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MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro

Both the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro 13 have received updates in 2020 — so which one should you get? 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.

MacBook Air:

MacBook Pro:

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.

Design

MacBook Air 2020
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

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. While the display on the MacBook Air is decent, it doesn’t get as bright or impressive as the MacBook Pro’a. It only manages a total brightness of 389 nits — while better than the 291 nits of the previous version, it still lags significantly behind the MacBook Pro’s 500 nits. The color accuracy comes in at high levels, but again, the MacBook Pro will be a better option for photographers and graphic designers.

For the 2020 MacBook Air, 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 MacBook Pro 13-inch refresh has seen the same change.  The large, clickable trackpad shared by both is perfect for selecting text, dragging windows, or using multitouch gestures. The build quality remains excellent — a typical strength for Apple.

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 the 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.

Performance

MacBook Air 2020 display
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The specs under the hood and the pricing on the MacBook Air point to big differences between it and the MacBook Pro. Although the MacBook Pro 13 was recently upgraded to 10th-generation Intel processors, only the two high-end models actually get this newer chip; the two entry-level MacBook Pro 13 models are still stuck on 8th-generation Intel processors, with prices starting 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.

However, in our review of the MacBook Air, we actually found its quad-core i5 to be a little disappointing. While it offers double the cores of the i3 CPU in the entry-level MacBook Air, it only gives you around 27% extra performance in multi-core tasks and a mere 8% boost in single-core workloads. That’s due to the low 9-watt power draw of these chips, which leads to performance limitations. If you want power, the MacBook Pro is your best bet, despite its older processor. And if you’re willing to spend a little more, the high-end MacBook Pro 13 models will get you even better performance.

Another notable difference is memory. 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. As with processors, the entry-level MacBook Pros get something of a raw deal, relying on older LPDDR3 memory clocked at 2,133MHz, while the high-end MacBook Pro 13 versions get faster 3,733MHz LPDDR4X RAM. Just be aware of that difference if you’re leaning toward the MacBook Pro, and don’t forget to fork out for the faster memory if you need it.

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 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.

Portability

MacBook Air 2020 ports
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The MacBook Pro comes in at 0.61 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 (very) slightly thicker than the MacBook Pro, but it’s lighter at 2.8 pounds versus the MacBook Pro’s 3.1 pounds. 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 2020 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.

In comparison, the MacBook Air managed around 9 hours 30 minutes in light web browsing, 10 hours of video playback, and 3 hours when running more intensive tasks. An average day, comprising numerous Chrome tabs, web apps, Slack, and Spotify, got around 6 hours of battery life. Overall, that’s a bit better than the MacBook Pro. While the video playback performance was around the same, the MacBook Air surged ahead when it came to web browsing. It offers the best battery life of any MacBook.

Still, it’s less than Apple’s claims of 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.

The MacBook Air is your best option

MacBook Air 2020 keyboard
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

After updating the 13-inch MacBook Pro and refreshing the MacBook Air in early 2020, picking one over the other is a hard choice given the similar prices.

There are a couple of noticeable areas that set the two apart, though. The MacBook Pro’s superior display and performance make it much better-suited to pro-level tasks such as video production and photo editing, where a color-accurate screen and low rendering times are important. If that sounds like a familiar workload to you, the MacBook Pro should be your Apple laptop of choice.

For everyone else, the MacBook Air is likely to be your best bet. While the 2020 update to the MacBook Pro leveled the playing field in some respects — bringing the Magic Keyboard, doubling the storage, and introducing newer processors and faster RAM — not every MacBook Pro 13 actually got these improvements. While you can get a MacBook Air with all of these features for as little as $999, you need to shell out at least $1,799 if you want all four on the MacBook Pro 13. That’s a big difference.

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 ninth-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 in the base model.

MacBook Air:

MacBook Pro:

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