Apple's laptops are more streamlined than ever, now comprised of a 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models. But it can still be tough deciding which MacBook to buy, especially since Apple offers some models with custom M1 chip and others with Intel processors.
That’s where our MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro guide comes in. Between the MacBook Air, the two 13-inch MacBook Pro models, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro, we’ll help you decide which laptop is worth your money by comparing price, features, performance, battery life and more. By the end of this guide, you should know exactly which laptop to spend your hard-earned money on — or whether yous should wait for the next version to arrive.
On that note, Apple is expected to debut new 16-inch MacBook Pro and 14-inch MacBook Pro models with a supercharged M-series chip rumored to have 12 cores. This will help separate these high-end models from the current M1-powered MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, two cheaper models that currently outperform their much pricier Intel-based siblings.
If you want to get accustomed to life with a MacBook before buying one, check out our review of macOS Big Sur, the newest version of Apple's desktop OS.
Which MacBook is best?
It's a strange time to be shopping for a MacBook. Apple has only partially transitioned its laptops to the new ARM-based M1 chip while some models continue to rely on Intel processors.
Based on our testing, we recommend buying a MacBook with the M1 chip. Your options so far? The new MacBook Air with M1 and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 and two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Apple is expected to release a 16-inch MacBook Pro with an even more powerful M1X chip in the coming months, so consider waiting before buying the larger and most premium option. The same goes for the 13-inch MacBook with four Thunderbolt 3 ports. That notebook uses Intel chips for now but could be updated (with a 14-inch display?) in 2021 with custom Apple Silicon.
So why do we recommend MacBooks with M1 chip? In short, because there is nothing else like them on the market. The M1 chip brings unrivaled performance and battery life to the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, making them the laptops to beat in their respective categories. Not to mention, the laptops support iOS and iPadOS apps now that they run on the same architecture as the iPhone and iPad.
That's not to say the 16-inch MacBook Pro and top-tier 13-inch MacBook Pro aren't good devices. The 16-inch MacBook Pro is particularly compelling due to its incredible speakers, modern design and long battery life. You just need to decide if you must buy them now, or if you can wait for Apple to refresh these notebooks with custom chips.
MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro: Specs compared
|Best for Most||Most Speed for $||For Power Users|
|MacBook Air||MacBook Pro 13 (Entry Level)||MacBook Pro 16-inch|
|CPU||M1||M1||2.6-GHz 9th gen Core i7|
|RAM||Up to 16GB||up to 16GB||up to 64GB|
|Display||13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)||13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)||16 inches (3072 x 1920)|
|Ports||2 Thunderbolt 3, headphone||2 Thunderbolt 3, headphone||4 Thunderbolt 3, headphone|
|Graphics||M1||M1||AMD Radeon Pro 5300M (4GB)|
|Storage||up to 2TB||up to 2TB||up to 10TB|
|Battery Life (hrs)||14:41 (tested)||16:32 (tested)||10:55|
|Size||12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches||12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches||14.1 x 9.7 x 0.6 inches|
|Weight||2.8 pounds||3.1 pounds||4.3 pounds|
MacBook Air (M1, 2020): Best for most people
Pros: The new MacBook Air delivers almost everything you could want in an Apple laptop thanks to its M1 chip, which enables record-setting performance and battery life. Specifically, the MacBook Air lasted for 14 hours and 41 minutes on our battery test, making it one of the longest-lasting laptops around.
Our MacBook Air with 16GB of RAM scored a resounding 5,962 on the Geekbench 5.2 overall performance test, crushing the XPS 13 (5,319, Core i7-1165G7) with an 11th Gen (Tiger lake) Intel Core. The Surface Laptop 3 (4,791) with 10th Gen Intel chips dropped further behind, but still topped the category average (4,178).
And, of course, the MacBook Air has the Magic Keyboard, which is far more comfortable and reliable than the previous Butterfly keyboard. We compared these two keyboards side-by-side and unanimously voted in favor of the new version due to its bouncier keys and improved layout.
The screen is sharp, too, with a 2560 x 1600-pixel resolution. The latest version of the Air supports the P3 color range for punchier tones and True Tone, which adjusts the color temperature on the display based on ambient lighting conditions.
Another feature is Touch ID, which makes it easy to unlock the system, make secure payments, and replace passwords. The new MacBook Air's 720p webcam also got a minor upgrade thanks to the M1 chip, and the system supports iOS and iPadOS apps now, although few are optimized for laptops.
The MacBook Air, at 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches and 2.8 pounds, is larger than the Dell XPS 13 (11.6 x 7.8 x 0.6 inches, 2.8 pounds), but more compact than the 13.5-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (12.1 x 8.8 x 0.6 inches, 2.9 pounds).
Cons: Two USB-C ports aren't enough for most people so be ready to use a dongle. Also, the MacBook Air isn't the most compact or lightest 13-inch laptop, and the display bezels are too chunky for 2021. The laptop also lacks an IR camera (for facial recognition login)) and USB Type-A ports so those legacy devices will need an adapter.
See our full MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review
MacBook Pro 13-inch (two Thunderbolt 3): Best for power users on a budget
Pros: The 13-inch MacBook Pro crams a lot of power into a slim and lightweight (3 pounds) chassis with its new M1 chip — and it even has a good keyboard. Yes, the 13-inch MacBook Pro gets the same M1 chip as the MacBook Air but this powerful machine can run demanding tasks for longer because it has a fan inside for keeping things cool.
