Apple Silicon MacBook Air versus 13-inch MacBook Pro - which to buy

Posted:
in General Discussion edited May 26
The latest versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are more similar than ever before, with small yet crucial differences between the two that will change which is the right one for you.

Top: the new MacBook Air. Bottom: the new 13-inch MacBook Pro
Top: the new MacBook Air. Bottom: the new 13-inch MacBook Pro


When Apple introduced the new MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro with Apple Silicon M1, they belabored every detail of exactly how these machines differed -- from their previous versions. They didn't compare the two new models at all.

This neglecting to compare two or more incredibly similar devices is becoming a habit with Apple, too. It's how the fact that Apple put 5G, the same processor, and the same screen technology into the entire iPhone 12 range is great, but makes choosing confusing.






It's also how it took a time to grasp what the practical choices were between the early 2020 MacBook Air and mid-2020 13-inch MacBook Pro. In that case, though, it became clear that there were really three machines -- the MacBook Air, plus a low-end MacBook Pro, and a high-end one.

That low-end MacBook Pro didn't offer a great deal more than the MacBook Air. So your choice was really the much clearer one between that MacBook Air and the higher-end MacBook Pro. As well as an obvious cost difference, there were benefits to both machines. Retina Display13.3-inch13.3-inch
MacBook Air M113-inch MacBook Pro M1
Starting Price$999
Lowest MacBook Air prices
$1,299
Lowest MacBook Pro prices
ProcessorM1 with 7-core GPUM1 with 8-core GPU
Resolution2560 by 16002560 by 1600
Brightness400 nits500 nits
Base RAM8GB8GB
Maximum RAM16GB16GB
Base storage (SSD)256GB256GB
Maximum storage (SSD)2TB2TB
Battery lifeUp to 15 hours web, 18 hours videoUp to 17 hours web, 20 hours video
PortsTwo Thunderbolt/USB 4Two Thunderbolt/USB 4
Touch IDYesYes
Touch BarNoYes
Camera720p FaceTime HD720p FaceTime HD
Wi-Fi802.11x Wi-Fi 6802.11x Wi-Fi 6
Bluetooth5.05.0
AudioStereo speakers, wide stereo, Dolby Atmos, three-mic array with directional beamforming Stereo speakers, wide stereo, Dolby Atmos, studio-quality three-mic array with directional beamforming
CoolingPassiveFan

Apple Silicon brings confusion

Now with the introduction of the Apple Silicon M1 versions of these machines, it's like Apple has removed the higher-end 13-inch MacBook Pro. Instead, it's ramped up the performance of the MacBook Air, and slightly ramped up that of the MacBook Pro.

Given that the MacBook Air starts at $999, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro at $1,299, you don't want to make the wrong choice. That $300 difference, for example, could max out the RAM on the MacBook Air.

And the majority of details between the two machines are the same. Both new Apple Silicon M1-based laptops have the same 13.3-inch screen, for instance, although the MacBook Pro one is brighter at 500 nits compared to 400 nits for the MacBook Air.

That brightness difference is not one you're likely to easily see unless you have the two machines side by side. However, it could make a difference in bright sunlight.

Next, they use the 8-core M1, have up to 16GB RAM, and up to 2TB of storage. They can have an 8-core GPU, though the MacBook Air starts with a 7-core one.

One of the M1 benefits is the ability to use iOS and iPadOS apps in macOS for the first time.
One of the M1 benefits is the ability to use iOS and iPadOS apps in macOS for the first time.


Both machines then have Touch ID, though the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Apple Silicon M1 also includes the Touch Bar. The new MacBook Air gets a quoted 18 hours of battery life, while the new MacBook Pro gets 20 hours.




Small but significant differences

None of these small differences between the machines is likely to be enough to make it worth buying the more expensive model. With any one of these small differences, then, the best buy would be the new MacBook Air.

It's when more than one of the small differences matter to you. And it's when you start looking at the costs of those differences that you can really see what is best value for you.

For instance, to get the same 8-core GPU version of Apple Silicon M1 in the MacBook Air that you do in the MacBook Pro, it will add $250 to your budget. With most of the specifications, you can pick the $999 model and use Build To Order to bump up the parts you want, but not in this case.

