13-inch MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Buy this or buy that?

There’s only one logical choice.

macbook air pro compare
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If you’ve been itching to buy a new MacBook, the time has arrived. Over the past six months, every laptop Apple makes has gotten a significant upgrade, so barring a spec bump in the fall, Apple’s lineup for the rest of 2020 is set with three models: the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and 16-inch MacBook Pro.

But even with just three models, deciding which laptop to buy isn’t so easy. While we assume 16-inch MacBook Pro buyers know who they are, the difference between the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air isn’t as great as you might think. I've taken a deep dive into the specs of both devices and came to a startling conclusion: Even if you have enough money to afford the 13-inch MacBook Pro, you might want to get a MacBook Air instead.

Design

It's clear from Apple's website that the 13-inch MacBook Pro is nearly identical to the previous model, with very similar dimensions to the MacBook Air. According to Apple’s specs, they both have a body that measures 8.36 inches by 11.97 inches, but the MacBook Pro has a consistent thickness of 0.61 inches while the MacBook Air is just 0.16 at its thinnest point and 0.63 inches at its thickest. As a result, the Pro is a bit heavier at 3.1 pounds versus the Air’s 2.8 pounds.

When you open them up, they’re very similar as well. Both have fairly sizable bezels around the screen with its name on the bottom edge. A pair of vertical speakers flank the sides of the keyboard with a giant Force Touch trackpad below. The main aesthetic difference is that while both laptops come in space gray and silver, only the MacBook Air is available in gold.

Buy this: It’s hard to argue with Apple’s laptop design in any of the colors here, but if you like gold, you’re kinda stuck.

Display

As with the previous generations, the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro have the same 13.3-inch Retina display with the same 2560x1600 resolution and True Tone technology built-in. The display specifications differ in the brightness (the Pro’s 500 nits is a little brighter compared to the Air’s 400 nits) and color gamut (the Pro has an expanded P3 color gamut, while the Air supports sRGB), but those are relatively small differences. Tuned eyes will see richer colors when viewing images on the MacBook Pro, but for the most part, the specs suggest you're getting very similar displays.

13 inch macbook pro colors Apple

The MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air have very similar screens.

Buy this: Most people will be plenty happy with the MacBook Air’s narrower color gamut. Professionals in design or video will want the MacBook Pro.

Keyboard

With the launch of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has officially bid adieu to the butterfly keyboard, so both laptops have the same backlit Magic Keyboard with 65 keys, including four arrow keys in an inverted-T arrangement. Based on my experiences with the 16-inch MacBook Pro, I can safely say that it’s a huge improvement over the prior version.

Where the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air differ is in the row of function keys. While both have a Touch ID sensor at the far right, the Air has a standard array with ESC followed by the F1 through F12 keys, while the Pro has ESC, followed by a tiny horizontal screen called the Touch Bar. Designed to increase efficiency, it changes depending on the app you’re using and can be customized with permanent shortcut keys, including the old-fashioned function shortcuts.

macbook air 2020 arrow keys IDG/Willis Lai

Both the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro have arrow keys in an inverted “T” formation.

Buy this: You probably shouldn’t be making a buying decision based on the Touch Bar. People have learned to like it over the years, but ultimately it’s just a matter of convenience. The Air’s standard function keys are just fine for many people. 

Ports

Both entry-level models of the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air have a 3.5mm headphone jack and a pair of USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports, so either notebook can power one of Apple’s eye-watering Pro Display XDR monitors. Since you need USB-C for charging too, that’s basically the bare minimum for getting anything done. However, if you spend a little more, you can double the USB-C ports to four on the MacBook Pro models costing $1,799 and up.

Buy this: For a few weeks, the MacBook Air actually had better I/O than the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but now they’re basically equal. Whether you need to spend $500 just to get the extra USB-C ports is up to you, but if you’re eying one of the higher models, it’s a nice bonus.

Processor and graphics

The MacBook Pro sets itself apart from the MacBook Air when it comes to speed, but all configurations are not created equally. Here are the options Apple sells.

MacBook Air

1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 (10th gen)
1.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (10th gen)
1.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 (10th gen; customize to order option)

13-inch MacBook Pro (2 Thunderbolt ports)

1.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (8th gen)
1.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 (8th gen; customize to order option)

13-inch MacBook Pro (4 Thunderbolt ports)

2.0GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (10th gen)
2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 (10th gen; customize to order option)

13 inch macbook pro open Apple

The processor options on the high-end MacBook Pro are the best of the bunch.

There are a few things to point out here. Even though the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pros’ processors have higher clock speeds and twice as many cores, they aren’t that much faster than the chips in the MacBook Air. In Geekbench 5 benchmarks of the 2019 model, the two machines are very similar, with the MacBook Air edging out the Pro in single-core tasks and the Pro besting the Air in multi-core tasks. In a nutshell, you won’t notice a performance difference between the two machines. You will see a significant boost with the high-end MacBook Pros, however. We’ll have benchmarks soon, but based on the ninth-gen chips in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, multi-core performance will be incredibly fast.

