Late last year, Apple introduced its M1 chip, and it debuted inside the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini. These quickly became some of the best Macs you can buy. Seeing as the MacBook Air and Pro are now powered by the same processor, you might think these two devices are almost exactly the same, and you’d be almost right. However, there are some key differences between the Apple M1-powered MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.
Not only that, Apple is still selling Intel-powered versions of the MacBook Pro, so the differences can go even further. Then there’s the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which simply doesn’t have an Apple Silicon version yet. All of these versions have some differences between each other.
First off, let’s take a look at the specs for all these devices. This lets us see most of the differences at a basic level.
Design and ports: The Apple M1 misses out on ports
MacBooks don’t vary a whole lot in terms of design, so all of these devices are fairly similar. The MacBook Air is naturally the thinnest and lightest of the bunch, but the MacBook Pro isn’t substantially larger. The big difference is the MacBook Pro has more even thickness throughout, while the Air is a bit more wedge-shaped. Of course, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is much bigger and heavier than the other models. That’s because the 16-inch MacBook Pro has much more power-consuming hardware that requires more cooling and a beefier battery. The 13-inch MacBook Pro could probably have been smaller with the Apple M1 refresh, but Apple kept the exact same chassis — it’s just slightly lighter now.
As far as the rest of the design goes, these are all aluminum laptops that look fairly similar. All the MacBook Pro models come in the same color options, but the MacBook Air adds a Gold variant. That might be worth keeping in mind if you want something that stands out a bit more.
“If you’re planning to work in a multi-monitor environment, the Apple M1 processor is very limiting.”
The big differences come into play with the ports, though. Both the MacBook Air and the Apple M1-powered MacBook Pro only have two Thunderbolt ports, while the Intel variants come with four ports. Not only that, while the Thunderbolt ports have 40Gbps of bandwidth, the Apple M1 models can only connect to one external display, regardless of the resolution. Meanwhile, the MacBook 13-inch with Intel processors can support up to two 4K displays at 60Hz, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro can support up to four external 4K displays. If you’re planning to work in a multi-monitor environment, the Apple M1 processor is very limiting.
Another notable difference is the MacBook Air doesn’t have a Touch Bar, while the Pro models do. The Touch Bar on MacBooks gives users customizable quick controls, which can be tailored for different apps and scenarios. Things like media playback, a color picker, and more can be placed there. On the MacBook Air, you have the typical function keys in place of it. Otherwise, most elements are similar. There’s Touch ID on the power button, the keyboard uses a scissor mechanism, and all the models have a Force Touch trackpad.
It’s also worth pointing out the camera. On the specs list, they all look the same, but because of the Neural Engine in the Apple M1, images should look much better on the Apple M1 models. Apple touts improved white balance and exposure adjustments and more dynamic range thanks to the image signal processor on board. With video calls being more frequent than ever, that’s something worth keeping in mind.
Display: The MacBook Pro is brighter
If you’re focused on finding the best display, you don’t have to look too hard. All the 13-inch MacBooks have the same exact size and resolution – 2560 x 1600 – for their Retina panels. Plus, they all come with a wide color gamut (P3) and True Tone support, so they should look great.
The outlier is the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which kicks the resolution up to 3072 x 1920. It has nearly identical pixel density as the smaller models, which is what Apple usually aims for with its Retina displays. The increased resolution is mostly to accommodate the larger screen.
The most notable difference between the MacBook Air and Pro here is in the brightness of the display. The display on the MacBook Air can go up to 400 nits of brightness, and that’s better than the majority of laptops already. However, the MacBook Pro can go up to 500 nits of brightness, which is that much better. If you’re using your laptop indoors most of the time, you probably don’t need the extra brightness, but for working on the go, it can really help visibility under bright sunlight.
There’s also the matter of sound. All the MacBook models tout stereo speakers, but Apple says the MacBook Pro’s speakers have high dynamic range. For the 16-inch MacBook Pro, you get a six-speaker stereo system, which offers a loud and clear listening experience.
Performance: The MacBook Pro has active cooling
The latest models of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro both have the Apple M1 chipset, and it’s a big leap from previous models in their respective lines. Apple touts up to 3.5x faster CPU performance, 5x faster graphics, and 11x faster machine learning performance compared to previous Intel models. We can look to GeekBench to get an idea of how powerful the Apple M1’s CPU is compared to the Intel models.
