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Should you buy the affordable MacBook Air, or is the new MacBook Pro worth the price?

Apple announced its new, refreshed MacBook Pro line at an event today, and as expected the newest MacOS machines are thinner and lighter and some models support Touch ID and sport a new OLED Touch Bar replacing the old-school function keys. You can shave $300 off the price of your new MacBook Pro 13-inch if you choose to forego the Touch Bar and Touch ID, with prices starting at $1,500 instead of $1,800.

Related: Apple’s new MacBook Pro doesn’t outrun competitors, but the Touch Bar is special

One thing that was not announced at the event was a MacBook Air refresh. Thus, the MacBook Air and the new low-end MacBook Pro 13 inch models offer competing lower-cost alternatives to the newest high-end MacBook Pros. If you’re looking to buy an Apple notebook and don’t want to spend a great deal of money, then these two models represent strong choices.

The relevant question then is, how exactly do these two Macs compare, and which should get your hard-earned money? Read on to find out.

MacBook Air 13-inch

macbook-air-thumb-new

MacBook Pro 13-inch

macbook-pro-13-inch

Dimensions  12.8 x 8.94 x 0.11 – 0.68 (in) 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.59 (in)
Weight  2.96 pounds 3.02 pounds
Processor  5th Generation Intel Core i5 or i7 6th Generation Intel Core i3, i5, or i7
RAM  8GB LPDDR3 1600MHz 8GB LPDDR3 1866MHz
Display  13.3-inch LED-backlit display 13.3-inch LED-backlit Retina display
Resolution  1,400 x 900 2,560 x 1,600
Storage  128GB, 256GB, 512GB, PCIe SSD 256GB, 512GB, 1TB PCIe SSD
Networking  802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Ports  2 x USB 3, 1 x Thunderbolt 2, SDXC card slot 2 x USB Type-C with Thunderbolt 3
Webcam  720p FaceTime HD 720p webcam
Operating System  MacOS Sierra MacOS Sierra
Battery  54 watt-hours, up to 12 hours 54.5 watt-hours, up to 10 hours
Price $1,000 $1,500+
Availability Available now Available for pre-order now: ships in 3-4 weeks
DT review 4 out of 5 stars Hands-on

The new thin versus the old thin

There was a time when the MacBook Air was the Apple product that most deserved its name. Compared to other models in the line, and for a time most Windows notebooks as well, the MacBook Air really was the most air-like. At least, it was the lightest model to go along with being the thinnest, and that let the MacBook Air carve out a special place in Apple’s MacOS lineup.

macbook-pro-2016_004

Enter the new MacBook Pro. The newest model is also seriously thin and light, almost equal to the MacBook Air. In fact, while the MacBook Air has its wedge-shaped taper down to 0.11 inch, it’s still thicker at its thicker point than the new MacBook Pro, at 0.68 inch versus 0.59 inch. The new MacBook Pro is also 3.02 pounds, pretty much a rounding error compared to the MacBook Air’s 2.96 pounds.

In the end, it would be hard to justify the MacBook Air over the new MacBook Pro in terms of thickness and weight alone, and given everything else that’s better on the MacBook Pro, we have to give it the nod here.

Winner: MacBook Pro

Retina display for the win

The MacBook Air never received a Retina display, meaning it’s stuck with its old-school 1,440 by 900 resolution compared to the MacBook Pro’s 2,560 by 1,600 resolution. That’s 128 pixels per inch compared to 227 pixels per inch. In addition, the MacBook Air’s display maxes out at 300 nits of brightness and it’s limited to the standard sRGB color gamut. The new MacBook Pro, on the other hand, offers 500 nits of brightness and a wider P3 color gamut.

Apple MacBook Pro OLED with Touch Bar
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

What all that translates into is that the MacBook Air’s display is going to look pixelated and dated compared to the MacBook Pro. Both are LED-backlit screens, but the MacBook Pro is going to be brighter in terms of both the amount of light it produces to combat ambient lighting and the splashes of color you’ll enjoy. Both screens are identically sized, but the MacBook Air has much larger and more unsightly bezels than the new MacBook Pro.

The bottom line is that the MacBook Air’s display is antiquated, and seriously lower in quality. There’s no contest, really.

Winner: MacBook Pro

Generations matter when it comes to performance

The MacBook Air uses fifth-generation Broadwell Intel Core i5 and i7 processors rated at 1.6GHz and 2.2GHz, respectively. The new MacBook Pro, on the other hand, offers up sixth-gen Skylake processors running at 2.0GHz for the Core i5 and 2.4Ghz for the Core i7. Graphics are provided by Intel HD Graphics 6000 in the MacBook Air versus Intel Iris Graphics 540 in the new MacBook Pro.

Simply put, the MacBook Air is seriously outgunned. While it’s a decent enough performer on its own, and would likely continue working well for most mainstream Mac users, the MacBook Air simply won’t be able to compete with the new MacBook Pro. Maximum RAM is the same on both models at 8GB, but the MacBook Pro offers a 1TB SSD versus the MacBook Air’s limit of 512GB.

