Between the powerful Apple MacBook Pro, available in multiple screen sizes, and the slim, efficient MacBook Air, there are only two Mac laptop families (unless you go looking at refurbished, used, or older-gen models like the MacBook). But they’re both excellent ones. With similar specs and exterior styling across both the Air and the Pro, deciding which one is best for you largely comes down to which size screen you need and how much processing power your typical computing tasks require.
Picking between the two families is the easy part. Getting down to the nitty gritty within each family is trickier, though. We’ll walk you through all of your MacBook options to help you make sense of all the different CPU, memory, storage, and other component options that Apple offers.
The MacBook Air: The More Portable Pick
Apple’s smallest laptop is the MacBook Air. It’s a slim, sleek machine that measures 0.63 inch at its thickest point and weighs just 2.8 pounds. The MacBook Air is also Apple’s cheapest laptop, starting at $899 for students and teachers or $999 for the general public. The cheapest and most portable entry point into the macOS ecosystem obviously has enormous appeal.
A low price doesn’t mean the MacBook Air’s screen is low quality, though. Despite the fact that it’s not the highest-resolution 13-inch display you can buy, the LED-backlit panel impresses with its brightness and clarity. The native resolution is 2,560 by 1,600 pixels. The display uses in-plane switching (IPS) technology, which means that the remarkable picture you see while sitting in front of it doesn’t degrade much if you turn it to show a colleague what you’re working on. However, it doesn’t provide the wide P3 color gamut that you’ll get from the MacBook Pro screens, so it’s not the top choice if video/photo color correction or color matching are important to what you do.
The current (that is, the 2020) version of the MacBook Air sports the same Magic Keyboard you’ll find on the 16-inch MacBook Pro. It offers a far more comfortable typing experience than the 13-inch MacBook Pro does; see more on the keyboard differences below. If you plan to spend all day typing on your laptop and don’t need a lot of computing power, the MacBook Air is the best choice.
To fit everything into the small enclosure, Apple made a few sacrifices in terms of the MacBook Air’s connectivity and power. The most limiting factor is the pair of USB Type-C ports, which handle pretty much every connection apart from audio output, from recharging the battery to connecting an external display or hard drive. You may well need to buy a third-party expansion dock with additional ports if you choose the MacBook Air.
Inside the laptop, there’s a choice of Intel Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7 processors from the chip giant’s latest 10th generation. These cutting-edge chips are lower-powered versions of the ones in larger laptops, including the MacBook Pro. They’re fine for tasks like watching web videos and editing text documents, but could struggle with multitasking, and will certainly balk at demanding requests like transcoding video files or applying filters in Adobe Photoshop. In addition to the three processor choices, you can also spend some extra money to increase the memory (up to 16GB) and storage capacities (up to a 2TB SSD).
The MacBook Air is an ideal travel companion, and given its sleek styling and Apple’s cachet, a bit of a status symbol to boot. But since you’ll spend at least $1,000 on it, you’ll want to make sure to look at the other, larger Apple portables that offer more connectivity and a lot more power.
The MacBook Air vs. the MacBook Pro
The closest Apple alternative to the MacBook Air is the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, which tips the scales at 3.02 pounds. In return for a slightly higher starting price ($1,299) and a bit of extra weight, the entry-level MacBook Pro offers a more powerful Core i5 processor. In fact, every processor available on the 13-inch version of the MacBook Pro is more powerful than the equivalent CPU on the MacBook Air, in part because the MacBook Air’s CPUs consume a maximum of 10 watts of power in order to generate less heat and help the battery last longer. The 13-inch MacBook Pro’s CPUs are rated for a maximum of 15 watts of power.
On the other hand, the base model of the 13-inch MacBook Pro has just two USB Type-C ports and a 128GB SSD, a paltry amount of storage that you’ll quickly outgrow if you have much of a photo library or a modest collection of digital movies. You can configure the MacBook Pro with four USB ports and higher storage capacities.
Computing specs aside, the physical features of the 13-inch MacBook Pro aren’t terribly different from those of the MacBook Air, with the key exception of an inferior keyboard. The 13-inch MacBook Pro employs ultra-low-profile key switches with underlying mechanisms that extend and retract like a butterfly flapping its wings. The keys feel quite flat, much more so than almost any others on the market, and the feel is a unique and polarizing issue. Some praise the stability and satisfyingly deep clicking sound that the keys make, while others lament the extremely shallow travel and impact on their fingers.
