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Both laptops run on the M1 processor that Apple introduced in late 2020. The new chip introduces big gains in performance and battery life to Apple’s most portable laptops, signaling a big step forward for the Mac.
Choosing between the new $1,299 MacBook Pro and the $999 MacBook Air can be difficult since they both run on Apple’s M1 processor and come in similar configurations in terms of memory and storage. But, there are a few important differences to keep in mind when deciding between the two, particularly when it comes to battery life and performance.
MacBook Air M1 vs. MacBook Pro M1: Which is better?
The M1-powered MacBook Air is generally a better value than the Pro since it offers similar features, performance, and configuration options at a starting price that’s $300 lower. Those seeking a general-purpose laptop that’s equipped for browsing the web, writing papers, watching videos, and some photo and video editing will find plenty of power in the MacBook Air.
While the MacBook Air is the better choice for most people, there are some reasons to opt for the Pro instead. The MacBook Pro comes with a few extras that could make it the ideal choice for professionals with specific needs, such as slightly longer battery life, higher-quality microphones, and, most important, internal cooling fans.
Now that you can also get the M1-powered MacBook Pro through Apple’s Refurbished Mac Store at a $200 discount, it may be a more compelling option for those in need of more power. The Pro model also has Apple’s Touch Bar, which is a thin, touch-sensitive strip that replaces the function key row. But, that’s not enough of a reason on its own to recommend buying the Pro over the Air.
However, it’s probably best to hold off on buying a new MacBook unless you really need it. Apple is planning to release a new high-end MacBook Pro this year with a fresh design and upgraded Apple-made processor that’s expected to bring big gains in performance compared to the M1, according to Bloomberg. A new MacBook Air with a new processor that’s more powerful than the current M1 but not quite as fast as the one in the next-generation MacBook Pro is also reportedly in the works.
One of the few differences when it comes to the processor is that with the MacBook Air, the base model comes with a seven-core graphics processing unit, while the MacBook Pro has an eight-core GPU in its entry-level configuration. That should give the base MacBook Pro a bit more of a kick when running games and other graphics-heavy programs.
Another important characteristic found on the MacBook Pro that the MacBook Air lacks is a cooling fan. The MacBook Air’s fanless design is a godsend for anyone who’s dealt with noisy, whirring fans that make your laptop sound like a jet engine once it’s under a little bit of stress. But the MacBook Pro’s fan most likely means it’s capable of sustaining high performance for longer since it won’t have to throttle performance to cool off.
Overall, the M1 MacBook Pro feels more powerful than the Air when it comes to graphics-oriented workloads but is generally the same when it comes to daily tasks. While playing “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” on both laptops, I noticed the MacBook Pro was more responsive and capable of rendering graphics slightly more smoothly compared with the Air. Both laptops become reasonably — but not uncomfortably — warm after about 20 minutes of gameplay. The MacBook Air’s underside, however, felt warmer than the Pro’s did after five minutes of gameplay.
In my experience, the MacBook Pro can also encode video a few minutes faster than the MacBook Air. It encoded a 10-minute
video to 1080p using the program Handbrake about five minutes faster compared with the Air. See below to learn how both laptops performed in benchmarks that measure general computing power (Geekbench 5 CPU and Cinebench) and graphics performance (Geekbench 5 Compute). Higher scores are better.
Still, the M1 chip brings a big performance boost to the MacBook Air that makes it much more capable than its Intel-powered predecessor. Apple says the M1-equipped MacBook Air has 3.5 times as much computing power, five times the graphics performance, and nine times the machine-learning capabilities compared with the Intel-powered Air. Our own anecdotal performance tests show that the M1 processor is much speedier than its latest Intel counterpart, which you can read more about in our full review.
Battery life and features
Both machines should offer excellent battery life — I was able to get more than 12 hours out of the MacBook Air during my testing, and reviews of the MacBook Pro also suggest it provides impressive battery life that’s similarly long. However, Apple claims that the Pro should last slightly longer, offering 17 hours of battery life when browsing the web compared with the MacBook Air’s 15 hours.
Still, perhaps the biggest difference between the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro is that the Pro includes the Touch Bar. Apple launched the Touch Bar in 2016 as a way to expand the Mac’s user interface by providing useful, touch-friendly shortcuts above the keyboard. In addition to replacing the function key row, the controls shown in the Touch Bar can change depending on the app or program you’re using. When running Safari, for example, you may see controls that let you scrub through your open tabs.
It’s a novel idea, but the Touch Bar doesn’t bring enough to the experience to justify buying the MacBook Pro over the Air. If you do decide on the Pro, do so because of the other benefits it brings in more important areas, like performance or battery life.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air otherwise have a lot in common. Both come with two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, Apple’s new and improved Magic Keyboard, a 720p webcam that uses the image signal processor in Apple’s chipset, storage options that start 256 GB, and top out at 2 TB, and Touch ID.
But, there are some subtle differences when it comes to the speakers and microphones. The MacBook Pro’s speakers support high dynamic range, unlike the MacBook Air’s, which should enable the Pro to maintain clear audio at its loudest and lowest levels. That should put the 13-inch Pro in a middle ground between the Air and the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which offers superb, boisterous audio for a laptop of its size, thanks to its six-speaker sound system.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro also has microphones that are slightly better than the Air’s. Apple describes them as studio quality microphones with high-signal-to-noise ratio, which the Air lacks.
Design and display
That hasn’t changed with the M1-powered MacBook Air; the base on Apple’s thin-and-light laptop still has that familiar teardrop-like look. The MacBook Air is also available in a gold color option in addition to silver and space gray, while the MacBook Pro comes in only those latter two colors.
True to its name, the MacBook Air is also slightly lighter than the MacBook Pro, weighing 2.8 pounds compared with the 3-pound MacBook Pro.
Like the Air, the MacBook Pro also looks just like its predecessors, which is to say it has a slightly thicker build that’s uniform at its base compared with its cheaper and lighter sibling.
When it comes to display quality, the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air are once again very similar. Both laptops have screens measuring 13.3 inches in size with resolutions of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels, and they both support P3 wide color and Apple’s True Tone technology. That feature allows the screen to adjust the display’s color to match the lighting in your surroundings, often making the screen look less blue.
The bottom line
Overall, the MacBook Air is a better value, especially for those looking for a general-purpose laptop. Even though it’s $300 cheaper, it doesn’t make big sacrifices when it comes to performance or configuration options. That’s significant because the previous entry-level version of Apple’s Intel-powered MacBook Air felt underpowered since it came with just a dual-core Intel Core i3 chip.
But, there are still some reasons the MacBook Pro may be the right fit. Since it has a fan-based cooling system and an extra core in its GPU at the base level, it might be a better choice for those who need to execute strenuous tasks for long periods of time and still want a lightweight laptop. The Pro also has slightly longer battery life and other quality perks, like higher-quality microphones and speakers.
All told, the MacBook Air is probably the right choice for most people, offering performance that isn’t much different from that of Apple’s professional-grade laptop at a lower price. The MacBook Pro is better suited for those who need a bit more performance, slightly longer battery life, and better microphones and speakers in a portable laptop.
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