Instead, specifically to get the 8-core version, you have to remember to choose the model that starts at $1,249. That model does have 512GB as well as the GPU, though.

The MacBook Air's 7-core GPU option may be a little less graphically powerful, but you could always go for the 8-core version.
The MacBook Air's 7-core GPU option may be a little less graphically powerful, but you could always go for the 8-core version.


You can increase the storage on either configuration, but the only other thing you can elect to change is the RAM. On both configurations of the MacBook Air, you can take the 8GB RAM up to the machine's maximum of 16GB RAM for $200.

It is safe to assume, though, that the 8-core GPU version is better than the 7-core version, but not necessarily by that much. Attempts to benchmark the 7-core version against the 8-core, with existing extensive testing showing that the extra core provides just a few extra percentage points more performance overall.

If you are in the market for a MacBook Air, it's safe to say that you're probably not going to use it for graphics-intensive workloads, so the 7-core debate may not be worth looking into. Add in that the M1 is miles ahead of other comparable Intel Macs in AppleInsider's group benchmarks, and the argument becomes quite moot.

That difference in cores, plus the different amounts of storage that come with the two configurations of the new MacBook Air muddy your choices hugely. But if you look at, say, an 8-core GPU with 8GB RAM and 512GB storage, then you can make a more useful comparison with the new MacBook Pro.

To get that configuration of specifications in the MacBook Air would cost you $1,249. To get it in a 13-inch MacBook Pro would cost you $1,499.

That's still a difference of $250, but it's closer than $300 that the base models vary by.

The case of the MacBook Air

There are different combinations of RAM and storage that you can consider, but all of the options leave you facing a difference from $250 to $300 between the MacBook Air and the new 13-inch MacBook Pro.

It's a significant difference and could easily mean that your choice to go for the lower-cost model is made for you simply through budget constraints. For once, though, that may not realistically mean sacrificing anything by not choosing the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The MacBook Air is still thin and wedge-like, making it highly portable compared to the MacBook Pro.
The MacBook Air is still thin and wedge-like, making it highly portable compared to the MacBook Pro.


On paper, the technical specifications remain close enough that the MacBook Air seems exceptional. There is one last difference, though, which if we cannot know it for sure until real-world testing, we have good reason to suspect it.

Previously, two things really held back the Intel MacBook Air and stopped it being a good choice for everyone. One was that it lacked a separate GPU, but to get one of those you had to buy the Intel 16-inch MacBook Pro.

Now the new MacBook Air and the new 13-inch MacBook Pro have a greatly-improved GPU, so it's likely that this issue is at least reduced.

The other was heat and how the thinner wedge-shape of the MacBook Air imposed certain limitations. The machine simply could not sustain a heavy workload, like rendering video, for long. It would quickly begin to heat up, and then it would throttle down the speed to keep it working.

In comparison, the Intel 13-inch MacBook Pro was better. And if it would still always be beaten by the better separate GPU in the 16-inch model, it was arguably the sweet spot between power and portability.

This has to be the same with the new Apple Silicon M1-based versions of these machines, because both the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro retain their old case designs. However, it may not really be that much of a factor.

In our review of the M1 MacBook Pro, running benchmarks repeatedly on the computer made it reach a peak surface temperature of 97F (36C), which is far below the 104F (40C) idle temperature and five-minutes-under-load temperature of 114F (46C) for the Core i9 MacBook Pro.

The Apple Silicon MacBook Pro was also found to be impressive in that it barely needed to turn on the fan at all during the benchmarks, since it remained cool throughout. Since the MacBook Air doesn't have this fan-based cooling facility, the theory is that it will find it hard to manage temperatures, but that becomes less of a problem given the processor runs cooler in the first place.

The MacBook Pro is thicker than the MacBook Air, but it has its own small advantages.
The MacBook Pro is thicker than the MacBook Air, but it has its own small advantages.


Apple did also go to some lengths to stress how much the M1 has increased performance while lowering power consumption. In the launch, Apple said the MacBook Air was better than it had been for video editing.

