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MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Which Apple laptop is right for you?

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air
(Image credit: Apple)

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 became more similar when Apple added its M1 chip to the MacBook Air, but with the release of the latest MacBook Pros 14 and 16 in October 2021, the Pro has taken another leap forward with the even faster M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, but that power is probably beyond most people's needs. 

Both devices are 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. For more details on the latest MacBook Pros see our Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) review and our MacBook Pro 14-inch (2021) review.

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 newer 2021 Pro 14 and 16 now come with the choice of Apple M1 Pro or M1 Max chips, which are even more powerful, and pack in enhancements for more efficient video editing without draining the battery. 

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 device and 64GBin 16in. The Air may cause too much of a bottleneck for some work but will probably do for most. If you don’t know that 16GB of RAM is too little for you, it probably isn’t

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: MacBook Pro 13

The 13-inch MacBook Pro has enough power for serious pro apps (Image credit: Apple)

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 newest MacBook Pro 16in ups the game, claiming to deliver two times faster graphics processing. It also has dedicated media engine for decode and two for encode for up to two times faster video encoding.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: MacBook Air

The MacBook Air is an ultra-slim, tapered beauty. (Image credit: Apple)

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

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: MacBook Air

The MacBook Air has a slim, tapered design (Image credit: Apple)

Apple’s design of all these machines has been subtly revised over the years, but not drastically changed, and they look fairly similar, although some were surprised to see Apple introduce a notch on the new MacBook Pros. 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.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air

The MacBook Pro 16-inch gives you a big, reasonably high-res screen with great colour accuracy and an even backlight. (Image credit: Apple)

The 14-inch MacBook Pro weighs 1.6 kg/3.5lb, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro is notably heavier at 2.1 – 2.2kg/4.7 – 4.8lbs depending on whether you choose the M1 Pro or M1 Max, though it’s worth noting that we’re talking a weight difference of around 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 3072x1920, 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 2560x1600. 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 2560x1600 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

Some MacBook Pros have ports on both sides, which means you plug the power in on either side (Image credit: Future)

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 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro, you get the four ports and the 3.5mm jack plus SDXC card slot, HDMI port and MagSafe 3 port. 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.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air

All MacBook Pro models feature the Touch Bar, a mini screen that adapts to the app you're using. (Image credit: Apple)

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

All of the MacBooks offer Apple's Magic Keyboard, which delivers great tactile performance and comfort. The MacBook Air doesn't feature a Touch Bar, while the 13-inch MacBook Pro does, but this OLED bar frankly doesn't offer a lot of value. It's perhaps telling that the 14-inch MacBook Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro ditched it for a dedicated function row of physical keys.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Battery

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air

Using more advanced apps on any machine will bring down the battery life from its quoted amount rapidly. (Image credit: Apple)

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 new 14in and 16 in MacBook Pros trounce even that, with the 16in lasting for over 15 hours. Of course a lot of this depends on what you're using them for.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air

The MacBook Pro 13-inch can offer a good balance of power and price, but more so for some models than others. (Image credit: Apple)

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 14in MacBook Pro starts from $1,999 / £1,899 / AUS$2,999 for 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage. The 16in MacBook Pro starts at $2,499 / £2,399 / AUS$3,749. 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

(Image credit: Apple)

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 and 14-inch MacBook Pro can handle harder tasks; and the 16-inch MacBook Pro is a full-blown 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 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros are ready for your most hardcore work (including 3D), with enhanced performance for video editing.

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.

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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.