MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro: Which MacBook Should You Buy in 2021?

Apple’s laptops are more streamlined than ever, now comprised of a 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models. But it can still be tough deciding which MacBook to buy, especially now that Apple offers some models with its new M1 chip and others with Intel processors.

That’s where our MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro guide comes in. Between the MacBook Air, the two 13-inch MacBook Pro models, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro, we’ll help you decide which laptop is worth your money by comparing price, features, performance, battery life and more. 

Which MacBook is best?

It’s a strange time to be shopping for a MacBook. Apple has only partially transitioned its laptops to the new ARM-based M1 chip while some models continue to rely on Intel processors. 

But based on our testing, we recommend buying a MacBook with the new M1 chip. Your options so far? The new MacBook Air with M1 and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 (with two Thunderbolt 3 ports). 

Apple is expected to release a 16-inch MacBook Pro with an even more powerful M1X chip in the coming months, so you might want to wait before buying the larger and most premium option. The same goes for the 13-inch MacBook with four Thunderbolt 3 ports. That notebook uses Intel chips for now but could be updated (with a 14-inch display?) in 2021 with custom Apple Silicon.

So why do we recommend MacBooks with M1 chip? In short, because there is nothing else like them on the market. The M1 chip brings unrivaled performance and battery life to the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, making them the laptops to beat in their respective categories. Not to mention, the new laptops support iOS and iPadOS apps now that they run on the same architecture as the iPhone and iPad.

That’s not to say the 16-inch MacBook Pro and top-tier 13-inch MacBook Pro aren’t good devices. The 16-inch MacBook Pro is particularly compelling due to its incredible speakers, modern design and long battery life. You just need to decide if you must buy them now, or if you can wait for Apple to refresh these notebooks with custom chips. 

MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro: Specs compared

Best for MostMost Speed for $For MultitaskingFor Power UsersMacBook AirMacBook Pro 13 (Entry Level)MacBook Pro 13 (Premium)MacBook Pro 16-inchPrice$999$1,299$1,799$2,399CPUM1M110th Gen Core i72.6-GHz 9th gen Core i7RAMUp to 16GBup to 16GBup to 32GB up to 64GBDisplay13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)16 inches (3072 x 1920)Ports2 Thunderbolt 3, headphone2 Thunderbolt 3, headphone4 Thunderbolt 3, headphone4 Thunderbolt 3, headphoneTouch BarNoYesYesYesGraphicsM1M1Intel Iris Plus 655 AMD Radeon Pro 5300M (4GB)Storageup to 2TBup to 2TBup to 4TBup to 10TBBattery Life (hrs)14:41 (tested)16:32 (tested)10:21 (tested)10:55Size12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches14.1 x 9.7 x 0.6 inchesWeight2.8 pounds3.1 pounds3.1 pounds4.3 pounds

MacBook Air (M1, 2020): Best for most people

Pros: The new MacBook Air delivers almost everything you could want in an Apple laptop thanks to its M1 chip, which enables record-setting performance and battery life. Specifically, the MacBook Air lasted for 14 hours and 41 minutes on our battery test, making it one of the longest-lasting laptops around. 

Our MacBook Air with 16GB of RAM scored a resounding 5,962 on the Geekbench 5.2 overall performance test, crushing the XPS 13 (5,319, Core i7-1165G7) with an 11th Gen (Tiger lake) Intel Core. The Surface Laptop 3 (4,791) with 10th Gen Intel chips dropped further behind, but still topped the category average (4,178).

And, of course, the MacBook Air has the Magic Keyboard, which is far more comfortable and reliable than the previous Butterfly keyboard. We compared these two keyboards side-by-side and unanimously voted in favor of the new version due to its bouncier keys and improved layout. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The screen is sharp, too, with a 2560 x 1600-pixel resolution. The latest version of the Air supports the P3 color range for punchier tones and True Tone, which adjusts the color temperature on the display based on ambient lighting conditions.

Another feature is Touch ID, which makes it easy to unlock the system, make secure payments, and replace passwords. The new MacBook Air’s 720p webcam also got a minor upgrade thanks to the M1 chip, and the system supports iOS and iPadOS apps now, although few are optimized for laptops. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The MacBook Air, at 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches and 2.8 pounds, is larger than the Dell XPS 13 (11.6 x 7.8 x 0.6 inches, 2.8 pounds), but more compact than the 13.5-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (12.1 x 8.8 x 0.6 inches, 2.9 pounds). 

Cons: Two USB-C ports aren’t enough for most people so be ready to use a dongle. Also, the MacBook Air isn’t the most compact or lightest 13-inch laptop, and the display bezels are too chunky for 2021.  

See our full MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review

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MacBook Pro 13-inch (two Thunderbolt 3): Best for power users on a budget 

Pros: The 13-inch MacBook Pro crams a lot of power into a slim and lightweight (3 pounds) chassis with its new M1 chip — and it even has a good keyboard. Yes, the 13-inch MacBook Pro gets the same M1 chip as the MacBook Air but this powerful machine can run demanding tasks for longer because it has a fan inside for keeping things cool. 

Looking at the numbers, the MacBook Pro achieved 5,882 on the Geekbench 5 test, surpassing the 4,215 premium laptop average. The XPS 13 came the closest to matching the MacBook while the Asus ZenBook and HP Spectre x360 13 weren’t anywhere near as powerful. 