"For the first time, you can edit multiple streams of full-quality 4K ProRes video, without dropping a frame," said Laura Metz, a Mac product line manager.

Better is not the same as best, though, and while Apple stayed away from any comparison between its new laptops, it did suggest that the MacBook Pro retains significantly greater video performance.

"In fact, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro can do things that no other three-pound pro notebook can do," said Shruti Haldea, another Mac product line manager. "Like play back 8K ProRes footage in full quality in DaVinci Resolve, without dropping a single frame."

The MacBook Pro product name is ever-present when you're using the notebook.
The MacBook Pro product name is ever-present when you're using the notebook.

Making your choice

Curiously, even after all that the Apple Silicon M1 processor has brought to the Mac in power and performance, we still have to work through the same questions we did with the Intel versions of these new machines.

If you just need a portable Mac, buy the new MacBook Air with Apple Silicon M1, and be very pleased. This is gigantically better than the previous model -- and it's not as if the older Intel MacBook Air were a poor choice.

It's worth going for the $1,249 option, though. As well as getting you the full 8-core GPU, it gets you that 512GB storage -- which would otherwise bring the price up from $999 to $1,199.

Both will help you get your work done, but power users will still opt for the MacBook Pro.
Both will help you get your work done, but power users will still opt for the MacBook Pro.


What's different now is that you get a far more powerful machine for the price. And what that means for the future is that you're likely to keep the MacBook Air for longer -- especially if you spring for the maximum 16GB edition.

When you need more, such as if you regularly do a lot of video editing, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is going to remain the better choice. That is a closer call than ever before, but it's still a good call.



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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 21
    kpomkpom Posts: 655member
    One difference between the early 2020 Air and base MacBook Pro is that the latter could sustain high power longer because it used higher wattage chips. That could well be the case with the new models. I.e. both the new Air and Pro are using the M1 chips, but Apple might be allowing the M1 to run faster on the Pro (and certainly it will run at top speed longer because of the active cooling system vs. the passive cooling in the Air).

    That said, I opted for the Air and will test it next week when it arrives.
    dewmewatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 21
    In your chart comparing the two, you have the base storage for the MB Pro as 512, when the base is 256. So both the MB Air M1 and MB Pro M1 start at 256 storage space. 👍
    forgot usernameloquituroberpongololliverspock1234MplsPSamsonikkwatto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 21
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,906member
    Performance comparisons against some not-exactly-specified Intel platform when running some unspecified task don’t cut it. We’re supposed to continue evaluating our needs against some Intel thingy when trying to decide which M1 system to buy?
    How about Geekbench numbers, for example? Cinebench anyone?
    Does the M1 handle SSD encryption/decryption? How fast are the SSDs? Is there still a T2 (or newer) security chip like Intel Macs have?
    Hard to call anything “Pro”—or expect more than a year or two practical life—without a 32GB option, but I get how that’s part of the difficulty/limitations of SoC. That part sucks. It’s easy to see how failed chip fabrication trickles down the product line and the fewer choices the better in that regard for Apple.
    edited November 2020 MplsPjdb8167
  • Reply 4 of 21
    cpsro said:
    Performance comparisons against some not-exactly-specified Intel platform when running some unspecified task don’t cut it. We’re supposed to continue evaluating our needs against some Intel thingy when trying to decide which M1 system to buy?
    How about Geekbench numbers, for example? Cinebench anyone?
    Hard to call anything “Pro”—or expect more than a year or two practical life—without a 32GB option, but I get how that’s part of the difficulty/limitations of SoC. That part sucks.
    With the new unified memory model, I’m not sure that that is true. Might have to recalibrate our expectations of how much Ram is really needed. I’d focus on performance vs the spec sheet. Clearly this Air and Pro are doing things never before possible.
    lolliverJWSCspock1234watto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 21
    The Intel MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.

    Get them now, while you still can.