Nevertheless, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is the model we think that most consumers should buy to use as their everyday workhorse, and as such it is our current Editors’ Choice award winner for best mainstream Mac laptop. If you’d like to give up a bit of weight and processing power in exchange for a lighter laptop, though, the Air is a fine choice. It’s an even better one if typing comfort is your primary concern.
Touch Bar, But No Touching
There’s a unique aspect to the MacBook Pro models that you must consider if the “Pro” part of the name applies to you: the Touch Bar. This is a long, thin, touch-enabled OLED screen that comes mounted forward of the MacBook Pro’s keyboard. The Touch Bar is unique to Apple and highly specialized. It’s Apple’s answer to touch gestures in Windows 10, and it’s most useful in professional apps like the Adobe Creative Suite and Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, which let you use the Touch Bar to scrub through a video timeline, switch tool selections, and much more. This feature is not available on the MacBook Air.
The Touch Bar is not a substitute for the touch screens that you’ll find on many Windows ultraportables, however. You cannot use it to interact with basic screen elements like the menu buttons on websites, nor can you use it to draw on the screen. An Apple iPad or a Windows laptop is your best alternative for these tasks. Fortunately, the trackpads on all Apple laptops are excellent, with oversize glass surfaces and virtual “haptic” feedback instead of a physical click mechanism.
If you are a multimedia professional who might benefit from the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, you’ll need to consider whether you want the 13-inch or the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The factors to consider here are more than just the three extra screen inches, which help push the 16-incher’s weight above 4 pounds. You also need to decide whether you need the extra horsepower that a discrete GPU and an optional Intel Core i9 CPU can provide. If you’re a video or photo editor, you’ll want to strongly consider the 16-inch model with an AMD Radeon Pro graphics card, which can speed up editing tasks even though it’s not powerful enough for high-end gaming. The 13-inch Pro model only comes with Intel integrated graphics.
Investing in the Future
Apple laptops once had user-replaceable components, allowing owners to replace their hard drives with SSDs and add more memory as computing needs evolved. No more. Such improvements are impossible with current Apple laptops; all of their chassis are sealed shut. It’s too bad that Apple has turned a cold shoulder toward tinkerers, forcing people who want to future-proof their laptops to spend a lot of money maxing out the specs at purchase time instead of upgrading later when the prices of components come down or new needs arise.
Still, there’s no denying that Apple laptops are highly innovative, influential machines. You can see it in the many MacBook-inspired designs among the legions of clones in the laptop aisles at your local Best Buy, Fry’s, or MicroCenter. Browse the alternatives, by all means, but rest assured that you made a good choice if your laptop-shopping excursion ends by carrying a white plastic bag out of an Apple Store.
If you’re not sure if a MacBook Air or Pro is your thing, also take a look at our roundup of the best laptops overall.
Pros: Thin, light, and stylish. Excellent trackpad. Long battery life. Brilliant display. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Cons: Relatively expensive, even in starting config. Limited connectivity for peripherals in lower-end models. Polarizing keyboard lacks vertical travel.
Bottom Line: The 13-inch MacBook Pro is Apple’s best ultraportable laptop, thanks to stylish looks, an excellent touchpad, and long battery life.
Pros: Excellent Retina Display, now larger and with slimmer bezels. Revamped keyboard. Comfortable, XL-size touchpad. Superb audio quality. Powerful Intel Core i9 and AMD Radeon Pro 5500M. Long battery life. SSD storage options up to 8TB.
Cons: Lacks microSD slot, USB Type-A ports. As ever, no touch-screen option. Expensive as configured.
Bottom Line: With a larger display, a beefier graphics chip, and (vitally and finally!) an improved keyboard, Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro is a beyond-capable big-screen powerhouse built for creatives.
Pros: Improved keyboard action and feel. Sleek, lightweight design. Multiple color options. Long battery life. Reasonably priced, for a Mac.
Cons: As ever, no touch screen. Limited port selection. Lackluster raw computing performance. No support for Wi-Fi 6.
Bottom Line: If you’re a macOS fan who primarily uses a laptop to write and browse the web, the 2020 Apple MacBook Air’s redesigned keyboard and lower price make it easy to recommend.