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Apple M1 MacBook Air vs. M1 MacBook Pro Buyer's Guide

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In November 2020, Apple updated its popular 13-inch MacBook lineup with the first Apple Silicon chip for the Mac, the M1 chip. Both the 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro received updates with the M1 chip.



The M1 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Pro appear to be very similar owing to their shared processor, form factor, and keyboard, so should you consider purchasing the lower-cost MacBook Air, which starts at $999, to save money, or do you need the higher-end MacBook Pro, which costs at least $300 more? Our guide helps to answer the question of how to decide which of these two Apple Silicon MacBooks is best for you.

Comparing the M1 MacBook Pro and the M1 MacBook Air

The Macbook Air and MacBook Pro share a large number of important features such as processor, display size, and ports. Apple lists these same features of the two devices:

Similarities

  • 13.3-inch LED-backlit display with IPS technology
  • Wide Color (P3) and True Tone technology
  • Eight-core M1 chip with up to eight-core GPU and 16-core Neural Engine
  • Up to 16GB of unified memory
  • Up to 2TB of storage
  • Wide stereo sound and support for Dolby Atmos playback
  • 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • Magic Keyboard
  • Touch ID
  • Two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports
  • Available in Silver and Space Gray

Apple's breakdown shows that the two MacBooks share a large number of key features. Even so, there are some meaningful differences between the M1 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Pro that are worth highlighting, including design, battery life, and display brightness.

Differences


M1 MacBook Air
  • Slim, wedge-style design
  • Configurable with up to eight-core GPU
  • Passive cooling (fanless)
  • 400 nits brightness
  • Up to 18 hours of battery life
  • Stereo speakers
  • Three-mic array with directional beamforming
  • Weighs 2.8 pounds (1.29 kg)
  • Available in Silver, Space Gray, and Gold


M1 MacBook Pro
  • Thicker, slab-like design
  • Eight-core GPU as standard
  • Active cooling
  • 500 nits brightness
  • Up to 20 hours of battery life
  • Stereo speakers with high dynamic range
  • Studio-quality three-mic array with directional beamforming
  • Weighs 3.0 pounds (1.4 kg)
  • Available in Silver and Space Gray
  • Touch Bar


Read on for a closer look at each of these aspects, and see exactly what Apple's first MacBooks with Apple Silicon processors have to offer.

Design

Both the M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro share the same designs as their Intel-based predecessors. This means that the MacBook Air retains its iconic wedge-shaped design, while the MacBook Pro still has its more uniform, slab-style design. Although the MacBook Air is actually thicker than the MacBook Pro at its thickest point, the wedge shape of the MacBook Air makes it look much thinner overall. The MacBook Air is also 0.2 pounds lighter than the MacBook Pro and is available in Gold.



If you will be traveling with your MacBook frequently and portability is a priority, then the MacBook Air is the more appropriate device. However, it is worth noting that the MacBook Pro is only slightly heavier than the MacBook Air, so both models will be very similar in terms of portability.

Performance

The two machines share the same Apple Silicon M1 processor, but with a key difference in cooling systems. Since Apple didn't provide any specific benchmark comparisons between the two models, it is difficult to speculate exactly how well the two machines will perform until benchmarks can be compared. However, there are a number of assumptions that can be made.



The MacBook Air certainly has more thermal constraints than the MacBook Pro since it is passively cooled and thus has no fans or active ventilation. Unlike the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro has ventilation and fans. It is expected that the MacBook Pro will be able to run faster, pushing the M1 harder for longer and achieving better performance from the same chip. The MacBook Pro will be able to run the M1 at higher temperatures since it will be able to cool it more effectively using its active cooling system than the MacBook Air.

The cooling systems of both machines strongly indicate that the MacBook Pro will perform better than the MacBook Air, but the margin of difference will be unknown until users can begin testing them.

Based on these assumptions, the MacBook Pro will be better for users who need the best performance. However, since the two devices share the same M1 processor, the MacBook Air could perform similarly enough for some tasks or tasks that don't require sustained processing power.

The cheapest $999 MacBook Air configuration also has a seven-core GPU. The $1249 higher-tier configuration of the MacBook Air, however, comes with an eight-core GPU. The MacBook Pro comes with the eight-core GPU as standard. The difference between 7 and 8 cores isn't expected to be dramatic, but users who will be setting about a lot of graphics-based work should opt for the MacBook Pro, as it is only $50 more than the eight-core GPU MacBook Air.

Display

The MacBook Pro and MacBook Air share the same 13.3-inch LED-backlit display with IPS technology, True Tone, and P3 Wide Color. Content and colors will look exactly the same on both devices.