    This garbage isn't going to be any good for at least a few generations, if ever.
  • Reply 6 of 21
    cpsro said:
    Performance comparisons against some not-exactly-specified Intel platform when running some unspecified task don’t cut it. We’re supposed to continue evaluating our needs against some Intel thingy when trying to decide which M1 system to buy?
    How about Geekbench numbers, for example? Cinebench anyone?
    Hard to call anything “Pro”—or expect more than a year or two practical life—without a 32GB option, but I get how that’s part of the difficulty/limitations of SoC. That part sucks.
    With the new unified memory model, I’m not sure that that is true. Might have to recalibrate our expectations of how much Ram is really needed. I’d focus on performance vs the spec sheet. Clearly this Air and Pro are doing things never before possible.

    Seriously?

    Shared video RAM has been a thing for decades.  It's universally considered worse than dedicated video RAM. 
    pulseimages
  • Reply 7 of 21
    Another difference left unmentioned is that Apple lists "stereo speakers" for MacBook Air audio but
    "stereo speakers with high dynamic range" for the MacBook Pro.   A teardown might show whether there is a physical difference, but maybe not and there's just a few more decibels boost fed to the Pro one to get over the fan noise.   Oh, that and acoustics of wedge vs. box, whatever that may entail. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 21
    When I watched the keynote it was plain to see the differences in these two machines! They gave us the specs on both the air and the pro models. They even showed you the recommended work load differences! 
    The pro model has a FAN, which means it’s gonna be clocked higher thus the reason for the FAN! Which also means a heavier work load than the air! How hard is that to understand?” Nobody’s gonna buy a computer and not research it first. It’s not Apple’s job to sell you on one or the other, there job is to TELL YOU THE DIFFERENCE and let you decide which one you want. How is any of this confusing?” The pro is not worth getting over the air just for better battery life? I would agree if that were the only difference but it’s not! Try editing and rendering multiple 4K videos over a few hours on a machine with no FAN! I’ll go one further, try recording and editing on quality 
    music production software a few hours on a machine 
    with no FAN! Not gonna work for long! So NO” we are not wrapped in confusion by these two machines! I understand you need talking points however assumed confusion by these two machines is not one of them, as we can readily tell the difference.
    spock1234meterestnzislapitirredewmewatto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 21
    Could it be that all M1 come with 16GB and only half is activated in software? The cost difference in  producing  two versions is probably negligible. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 21
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,906member
    cpsro said:
    Performance comparisons against some not-exactly-specified Intel platform when running some unspecified task don’t cut it. We’re supposed to continue evaluating our needs against some Intel thingy when trying to decide which M1 system to buy?
    How about Geekbench numbers, for example? Cinebench anyone?
    Hard to call anything “Pro”—or expect more than a year or two practical life—without a 32GB option, but I get how that’s part of the difficulty/limitations of SoC. That part sucks.
    With the new unified memory model, I’m not sure that that is true. Might have to recalibrate our expectations of how much Ram is really needed. I’d focus on performance vs the spec sheet. Clearly this Air and Pro are doing things never before possible.
    Some jobs run orders of magnitude faster with more memory. 16GB is too limiting for some professionals (including me). For anyone who is a heavy multitasker where more memory is a benefit, we have no idea from the specs how fast the SSDs will swap either. Apple’s new approach feels half-baked. People (shareholders and past customers with a vested interest) should demand clarification of where the company is going with such a restrictive platform design as we see now.
