MacBook Pro vs. MacBook Air: Which M1 Apple Laptop Is Best for 2021?

The Apple M1 chip transformed the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops in late 2020, giving them a jolt of processing power and marking the beginning of the end of an Apple-Intel partnership that has stretched for nearly two decades. The new silicon inside these two venerable laptops is indeed revolutionary. But the machines’ other features have changed little over the past few years. They’re a familiar sight everywhere from the corner coffee shop to the latest Hollywood romantic comedy.

The MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro have their own distinct advantages and disadvantages, so you may be torn on which to buy. They’re both excellent in our view, and of course they share a similar style, but one is no doubt a better fit for your needs. So which should you get?

The decision ultimately hinges on what you do every day on your laptop. For some folks, the Air is the right machine; for others, the Pro. We’ll help you sort through the various features, as well as the processor, memory, and storage options, to find the best fit.

Setting the Stage: One 13-Incher Versus Another

The MacBook Air, the prototypical ultraportable laptop in its early days, isn’t as light or unusual as it used to be (many Windows laptops are as light or lighter), but it is still the lightest current Apple laptop at 2.8 pounds. The 13-inch MacBook Pro is a little heftier, at 3 pounds or 3.1 pounds, depending on the configuration. But a few ounces probably aren’t enough of a difference to base your decision on. 

Instead, it’s the more lightweight price that will be the leading factor. The MacBook Air starts at just $999, while the least-expensive 13-inch MacBook Pro model is $1,299. There are multiple configurations available for each; the MacBook Air can cost as much as $2,050 when fully kitted out, and the 13-inch Pro goes up to $3,600. (That doesn’t include the cost of accessories, of course.) We tested the entry-level versions of both models.

We’ll get into the components offered in each of the two laptops below, but the long story short with the starting models is this: If you’re not someone who needs a fancier or more powerful laptop for work, and if you want both portability and value, the Air is the way to go. As the entry point into current-generation Apple laptop hardware (and the Apple software ecosystem as well), it’s an attractive device.

If you do plan to use your MacBook for work, especially if you’re a content creator, you’ll want to more strongly consider the MacBook Pro. There isn’t a huge performance gap, but it’s enough to differentiate the two and make the higher price worth paying for many professionals.

Designs and Features: Similar, But Different

The MacBook Air’s lower price has to come from somewhere, but it’s not from a drop in quality or from cutting the fundamentals. You get the same all-metal design as the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is a hallmark of the MacBook brand. The display panels are also very similar. Each is a 13.3-inch IPS screen, with the same native resolution (2,560 by 1,600 pixels) and support for the P3 color gamut.

Both are also built around Apple’s Magic Keyboard, a welcome change from the much-maligned “butterfly” keyboard that once graced both models. The butterfly keyboard has an infamously flat feeling when typing, with little feedback. It was also prone to malfunction when dust or debris got under the keycaps, disabling certain keys. The Magic Keyboard offers a much more traditional, satisfying typing experience on both models. A scissor mechanism with rubber-dome springback delivers more feedback, and feels more stable when typing.

Both laptops only have USB Type-C ports and a headphone jack. This is common for super-slim laptops, as there simply isn’t room for larger, standard USB Type-A ports. USB-C connections are great, offering versatility and faster data transfer speeds, but if you already own a lot of USB-A peripherals, you’ll need to get converters or new cables for them. Both laptops’ USB-C ports support Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and data transfer speeds up to 40Gbps.

Underlying these similarities are some key differences intended to put the “pro” in MacBook Pro and make the price gap make sense. 

The MacBook Pro’s screen, while the same size and resolution, is 20% brighter than the MacBook Air’s display. This could make a significant difference if you frequently work in brightly lit offices. Glare from ambient light bounces off the glossy finish of the Retina display on both models, and the ability to crank up the brightness mitigates it somewhat.

The keyboards may be the same, but the Touch Bar, a touch-enabled OLED strip above the keyboard, is only present on the MacBook Pro. It’s included on every MacBook Pro model, not just offered as an option. We’ve said before that we don’t think this is exactly an essential feature (and the MacBook Air audience doesn’t seem to miss it), but its shortcuts and hotkeys can definitely be useful for content creators using a MacBook Pro. Applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Premiere benefit from its contextually relevant tools.

Component Considerations: Who Is Each Laptop For?

Plenty of shoppers are primarily concerned with the physical traits of each laptop, which makes those factors a natural starting point for comparison, but you should also pay attention to the specs. The MacBook Air, made for less demanding users who are focused on portability and a lower price point, tops out with less powerful component options. With the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, Apple smartly offers a wider range of prices and power.

The components tell a story about whom these laptop families are made for, though you might not be able to glean this from the starting configurations. The $999 MacBook Air starts with an M1 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 256GB SSD. The starting $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro also comes with an M1 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 256GB SSD. Yes, those are identical specs, but there are two hidden differences that help explain the Pro’s higher starting price.