As you can see, the Apple M1-powered MacBook Air and Pro are pretty much neck and neck in terms of performance, far outclassing the Intel processors in the other models. The Apple M1 is both powerful and efficient, so even though it doesn’t consume a lot of power, it’s still more powerful than an H-series Intel processor in some ways. You may look at that and think the MacBook Air is just as good as the Pro, but there’s something to keep in mind.
The Apple M1 chip doesn’t require active cooling, and the MacBook Air doesn’t have a fan, but the MacBook Pro does. The GeekBench benchmark is relatively short, so that doesn’t come into play for these results. In longer periods of usage though, the MacBook Pro will probably sustain its performance better than the Air because it has an active cooling fan.
However, this is just a CPU comparison, and there are other things worth keeping in mind. For example, the base model of the MacBook Air only has a 7-core GPU, while the MacBook Pro (with Apple M1) has an 8-core GPU across all tiers. Also, keep in mind that while Apple’s GPU is much better than integrated Intel graphics, the 16-inch MacBook Pro has a dedicated GPU from AMD, which is still better than the GPU in the Apple M1.
According to benchmarks run by , the 16-inch MacBook Pro can still reach double the framerate (41.4fps) while playing Borderlands 3 at 1920 x 1080 resolution and high quality, compared to the 8-core MacBook Pro at just 20.5fps.
“(…) if you spring for the 16-inch MacBook Pro, you can go as high as 64GB of RAM and 8TB of storage.”
There’s something else to consider, too. The MacBook Air and Pro with Apple M1 are both limited to a maximum of 16GB of RAM and 2TB of SSD storage. That’s still a lot, but if you’re planning to store lots of video projects and work with memory-intensive apps, it’s quite limited. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Intel processors can have up to 32GB of RAM and 4TB of storage, and if you spring for the 16-inch MacBook Pro, you can go as high as 64GB of RAM and 8TB of storage. In fact, this seems to be part of the reason the Apple M1 isn’t everywhere yet, Apple still has to figure out how to increase RAM and storage capacity with its in-house processors. All the Apple M1-based Macs have this limitation.
Something else that’s impressive is the battery life enabled by the Apple M1 chipset, despite its performance. The MacBook Air has the smallest battery of the laptops here, but it still claims up to 18 hours of movie playback on a charge. The Apple M1-based MacBook Pro has a slightly bigger battery and promises up to 20 hours on a charge, but the Intel model, with a similar battery capacity, only claims up to 10 hours. Meanwhile, the 16-inch MacBook Pro promises up to 11 hours, despite its massive 99.8Whr battery.
Comparing the MacBook Air to the Pro in its Apple M1-powered variant shows a significant number of similarities, and you have to carefully consider what you need the device for. The MacBook Air’s base model only has a 7-core GPU, so if you feel like you need the extra performance, you’ll need to spend almost as much as you would on a MacBook Pro. At the same time, the Pro has other benefits like a brighter screen and active cooling, which might help with sustained performance, especially if you’re using it for intensive tasks like video rendering.
However, the MacBook Air is lighter, and it’s safe to say it can still handle almost anything you throw at it if you’re using it for school. You might also want to consider the longer battery life on the Pro model, but to be fair, the 18 hours promised for the MacBook Air should already be enough to get you through any normal day.
“For college students or occasional users, the MacBook Air will most likely do a fantastic job.”
Bringing the Intel models into the mix makes things a bit more complex. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Intel processors will be worse than the Apple M1 version in almost every way, but you can use two external displays at the same time. That may be a big deal for multi-monitor users, since the Apple M1 only supports one monitor. If you want a 16-inch MacBook Pro, then that’s a different beast entirely. It has a bigger screen and a dedicated GPU, which you’re almost certainly going to want if you do any graphics-related tasks like gaming. GPU-accelerated video rendering can also benefit from this. Of course, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is much more expensive, so you have to weigh the pros and cons there.
For college students or occasional users, the MacBook Air will most likely do a fantastic job. If you’re a creative professional and considering the MacBook Pro, then it probably makes sense to look at the 16-inch model more because of that larger display and dedicated GPU. With all the options available though, it’s always worth considering every tier to make sure you’re getting something that’s just right for you. If macOS isn’t your thing, check out our list of the best laptops out there, which is mostly focused on Windows PCs.
Writer at XDA Computing. I’ve been covering the world of technology since 2018, but I’ve loved the field for a lot longer. And I have a weird affinity for Nintendo videogames, which I’m always happy to talk about.