This machine is only a bit heavier than the MacBook Air, but you get the same M1 processor and longer battery life. I want to emphasize that battery life: the MacBook Pro lasted for 16 hours and 32 minutes on our test. That’s just…well, mind-blowing, and it puts the MacBook Pro in a different league than its competitors.  

(Image credit: Future)

Apple brought the Touch Bar to the MacBook Pro, as well as a Touch ID sensor. The 13-inch MacBook Pro also offers an improved 720p webcam, a ridiculously fast SSD and a sleek design. What more can you ask for?

Cons: Unfortunately, the base model MacBook Pro has only two Thunderbolt 3 ports versus four ports on the pricier MacBook Pro 13-inch. Oh, and it’s time for Apple to get rid of those unsightly display bezels.  

See our full 13-inch MacBook Pro (M1, 2020) review

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MacBook Pro (13-inch) with 4 Thunderbolt ports: Best for most people

Pros: If you’re willing to spend $1,799, the MacBook Pro 13-inch (2020) is the fastest laptop in its class, packing a blazing 10th Gen Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. In our testing, this MacBook Pro wiped the floor with most Windows laptops on both the Geekbench 5 benchmark and especially our SSD benchmark. And now you get all that power without having to deal with an awful keyboard because the new MacBook Pro was updated with a Magic Keyboard. 

This model also offers a bright and colorful True Tone display that adjusts its color based on ambient lighting, and it delivers on battery life with 10 hours and 21 minutes of juice. 

(Image credit: Future)

The Touch Bar screen above the keyboard provides all sorts of contextually relevant buttons and controls as you use various apps, but it’s not as good as having a full touchscreen. And, if we’re honest, it’s probably not as good as having regular keyboard keys. 

This version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro also offers two more Thunderbolt ports than the $1,299 model and the MacBook Air.

Cons: This version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro is pricey. We’d also like to see Apple make the design a bit lighter while trimming down the screen bezels. Also, the Touch Bar is divisive and Apple would be better off using standard shortcut keys. But the biggest issue? Apple is expected to launch a new version with an M1 chip. 

See our full MacBook Pro 13-inch (2020) review

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MacBook Pro 16-inch: Best for power users

Pros: It all starts with the keyboard. Apple finally ditched the Butterfly-style keyboard in favor of a more traditional scissor mechanism starting with this machine. The new keys not only offer better travel but also feel soft yet clicky. 

Like the 15-inch model (which this version replaces), the 16-inch MacBook Pro provides exceptional performance whether you’re editing gobs of RAW photos, tackling 4K video editing projects or compiling code. The laptop comes equipped with your choice of three 9th Gen H-series Intel CPUs: a 6-core Core i7 (2.6Ghz), an 8-core Core i9 (2.3GHz) or an 8-core Core i9 (2.4GHz) chip.  

The base configuration packs an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M graphics card (with 4GB of VRAM), which can be upgraded to a Radeon Pro 5500M GPU with either 4GB or 8GB of memory. Similar to its predecessor, the MacBook Pro has four Thunderbolt 3 ports onboard for plugging in peripherals.

Apple’s Retina displays are consistently beautiful but the new MacBook Pro’s 16-inch, 3072 x 1920-resolution panel is the best yet, and not just because it’s large. The screen is crisp, vivid and bright, and surrounded by relatively thin bezels.

Another perk is the 6-speaker system with force-canceling woofers that offers incredible sound quality (easily the best of any laptop). The 16-inch MacBook Pro lasted for 10 hours and 55 minutes in our battery test, which is a great result considering the performance it brings to the table.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Cons: Photographers might be miffed that they can’t plug in an SD card; instead, they’ll have to use a card reader and plug it into one of the four Thunderbolt 3 ports. You also don’t get full-size USB ports.

While the base model 16-inch MacBook Pro comes with more storage — 512GB — for the same price as its predecessor, a $2,399 starting price is still hard to ignore. 

The machine is also heavier and thicker than the 15-inch MacBook Pro and there is no Face ID for unlocking the device using facial recognition. And, of course, we’re still waiting on an Apple Silicon edition.  

See our full 16-inch MacBook Pro review

To find out more about how much longer Apple will keep your MacBook healthy, read our comprehensive Apple Warranty Check guide.

How we test MacBook laptops

We put MacBooks through extensive benchmark testing — both synthetic and real-world — before they end up in the hands of our reviewers. We evaluate everything from speed and battery life to display brightness, speaker volume and system heat.

We use a Klein K10 colorimeter to detect the brightness and sRGB color gamut of a laptop’s display. For performance benchmarking, we run the laptop through a gauntlet of benchmarks, including Geekbench 4.3 and 5.0 and 3DMark professional graphics tests. 

To determine real-world performance, we task the laptop to convert a 4K video to 1080p resolution and to duplicate a 4.97GB multimedia file. Our real-world graphics test is the Dirt 3 benchmark with medium settings and 1080p resolution. 

We also run heat tests by playing a 15-minute full-screen video and our battery test consists of continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of brightness. We consider everything over the category average (8 hours and 36 minutes) to be a good result. Of course, these tests are complemented with hands-on testing from our reviewers.



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About the Author: Chris Jenny

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