Two months ago, Apple launched an updated MacBook Air. This week, Apple launched an updated 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Hit subscribe to see my takes on both of them, but one of the questions I got quickest and hardest was this — which one should people get?
Because, thanks to some quirks of Apple, the higher end MacBook Air now seems to have a really big overlap with the lower end MacBook Pro.
But these smaller laptops are hiding some bigger differences than might first meet the eye.
The MacBook Air’s design was last updated in 2018. It’s more modern now, with black around the bezels, but it’s still that wedge-shaped design that inspired a generation of ultrabooks.
The MacBook Pro’s design was last updated in 2016. The black bezels are the same but the body is less wedge and more squared off.
The thinnest point on the MacBook Air is thinner than the MacBook Pro but the thickest point is ever so slightly thicker. The rest of the sizes are the same though, but the Air is about 0.3 lbs lighter at that size.
All of them are available in silver and space gray but only the Air gets the coppery gold option, because coppery gold is just nowhere near serious enough for pros.
There are two Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports on the left hand side of both the Air and the lower-end Pro. If you want a full compliment of four, you’ll have to move up to the higher-end Pros.
And yeah, I would still dramatically prefer one port on each side.
The MacBook Pro is supposed to have high dynamic range stereo speakers to the Air’s simple stereo, but I’m not sure how much of an actual difference that is. Both support wide sound and Dolby Atmos, and both have 3-mic arrays with directional beam-forming and 3.5mm headphone jacks.
Yeah, that’s where they all went.
So, if saving a little bit of weight is a huge priority for you, go with the MacBook Air.
If you absolutely need high dynamic range on your speakers, go with the MacBook Pro.
Physically, both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have 13.3-inch IPS LCD displays. They’re Retina density, which means an average person shouldn’t be able to discern individual pixels from an average viewing distance, and True Tone, which means they can detect ambient color temperature and adjust so whites look not too blue, not too yellow, but paper white.
And both of them still have way too much bezel for 2020.
Technologically, though, there are some big differences between the two.
First, the MacBook Pro can go 20% brighter. 500 nits compared to the MacBook Air’s 400 nits.
Sadly, both have terrible-not-very-good-actually-worse-than-a-potato 720p webcams. I’ve been complaining about them for years. Bottom line, I expect better from the company that makes the iPhone camera. Even if, yes, it requires a notch or a bump. Come at me in the comments!
Second, the MacBook Pro uses the wider, Digital Cinema P3 color gamut, as opposed to the MacBook Air’s sRGB. That means the Pro can show richer reds and deeper greens.
So, if you’re a photographer, videographer, or just love you some colors, you’re going to want the MacBook Pro.
Now, the processor part is where it gets complicated.
The MacBook Air starts with a 10th generation 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 and goes up to a 1.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7.
The MacBook Pro starts with an 8th generation 1.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 and goes up to a 1.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i7.
That with Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz on the Air and 4.5GHz on the Pro. But with the way Turbo Boost works these days, consider it frosting, never cake.
So, to boil this all down, given the differences not just in processors but in thermals, the higher-end MacBook Air should feel snappier with everything launching and loading faster. The lower-end MacBook Pro, though, should be able to sustain continuous tasks for a bit longer.
The Air, however, has the latest Intel Iris Plus Graphics where the lower-end Pro has the older Intel Irish 645.
That means graphics performance should be markedly better on the air, with more execution units and even things like display stream compression, so it can drive a 6K Pro Display XDR, where the low-end MacBook Pro simply can’t.
For the 10th gen processors and more modern graphics on the Pro, you’ll have to move up to the higher end, more expensive version.
Where there’s no difference between the two is WiFi. Apple seems to be skipping 802.11ax WiFi 6 on the Mac completely, at least so far.
Drop a like below if you want to tell Apple to hurry up with the WiFi, I don’t know, 6s… 6 Plus already.
The T2 chip is also the same. Same Touch ID, same camera and mic security, same real-time encryption, same accelerators for the stuff Intel just isn’t as good at.
Also, the Air promises up to 11 hours of battery life for light workloads where the Pro taps out at 10. For heavier loads, both will likely get you half that at best. But half of more is still more.
So, if you mostly launch apps, load web pages, and do other short, intensive tasks, you’ll probably appreciate the snappiness of the MacBook Air and the extra hour of battery life.
If you mostly render bigger audio and video files, or run longer complies, you’ll probably appreciate the longer sustained performance of the MacBook Pro.
Storage and memory
Apple’s recently been doubling the storage of their Macs while keeping the prices the same. Which is great.
And which is why both the MacBook Air and lower-end MacBook Pro now start at 256 GB of ultra-fast SSD, and both step up all the way to 2TB if you want to keep more and bigger files locally on your device.
The higher-end MacBook Pro will even take you to 4TB now.
For memory, both start at 8GB and go to 16GB.
Again, the higher-end MacBook Pro will take you all the way to 32GB now.
Pretty much a draw right here.
My guess as to why both the 2020 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro skew so closely to the previous models is that Apple just wanted to get the Magic Keyboards into them as fast as engineeringly possible, and every other bit of update was just whatever-else-could-be-crammed-in-there-given-the-resources-available gravy.
But, the end result is that both now have the new, scissor switch, magic keyboards. And, I don’t care if you preferred the old scissor switches or the previous butterfly switches, the new Magic Keyboard is just the best compromise between the two. More clickety-clack, less stuttery-stuck, and I’m calling that a win. You let me know you’re favorite in the comments.
But, especially with the physical escape keys and inverted-T arrow keys now being available on both, I think it’s great.
Pretty much the only difference between the two, and it’s a big one, is that the MacBook Air has a traditional function and media key row between escape and Touch ID, and the MacBook Pro having Apple’s Touch Bar.
And, yeah, still the same Touch Bar. No updates, certainly not haptics, that I can see.
So, if you like your good, old fashioned function and media keys, go with the MacBook Air.
If you see the Touch Bar as a plus and not a minus, go with the MacBook Pro.
The new MacBook Air starts at $999 U.S. for the 10th gen core i3 and maxes out at $2,249 for the i7, 16GB, 2TB model. The low end MacBook Pro starts at $1299 for the 8th gen core i5 and maxes out at $2,499 for the i7, 16GB, 2TB model. And that’s with the better display and Touch Bar.
So, if you want a lighter, snappier MacBook Pro to travel around with, even if it’s not between cities and coffee shops but just around the house, get the MacBook Air. I still like and recommend the i5.
If you want a brighter, wider gamut display, that’s just a bit beefier for just a bit bigger loads, get the MacBook Pro. I’d recommend the i5 there as well, unless you know you want more burst.
I’d also bump the RAM if you can, and maybe the SSD if you know you’re going to be keeping a lot of big files locally.