When it comes to graphics, the MacBook Air and the high-end MacBook Pros both use Intel’s integrated Iris Plus Graphics, which are faster than the Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645 in the low-end MacBook Pros. But if graphics matter to you for work or play, you should be looking at the 16-inch MacBook Pro and its discreet AMD Radeon Pro cards.

macbook air 2020 hero1 IDG/Willis Lai

You’re getting decent graphics with the MacBook Air but nothing that will blow you away.

Buy this: If performance matters, stepping up to the tenth-gen 2.0GHz quad-core processor in the higher-end MacBook Pro makes sense. Otherwise, you’ll want to weigh options other than speed.

Storage, battery, and RAM

Once again, Apple divides these laptops into two classes. The two low-end MacBook Pro models and the MacBook Air have identical memory and storage, while the higher-end MacBook Pro gets twice as much across the board:

MacBook Air: 8GB/16GB memory, 256GB/512GB/1TB/2TB SSD
MacBook Pro (2 Thunderbolt ports): 8GB/16GB memory, 256GB/512GB/1TB/2TB SSD
MacBook Pro: (4 Thunderbolt ports): 16GB/32GB memory, 512GB/1TB/2TB/4TB SSD

While you get the same amount of RAM, however, Apple has equipped the MacBook Air with 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory while the low-end MacBook Pros have slower 2133MHz LPDDR3 sticks. If you tend to keep a lot of apps open, the speed will be noticeable.

Battery life is very similar across the three models. Apple claims the MacBook Air gets a bit more battery life than the Pro—up to 11 hours of web use and 12 hours of Apple TV app movie playback versus 10 hours.

Buy this: The base storage is very decent across all of these models and the RAM should suffice, so make your decision based on what you need. That said, 256GB of storage should be plenty for most people. 

Price (standard configurations)

While they look very similar, there are a wide range of prices for Apple’s smallest notebooks:

MacBook Air: $999 (1.1GHz dual-core Core i3, 256GB SSD)
MacBook Air: $1,299 (1.1GHz quad-core Core i5, 512GB SSD)
MacBook Pro: $1,299 (1.4GHz quad-core Core i5, 256GB SSD, 8GB RAM, two Thunderbolt ports)
MacBook Pro: $1,499 (1.4GHz quad-core Core i5, 512GB SSD, 8GB RAM, two Thunderbolt ports)
MacBook Pro: $1,799 (2.0GHz quad-core Core i5, 512GB SSD, 16GB RAM, four Thunderbolt ports)
MacBook Pro: $1,999 (2.0GHz quad-core Core i5, 1TBGB SSD, 16GB RAM, four Thunderbolt ports)

Buy this: If you want speed and are looking for an off-the-shelf configuration, consider the $1,799 model. If you don’t want to spend that much, there’s the $1,299 MacBook Air. The $999 model isn’t a bad buy, but the extra storage and speedier processor is worth the $300.

Price (custom configurations)

For each of the models it sells, Apple offers the same three customizations: processor, memory, and storage. A faster chip will run you between $100 and $250 across each model, and doubling the RAM costs $100 on the low-end MacBook Pros, $200 on the MacBook Air, and $400 on the upper MacBook Pros. And if you want more storage, you’ll pay $200 (512GB), $400 (1TB), and $800 (2TB) to upgrade the 256GB models and $200 (1TB), $600 (2TB), and $1,200 (4TB) on the 512GB ones.

13 inch macbook pro display Apple

If you spend enough, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is a speed demon. 

Buy this: Unless money isn’t an object, we wouldn’t recommend spending extra on a better processor since any speed boosts will likely be nominal. If you’re going to boost the storage from 256GB to 512GB on the base MacBook Air, we recommend just buying the next model up, since you’re only spending $100 more and getting a better processor. We do recommend spending extra on RAM, though. No matter which model you’re buying, doubling the RAM is a sound investment, if for no other reason than you can’t upgrade it later.

What to consider

We're still looking to review the new 13-inch MacBook Pro. But based on the specifications, two models stand out: the 1.1GHz dual-core Core i5 MacBook Air with 512GB of storage and a 16GB RAM upgrade for $1,499, and the 2.0GHz quad-core Core i5 MacBook Pro with 512GB and a 32GB RAM upgrade for $2,199.

Out of those two, the MacBook Air seems to be the model for most people. Even if you don’t factor in the extra RAM on the Pro, you’re still saving $300 by going with the Ai. The main differences between them—processor speed, Touch Bar, and the wide-gamut display won’t make that much of a difference to most people.

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