A MacBook user using keyboard shortcuts to copy and paste text on Mac
Dedi Grigoroiu/Shutterstock.com

So you want to buy a MacBook, but you’re not sure whether to go Air or Pro. The most important question to ask yourself is: do you need extra power, or is portability more important to you?

The MacBook Pro Is (Generally) More Powerful

If you need more power for more demanding tasks like video editing, 3D rendering, and data analysis, consider the MacBook Pro. Though the base 13-inch MacBook Pro has the same M1 chips as the MacBook Air, it also has an active cooling solution which means it can remain under load for longer.

But if you want more CPU and GPU cores, for better multi-tasking and performance in multi-threaded apps, the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models are for you. They feature the upgraded M1 Pro (10-core GPU, 16-core GPU) and M1 Max (10-core CPU and 32-core GPU) chips, and you can opt for even more powerful extras at checkout.

The Apple M1 Pro Chip Specs
Apple

These improved M1 Pro and M1 Max chips include dedicated video decode and encode engines, a ProRes encode and decode engine, hardware-accelerated H.264, and HEVC capabilities. Higher memory bandwidth (200GB/sec on the M1 Pro, doubled on the M1 Max) provides the CPU with access to data in less time than the base M1 model.

The Apple M1 Max Chip Specs
Apple

Storage and RAM amounts will be limited on the best M1 MacBook Air models to 2TB and 16GB respectively. If you’ve got the cash, you can splash for an 8TB SSD and 64GB of RAM on the highest-spec MacBook Pro. The 14-inch and 16-inch models also feature more Thunderbolt lanes for better connectivity.

This performance comes at a cost though, and that’s power consumption. The highest-spec MacBook Pro ship with power adapters that gulp down 140w of power, with 96w and 67w models also available. By comparison, the MacBook Air can only draw up to 30w. If you’ve got a monitor with USB-PD (Power Delivery) that you want to use to power your laptop, keep this in mind.

The MacBook Air Is Smaller and More Portable

The clue’s in the name: the MacBook Air is lighter and more portable than its MacBook Pro counterpart. It’s also wedge-shaped, which means it’s probably the most comfortable laptop form factor that Apple makes in terms of typing and general use.

The MacBook Pro takes on the traditional laptop “chunk” form factor. This means there’s more room for additional Thunderbolt ports, as well as an SD card slot and HDMI output on the 14-inch and 16-inch models.

M1 MacBook Air (2020)
Apple

At the time of writing, the MacBook Air is limited to the 13-inch form factor, while the MacBook Pro is available in 13-inch, 14-inch, and 16-inch sizes. A larger chassis means there’s more space for a roomier keyboard, a better bass response from the internal speakers (which shine on all models), and a larger trackpad for desktop navigation and gestures.

Weight is also a factor, with a 13-inch MacBook Pro weighing only 2.8 lb (1.29 kg), while a 14-inch MacBook Pro weighs 3.5 lb (1.6 kg) and the 16-inch model weighs 4.7 lb (2.1 kg). This weight makes the MacBook Pro feel solid and hefty, which may be a desirable quality depending on your expectations.

The MacBook Pro Is More Expensive

Since the MacBook Pro is a more powerful machine, it will cost you more than a MacBook Air. There’s more aluminum used in the construction, a better display, and an active cooling solution to push the price up on the MacBook Pro side of things.

To break it down, the cheapest 13-inch MacBook Pro is $1,299 while the MacBook Air starts at $999. Both of these machines feature the same M1 chip, but the MacBook Air uses passive cooling. More powerful MacBook Pro models feature 512GB of base storage and more capable M1 Pro chips, starting at $1,999.

16-inch and 14-inch MacBook Pro
Apple

If you max out a MacBook Air you’ll pay $2,049 for 2TB of storage and 16GB of RAM, while a MacBook Pro with all the trimmings will set you back $6,099 for 8TB of storage and a whopping 64GB of RAM. This should give you some idea of which section of the market the MacBook Pro is aimed at since it can be a complete mobile desktop replacement for those who need that sort of power.

Whether you need all that grunt is up to you to decide. There may be a more cost-effective solution if you need a powerful Mac by opting for a Mac Studio with M1 Max chip for $1,999, then picking up a base MacBook Air for when you’re away from your desk (or even an iPad, if you can get away with it).

This sort of setup might suit you if you already have a multiple monitor setup at home and a set of peripherals you can use, particularly if you get most of your work done at the same desk. It also unlocks the potentially much more powerful M1 Ultra chip as an option, if you have the cash to splash.

A Few Other Differences

The 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models come with some of the best displays that have ever graced a laptop, with an HDR peak brightness of around 1600 nits. The laptop operates at around 500 nits under standard desktop conditions, which is more than enough for most conditions. It also has full-array local dimming, on account of its mini-LED backlighting solution.

It also features one of Apple’s more divisive design decisions: the notch. There’s a small rectangle in the top middle of the screen that has been cut out to house the webcam and ambient light sensor, though you can hide it with the right software hacks.

M1 MacBook Pro 13" compared with M1 Pro/M1 Max MacBook Pro 14"
Apple

Inside the notch is an upgraded 1080p webcam, which provides a good jump in quality over the previous 720p model (the same one that Apple uses in the MacBook Air). They also feature the next generation of Apple’s much-loved MagSafe power adapter, which attaches with a magnet so that tripping over your power cord won’t result in your laptop crashing to the floor.

You don’t have to use MagSafe all of the time either and can charge over USB-C if you’d rather (which is how the MacBook Air charges normally). While there are only two of these ports on the MacBook Air, there are at least three on the 14-inch MacBook Pro and four on the 16-inch model, plus the SDXC reader and an HDMI output that you won’t find on the Air.

Perhaps the least significant difference of all is the fact that the Air also comes in gold, while the Pro is limited to Apple’s staples of Space Grey and Silver.

Updated Models Will Arrive Soon

The MacBook Air was one of Apple’s first laptops to receive the Apple Silicon treatment way back in 2020 with the release of the ARM-based M1 chip. This makes it the hottest contender for the M2 treatment.

The M2 will be an evolution of the M1, with potentially more cores, more Thunderbolt lanes (and thus more ports), and other iterative enhancements over the original Apple Silicon chip.

If you can’t wait to make your purchase, though, you can learn more about which you should pick by checking out our MacBook recommendations.

The Best MacBooks of 2022

Best MacBook Overall
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M1 Pro, 2021)
Best Budget Option
2020 Apple MacBook Air Laptop: Apple M1 Chip, 13” Retin...
Best for Students
2020 Apple MacBook Air Laptop: Apple M1 Chip, 13” Retin...
Best MacBook for Gaming
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M1 Pro, 2021)
Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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