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

Pick the right Apple laptop for your life and work.
Apple MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air

The MacBook Air looks small compared to the 16-inch MacBook Pro on the right. Stan Horaczek

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If you’re in the market for an Apple laptop, you’ve probably spent a fair bit of time trying to navigate the MacBook Air vs. Pro landscape. Apple has seriously stepped up the quality of its laptops in recent years and choosing the right one for your workflow and lifestyle isn’t as simple as it once was. 

The M1 era of Apple laptops

Apple laptops changed substantially starting in late 2020. The company stopped relying on Intel to make its processors and struck out to create its own system on a chip called the M1. It doesn’t simply replace the old Intel Core CPUs from previous models. The M1 encompasses almost all the major components, including the central processor, graphics processor, machine learning core—even system memory. Because Apple controls every component of hardware and software design, the parts all work together with unprecedented efficiency.

Thanks to the M1 chip (as well as the M1 Pro and M1 Max, which debuted in the 2021 MacBook Pro), Apple’s laptop offerings offer considerably more power and noticeably better battery life than they did just a generation ago. 

A quick note about keyboards

Before we dig into the specs and the comparisons, it’s worth noting that Apple has drastically improved its keyboards in recent MacBook Pros. The company’s infamous, butterfly-style boards felt unsatisfying to type on and frequently fell victim to crumbs and other crud that can make its way into the delicate mechanism. The new Magic Keyboards are considerably better with more satisfying action and more durable parts. That’s a relief.

Apple’s current laptop offerings

Right now, Apple offers four distinct laptop flavors. The differences among them can be subtle, so here’s a general overview to provide a basis for the comparisons.

Apple MacBook Air M1

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  • Chip: Apple M1
  • Screen size: 13.3 inches 
  • Screen resolution: 2,560 x 1,600
  • Storage options: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
  • RAM options: 8GB or 16GB unified system memory
  • Ports: Two USB-C Thunderbolt, headphone jack
  • Dimensions: 0.63” (H) x 11.97” (W) x 8.36” (L) 
  • Weight: 2.8 pounds

The 2020 MacBook Air was one of the first computers to employ Apple’s M1 chip, which gave the super-slim notebook a huge boost in just about every metric. It hasn’t been refreshed since that redesign and still only offers a pair of USB-C Thunderbolt ports, both of which can attach peripherals or deliver a charge to the computer itself from a 30W USB-C power adapter. The MacBook Air doesn’t have any built-in fans, so it runs completely silently. Despite its lack of cooling, it still churns out surprisingly fast performance and stays relatively chill (literally) thanks to the hyper-efficient Apple architecture. I’ve done hard photo editing in the notoriously greedy Adobe Lightroom Classic for several hours before it started to feel toasty. 

Despite the extra power and battery life of up to 15 hours with mobile web usage, the Air still stays plenty slim. It’s just over a half-inch thick at its chunkiest, but it tapers down considerably at the front edge. It’s still ultra-portable, it’s just considerably faster now.

It comes in three colors, including the familiar silver and space gray as well as a pinkish gold color that makes it stand out from its bigger siblings. 

MacBook Pro 13 M1

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  • Chip: Apple M1
  • Screen size: 13.3 inches 
  • Screen resolution: 2,560 x 1,600
  • Storage options: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
  • RAM options: 8GB or 16GB unified system memory
  • Ports: Two USB-C Thunderbolt, headphone jack
  • Dimensions: 0.61” (H) x 11.97” (W) x 8.36” (L) 
  • Weight: 3 pounds

If those specs look familiar from the MacBook Air, you’re correct. The 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pros share a ton of similarities when it comes to hardware like the M1 processors and the displays. For the extra money and a little extra weight, the MacBook Pro adds the controversial Touch Bar above the keyboard: a dynamic, touch-sensitive screen that displays dynamic controls depending on what app or program you’re using. It was controversial on previous generations because it replaced the traditional row of function keys with something less reliable. The keyboard does, however, have a physical “escape” key to go along with it. 

That little bit of extra bulk also makes room inside the MacBook Air 13 for cooling fans, something the MacBook Air lacks. Because the Pro 13 has a built-in cooling system, it will perform better under heavy load for longer periods of time. So, if you’re planning to edit any media, record podcasts, or do anything else that requires considerable computing power, that will likely come into play. The more powerful 60W charger can also help the computer from running through its battery faster than it can charge under heavy load.

