model with an AMD Radeon Pro graphics card, which can speed up editing tasks. (That’s the main point of the Radeon Pro; it’s adept enough for gaming, too, but not powerful enough for truly high-end play.) The 13-inch MacBook Pro model comes with either Intel integrated graphics or M1 graphics, but does not offer the choice for a discrete GPU.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro also offers more memory and storage than either of the smaller Mac laptops. You can configure it with up to 8TB of solid-state storage and up to 64GB of memory. These amounts will push the list price well north of $5,000, an eye-watering sum that’s only justifiable if you know you can take advantage of the additional storage space and memory capacity.
Investing in the Future
Apple laptops once had user-replaceable components, allowing owners to replace their hard drives with SSDs and add more memory as computing needs evolved. No more. Such improvements are impossible with current Apple laptops; all of their chassis are sealed shut. It’s too bad that Apple has turned a cold shoulder toward tinkerers, forcing people who want to future-proof their laptops to spend a lot of money maxing out the specs at purchase time instead of upgrading later when the prices of components come down or new needs arise.
Still, there’s no denying that Apple laptops are highly innovative, influential machines. You can see it in the many MacBook-inspired designs among the legions of clones in the laptop aisles at your local Best Buy or MicroCenter. Browse the alternatives, by all means, but rest assured that you made a good choice if your laptop-shopping excursion ends by carrying a white plastic bag out of an Apple Store.
If you’re not sure if a MacBook Air or Pro is your thing, also take a look at our roundup of the best laptops overall.