However, the MacBook Pro's display can reach 500 nits of brightness compared to the MacBook Air's 400 nits. This means that it can get up to 20 percent brighter. You may prefer the MacBook Pro's brighter display, particularly if you often use your machine outdoors, but the brightness of the MacBook Air's display will likely not disappoint most users.

Battery Life

The M1 MacBook Pro has a battery life two hours better than the MacBook Air, according to Apple's estimates. This is likely due to smaller batteries in the MacBook Air due to its slimmer, wedge-shaped profile.

Both machines have excellent battery life at up to 20 hours on the MacBook Pro and 18 hours on the MacBook Air, thanks to the power-efficient M1 chip. While the battery life of both machines is outstanding, if you need to prioritize battery life for long periods of time away from a power source, the MacBook Pro is clearly the better option.

Microphones and Speakers

The MacBook Air has stereo speakers and a three-mic array with directional beamforming. The MacBook Pro pushes these features into the "pro" market with stereo speakers that support high dynamic range, as well as a "studio-quality" three-mic array with directional beamforming.



If you consume a lot of video content or music using the built-in speakers, or frequently use the built-in microphones for video calls or podcasting, for example, the MacBook Pro is the better device.

Touch Bar

While both machines come with Touch ID, only the MacBook Pro gets Apple's Touch Bar. The Touch Bar replaces the traditional row of function keys with a "Retina-quality" Multi-Touch display.



Controls on the Touch Bar change when using different apps. For example, the Touch Bar can show Tabs and Favorites in Safari, enable easy access to emoji in Messages, and provide a simple way to edit images or scrub through videos.

If you are particularly keen on having the Touch Bar, you will have to get the MacBook Pro, but not all users will appreciate the feature, and it does not directly add any new functionality that is not possible on the MacBook Air.

Other Mac Options

The 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are the only Mac laptops to contain Apple Silicon chips so far. There is only one other Apple Silicon Mac, the Mac mini, but that is a desktop machine.



The larger 16-inch MacBook Pro has not yet transitioned to Apple Silicon. Apple continues to sell its older Intel-based high-end 13 and 16-inch MacBook Pros.

If you are a pro user, uncertain about the M1's ability to deliver high performance, or are used to running Windows via Boot Camp on your Mac or virtual machines, or using eGPUs, it may be better to buy an Intel-based MacBook until there are more high-end Apple Silicon options and the technology has had more time to demonstrate its merits and gain support.

Final Thoughts

The Apple Silicon M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are very similar in terms of specifications. Both devices sport the same M1 processor, 13.3-inch display, Touch ID, and ports, as well as most other hardware features.

The main differences are the display brightness, Touch Bar, microphone and speaker quality, two extra hours of battery life, and active cooling system that set the machines apart in favor of the MacBook Pro. For casual users, this means that the additional $300 to upgrade to a MacBook Pro may be difficult to justify, especially without knowing the exact performance benefits at this time.

If you do want the best performance, battery life, display brightness, and speaker and microphone quality, the MacBook Pro is the better option. The MacBook Pro is therefore best current option for those who want the most out of their Apple Silicon laptop.

Likewise, users who intend to perform a lot of graphics-based tasks should skip the MacBook Air entirely and buy the MacBook Pro because the eight-core GPU MacBook Air configuration is only $50 less than the MacBook Pro. However, this is only the case if you don't need more than 256GB of storage, because a storage upgrade would further push up the MacBook Pro's price.

While the performance difference in real terms between the two MacBooks is yet to be seen, the MacBook Air appears to be the best option for most users. The MacBook Air offers a compelling feature set at a more affordable $999 price. We will revisit this recommendation after we see real-world performance of the two machines. The new MacBook Air and Pro are available to order now.

Article Link: Apple M1 MacBook Air vs. M1 MacBook Pro Buyer's Guide
 
Last edited:

MacBH928

Contributor
May 17, 2008
4,830
1,857
Somebody else brought this, but seriously if the same chip in the Air is in the MB PRO...what makes the MB a PROFESSIONAL device? I know it has a fan but will the fan really gives that significance of a difference between an Air and a PRO work device!?
 

Falhófnir

macrumors 601
Aug 19, 2017
4,823
5,316
It seems if you need sustained performance under heavy loads (and you will know if you do) the Pro is the way to go, for anything else the Air is probably the better buy. Now that the Air has P3 that narrows the use cases for the Pro even further.
 

MayaTlab

macrumors regular
Dec 12, 2007
200
181
Just a correction :

"The MacBook Pro and MacBook Air share the same 13.3-inch LED-backlit display with IPS technology, True Tone, and P3 Wide. Content and colors will look exactly the same on both devices."

