MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro

Is the MacBook Air or the MacBook Pro the best Mac for you? We break it down

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

After the 2019 updates to the MacBook Pro — including a big one for the entry-level model in July — and the launch of Apple’s  MacBook Air in 2018, an important question to answer is how the two devices stack up against each other. Though they both boast Retina displays and similar keyboards, 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 top-end model.

In this guide, we pit the MacBook Air against the MacBook Pro to see which is best. Interested in buying either of these MacBooks? Check out our guide to the latest deals on Apple’s flagship devices, as well as our guide to the best Black Friday laptop deals.

Design

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

The 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro share an all-aluminum finish, with both offering space gray and silver color options, although the new Air also comes in gold. Outside of that, the two devices look very similar.

Both devices also pack Retina displays with a total resolution of 2,560 × 1,600, or 227 pixels per inch. Though similar on that front, the brightness levels between the two laptops couldn’t be more different. We didn’t like the display on the MacBook Air and found that it doesn’t get as bright or impressive as the MacBook Pro’s. The 2018 Air 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 found that there was no flexing, bending, or friction on the MacBook Air — typical of Apple design, and a sign that the Air is built for durability. The Air now has the third-generation butterfly keyboard and larger trackpad of the Pro. The trackpad 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 can accomplish a wide variety of tasks, including charging and high-speed data transfer. The brand-new 16-inch Pro offers two of the ports on each side for a total of four; depending on which configuration you go for, the 13-inch version will give you either two or four ports. The Air has only two on the left side, which limits how many accessories you can use at any one time.

Both laptops have 720p webcams, stereo speakers, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. If sound is particularly important to you, 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, there is still no Touch Bar above the keyboard on the MacBook Air. After the mixed reception to the Touch Bar, Apple apparently decided to focus on other features for the Air, like an option for a Touch ID security and login button. The Pro, however, still has an option for the Touch Bar — the entry-level 13-inch models gained the Touch Bar in July 2019, meaning every Pro model now comes with it by default.

Performance

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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 now comes with an 8th-gen 1.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, which boosts up to 3.9GHz. Its price of $1,299 means it is now a very compelling prospect compared to the high-end MacBook Air, which comes with an 8th-generation dual-core 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor and also costs $1,299. That the base Pro now has two extra cores compared to the high-end Air should give it a significant performance boost, all for the same price and with the Touch Bar included.

If you need a bit more oomph, you can opt for a 16-inch Pro with a six-core 9th-gen Intel processor, but you have to pay for the privilege, with the price starting at $2,399.

The MacBook Air comes with an 8th-generation 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 Y-series processor that boosts to 3.6GHz. This chip runs 5 watts lower than the previous version, helping to save power and keep the Air cool. However, our tests found it was still a bit sluggish for more demanding tasks like watching videos on a secondary 4K monitor. The two cores on board the Intel processor in the MacBook Air simply aren’t meant for doing too many things at once.

Portability

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

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 0.61 inches thick and 11.97 inches wide. That makes the MacBook Air the thinner and lighter option for traveling, although you should make sure you find a case that fits.

As for the battery life across the two models, the 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. Apple is promising the 16-inch MacBook Pro can last for 11 hours of web browsing or video streaming. With the MacBook Air, Apple promises up to 12 hours of wireless web browsing and up to 13 hours of iTunes movie playback. In our testing, we got to 8 hours of light web browsing, and 10 hours of video playback. This is a little better than the Pro and arguably the best battery life of any available MacBook, but still fails to meet the stated specs.

Keep in mind that one of the changes Apple made to the 2018 MacBook Air was a battery that’s easier to replace, although you will still want to take it into the Apple Store for the process. In the long term, this may give the Air a bit more longevity if you find that the battery is dying.

The Pro’s update makes it your best option

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Now that Apple has given the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro a significant update, it’s an enticing option compared to the MacBook Air. Between the $1,299 MacBook Air and the $1,299 MacBook Pro, we’d have to go for the Pro. You get a much more powerful quad-core chip (compared to the Air’s dual-core offering) and the Touch Bar built in. Although the Air is a little thinner and lighter, we feel the entry-level Pro represents better value for your money.

Unsurprisingly given its name, the Pro offers much more in the way of more powerful upgrades than the Air. You can equip it with an eight-core 9th-gen Intel i9 processor and beefy Radeon Pro graphics card if you need to, but be prepared to pay a pretty penny — prices for this model start at $2,799.

If you want to save as much money as you can, the entry-level Air might be worth considering. It starts at $1,099 and has the best battery life of any MacBook, but misses out on the Pro’s Touch Bar, P3 display, quad-core processor and better integrated graphics. If you can afford the $200 jump up to the base Pro, we recommend it.

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