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With the power of M1, your decision comes down to portability versus power (and your budget).
MacBook laptops are renowned for their premium power, design, and build quality.
Many people choose these computers over a Chromebook or Windows machine because they offer an easy interface that integrates seamlessly with iPhone and iPad devices. And this year’s advancements to Apple’s proprietary M1 Silicon make these MacBooks some of the best laptops ever produced. There are two options in Apple’s lineup; the featherweight MacBook Air and powerhouse MacBook Pro. Both share the foundation of strong content-creation capabilities but differ in two key areas: power and size. We went hands-on with both MacBooks to show where each one excels in core areas from design to performance. Use these reviews below to find which is best for you.
Traditionally, a computer is made up of individual physical components spread out on a board. These include a Central Processing Unit (CPU), Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), and Random Access Memory (RAM). Apple combined all of these large pieces into a minuscule chip for a singular unified System On Chip (SoC) computing system. This is a big deal because it allows for large jumps in power, efficiency, and memory caching. Normally, laptop performance suffers when disconnected from power. But with M1 technology, MacBooks can do more work faster, for way longer, without needing to be plugged into a power source. This is true even when the battery life falls below 10 percent.
To illustrate these real-world gains, I had to look no further than my work-issued laptop, an older 2019 MacBook Pro. It often sets the fans off when juggling my creative workflow, requires a USB-C hub since it’s limited to just two ports, and has its battery drained at a rate of 24 percent per hour. Compared to the new MacBook Pro—which includes tons of connectivity ports, is cool to the touch, silent, and drops battery at a rate of just 4 percent per hour—the difference is night and day. No matter how many intense processing tasks you throw at Apple’s new proprietary silicon, performance is consistently putting out peak performance without turning on a fan. While this is true of even the base M1 found in the Air, the M1 Pro has significantly better encoding times, transfer speeds, and memory bandwidth thanks to more cores and transistors.
To show which is best for you, I pitted the two MacBook lineups against each other in a series of head-to-head tests below. I called in the MacBook Air with a basic M1 Chip and the MacBook Pro with an M1 Pro, which is a mid-range chip, and integrated them into my daily workflow. These tasks included downloading software, browsing between 20 open Google Chrome tabs (with multiple live streams), and taking one hour of daily video calls. I noted the rate of battery life drops every ten minutes to calculate an average per hour over the course of three work days. And to gather transfer and encoding speeds to illustrate the strength of the M1 versus M1 Pro, I used Blackmagic Disk Speed Test.
I make recommendations on price to performance. Despite being an iPhone and MacBook user myself, I have admittedly found Apple products overpriced in the past. Though while most people can do a lot with a budget Chromebook—and a strong Windows laptop allows for layers of customization and gaming—this year’s MacBooks are some of the most impressive laptops I’ve used. They offer the superior creative suite (Garageband, Final Cut, and XCode) and iOS handoff capabilities that are convenient, in addition to raw all-day power to back it up without even triggering a fan. If you can shoulder the expense, either of these laptops will last you for years to come.
Straight out of the box, the MacBook Pro is heftier than the Air by 1 pound. Its 14-inch body is a retro-like square and much thicker to make room for all the power under the hood. The aluminum on both models is the same silver color, but overall beefiness is what differentiates these two. The MacBook Pro is stronger, offers bigger speakers, a larger mousepad, and a more premium version of the Magic Keyboard with a full matte-black design. The difference is night and day coming from my own MacBook’s stiff butterfly keyboard, which is both uncomfortable and inaccurate due to the compression mechanism. Kudos to Apple for listening to complaints and rectifying the keyboard issues in this regard.
But overall, the lightweight Air simply bests the classic style of the MacBook Pro. It’s more comfortable to hold, easier to travel with, and is beautiful to look at. Ports fall by the wayside on the MacBook Air—it just keeps the two USB-C connectors and an auxiliary audio port.
If you need to connect a lot of devices or storage, lean toward the Pro, which restores physical ports for HDMI, USB-C, SD card, and even MagSafe 3 charging. It’s a major win for those who don’t want to lug around a USB-C hub. The MacBook Air loses in this department because it features just two USB-C ports, which can be expanded with a hub but ultimately leaves more to be desired. And you’re screwed for connecting accessories without it. During testing, it was freeing to be able to carry just a MacBook Pro around in my backpack, with its premium camera, ports, and speaker system built-in. It’s a stark contrast for when I often carry around my USB-C hub, Logitech StreamCam, and BeatsFit headphones to use with an Air. The 1080p camera exclusive to the Pro is a major upgrade for work and looks sharp on the higher end model’s gorgeous OLED Pro Motion Screen.