Not necessarily so. We actually don't know if these are the same panels, if the backlighting is designed similarly, etc. There can be many more variations beyond what Apple's published spec sheet mentions, such as contrast ratios, backlighting uniformity, how much gamut they cover beyond P3 (if they do), lower or higher sample variation with this or that different design, etc.

I'd love to learn that the 400 vs 500 nits difference only is a software switch but we don't know for sure.

Anyway even if they're exactly the same designs you can count on the usual lacklustre sample variation in consumer devices' displays to ensure that content and colours definitely won't look the same between two supposedly identical devices.
 

trigf

macrumors regular
Jun 16, 2009
235
154
The difference between 7 and 8 cores isn't expected to be dramatic, but users who will be setting about a lot of graphics-based work should opt for the MacBook Pro, as it is only $50 more than the eight-core GPU MacBook Air.

Likewise, users who intend to perform a lot of graphics-based tasks should skip the MacBook Air entirely and buy the MacBook Pro because the eight-core GPU MacBook Air configuration is only $50 less than the MacBook Pro. However, this is only the case if you don't need more than 256GB of storage, because a storage upgrade would further push up the MacBook Pro's price.


If you have to upgrade back to 512 GB of storage when going between the 8 core Air and the base Pro, it's not 'just $50 more' it's $250. Why not make this clearer?
 

Cosmosent

macrumors 65816
Apr 20, 2016
1,497
1,594
La Jolla, CA
While the performance difference in real terms between the two MacBooks is yet to be seen, the MacBook Air appears to be the best option for most users.

I agree 100% !

Just wish they had priced the (base) MacBook Air more-Reasonably, like $799 USD OR so, which they absolutely could have done with IN-house Si !

If they had, I would have already ordered one.

I suspect a follow-on, lower-cost MacBook Air could be announced within six months, simply because Apple priced the initial MacBook Air on-par with what it replaced.

More specifically, might NOT sell as well as Apple thought / thinks.

Apple could have done much, much better WRT pricing !
 

Imory

macrumors 6502a
Feb 2, 2013
797
275
Wonderland
The M1 MacBook Pro seems to be entirely based on the 8th-gen Intel version it replaces. They have the exact same cooling (one fan instead of two) and the chassi doesn’t support the pair of woofers you see on the 10th-gen 4-TB ports version that they’re still selling for 1799.

So this seems like a stopgap made for the average user, while the entire redesign with higher performance chips will be released sometime next year.
 
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thadoggfather

macrumors G5
Oct 1, 2007
12,592
10,229
I would love it if I had a Wifi 6 router (looks like a nice Netgear one will be $130 on BF at Costco), a Wifi 6 laptop (this M1 one, have 2020 Air), and a Wifi 6 iPad (have the 2017 12.9 and mini 5)

Feels like the '5G-ification' of home internet, especially with gigabit going to waste over AC.

Just not sure how appreciable it would be for not doing hefty downloads / in day to day. top 300mbps is still pretty nifty in real world.

The battery life gains are nothing short of incredible for what I would appreciate out of the conversion to Apple silicon. That's still probably a few years away though, and I fortunately can't kill my laptop in a single session at a coffee shop so would be a 'nice to have'
 

Eidorian

macrumors Penryn
Mar 23, 2005
29,094
299
Indianapolis
I agree 100% !

Just wish they had priced the (base) MacBook Air more-Reasonably, like $799 USD OR so, which they absolutely could have done with IN-house Si !

If they had, I would have already ordered one.

I suspect a follow-on, lower-cost MacBook Air could be announced within six months, simply because Apple priced the initial MacBook Air on-par with what it replaced.

More specifically, might NOT sell as well as Apple thought / thinks.

Apple could have done much, much better WRT pricing !
There is going to be some pent up demand from the Osborne Effect of knowing that the ARM versions were coming out.
 
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RobbyIdol

macrumors regular
Mar 20, 2012
242
178
The M1 MacBook Pro seems to be entirely based on the 8th-gen Intel version it replaces. They have the exact same cooling (one fan instead of two) and the chassi doesn’t support the pair of woofers you see on the 10th-gen 4-TB ports version that they’re still selling for 1799.

So this seems like a stopgap made for the average user, while the entire redesign with higher performance chips will be released sometime next year.

Curious, do we really know this yet? Or is this just an assumption?

This is a selling point for me, as I appreciated the woofers and better sound quality on the higher end Intel MBP this year. I'm waiting for a break down of the interior to confirm this.
 

Doug314

macrumors newbie
Jan 2, 2017
7
2
Seems very likely there is a 14" MBP with major redesign including 4 Thunderbolt ports, 1080 FT camera and probably at least 12 core processor coming in 2021 that will be the "real" MBP. That said, I ordered the M1 MBP today anyway since a big step up from my early 2015 MBP.
 
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