  • Reply 11 of 21
    JWSCJWSC Posts: 1,033member
    cpsro said:
    Performance comparisons against some not-exactly-specified Intel platform when running some unspecified task don’t cut it. We’re supposed to continue evaluating our needs against some Intel thingy when trying to decide which M1 system to buy?
    How about Geekbench numbers, for example? Cinebench anyone?
    Does the M1 handle SSD encryption/decryption? How fast are the SSDs? Is there still a T2 (or newer) security chip like Intel Macs have?
    Hard to call anything “Pro”—or expect more than a year or two practical life—without a 32GB option, but I get how that’s part of the difficulty/limitations of SoC. That part sucks. It’s easy to see how failed chip fabrication trickles down the product line and the fewer choices the better in that regard for Apple.
    I was taken aback by the lack of actual numbers in the presentation charts as well.  It was really quite weird, even for Apple.  I get that they would risk the press and geeks comparing apples to oranges because the M1 is so very different than what it replaces.  I guess we’ll have to wait for Geekbench performance numbers with, hopefully, optimized code.
    pulseimageswatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 21
    JWSC said:
    cpsro said:
    Performance comparisons against some not-exactly-specified Intel platform when running some unspecified task don’t cut it. We’re supposed to continue evaluating our needs Apple is using the against some Intel thingy when trying to decide which M1 system to buy?
    How about Geekbench numbers, for example? Cinebench anyone?
    Does the M1 handle SSD encryption/decryption? How fast are the SSDs? Is there still a T2 (or newer) security chip like Intel Macs have?
    Hard to call anything “Pro”—or expect more than a year or two practical life—without a 32GB option, but I get how that’s part of the difficulty/limitations of SoC. That part sucks. It’s easy to see how failed chip fabrication trickles down the product line and the fewer choices the better in that regard for Apple.
    I was taken aback by the lack of actual numbers in the presentation charts as well.  It was really quite weird, even for Apple.  I get that they would risk the press and geeks comparing apples to oranges because the M1 is so very different than what it replaces.  I guess we’ll have to wait for Geekbench performance numbers with, hopefully, optimized code.
    Apple is using the same number comparison they used on their phone processors except this time it’s against their 3 previous computers. The air, the 13inch pro and the previous Mac mini. They always do the same comparisons every year. The only numbers they can give is how much faster it is then the previous models. We gotta stop expecting Apple to not be Apple! Lol!
    spock1234watto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 21
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 3,359member
    cpsro said:
    Performance comparisons against some not-exactly-specified Intel platform when running some unspecified task don’t cut it. We’re supposed to continue evaluating our needs against some Intel thingy when trying to decide which M1 system to buy?
    How about Geekbench numbers, for example? Cinebench anyone?
    Does the M1 handle SSD encryption/decryption? How fast are the SSDs? Is there still a T2 (or newer) security chip like Intel Macs have?
    Hard to call anything “Pro”—or expect more than a year or two practical life—without a 32GB option, but I get how that’s part of the difficulty/limitations of SoC. That part sucks. It’s easy to see how failed chip fabrication trickles down the product line and the fewer choices the better in that regard for Apple.
    darkvader said:
    The Intel MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.