In regards to that screen, the Pro’s exclusive 120-hertz ProMotion Mini LED-packed Liquid Retina XDR display is unrivaled. You won’t need a reference monitor for editing photos or videos thanks to the one million to one contrast ratio and over 1,600 nit peak brightness for richer color accuracy and HDR performance. Its high refresh rates are smooth, and the 16:10 screen offers the thinnest bezels and a notch to make more screen real estate with less space. This year’s MacBook Pro offers one of the brightest displays on the market, with punches of color even in brighter settings like a windowed room or outdoors. This intensity gives it a huge leg up on even OLED panels which are nowhere near as bright. The MacBook Air’s 13-inch screen is no slouch thanks to the 60-hertz Retina display, but the 400 nit backlighting offers just a quarter of the Pro’s vibrance, which you’ll notice in brightly lit areas. If you want the best viewing experience, go with the Pro. You’ll find a notch at the top of the MacBook Pro, which houses that upgraded 1080p camera for improved low-light and tone-mapping performance. Plus this notch allows for thinner bezels for more screen space as opposed to the chunky borders found on a MacBook Air.
Both MacBooks can download the same apps, offer quick notes, and even launch shortcuts. But running through 20 Google Chrome tabs, installing programs, and keeping the brightness at 50 percent saw the MacBook Pro’s battery drop just 4 percent per hour. It stayed cool and quiet, even while processing media tasks like benchmarking and playing livestreams. On the MacBook Air, I saw an equally cool performance but at a slightly larger drop of 7 percent per hour. To quell my power anxiety, I often check to see a dip in power every 10 or so minutes. So you can imagine my surprise at that first check-in when neither computer dipped a single percentage, despite having apps open and playing live LoFi from a YouTube stream. The Air’s 30-watt USB-C 30 will recharge the battery at around 1 percent per minute, while the 97-watt MagSafe charger allows for a charge from completely dead to 50 percent in less than 30 minutes on the Pro. The MagSafe 3 charger on the Pro also has an upgraded braided cable with a charge indicator light that goes from orange to green once the battery is topped off.
I used BlackMagic Speed Disk Utility test to gauge transfer and render speeds on the core M1 chip of the Air versus the mid-range M1 Pro in the MacBook Pro. The Pro was twice as fast. This is due to the M1 Pro’s beefier ten-core CPU which makes for desktop-like performance in a portable build with insane battery life. But for everyday tasks, you won’t really notice this gain. When playing back media, the Pro Audio on the MacBook Pro fills a space properly. Its speakers have much more bass. Paired with the better camera, the Pro’s performance is best for production and content creators.
Weight: 2.8 lb | Screen: 13.3-in. Retina (400 nits) | CPU: 8-Core M1 CPU | GPU: 7-Core | Memory: 8 GB unified
The MacBook Air is a more portable option if you find yourself often on the move with your laptop since its featherweight design is much lighter and easier to lug around. Apple packed a lot of power into a thin package. Our test model is the most basic for just $999, comes with an eight-core CPU, seven-core GPU, and 8 GB of unified memory. You can bump up the storage space or unified memory if you’d like, but on a basic machine, you’ll be doing a lot of work in the cloud. MacBook Airs have evolved over the years, but this latest edition feels the best, with a responsive keyboard, physical function keys, and a durable chassis that isn’t as bulky as a Pro while still providing all-day power without a fan. Although marketed toward casual use, the strength of the base M1 chip means you can work on 4K videos, produce music, and edit in Photoshop without any major hangups or performance throttling for up to 18 hours at a time. Its thin wedge body lends itself well to lightweight tasks on the move like writing and surfing the web.
Weight: 3.5 lb | Screen: 14.2-in. Liquid Retina XDR, 120-Hz Pro Motion display | CPU: M1 Pro 8-Core CPU with six performance cores and two efficiency cores | GPU: 14-Core GPU | Memory: 16 GB Unified (configurable up to 32 GB)
If your workload is computer-resource intensive, say editing high-resolution 8K footage or rendering 3D content, then the MacBook Pro is the superior machine. Even when the laptop was toiling away in processing tasks, the fans remained silent and cool, the Pro efficiently distributing power for longer battery life than the Air. The M1 Chip Pro in our demo unit proved to be a boon in almost every way. It allows for even more external outputs (up to two 6K monitors versus the base M1, which is locked to a single external output), transfers data faster, and offers double the graphics power. You have to make use of all that power to make the extra $1,000 splurge on this rig worth it. It’s a chunkier and heavier-duty laptop for power users.
This year’s MacBook Pro is a huge remodel for the lineup; Apple did away with the touch bar to restore physical function keys, improved upon the already great “Magic” keyboard, and added ports for greater usability. The MacBook Pro with a M1 Pro chip starts from $1,999, but our $2,299 model features a M1 Pro ten-core CPU, 16-core GPU, 32 GB of RAM, and 1 TB of storage for more processing volume and graphics power.
The MacBook Pro is more expensive for a reason; it has a better screen, stronger performance, and plenty of connectivity. It offers a better experience for those who rely on their computer for work. While not as travel-friendly as the razor-thin Air, it’s still a lightweight all-day workstation that bests bigger setups. With that said, most everyday uses warrant the Air instead. It’s more comfortable to carry with you, lasts almost equally as long when equipped with an M1 chip, and looks better, but isn’t the best for compiling code, 3D development, and 8K content-creation workflows. As long as these tasks aren’t part of your day-to-day, you aren’t missing much. And you save $1,000, which you can put toward more storage and unified memory instead to make an even stronger Air.