MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: which 13-inch laptop should I get for school?


The prices between MacBook Air and MacBook Pro now overlap making it that bit harder to decide between the two. We compare the two 13-inch laptops from a price and specification perspective to see which is better for school.

Firstly, we understand that most students are on a limited budget. When Apple removed the 12-inch MacBook from their product line-up, we were gutted. As a proponent of tech for education, this meant that students would need to fork out more for a MacBook Pro. Then, Apple introduced the new generation MacBook Air with Retina display. Based on its starting price, it is currently the most affordable laptop from Apple.

Comparing ‘Like for Like’ in Terms of Price

When considering the two laptops with price being the deciding factor, we ignore the base model MacBook Air as this comes in at a lower price point of $1099, cheaper than MacBook Pro’s base model at $1299. We take instead the higher MacBook Air model priced at $1299. This is a better comparison with the MacBook Pro as it is about the best machine you can afford on a budget vs just buying the cheapest model there is.

UPDATE: New MacBook Air 2020 range launched in March 2020 now has a starting price of $999, $100 cheaper but is based on 10th generation 1.1GHz Intel Core i3 dual-core processor. The next model up, priced at $1299 now uses the 10th generation 1.1GHz Intel Core i5 quad-core processor. Double the number of cores on the MacBook Air 2019 below.

Comparing MacBook 2019 vs MacBook Air 2019

Here’s what we know of the two similarly priced MacBooks in 2019.

On first view, the MacBook Pro 13 2019 has the upper hand in that it is faster with a Quad Core processor. But the laptop only comes with half the storage compared to similarly priced MacBook Air. MacBook Air also loses out in that it does not come with a Touch Bar but for most people who have never used this, they won’t miss it. Everything else appears equal. Let’s take a closer look.

Comparing MacBook 2019 vs MacBook Air 2020

Here’s what we know of the two similarly priced MacBooks in 2020.

The new MacBook Air gained a much faster quad-core cpu in the form of a 10th generation Intel Core i5 processor. It also received a boost in storage compared to the old 2019 version. Double in fact, to 512GB making it even better value compared to MacBook 2019. Elsewhere the new MacBook Air gets the new and improved Magic Keyboard, a new generation keyboard with refined scissor mechanism first introduced on flagship MacBook Pro 16-inch in 2019. This replaces the often buggy keyboard with keybord with butterfly mechanism.

Processor –

While both are 8th generation Intel Core i5 processors, they are very different chips. The Core i5 found on the MacBook Air is an energy efficient part with a typical power rating of 7W. On the other hand, the Core i5 found on the MacBook Pro is a 15W chip. This is because the MacBook Pro processor has double the number of cores, that’s 4 compared to 2 on the MacBook Air. For performance, choose the MacBook Pro.

Update: Comparing the CPU parts with the MacBook Air 2020, the new 10th generation cpu has grown to a quad-core offering double in performance. The chip is likely to be the Intel Core i5-1035G4 or a variant of this based on its base frequency.

To understand how the three processors fare, we look at the Average CPU Mark posted by users. The benchmark data is a snapshot at the time of writing. For up to date data, visit cpubenchmark.net

Here is a graph comparing the performance of the processor based on submitted benchmark data by users. As you can see from the numbers, the Pro outperforms the Air 2019 by more than double, 2.547 times in fact based on the Average CPU Mark figures. The new Air 2020 with its quad-core processor changes all this. The average CPU mark is a close 90.9% of that on the MacBook Pro 2019. As for single thread performance, the new Air 2020 actually outperforms the Pro 2019 around 12.4%.

This is not to say that the processors on the MacBook Air 2019 is rubbish. For most day-to-day computing tasks, and even the occasional heavy lifting, MacOS operating system and software designed by Apple will run smoothly on the device. Third party software will likely work well too.

The MacBook Pro with its Quad-Core processor will shave a few seconds of wait time here and there otherwise, you wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference with standard applications (e.g. Office suite, email and web browsing).

The new MacBook Air 2020 with its upgraded quad-core CPU bridges the performance gap above making the MacBook Air capable of speed of up to twice that of the 2019 counterpart. It is also nibbling on the heels of the MacBook Pro making it a fully capable multimedia machine in an ultraslim and lightweight chassis.

Display –

Subtle differences in the display department includes brighter 500 nits display wide P3 colour gamut on the MacBook Pro.

Storage and Memory –

Both laptops have 8GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory and is configurable to 16GB.

For the purpose of our comparison, the MacBook Air 2019 has 256GB SSD storage, this has doubled with the MacBook Air 2020 to 512GB while the MacBook Pro has a measly 128GB.

Size and Weight –

Here is where ones decision will be swayed. Together with longer battery life, the MacBook Air is much lighter and slimmer. Although the MacBook Pro is a close second given that it too has slimmed down compared to earlier MacBook Pros. The Air 2019 is around 120 grams lighter than the Pro. The Air 2020 gained a little weight but is still around 80 grams lighter than the Pro. Both are 1.08cm slimmer at its slimmest point. With a tapered profile, the average thickness of the Air is around 0.985cm. This makes the Air 0.505cm slimmer than the Pro.

Battery and Power –

Another reason for choosing the MacBook Air is its longer battery life. It manages to squeeze an extra 2 hours of useful life from a single charge compared to MacBook Pro. That’s a whole two hours you would otherwise have to shut down if you can’t find a wall socket to plug in. That’s all thanks to the energy efficient processor.

Graphics and Video Support –

Both use Intel integrated Graphics; Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645 for MacBook Pro, Intel UHD Graphics 617 for the MacBook Air 2019 and Intel Iris Plus Graphic for MacBook Air 2020. They won’t be the best graphics processing unit for gaming or intense 3D rendering. For that you will need an external graphics processor (eGPU) via the Thunderbolt 3 port. However, it will be more than sufficient for day to day applications.

Also, with the same number of Thunderbolt 3 ports, both laptops support simultaneous connection to external displays.

Thunderbolt 3 digital video output requires VGA, HDMI, and Thunderbolt 2 output using adapters (sold separately). Check out our recommended list of USB-C adapter hubs here.

Colour Options –

The MacBook Air is available in three colour options; Gold, Space Gray and Silver. The MacBook Pro on the other hand is only available in Space Gray and Silver. For more colour choices, especially (my very own favourite) Gold, go for MacBook Air.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is, price being equal, it boils down to what you intend to use the laptop for. The MacBook Pro is more powerful but lacks the storage space. The MacBook Air 2019 is less powerful but has double the storage, more room for your files, photos and videos. With the new MacBook Air 2020, processor performance has improved and you get even more storage space. As you have seen from above, the MacBook Air excels in the following areas

Choose the MacBook Pro if you want a more powerful machine and don’t mind the shorter battery life, thicker profile and heavier laptop. If you are in to video editing, music production, or heavy programming, you would certainly want to consider the MacBook Pro, perhaps even shell-out for a high capacity SSD. The MacBook Air 2020 with its improved processor performance will even pull off video-editing on the go.