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

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air
(Image credit: Apple)

If you’re looking at an Apple laptop as your next work machine, it’s a question of MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air – Apple’s line-up consists of just these two (though the two different sizes of MacBook Pro might as well be different models, really) in 2020.

And since you’re reading this article, we’ll assume that you’re not sure which will best suit your needs for creative work. Both are listed in our round up of the best laptops for graphic design because both can be great: they run the same version of macOS, they’re reliable and made to premium specs; they have a big focus on usability in their design; and they’re fast.

However, there are nuances between them that can make a big difference for different work types – the MacBook Air can handle lighter image editing and even video editing no problem, but when it comes for hardcore 3D work you’ll want the extra power of the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

The generous screen of the 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.

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 recent 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 dual-core or quad-core Intel processors, though they’re lower-power models running at 1.1GHz. They can boost their speed hugely for short bursts, as all Intel processors can for doing things like quickly opening apps or loading web pages (or even quick file exports), however they can’t maintain high-level output for very long at all, because they’re not designed to handle the heat.

The MacBook Air also includes 8GB of RAM as standard, and the maximum is 16GB, which can be limiting for design and creative work.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air

The 13-inch MacBook Pro has enough power for serious pro apps (though there will always be an upper limit). (Image credit: Apple)

The Intel Iris Plus graphics chip isn’t what anyone would describe as a pro part for 3D use, but it’s capable of providing some useful GPU-based acceleration in compatible apps. It all means that while the MacBook Air is quite capable as a machine for casual-level 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), it’s not made for deeply complex work.

The MacBook Pro 13-inch steps up to game by including quad-core as standard across the line. The entry-level model includes a 1.4GHz 8th-gen Intel processor (meaning it’s a few years old), and this isn’t the model we’d generally opt for – if your budget can stretch, you’re much better off getting the version with a 2.0GHz quad-core 10th-gen (the latest version) processor. Like the MacBook Air, both can speed up hugely in short bursts, but these will be able to tackle longer high-speed multi-core tasks significantly faster. You can also step up to a 2.3GHz processor, if you want some extra power.

The base model comes with 8GB of RAM, but the 2GHz model we’re recommending includes 16GB of RAM as standard. You can increase this to 32GB of RAM, however that’s the limit. This again may be too much of a bottleneck for some work, though given that the 13-inch MacBook Pro isn’t designed to be the desktop-replacement model, it should be enough for most work that the Pro’s other specs are really up to. If you don’t know that 32GB of RAM is too little for you, then it probably isn’t.

The 13-inch Pro also uses Intel integrated graphics, and though they’re stronger than what’s in the MacBook Air, the same limitations apply: it’s capable of supporting GPU-accelerated tasks and some 3D work, but without large amounts of dedicated VRAM, it’s always more of a support for 2D design than a way to create complex 3D works.

The MacBook Pro 13-inch steps up to game by including quad-core as standard across the line

For that, you need the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which is the real workhorse of Apple’s laptop line-up. It features a six-core processor as a minimum, with eight-core options available – as such, it’s by far the best option for anything that involves high levels of continuous processing. The 16-inch Pros start from 16GB of RAM, but you can take them up to 64GB. They also all come with dedicated AMD graphics cards, starting from a Radeon Pro 5300M 4GB, and stretching up to a Radeon Pro 5600M with 8GB of VRAM.

One other important aspect to the performance of all three machines is the storage: Apple uses the fastest flash storage in the business 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

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

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Design

Apple’s design of all these machines has been subtly revised over the years, but not drastically changed. Each serves a simple purpose in the line-up, when it comes to physical form: 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 important thing to know here is really that the difference between the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro is more nuanced than you might think.

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 being a reason to get the Air. It’s actually 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 really isn’t large – 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 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 rather than the huge extra drag a big laptop was back in the day. Still, you’ll certainly feel that extra weight in your bag.

All these laptops include Apple’s 720p HD webcam in, which is not great compared to what the competition often gives you 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 really wash with the podcast or music producers among our audience, but for video conferencing or just recording some demo work, they’re 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 really – nice to have, but pros won’t want to rely on them anyway.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Display

All 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 that’s having (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 change plug the power in on either side – a small but nice touch. (Image credit: Future)

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Connectivity

All of 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. Step up to the higher-tier 13-inch MacBook Pro options and you get 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.

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

A big consideration around Apple laptops for the last few years has been that the keyboards used until recently weren’t as reliable as you’d expect. However, all current models have a new keyboard, introduced late in 2019 on the 16-inch MacBook Pro first, and this appears to have solved the issue, based on what we've observed so far.

It has a nice amount of travel, comfortable key action, and pleasingly solid movement when you press (though obviously it won’t compete with a mechanical keyboard for those who value their tactility).

The keyboards are all a good size, and cause no problems for accuracy in our experience. They also use inverted T-shape arrow-key layouts, which will please a lot of keyboard purists (or just those whose muscle memory is locked to having that as the standard).

There’s no numberpad on the 16-inch model, we should note – some people like to have them on larger machines, but you won’t find it here.

The MacBook Pro models use Apple’s Touch Bar, which is a touchscreen panel that sits where the Function keys would normally go. The Touch Bar is 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 really good use of it for it to be a key feature, in our opinion. When everything is well thought out, it’s genuinely useful; but because that’s only part of the time, you’ll rarely actually look down to it, so it goes forgotten.

The MacBook Air doesn’t have the Touch Bar – it 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

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

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Battery

Given that more powerful components and fancier screens mean more battery use, the battery comparison between these laptops is mostly as you’d expect: the MacBook Air will gives you more life when used for what it’s designed for, and the Pros will give you less.

The MacBook Air is rated for 11 hours of web use; the 13-inch MacBook Pro for 10 hours of the same; the 16-inch MacBook Pro for 11 hours, thanks to its colossal 100Wh battery (the largest you’ll see on any laptop, since it’s the FAA’s limit for what’s allowed on a plane).

However, that’s all under very casual use – in reality, the battery life will depend on whatever creative apps you happen to use, and which components they specifically tax… and how bright you have the screen.

The MacBook Air has the most power-sipping components, but its 50Wh battery is the smallest here. The 13-inch Pro offers a 58Wh battery.

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

The MacBook Pro 13-inch can be 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 a model with a 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-gen Intel Core i3 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz), 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

The next model up is £1,299/$1,299/AUS$1,599, and includes a 1.1GHz quad-core 10th-gen Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost to 3.5GHz), 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.

The base level 13-inch MacBook Pro is £1,299/£1,299/AUS$1,999, and includes a 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz), 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, with integrated Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645. This is the model we’re not very keen on, since it uses older parts, and you’ll almost certainly need to upgrade the RAM to 16GB (and this model is limited to only 16GB, by the way, not the 32GB that the model mentioned just below can take), and that costs nearly half the price of the full upgrade to the model below on its own.

To get current-gen specs, look to the £1,799/$1,799/AUS$2,999 version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which gives you a 2.0GHz Intel 10th-gen Core i5 quad-core processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz), the latest Intel Iris Plus graphics, 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 a 2.6GHz 6-core 9th-gen Intel Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz), 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and Radeon Pro 5300M 4GB graphics.

The model up gives you a 2.3GHz 8-core 9th-gen Intel Core i9 (Turbo Boost up to 4.8GHz) processor, 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 here with customised specs – extra storage and RAM are the most common, though the 16-inch version also offers an even more powerful processor and the 8GB graphics option we mentioned.

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 MacBook Pro can handle harder tasks; and the 16-inch MacBook Pro is a desktop replacement.

There's certainly some grey area where the quad-core 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.

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