After the 2019 updates to the MacBook Pro — including a big one for the entry-level model in mid-2019 — and the refresh of Apple’s MacBook Air in early 2020, an important question to answer is how the two devices stack up against each other. Although they both boast Retina displays and even fall in a similar price range, there are some significant differences in specs and features that differentiate the two devices. There’s even a 16-inch MacBook Pro if you’re looking for a larger, top-end model.
In this guide, we pit the MacBook Air against the 13-inch MacBook Pro to see which is best. Interested in buying either of these MacBooks? Check out our guide to the latest MacBook deals on Apple’s flagship devices. We’ve thrown in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, too, for those who need a bigger laptop.
The 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro share an all-aluminum finish. Both offer space gray and silver color options, while the MacBook Air adds a third gold option. Outside of that, the two devices look almost identical.
Both devices pack Retina displays with a native 2,560 × 1,600 resolution, or 227 pixels per inch. Although similar on that front, the brightness levels between the two laptops couldn’t be more different. We didn’t like the display on the 2018 MacBook Air and found that it doesn’t get as bright or impressive as the MacBook Pro. It only manages a total brightness of 291 nits, which lags significantly behind the MacBook Pro’s 500 nits. Still, the color accuracy comes in at high levels, which makes it a decent option for photographers and graphic designers. We’ll see how the 2020 model stacks up in brightness.
We discovered there was no flexing, bending, or friction on the 2018 MacBook Air — typical of Apple design, and a sign that the Air is built for durability. For the 2020 model, Apple ditched its problematic butterfly keyboard for one sporting traditional scissor-based switches, following its keyboard switch introduced in the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The next 13-inch refresh will likely see the same change. The large, clickable trackpad shared by both is perfect for selecting text, dragging windows, or using multitouch gestures.
Both the Air and the Pro offer Thunderbolt 3-compatible USB-C ports. These ports accomplish a wide variety of tasks, including charging and high-speed data transfer. On the Air, you’ll see only two on the left side, requiring you to purchase USB-C hubs for added connectivity. The 13-inch MacBook Pro provides either two or four, depending on the CPU, while the larger 16-inch MacBook Pro has four across all configurations.
Both laptops have 720p webcams, stereo speakers, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. If sound is particularly important, the Macbook Pro’s high dynamic range tends to offer better audio. The MacBook Air, on the other hand, comes with additional microphones so that Siri can pick up your voice more easily.
Finally, the MacBook Air still doesn’t include the Touch Bar. After the Touch Bar’s mixed reception, Apple apparently decided to focus on other features for the Air, like the Touch ID security and login button. Meanwhile, the entry-level 13-inch models gained the Touch Bar in July 2019, meaning every Pro model now comes with it by default.
The specs under the hood and the pricing on the MacBook Air point to big differences between it and the MacBook Pro. The recent update to the base Pro means it currently ships with Intel’s 8th Generation i5-8257U four-core processor with a 1.4GHz base speed and a 3.9GHz boost frequency. It’s priced at $1,299.
Apple’s high-tier MacBook Air with the same $1,299 price features Intel’s newer 10th-Gen i5-1030NG7 four-core chip clocked at 1.1GHz (base) and 3.5GHz (max). The key takeaway here is the 10nm process technology used to manufacture this new CPU, which promises better performance and power efficiency over similar 14nm-based chips. Right now, the MacBook Air has a slight advantage until Apple refreshes the 13-inch MacBook Pro later this year.
Another notable difference is memory. All 13-inch MacBook Pros rely on older LPDDR3 memory clocked at 2,133MHz. The 16-inch MacBook Pro launched with vanilla DDR4 sticks — not the low power versions — clocked at 2,667MHz. The MacBook Air, refreshed in early 2020, uses LPDDR4X memory clocked at 3,733MHz. These latter chips target low power draw without sacrificing blazingly high bandwidth.
If you want a gorgeous MacBook without breaking the bank, the $999 entry-level MacBook Air is a decent machine. It’s the only model in the duo that offers Intel’s 10th-Gen i3-1000NG4 dual-core CPU, though you should consider grabbing the i5 four-core CPU for $100 more.
If you need a bit more oomph, you can opt for the 16-inch MacBook Pro with Intel’s 9th Generation six-core processor, but you pay for the privilege, given it starts at $2,399. Ouch.
The MacBook Pro comes in at 0.59 inches thick and 11.97 inches wide, whereas the MacBook Air is a mere 0.16 to 0.63 inches thick and 11.97 inches wide. That makes the MacBook Air slightly thicker than the MacBook Pro, but lighter. Honestly, you won’t know the difference between the two unless you break out the measuring tape or scale. If anything, the only defining visual difference between the two is the Air’s additional gold color and its lack of a Touch Bar.
As for the battery life across the two models, the 2018 MacBook Air falls a bit short of competitors but is still decent. The MacBook Pro netted us 10 hours and 24 minutes of battery life in our video loop testing and 5 hours and 3 minutes in web browsing. We have yet to test the 2020 MacBook Air.
With the latest MacBook Air, Apple promises up to 11 hours of wireless web browsing and up to 12 hours of iTunes movie playback. Apple claims the 16-inch MacBook Pro can last for 11 hours of web browsing or video streaming.
However, when we tested the older 2018 model, it lasted 8 hours of light web browsing and 10 hours of video playback. This is slightly better than the Pro and arguably the best battery life of any available MacBook, but still fails to meet the stated specs. Again, we’ll revisit these numbers when we benchmark the 2020 model.
Keep in mind that one of the changes Apple made to the 2018 MacBook Air was a battery that’s easier to replace, though an authorized service provider will need to replace it. In the long term, this may give the Air a bit more longevity if you find that the battery is failing.
The Air’s update makes it your best option
After significantly updating the entry-levelin 2019 and refreshing the high-end in early 2020, picking one over the other is a hard choice given the identical prices.
The obvious difference between the two is the lack of a Touch Bar on the MacBook Air. Under the hood, the $1,299 MacBook Air sports newer components, but that will likely change within the next few months. The Air also provides more storage capacity out of the box at 512GB versus the 128GB in the $1,299 MacBook Pro. Right now, all of this translates to more bang for your buck in the high-tier MacBook Air until Apple refreshes the 13-inch low-end MacBook Pro.
If you need something bigger and price really isn’t a factor, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is your ticket to power. You can equip it with an eight-core 9th Gen Intel i9 processor and beefy Radeon Pro discrete graphics, but be prepared for a hefty starting price.
If you want to save money, the $999 entry-level MacBook Air is definitely worth considering, even if we’re not thrilled with the dual-core chip. Despite its lack of four cores, you should still see decent performance thanks to 10nm processing and multi-threading support. Again, if you can afford the extra $100, configure the MacBook Air with the Core i5 chip.
If you really, really need the Touch Bar, graduate to the MacBook Pro.
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