Looking at the numbers, the MacBook Pro achieved 5,882 on the Geekbench 5 test, surpassing the 4,215 premium laptop average. The XPS 13 came the closest to matching the MacBook while the Asus ZenBook and HP Spectre x360 13 weren't anywhere near as powerful.
This machine is only a bit heavier than the MacBook Air, but you get the same M1 processor and longer battery life. I want to emphasize that battery life: the MacBook Pro lasted for 16 hours and 32 minutes on our test. That's just...well, ridiculous, and it puts the MacBook Pro in a different league than its competitors.
Apple brought the Touch Bar to the MacBook Pro, as well as a Touch ID sensor. The 13-inch MacBook Pro also offers an improved 720p webcam, a ridiculously fast SSD and a sleek design. What more can you ask for?
Cons: Unfortunately, the base model MacBook Pro has only two Thunderbolt 3 ports versus four ports on the pricier MacBook Pro 13-inch. Oh, and it's time for Apple to get rid of those unsightly display bezels.
See our full 13-inch MacBook Pro (M1, 2020) review
MacBook Pro (13-inch) with 4 Thunderbolt ports: If you need more ports
Pros: If you’re willing to spend $1,799, the MacBook Pro 13-inch (2020) is among the fastest laptop in its class, packing a blazing 10th Gen Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. In our testing, this MacBook Pro wiped the floor with most Windows laptops on both the Geekbench 5 benchmark and especially our SSD benchmark. And now you get all that power without having to deal with an awful keyboard.
This model also offers a bright and colorful True Tone display that adjusts its color based on ambient lighting, and it delivers on battery life with 10 hours and 21 minutes of juice.
This version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro also offers two more Thunderbolt ports than the $1,299 model and the MacBook Air.
Cons: This version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro is pricey. We'd also like to see Apple make the design a bit lighter while trimming down the screen bezels. Also, the Touch Bar is divisive and Apple would be better off using standard shortcut keys.
But the biggest issue? The MacBook Pro uses Intel chips instead of Apple Silicon, so performance and endurance lag behind the lower-tier Pro model, and you don't get iOS and iPadOS app support. Our advice? Wait for the 2021 refresh, which could see the release of a 14-inch MacBook Pro.
See our full MacBook Pro 13-inch (2020) review
MacBook Pro 16-inch: Best for power users
Pros: It all starts with the keyboard. Apple finally ditched the Butterfly-style keyboard in favor of a more traditional scissor mechanism starting with this machine. The new keys not only offer better travel but also feel soft yet clicky.
Like the 15-inch model (which this version replaces), the 16-inch MacBook Pro provides exceptional performance whether you're editing gobs of RAW photos, tackling 4K video editing projects or compiling code. The laptop comes equipped with your choice of three 9th Gen H-series Intel CPUs: a 6-core Core i7 (2.6Ghz), an 8-core Core i9 (2.3GHz) or an 8-core Core i9 (2.4GHz) chip.
The base configuration packs an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M graphics card (with 4GB of VRAM), which can be upgraded to a Radeon Pro 5500M GPU with either 4GB or 8GB of memory. Similar to its predecessor, the MacBook Pro has four Thunderbolt 3 ports onboard for plugging in peripherals.
Apple's Retina displays are consistently beautiful but the new MacBook Pro's 16-inch, 3072 x 1920-resolution panel is the best yet, and not just because it's large. The screen is crisp, vivid and bright, and surrounded by relatively thin bezels.
Another perk is the 6-speaker system with force-canceling woofers that offers incredible sound quality (easily the best of any laptop). The 16-inch MacBook Pro lasted for 10 hours and 55 minutes in our battery test, which is a great result considering the performance it brings to the table.
Cons: Photographers might be miffed that they can’t plug in an SD card; instead, they’ll have to use a card reader and plug it into one of the four Thunderbolt 3 ports. You also don't get full-size USB ports.
While the base model 16-inch MacBook Pro comes with more storage — 512GB — for the same price as its predecessor, a $2,399 starting price is still hard to ignore.
The machine is also heavier and thicker than the 15-inch MacBook Pro and there is no Face ID for unlocking the device using facial recognition. And, of course, we're still waiting on an Apple Silicon edition so you should probably wait for the next model if you can.
See our full 16-inch MacBook Pro review
To find out more about how much longer Apple will keep your MacBook healthy, read our comprehensive Apple Warranty Check guide.
How we test MacBook laptops
We put MacBooks through extensive benchmark testing — both synthetic and real-world — before they end up in the hands of our reviewers. We evaluate everything from speed and battery life to display brightness, speaker volume and system heat.
We use a Klein K10 colorimeter to detect the brightness and sRGB color gamut of a laptop's display. For performance benchmarking, we run the laptop through a gauntlet of benchmarks, including Geekbench 5.0 and 3DMark professional graphics tests.
To determine real-world performance, we task the laptop to convert a 4K video to 1080p resolution and to duplicate a 25GB multimedia file. Our real-world graphics test is the Dirt 3 benchmark with medium settings and 1080p resolution.
We also run heat tests by playing a 15-minute full-screen video and our battery test consists of continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of brightness. We consider everything over the category average (8 hours and 36 minutes) to be a good result. Of course, these tests are complemented with hands-on testing from our reviewers.