The only area where the MacBook Air exceeds the new MacBook Pro is battery life. The MacBook Air has a 54-watt battery versus the roughly equivalent 54.5-watt battery in the new MacBook Pro, but the latter’s more power-efficient Skylake processor doesn’t overcome its power-gulping Retina display. Thus, the MacBook Air is rated at up to 12 hours of battery life versus the new MacBook Pro’s 10 hours.

Here, once more, the new MacBook Pro is leaps and bounds ahead. Unless you need more battery life, that is, in which case the MacBook Air is the better of the two.

Winner: MacBook Pro

How’s the keyboard and touchpad?

The new MacBook Pro has received an even larger version of the Force Touch trackpad technology introduced in previous generations. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing compared to the MacBook Air’s standard mechanical multi-touch trackpad is purely subjective, and it’s likely worth a visit to an Apple Store to try them both out side by side.

Apple MacBook Pro OLED with Touch Bar
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

The MacBook Air also retains the old style of Apple’s island keyboard with chicklet keys, which remains a favorite for many people. The new MacBook Pro has a second-generation version of the MacBook’s keyboard, offering the same mechanical feel but with more apparent key travel. Again, which is better will likely come down to each user’s preference.

It’s tempting to give the nod to the new kid on the block, but we’re not inclined to do so without putting our own hands on the two for a direct comparison. Both the MacBook Air and this version of the MacBook Pro share physical function keys, and so in this respect at least they’re rather the same.

Winner: It’s up to you

Which is more connected?

The MacBook Air is probably one of the last Apple machines that will offer the old-style USB Type-A ports, and it’s limited to a single Thunderbolt 2 port. The new MacBook Air, on the other hand, eschews the thicker USB connector in favor of the increasingly in-vogue USB Type-C ports. The MacBook Pro also offers the newer and faster Thunderbolt 3 connection.

In terms of wireless, both have 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The MacBook Air has Bluetooth 4.0 versus the Bluetooth 4.2 offered by the new MacBook Pro. The MacBook Air does include an SDXC card slot, whereas the new MacBook Pro has none, and so that’s a plus in the MacBook Air’s column.

Overall, which is better connected comes down to your willingness to use dongles to support all of your old USB devices and cables or whether you’re ready to move ahead to USB Type-C. Also, if you just have to have an SD card slot without using an external adapter, then the MacBook Air is your choice.

We have to give a nod to the future here, however, and anoint the more flexible MacBook Pro as the better option going forward.

Winner: MacBook Pro

But the MacBook Air costs less!

Yes, that’s right — the MacBook Air costs significantly less than the new MacBook Pro, even the version we’re comparing with here that doesn’t include the new Touch ID support and OLED Touch Bar. The MacBook Air starts out at $1000, a full $500 less than the MacBook Pro’s $1500.

Yes, the MacBook Pro is 50 percent more expensive. Let that sink in for a second.

Now, look back over the specs and analysis above. Is a $500 savings worth giving up everything that’s newer in the new MacBook Pro? Really, nothing has changed in this department. If you’re on a budget and want a simple, well-performing, thin and light MacOS notebook to carry around for basic computing tasks? Then the MacBook Air is for you.

macbook-air

If, on the other hand, your needs are more advanced or you really, really like that luscious Retina display, then $500 or so isn’t going to stop you from pulling the trigger on the new MacBook Pro. This version without the Touch ID support or OLED Touch Bar is already saving you $300 off the high-end models, so that’s something.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to give the prize to the more expensive option when we’re specifically evaluating prices. Here’s where the MacBook Air might just steal you away.

Winner: MacBook Air

Final answer? The new Macbook Pro

When we tally up the score using our unscientific methodology, we have to say that the MacBook Air has enjoyed its time in the sun. It was the first truly thin and light PC on the market and arguably cemented thickness and weight as important metrics when selecting a new notebook. It was a trailblazer, it forged new paths, it was ahead of its time. Pick the platitude. Today, though, it’s just old news, and we’re surprised that Apple hasn’t done away with it completely.

The new MacBook Pro is a svelte, futuristic-looking notebook with almost up-to-date components — Intel’s Kaby Lake seventh-gen processors would have been nice — and it maintains that excellent Retina display. It has the new, larger Force Touch trackpad, and a second-gen butterfly mechanical keyboard, so it’s likely to provide an excellent experience in terms of interacting with the machine. And its connectivity options are equally new and future-proof.

In the end, we’re sad to be the ones to say it, but the MacBook Air is no longer a viable choice. Unless you’re really strapped for cash, then you should pick up a new MacBook Pro and let the MacBook Air sidle off into the sunset. The MacBook Pro is the new thin and light MacOS device of choice.

Buy from Apple:

MacBook 13-inch Air MacBook Pro 13-inch