MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: How to decide which Apple laptop model to buy


Space Black MacBook Pro (M3 Max) running MacOS Sonoma wallpaper

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

If you’re in the market for a new MacBook, you might wonder if it makes more sense to buy a MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air. With Apple announcing five MacBook configurations and officially retiring three models in one year, the buying confusion is warranted.

When buying a MacBook, you’ll want to consider the computer’s display size, storage capacity, computing power, and price. For example, the 2022 13-inch and 2023 15-inch MacBook Air models are equipped with Apple’s M2 chip, which gives them increased performance, greater efficiency, and longer battery life compared to MacBooks with an M1 or Intel chip.

Also: Apple’s M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max chipsets: Everything you need to know

The most recent MacBook Pro models debuted with Apple’s M3 chips, which are even more efficient and capable than the M2 chips. In this situation, think of yourself as being like Goldilocks; you’re confronted with four different MacBook models, but you need to find the one that’s just right for you. So, before you decide which one to buy, let’s cover the main differences between the Pro and Air.

What’s the difference between the MacBook Pro and Air?

Believe it or not, there are a multitude of differences between the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. The biggest differences between the two are pricing and computing power. The most affordable MacBook Pro with an M2 chip will cost more than the most affordable Air with an M2 chip. However, the Pro is more powerful, thanks to the upgraded internals under the hood.

Review: MacBook Pro (M3 Max): A desktop-class laptop for an AI-powered age

The M3 MacBook Pro models have more unified memory, longer battery life, more ports (including HDMI and SD card), and, generally, a more sophisticated GPU and CPU than their Air counterparts. There are two MacBook Pro display sizes: 14-inch and 16-inch.

The M3 MacBook Pro has improved internal computing parts for greater efficiency and performance. There are three chips in the M3 family: M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max. The M3 models have improved media engines to better handle video playback. The M3 chips have the same amount of CPU and GPU cores and neural engines as the M2 chips, and both the base M2 and M3 chips can support the same amount of unified memory.

According to Apple, the M3 chips are 15% faster than the M2 chips, so if you recently upgraded to an M2 MacBook Pro, you’re not eons behind on computer power.

The MacBook Pro on a table.

Here’s the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

June Wan/ZDNET

If you’re looking for a new 13-inch MacBook Pro, unfortunately, Apple discontinued the 13-inch MacBook Pro after the release of the new 14-inch MacBook Pro. You can no longer purchase a 13-inch MacBook Pro on Apple’s website. Apple also discontinued sales of the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models with M2 Pro and M2 Max chips.

Also: M3 MacBook Pro with top-of-the-line specs? You’ll be surprised at how far it is under $10,000

The 14-inch and 16-inch Pro can be equipped with Apple’s new M3 Pro and M3 Max chips, and you can purchase a 14-inch Pro with the base M3 chip. If you’re going big with the 16-inch Pro, understand that your only options are the M3 Max or M3 Pro chips, which will increase the price tag.

The upgraded chipsets are even more powerful than the base M2 chips found in the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Air. These upgraded chips make the 14-inch and 16-inch Pro suitable for editing pro-grade video footage (up to 8K), rendering 3D art, producing music, and editing high-resolution photos in Adobe Photoshop.

However, the more power you want with the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro, the more expensive it becomes. The 14-inch Pro starts at $1,599 and, with chip and internal storage upgrades, can go up to $3,199. The 16-inch Pro starts at $2,499 and, with internal upgrades, goes up to $3,999.

If you’ve decided you want a MacBook Pro and need more guidance determining which Pro model works best for you, check out ZDNET’s M3 MacBook Pro buying guide

MacBook Air 15-inch at WWDC

The 15-inch MacBook Air is the largest of its kind, but lacks the side-firing speakers found on the Pro models.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

The 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Air only come equipped with Apple’s base M2 chip, but that doesn’t mean the Air is a less-than-capable computer. The MacBook Air is thinner and lighter than the Pro because it has less internal hardware, dismissing for-work ports like HDMI and an SD card slot, and a cooling fan. Instead, Apple is banking on the efficiency of its chips to keep the laptops’ heat dissipated and well-stabilized.

Review: I can’t recommend the 15-inch MacBook Air enough, even if it’s not for me

And, of course, less hardware means the MacBook Air is less expensive, but you can add a few upgrades. For the 13-inch Air, you can choose between two M2 chip configurations, as the upgraded base M2 chip has two more GPU cores than the other. Upgraded GPU means your computer can process graphics more efficiently, making 4K video editing faster and smoother.

The 15-inch Air is already equipped with the M2 chip with a 10-core GPU, so that upgrade is included in the base price.

The 13-inch Air starts at $1,099 and goes up to $2,399 if you max out the internal storage and increase the GPU. The 15-inch Air starts at $1,299 and goes up to $2,499 in exchange for more storage. For shoppers who are tighter on budget or don’t require much computing power, Apple still offers the M1-powered MacBook Air for $999.

If you’re confident you want a MacBook Air and need more help deciding which Air will float your boat, check out ZDNET’s M2 MacBook Air buying guide.

Which MacBook is right for you?

The answer heavily depends on how you see yourself using the laptops, and how display size and weight factor into that equation. A reliable computer is an investment; you don’t want to spend too much on an overqualified laptop, yet you don’t want to buy a computer that’s not powerful enough for your needs.

If you’re a graphic designer, music producer, professional photographer, videographer, 3D artist, or iOS game and app developer, a MacBook Pro would be the way to go as far as MacBooks are concerned. The Pro models can handle intense graphics processing and more software running in the background without significantly lagging, overheating, or slowing down.

If you are a student or someone who spends most of your time in the Microsoft Office Suite or Google Suite, a MacBook Air may be a better fit. If you want a MacBook to casually surf the internet, watch YouTube or Netflix, respond to emails, and FaceTime your friends, then the Air model is not only adept at handling those tasks but won’t put a burden on your back as you lug it around.

No matter which model you buy, a MacBook is excellent for users who want to expand their personal Apple ecosystem with a device that works seamlessly with the iPhone, AirPods, and other products. Handoff, for example, allows you to switch FaceTime calls between your MacBook and iPhone, and your MacBook can easily access your iPhone files, messages, contacts, and photos.

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