If you’re trying to decide between the brand new Apple Silicon M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, if you want to know if you can save a few bucks by going Air or what you’ll get if you go Pro, or if you just want to really understand what the differences really are, then wow but this is for you.
Yes, I’m fully aware the finish on your MacBook may not be the most important thing to you but, if it is, you can make your decision super quickly. Because while both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro come in the traditional bead blasted silver and space gray aluminum, only the MacBook Air comes in gold. Pros are just way, way to serious for gold.
So if you want to match your gold watch or phone or whatever, you’ll have to go Air.
If silver or gray are more your thing, well, let’s keep going.
The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are both exactly the same size… if you’re looking at them from the top down. Yeah, staring them right in the logo. X axis, Y axis, both the same. When closed though, the z-axis, the amount they stick up off the table, is slightly different.
Mostly, because the MacBook Air is a wedge that tapers down towards the front where the MacBook Pro is uniform and stays the same. That makes the Air very slightly higher at the back by like 0.02 inches, but much thinner at the front, by 0.45 inches. It’s not a blade, not anything Kratos would lob at you, but it’s a wedge.
The Air is also slightly lighter. A whopping 0.2 pounds lighter.
And, honestly, it’s nothing I’ve actually noticed on the identical Intel models over the last few years. The Air’s Shape is cooler looking and more aerodynamic… for Kratos… but they feel about the same if and when you’re lugging them around.
Now, here, previously I would have urged any photographers or videographers or just… you know.. fans of wide color to go Pro instead of Air, but with the new M1 models, Apple’s given the Air’s display an upgrade. It’s gone from sRGB standard gamut to P3 wide gamut, which means the richer reds and deeper greens you see in the more cinematic color space.
So, that’s the same as the Pro now, as is the 13.3-inch diagonal size, the Retina high density, and the True Tone technology that tries to match the ambient color temperature so the whites on your screen don’t look too blue or too yellow but more properly paper white.
Where they differ is that the Air only goes up to 400 nits of brightness and the Pro goes 20% higher, to 500 nits. So that’ll look better for playing games, watching videos, reading when in brighter, especially outdoor light.
If you want or need it, you’ll want or need the MacBook Pro.
Bye bye Intel, hello custom Apple Silicon. That’s the story here and of the new MacBooks in general. The new M1.
Think of it like an A14, the system-on-a-chip introduced with the iPad Air 4 and iPhone 12, but an A14X-style variant, the kind we may find in the next iPad Pro, along with some specific IP for things like hypervisor and emulation acceleration. You know, Mac stuff.
And both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have it. Four icestorm efficiency cores. Four firestorm performance cores. 16 Apple neural engine cores. And 8 graphics cores.
Well, mostly 8. Mostly. You can save a few bucks and get a MacBook Air with only 7 GPU cores instead. It’s the same GPU, it just tested out with 7 working cores instead of 8, so instead of throwing them away, hurting yields and increasing costs, Apple is using for the lower cost Air instead. It’s similar to what Apple did with the 7-core A12X in the 2018 iPad Pro and 8-core A12Z in the 2020 iPad Pro. Apple’s just not putting different suffixes on them.
So, one difference is that you can get an Air with 7 GPU cores or 8 GPU cores. The Pro only comes with the 8 GPU core version.
The other difference is that the Air has no fan, no active cooling. So, like an iPad Pro, it’s whisper quiet. Better, it’s dead quiet. But that means, if it’s doing a lot of multicore or sustained workloads, like gaming for a long time or rendering a long video, the only way it can reduce heat is ramp down the processor. So, it’ll burst to the same performance level as the Pro, but can’t sustain them as long.
Conversely, the Pro has active cooling, so it can sustain performance racing, even multicore performance, for much, much longer. Not indefinitely like the new M1 Mac mini, but much, much longer.
But even ramped down, an Air is still going to smoke 90% or more of the other chipsets on the market.
Both have the same Wi-Fi 6 built in, and Bluetooth 5.0. And both have two Thunderbolt 3 / USB 4 ports. Just think of USB 4 as USB-C that supersets Thunderbolt 3.
Why only two? Because the M1 chip only has 2 Thunderbolt lanes on it. Maybe a future M1X chip for beefier MacBooks Pro, Mac mini Pro, and iMacs will have more.
Both have the same SSD options, from 256 GB to 1 TB. And both come with 8 GB or 16 GB of unified memory — RAM — on the chip. That means the CPU, GPU, and everyone else shares the same memory pool, reducing latency.
Apple’s using a version of LPDDR4, or low power memory, which maxes out at 16 GB on the M1. Again, maybe an M1X will go higher, even if it has to use less power efficient memory to do it.
Since both these machines are the ultra-light end of Apple’s lineup, and have historically maxed out at 2 Thunderbolt ports and 16 GB of memory, and since the Air now has 2x SSD speeds like the Pro, the swap will likely be so fast for many tasks you really won’t notice.
If you think you will, you’ll want to hold out for a higher end Pro.
Otherwise, if like a parent, all you want is quiet, you’ll want the Air. If you do heavier workloads and need longer sustained performance, you’ll wan the Pro.
While the performance levels of M1 are impressive, the battery life is… most impressive. You ready for this?
The Air, in it’s sleeker, wedge-shaped chassis, will get you up to 15 hours of web surfing and 18 hours of TV app video playback.
The Pro, with its bigger battery, will get you up to 17 hours of web and 20 hours of video.
Yeah, he’s not staring at the benchmarks, he’s staring at the battery indicator.
So, here, you just have to decide which ridiculously long battery life you want, but if you are doing those heavier Pro workloads, you’ll absolutely benefit from the longer Pro battery.
Both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have the same teeny, tiny 720 megapixel FaceTime camera, but both use the image signal processor in the M1 — same as the A14 that powers the iPhone 12 — to make the best of that tiny situation.
They’re not optically great, but they’re the same.
The speakers and mics are different, though. Where the Air has wide stereo speakers, the Pro speakers have high dynamic range. That means both can project a sound stage around you, but the Pro’s will be full and crisper.
The Air also has a 3-mic array with beam forming, but the Pro has what Apple calls a studio quality mic. Basically, that just means it sounds closer to a USB mic and if you ever need to record a podcast or interview and you’ve forgotten your fancy mic, this can see you through in a pinch.
So, if you want better sound, in and out, you want the MacBook Pro.
It’s magic keyboards with scissor switches all around for both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. That’s right, no more butterflies.
They both also have Touch ID on the power button for authenticating everything from wake-from-sleep to Apple Pay. And they both have escape keys.
The big, big difference here is that the Air has a row of function slash media keys up top where the MacBook Pro has the OLED Touch Bar screen, which tries to surface controls and shortcuts in a more visual, discoverable way.
If you hate it, as some do, the Air is here for you. If you love it, the Pro is all yours.
The MacBook Air starts at $999 for the 7-GPU model and 256GB of SSD, or $1249 for the 8-GPU model that also includes 512 GB of SSD.
The MacBook Pro starts at just $50 more, or $1299 for the 256GB model, but with 8 GPU.
But really, it comes down to just a few things:
If you want a quiet ultralight laptop with function keys and don’t really care about sustained speeds for ultra heavy workloads, or you’re just fixated on gold, save yourself some money and go for the MacBook Air.
If you’re willing to have a fan, and willing or even interested in having a Touch Bar, want sustained speeds for heavy workloads, and don’t care a with about gold, go for the MacBook Pro.
And if you want more RAM, bigger screens, or more ports, wait for the next round of Apple Silicon MacBooks.