MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air – which one to go for? If you’re reading this article, we’ll assume that you’re not sure which will best suit your needs for creative work. Both options make it to our list of the best laptops for graphic design and on the face of it, they have many similar strengths: they run the same version of macOS, boast Apple’s super-fast M1 chip, have a big focus on usability and great battery life.
The machines have grown more similar, and they’re better than ever with recent upgrades like the new Magic Keyboard. But there are nuances that can make a big difference for different types of work. The MacBook Air can handle lighter image editing and even video editing no problem, but when it comes to hardcore 3D work, you’ll want the extra power of the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The latter’s generous 16-inch is also a key feature for some designers, but there are other subtle differences between the screens of these machines to know about.
We’ll take you through what you need to know about each laptop, from the specs inside to the connectivity to the screen, so you can get the MacBook that best fits your needs. Need more info? Try our head-to-head MacBook Pro 13in vs MacBook Pro 16in post. If you’re looking for a MacBook to start the new school year well-equipped, make sure you see our guide to Apple Back to School deals.
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Performance
The difference in power between the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air is no surprise if you’ve been following Apple’s naming conventions. The ‘Air’ products are lighter in raw performance, but more affordable; the ‘Pro’ products pack in more power, along with some other higher-end features.
The MacBook Air uses the Apple M1 (8-core CPU, 16-core Neural Engine) chip, and so does the Pro 13in, but the 16in still uses the 9th Gen Intel Core i7 and i9.The MacBook Air includes 8GB of RAM as standard, and the maximum is 16GB, which can be limiting for design and creative work. The Pro goes up to 32GB in the 13in and a hefty 64GB in the 16in. The former may be too much of a bottleneck for some work but will probably do for most work. If you don’t know that 32GB of RAM is too little for you, then it probably isn’t
The integrated 7-core or 8-core M1 GPU makes the MacBook Air a perfectly capable machine for use of, say Adobe’s apps or other design and editing tools (and can even handle 4K video editing if you’re mostly looking to assemble footage), but it’s not made for deeply complex 3D work. The MacBook Pro 16in ups the game with dedicated AMD Radeon graphics cards – either the Radeon Pro 5300M (4GB) or Radeon 5500M (4GB or 8GB) – which will be able to tackle longer high-speed multi-core tasks significantly faster.
One other important aspect to the performance of all three machines is storage: Apple uses the fastest flash storage in all Macs. This is especially welcome in the Pro machines since it enables things like live editing of 4K video in many tracks when combined with the processor power, but it also helps with the speed of opening or saving large files, pulling up folders of assets to use in a project, and lots of other small ways – the speed of Mac storage helps to save a lot of time over the life of a machine.
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Design
Apple’s design of all these machines has been subtly revised over the years, but not drastically changed, and they look fairly similar. The MacBook Air is the most portable; the 13-inch MacBook Pro delivers power in a small footprint; and the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the hefty, high-spec choice.
The tapered design of the MacBook Air means it has the smallest volume, and it’s the lightest at just 1.29kg/2.8lbs. However, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is only 1.4kg/3.1lbs, so we wouldn’t recommend focusing on weight as a reason to get the Air. It’s a similar story for thickness: the Air is just 0.41cm/0.16in deep at its thinnest point, but at its thickest is 1.61cm/0.63in, which is thicker than the 1.56cm/0.61in of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. As we mentioned, the MacBook Air is lower volume than the MacBook Pro, and that does make it more portable in practice than the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but the difference isn’t big. When choosing between these two, focus on features and price rather than size and weight.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro is notably heavier at 2kg/4.3lbs, though it’s worth noting that we’re talking a weight difference of 600g. It’s not the huge extra drag that a big laptop was back in the day, but you will feel that extra weight in your bag.
All of the laptops include Apple’s 720p HD webcam, which is not great compared to what the competition often offers these days, but does the job. The 16-inch MacBook Pro also includes a three-mic array that Apple describes as “studio quality”. We’re not sure that will wash with the podcast or music producers among our audience, but for video conferencing or just recording demo work, it’s certainly better than average.
The MacBook Pro 16-inch also has some seriously impressive speakers, using a force-cancelling woofer configuration. Again, pros will surely have their own monitors or headphones they prefer to use, but Apple’s engineering deserves kudos. The MacBook Air also has very capable new stereo speakers, but the same thing applies – they’re nice to have, but pros won’t want to rely on them.
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Display
Apple’s laptops have quite similar displays currently, with three key differences: brightness, colour gamut and (of course) size. The MacBook Pro 16-inch gives you the most space to work, whether you want (just about) enough space to have a couple of apps side-by-side, or because you want the biggest canvas available with room for palettes and so on. It has a resolution of 3072×1920, which is 226 pixels per inch.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro has exactly the same pixel density of 226PPI, but the smaller size means a resolution of 2560×1600. Both of these displays are rated for 500 nits of brightness (Apple offers no official HDR certification or support for them, incidentally), and include support for the P3 colour gamut. The MacBook Air includes a 13-inch display too, again with a resolution of 2560×1600 and at 226PPI. However, it’s rated at 400 nits, and doesn’t include P3 wide colour gamut support.