MacBook Pro 14 M1 Pro (and M1 Max)

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  • Chip: Apple M1 Pro or M1 Max
  • Screen size: 14.2 inches
  • Screen resolution: 3,024 x 1964
  • Storage options: 512GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, or 8TB
  • RAM options: 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB (top option only available with M1 Max)
  • Ports: Three USB-C Thunderbolt, HDMI, SDXC card reader, MagSafe charging, and headphone jack
  • Dimensions: 0.61” (H), 12.3” (W) 8.71” (L)
  • Weight: 3.5 pounds

Once you step up to the 14-inch MacBook Pro, you go beyond the base M1 and step up to the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. These provide a considerable bump in power over their smaller sibling. When it comes to processor performance, the 14-inch MacBook Pro promises nearly four times the performance compared to the previous 13-inch Intel-based quad-core model. When it comes to graphic performance, the M1 Pro is nearly 10 times more powerful, while the M1 Max is a semi-ridiculous 13.4 times faster when it comes to rendering 4K video footage. 

The upgrades go beyond pure power, too. The 14-inch MacBook Pro offers Apple’s XDR tech, which relies on Mini-LED backlighting to reach an average brightness of 1,000 nits and a maximum brightness around 1,600 nits. For reference, the iPhone 13 screen averages 800 nits and maxes out at 1,200 nits, so the MacBook Pro is noticeably brighter. The screen also refreshes at up to 120Hz, which makes for smooth scrolling like you’d find on the iPad Pro. 

Apple pleased a lot of pros by bringing back more ports to its pro-grade laptop. It still offers three USB-C Thunderbolt ports, but it also now includes an SDXC card reader and an HDMI out. Apple also didn’t get rid of the headphone jack, which is a slight relief after the trend for iPhones in recent years. 

MacBook Pro 16 M1 Pro (and M1 Max)

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  • Chip: Apple M1 Pro or M1 Max
  • Screen size: 16.2 inches
  • Screen resolution: 3,456 x 2,234
  • Storage options: 512GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, or 8TB
  • RAM options: 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB (Top spec only available with M1 Max)
  • Ports: Three USB-C Thunderbolt, HDMI, SDXC card reader, MagSafe charging, and headphone jack
  • Dimensions: 0.66” (H) x 14.01” (W) x 9.77” (L)
  • Weight: 4.8 pounds

The flagship offers its most powerful options, as well as its biggest and most attractive display. The screen offers all the fancy features introduced in the 14-inch model, including refresh rates up to 120Hz, Mini-LED backlighting, super-high pixel density, and full coverage of the P3 color space. 

It also comes with a 140W charger so it can easily keep up with the power draw that comes with intense computing activities like rendering 3D graphics or keeping more than like five Chrome tabs open at once. 

This is Apple’s flagship laptop and it’s truly the best laptop I have ever personally used. Even with the stock Apple M1 Pro option, it rips through high-res photo and video editing with ease. The battery also lasts all day, something the previous version couldn’t accomplish. 

MacBook Air vs. Pro Comparisons

Now that we’ve introduced the contenders, it’s time to pit them against each other. Each MacBook has its own strengths and weaknesses. Comparing them will help choose the right one for you. 

Apple MacBook Air M1 vs. MacBook Pro 13 M1

If you don’t need the brute force power offered from the M1 Pro chip, then both of these machines should perform admirably for everyday tasks and some content creation. The Air is 0.2 pounds lighter and slimmer at the edge, which makes it simpler to lug around, especially if you’re going to be moving it in and out of a bag multiple times per day. The base model Air, however, does have one fewer CPU core than the Pro, so step up to the slightly upgraded Air if you don’t want to give up any performance.

If you step up to the 8-core CPU on the Air (roughly $200), its performance should be just about identical to the MacBook Pro when used in short durations. Once the computers start to heat up, though, the MacBook Pro’s built-in fans and more powerful charging setup will start to make a noticeable difference. 

If you’re only ever going to surf the web, watch content, and do some occasional light content creation, the MacBook Air will be just fine. If you’re planning on pushing your machine with video editing or photo editing on a semi-regular basis, it’s likely worth the extra money to move up to the much more powerful 14-inch M1 Pro machines.

Winner: The MacBook Air is probably the right choice for most people. 

Apple MacBook Pro 13 M1 vs. MacBook Pro 14 M1 Pro

As the $700 price jump should suggest, the rift between these two machines feels much wider than the one between the 13-inch MBP and the MacBook Air. The 14-inch MacBook Pro adds Apple’s most advanced screen with more pixels, brighter overall picture, and better color reproduction. The 14-inch MacBook Pro also goes up to a 120Hz refresh rate, which makes onscreen motion nice and smooth in apps that support it. 

There’s also a significant power gap. The 14-inch model allows you to step up to 10 CPU cores and all the way to 32 GPU cores if you need maximum power. While it’s not a one-to-one ratio of cores to power, those bumps do make a tremendous difference in accomplishing real-world tasks for professionals.

The 14-inch model also handily wins when it comes to port selection. The redesigned M1 Pro and M1 Max MBPs offer three total USB-C Thunderbolt ports (one more than the lower models), as well as an HDMI, an SDXC card reader, and a MagSafe power connector that won’t yank the computer onto the floor when someone trips on it. It feels like a modern version of the old MacBook Pro, which is exactly what many people wanted.