    Get them now, while you still can.

    This garbage isn't going to be any good for at least a few generations, if ever.
    Totally agree - it's impossible to know enough to recommend either of these machines until people actually have them in their hands to test. We know the A14 is a very capable processor and one can probably assume they wouldn't release a machine that is worse than the current intel models, but we have completely new processors as well as graphics chips so performance ie a total unknown. Even looking at the charts, you get a slightly brighter screen, an extra core and the Touch Bar for an extra $300. That $300 may be a bargain or a complete waste of money.

    I also agree with the concerns regarding available memory. I think limiting a 'pro' machine to 16GB is a bit laughable. Seems kind of like when Ford made the Escort GT

    I'm looking forward to seeing how these perform and have high hopes for Apple Silicon, but personally I'll wait before shelling out $1000.
    edited November 2020 pulseimages
  • Reply 14 of 21
    I’m looking forward to test results and comparisons not only between old Macs verus new Macs, but also new Macs versus iPads.
    For example does Call of Duty Mobile run best on iPad Pro or MBP?

    I’m willing to bet these new Macs are brilliant for students and light users as expected, but heavy users will need eother more RAM or to adjust work practices (less apps open at once).

    Due to my thinking about this issue I had a look at my RAM usage today while I used my iMac and it was using over 20GB RAM with the various apps open (and no image open in Photoshop). To be honest I expected it to be higher. My current MBP has 32GB RAM. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 21
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 2,569member
    Now Macbook Air is new champion(price/performance) of MAC laptops. Apple have GO TO Macbook for masses. In near future when Apple releases 14" Macbook AIr/MBP; that is final done deal for MAC users. Question is when Apple's MAC future is based on Apple Silicon; not sure who and why want to buy Intel based MAC laptops ? Recently bought for my son 2020 Intel Macbook Air and now contemplating to sell/trade for newer or wait till next year for 14" MBA. For those in market for MBA, no brainer to buy. People like me can wait next year to upgrade with 14"er. Now Apple can be in control of it's MAC destiny with own schedule to release new Macbooks frequently.
    edited November 2020 watto_cobradewme
  • Reply 16 of 21
    Was there any explanation about the cooling system of the Air during the keynote? If there was, I missed it. What is the sustained performance for the Air vs. the Pro? I don’t think we have any idea. I don’t care about an extra GPU core but I do care about extreme CPU throttling. So I can’t order in advance because I have almost no information. That sucks. 
    edited November 2020
  • Reply 17 of 21
    darkvader said:
    cpsro said:
    Performance comparisons against some not-exactly-specified Intel platform when running some unspecified task don’t cut it. We’re supposed to continue evaluating our needs against some Intel thingy when trying to decide which M1 system to buy?
    How about Geekbench numbers, for example? Cinebench anyone?
    Hard to call anything “Pro”—or expect more than a year or two practical life—without a 32GB option, but I get how that’s part of the difficulty/limitations of SoC. That part sucks.
    With the new unified memory model, I’m not sure that that is true. Might have to recalibrate our expectations of how much Ram is really needed. I’d focus on performance vs the spec sheet. Clearly this Air and Pro are doing things never before possible.

    Seriously?

    Shared video RAM has been a thing for decades.  It's universally considered worse than dedicated video RAM. 
    There’s a lot of things people have touted for decades yet Apple seems to be straight smashing some of those old 
    concepts right about now. We shall see.

    watto_cobrabageljoey
  • Reply 18 of 21
    Perceived value too close in a range of choices?  Anyone from a workingclass family knows how to resolve that question.  Spend the least amount!
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 21
    dewmedewme Posts: 3,896member
    In my opinion the M1 Air is an overachiever for anyone who is already a diehard Air owner and loves everything that the Air offers. I'd be very hard pressed to find anything you'd find compromising about the M1 Air if you already have an Intel Air and want a newer and faster one without adding weight or reducing battery life. Not having a fan and surpassing your current performance expectations is a win-win for the M1 Air. Even in a throttled state the M1 Air is probably going to trounce its Intel siblings. If you currently have an Intel Air and were thinking about moving up to a Pro to get a little more horsepower, the M1 Air is very likely to keep you in the Air camp because it's so much better than the current Intel Air. It's a no compromise move with few, if any, regrets.

    The M1 Pro is a tougher sell and probably not an overachiever. The M1 Pro has compromises in areas where Pros are looking to differentiate their tool selection. The Pro is unarguably a faster and subjectively better machine for some folks than the base (non Touchbar) MacBook Pro, and it's still a step-up for anyone who's been mercilessly flogging their current Intel Air to the point of its fan crying out for relief. But the Pro's lack of versatility in areas like Bootcamp support, VMware support, eGPU support, big RAM load, etc. are detractors. To what degree - we don't yet know. But unlike the new M1 Air which provide a no-hesitation leap forward, you're going to have to do your homework and evaluate the trade-offs before jumping to the M1 Pro.

    Both machines are awesome and are big technological steps forward. For me, the Intel Air to M1 Air upgrade is an obvious and easy choice. The Intel Pro to M1 Pro, at least where it stands today, is not quite so obvious and not so easy a choice.








    edited November 2020 darkpaw
  • Reply 20 of 21
    macguimacgui Posts: 2,052member
    There have already been a lot of review done by others that show all the M1 Macs to be much better performers than most everybody expected. Perhaps those should be looked at before make assumptions based on lack of testing and information, while waiting for AI's tests.

    These three Macs are the first of their lineage, and despite the prophecies of doom offered, offer outstanding performance. They are not the answer for everyone, no computer made by anybody on any platform, is. But these three are a great solution for far more people than realize it. The next wave will be even better. The next Apple upgrade cycle will probably see 32G RAM for the MBP. Whether Apple will do the same for the mini, at that time, I'm not sure. There's already a lot more information out there, for the moment. Have a look.


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