With the powerful Apple MacBook Pro, now available in three screen sizes, and the slim, efficient, and one-size MacBook Air, there are two broad Mac laptop families to chose between nowadays. They’re both excellent ones, but for different folks. 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.
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 use Apple’s original M1 processor, which promises speedy performance on everyday tasks. Meanwhile, the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro laptops come with your choice of M1 Pro or M1 Max chips for serious content creation needs. 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, starting at $899 for students and teachers or $999 for the general public. The lowest-cost 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 13-inch 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 has a slightly more powerful version of the M1 chip in the entry-level MacBook Air. The performance advantage is small, though, as the main difference is an additional graphics core, for a total of eight. So most MacBook buyers will probably be better off with the Air than the 13-inch Pro, and if you want the M1 version with the upgraded graphics, you can configure it as an option on the Air as mentioned above.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro comes 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.
We don’t recommend the 13-inch MacBook Pro for most people, since consumers will be better off with the MacBook Air, and professionals can take advantage of the computing power in the larger Pro models mentioned below. But the 13-inch MacBook Pro does have one trick up its sleeve that’s worth considering over its larger cousins: extreme battery life. Although all Mac laptops last for a long time away from an outlet, the 13-inch Pro lasts for more than 22 hours in our video rundown test. That qualifies it as the longest-lasting MacBook Pro, though the MacBook Air has it beat at 29 hours.
14-Inch and 16-Inch MacBook Pro: For Pros in the Know
If you are a video editor, photographer, or software developer who might benefit from more computing power, you should skip the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air and instead consider either the 14-inch or the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The factors to consider here are more than just the extra screen inches and additional weight. You also need to decide whether you need the extra horsepower that the M1 Pro and M1 Max can provide over the M1. There is a big performance gulf between the M1 and the M1 Pro, and most pros who are doing any type of CPU- or GPU-intensive task will be able to take advantage of the latter chip.
That’s not necessarily the case for the M1 Max, as the difference between it and the already-formidable M1 Pro is limited to specialized macOS workflows such as rendering video using Apple’s ProRes codec. There are two versions of each chip, and all four are available in both the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros. The base M1 Pro comes with eight CPU cores—six of which are suited to resource-intensive tasks such as rendering or compiling code, while two handle light-duty tasks such as video playback or web browsing. You also get 14 graphics cores for image output and GPU-accelerated tasks. The chip is paired with 16GB of memory and a 512GB SSD.
The upgraded configuration adds two more high-performance CPU cores and two additional graphics cores (for a total of 16). This is what we recommend for most people. Meanwhile, the only noteworthy differences between the top-end M1 Max and the top-end M1 Pro are a heap of extra graphics cores (a maximum of 32) and a doubling of the memory bandwidth to 400GBps.
The 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Po models lack any form of touch input, following Apple’s decision on current models to discontinue the thin, touch-enabled screen forward of the keyboard known as the Touch Bar. The 13-inch model still comes with a Touch Bar, however.
While the Touch Bar can be useful in special cases like scrubbing through a video timeline, or switching tool selections, it’s not a substitute for touch support on the device’s main display. An Apple iPad or a Windows laptop is your best alternative for using a digital stylus or other tasks best suited to touch screens. Fortunately, the trackpads on all Apple laptops are excellent, with oversize glass surfaces and virtual “haptic” feedback instead of a physical click mechanism.
The 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro laptops are also obvious choices for professionals who plan to connect peripherals like external monitors or transfer data using SD cards. Both include a full-size HDMI port and an SD card reader, setting them apart from the USB-C/Thunderbolt-only MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro.
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.