All three displays include Apple’s True Tone technology, which alters the white point of the screen to match the ambient lighting of the room you’re in, to be easier on the eye, so you don’t get the ‘blue-tinted screen in an orange-lit room’ effect. It’s a real boon for admin work and reading – it makes the screens much more pleasant to use. However, if you need to keep the colours on your screen exact and unchanged, you can easily choose not to enable it.
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Connectivity
All Apple laptops offer a limited choice of connection port types, but the good news is that they all include Thunderbolt 3, which gives you a lot of options in terms of connecting high-speed hubs, screens and more. All of the laptops also receive power over these ports.
The MacBook Air includes two Thunderbolt 3 ports, which double as USB Type-C ports (it’s the same connector shape). There’s also a 3.5mm headphone/mic jack. The base-level version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro includes the same mix of two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports and one 3.5mm jack, while the higher-tier 13-inch MacBook Pro options give you four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, with two on each side, plus the 3.5mm jack. On the 16-inch MacBook Pro, you get four ports and the 3.5mm jack on all models. All of these laptops include 802.11ac Wi-Fi (no Mac has support for the next-gen Wi-Fi 6/802.11ax yet) and Bluetooth 5.0.
The fact that Apple expects you to use a hub to connect anything that isn’t Thunderbolt 3/USB-C is a little frustrating, but the giant bandwidth that having multiple Thunderbolt 3 ports gives you is extremely welcome: over a single cable, you can connect a RAID, a high-res display, multiple accessories, and deliver power while doing it.
You know how we mentioned the smaller laptops aren’t great for 3D work? You could even connect an external graphics card to give them as much 3D power as you want.
The MacBook Air supports external displays up to 6K; the basic 13-inch MacBook Pro supports up to 5K; the better 13-inch Pro supports up to 6K; the 16-inch MacBook Pro is also good for 6K screens (two of them, in fact, or four 4K displays – the others will only support one 6K or two 4K displays).
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Keyboard
Apple has given up on the butterfly keys in favour of the Magic Keyboard for all MacBooks. The MacBook Pro models use Apple’s Touch Bar – a touchscreen panel that sits where the Function keys would normally go. It’s a nice idea – it acts as a series of controls that can customise themselves to whatever you’re doing on-screen, making shortcuts more accessible than usual, and even giving you touch-based granular controls – but not enough apps make good use of it for it to be a key feature, in our opinion.
The MacBook Air makes do with regular Function keys. However, all three laptop models include a fingerprint sensor built into the keyboard for unlocking from sleep. This works instantly, and we love having it as an option.
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Battery
Apple’s shift to its own M1 processors has delivered big wins here, with the M1 MacBook Air and the Macbook Pro 13ins lasting for over 14 hours and 16 hours respectively. The 16-inch MacBook Pro trails that at under 11 hours. In reality, of course, battery life will depend on what creative apps you happen to use, and which components they tax… and how bright you have the screen.
If you’re using apps that hit the processors and graphics of the 16-inch MacBook Pro hard, you can expect it to drop to just a few hours, but it really does depend on exactly what you’re using.
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Pricing
The MacBook Air starts from $999 / £999 / AUS$1,599 for 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. The next model up is $1,299 / $1,299 / AUS$1,599 has 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.
The base-level 13-inch MacBook Pro is $1,299 / £1,299 / AUS$1,999 includes 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. For the £1,799 / $1,799 / AUS$2,999 you get 16GB of faster RAM, and 512GB of storage, plus two extra Thunderbolt 3 ports.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro starts from $2,399 / £2,399 / AUS$3,799 for 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and AMD Radeon Pro 5300M 4GB graphics. The model up gives you 16GB of RAM, 1TB of SSD and Radeon Pro 5500M 4GB graphics. This version costs $2,799 / £2,799 / AUS$4,399.
You can configure any of the machines with customised specs. Extra storage and RAM are the most common, though the 16-inch version offers a more powerful processor and the 8GB graphics option.
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Conclusion
The choice between MacBook Pro and Air ultimately comes down to power needs, size needs and budget. For the most part, the laptops are fairly clearly divided: the MacBook Air is suitable for lighter use; the 13-inch MacBook Pro can handle harder tasks; and the 16-inch MacBook Pro is a desktop replacement.
There’s certainly some grey area where the MacBook Air overlaps with the MacBook Pro, but the point still stands: the MacBook Pro will give you stronger performance even when the specs look closer. The rest of the time, it’s a clear and obvious step up from one to the other.
The MacBook Air is perfectly capable of running Adobe apps and other design tools, but don’t expect it to handle giant and complex work well, and remember that it has a less bright screen with a more limited colour range.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro gives you a stronger screen option, and the extra power and maximum RAM means it give you a lot more headroom – for those working in 2D, it can handle all but the most extreme stuff, but still gives you a highly portable package. And the 16-inch MacBook Pro is a beast, ready for your most hardcore work (including 3D), or to give you the big working space you need.
The important thing is to know that what you buy will give you enough headroom for the next few years – make sure you don’t buy a MacBook Air now just to realise your work is likely to evolve to need a Pro in a year, so factor that in too.
Matt has been testing technology for over a decade, working in specialist Apple publications as well general technology and creative journalism. By day, you can find him covering TV, audio, smart home gear and more at T3.com, as Home Tech Editor. By night, he’s probably updating or pairing or installing some new piece of technology in the quest for the perfect setup.