The first is cooling capabilities. Even the extraordinarily efficient M1 generates heat as it powers through that Zoom video call or enormous Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The Air has no cooling fan, though. It employs a passive cooling technique. Heat follows a path away from the processor and through the exhaust vents all on its own, a unique arrangement that’s more similar to the design of an Apple iPad or iPhone than any other comparable Windows laptop.

The MacBook Pro, on the other hand, uses a fan to push the heat where it needs to go. As the chip heats up, the fan can automatically spin faster. This means that the Pro’s M1 chip can not only run at potentially higher clock speeds than the nearly identical one in the Air, but can also sustain those speeds for longer before it generates too much heat and the thermal management system kicks in to slow it down. Running at higher speeds for longer benefits resource-intensive tasks such as compiling code or editing videos. You’ll likely find the Pro slightly better than the Air at performing these tasks.

The other significant component difference between the entry-level Pro and entry-level Air is the number of graphics cores, which process 3D imagery and output it to the laptop’s screen. The entry-level Air has seven of these cores, while M1 versions of the Pro and top-end Air both have eight. It’s a small difference that most users won’t notice while browsing the web or doing word processing, but for graphics professionals, it might be worth the upgrade.

M1 Specifics

The MacBook Air, though far from a powerhouse, still brings Apple’s M1 innovations to bear. Apple is cagey about sharing detailed specifications of its first laptop chip designed in-house, but we do know that it’s based on the technologies refined in generations of the company’s A-series processors for phones and tablets. This means it’s a low-power-consumption chip good for both everyday use (think checking email and editing documents) and handling occasional CPU-intensive work such as transcoding videos and manipulating photos.

The M1 is able to wear both of these hats so well because it ditches the old PC paradigm of separate components for separate tasks. On most other ultraportable laptops, the processor is completely separate from the memory, storage drive, Wi-Fi system, and other ancillary components. Instead, the M1 is a single system on a chip (SoC). In addition to handling processing and graphics output, it has a built-in storage controller to traffic data to and from the laptop’s SSD as well as various other processors, controllers, and sensors that handle encryption, image processing from webcams, and other secondary tasks that are required for the computer to function.

The M1’s most significant weakness is that it doesn’t natively run software originally designed for Intel-based Macs—and that’s pretty much all Mac software that hasn’t been updated since the second half of 2020. Apple’s own apps (and macOS Big Sur) already have M1-native versions, and many third party apps do, too. Those that don’t will still run on the M1 models, but their instructions are automatically translated so the M1 can understand. This emulation process, known as Rosetta, can hamper performance.

For people who need to run legacy Intel-based software as it was originally intended, higher-end configurations of the MacBook Pro with Intel processors are an obvious choice over the MacBook Air. The $1,799 13-inch MacBook Air configuration comes with an Intel Core i5, and can be configured with an Intel Core i7 for an additional fee.

The M1-based 13-inch MacBook Pro definitely offers more speed than the MacBook Air, but there’s not a whole world of difference between these two models. If your tasks would benefit from active processor cooling or you must have a Mac with an Intel CPU, the higher-end 13-inch MacBook Pro configurations are a better choice.

If you need even more processing power for your work, you may need to move up to the 16-inch MacBook Pro. Definitely forget about the MacBook Air. Our 16-inch review unit packs the far more potent Intel Core i9-9980HK, in a different class of performance entirely. These H-series CPUs are designed for power-user laptops, whereas the M1 is designed with portability and trim designs in mind.

The MacBook Air’s memory maxes out at 16GB, and its storage at 2TB. The Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro’s memory tops out at 32GB and its storage at 4TB. Neither laptop offers a discrete graphics option; you’ll have to go up to the 16-inch MacBook Pro for an AMD Radeon GPU. Configuring these options upward, of course, gets much more expensive.

One last difference is that the MacBook Air tops out at two USB-C ports. So do the M1 versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but the $1,799 Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro model comes with four.

In short, from CPU to storage, the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a higher capability ceiling. With more memory and storage, it’s better suited to replace a desktop or serve as your primary work machine. 

There’s a MacBook for Everyone

With its two 13-inch laptops, Apple has made machines that are perhaps more similar than you’d expect, but still distinct. The MacBook Air is the obvious choice for value seekers and those with light workloads, with the $999 model an especially good deal for casual, everyday use. If you want a bit more oomph or storage but don’t need the fancier features of the MacBook Pro, you can up-configure your MacBook Air by a couple of notches.

If you need to do some real work on your laptop but still prioritize portability compared to the 16-inch MacBook Pro and don’t need a true powerhouse, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is the choice for you. And if you’re considering a Windows laptop, or want to see how far your dollar would go outside of the Apple ecosystem for comparison, check out our guide to today’s best ultraportable laptops as well as our picks for the overall best laptops.

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