Winner: The 14-inch model costs more, but it’s a substantial upgrade in power, which gives it an edge.

Apple MacBook 14 M1 Pro vs. MacBook 16 M1 Pro

This is another tight race. The major decision point here comes down to the screen. If you’re going to be plugged into an external monitor most of the time or you’re primarily looking for a computer to browse the web and answer emails, then 14 inches should be plenty. For creative work like photo or video editing, however, screen real estate comes at a premium. 

Don’t discount the weight factor, though: The 16-inch model does weigh roughly 1.2 pounds more than its 14-inch sibling. That’s more than a 30-percent increase, which you’ll notice if you’re walking around with it stuffed into a bag all day. 

Winner: The 16-inch MacBook Pro is at the top of the Apple heap, but only pay the money if you need the screen real estate.

Apple M1 Pro vs. M1 Max

For those people who already know that the MacBook Air won’t quite cut it for their intense workflow, there is still an important decision to make when selecting a MacBook Pro. Apple offers two versions of its high-end chip: the M1 Pro and the M1 Max. 

Both chips offer up to 10 CPU cores, but the Max can step all the way up to 64 GPU cores, double the M1 Pro’s limit. More graphics power makes it appealing to users doing a lot of 3D rendering or pushing hard on GPU-accelerated software. 

The M1 Max also allows for up to 64GB unified system memory compared to 32GB with the M1 Pro. Beyond the sheer amount of memory, the Max also allows for 400GB/s of memory bandwidth compared to 200GB/s with the M1 Pro. 

Dig even deeper into the specs and you’ll find that the M1 Max offers more video encode and decode engines, which will probably only come into play if you’re doing seriously high-end production work. 

Ultimately, the M1 Pro will likely be enough for the vast majority of users. As stated above, I’ve been using the base model M1 Pro since last year to edit large quantities of very high-res raw photo files and it hardly ever bogs down. I’ve also edited 4K raw video in Premiere with ease. If you’re going to step up to the Max, make sure you know exactly why you’re making the leap and how it will affect your workflow because it will be overkill for a considerable number of users. 

So, what MacBook Air and MacBook Pro specs should you upgrade?

While there are only four distinct types of Apple laptop on the market, each one offers its own set of upgrades, some of which provide better value than others. 

MacBook Air

With the MacBook Air, get the model above the base if you can swing the extra cost. The $999 stock version gives up a GPU core and only nets you 256GB of built-in storage compared to 512GB in the $1,249 upgraded model. Doubling the system memory to 16 GB hurts a little at $200, but it will make it run generally smoother and, because Apple uses integrated memory chips, you don’t have the option to upgrade it later.

MacBook Pro 13

Unlike the Air, the MacBook Pro 13 offers the same M1 chip with a consistent number of cores across models. The base model costs $1,299 with 256GB storage, but you can spend an extra $200 to double up to 512GB. Add another $200 above that and you’ll get 16GB unified system memory instead of 8GB. Again, that price stings, but it’s not something you can change once you pick your chip. Do not pay the extra $800 to get to 2TB storage. 

MacBook Pro 14

It will cost you $2,000 to get the base model 14-inch MacBook Pro with an M1 Pro chip inside. That includes the 8-core CPU, the 14-core GPU, and 512GB storage. That’s a solid performer right out of the box. For an extra $500, you get 10 CPU cores, 16 GPU cores, and 512GB storage, which is a worthwhile investment if you can swing it. 

If you’re going to be editing a ton of high-end video, you should consider the $2,899 entry price for the M1 Max version. That still only gets you 512GB internal storage, though, which is paltry in the land of video. An extra $200 will get you to 1TB, which is probably worth the upgrade, but anything beyond that is just too absurdly priced to justify.

MacBook Pro 16

With the 16-inch MBP, Apple doesn’t offer the lower-powered M1 chip found in the 14-inch MBP. The stock 16-inch MacBook Pro offers 10 CPU cores, 16 GPU cores, and 512GB built-in storage for $2,499. I recommend the $200 upgrade to get to 1TB storage. That machine should handle everything most people are going to throw at it, even if they’re professional designers or photographers. 

For hardcore video editing, the step up to the M1 Max is likely worth it. The floor on an M1 Max machine sits around $3,299 with a 24-core GPU, 32GB unified system memory, and 1TB storage. Again, the storage upgrades are too expensive but the extra $400 to max out system memory at 64GB is likely worth it for a main work machine. 

Some final thoughts about MacBook Air vs. Pro

Ultimately, the right Apple laptop for you comes down to your specific needs. If you’re only ever planning to browse the web, watch videos, and do occasional content creation, then the MacBook Air or the 13-inch MacBook Pro likely have all the oomph you’ll ever need. If you’re planning to grind away creating content, rendering graphics, or doing other intense projects every day, then spending some extra cash on your laptop now will likely make your life easier in the long run.