MacBook Air or MacBook Pro? Here's how the two new Apple laptops compare
However, the new model is expensive and kinda limited. Plenty of you are much better off with the classic Air and Pro ranges. But which is better now that both have been updated?
We’re going to compare the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops to find out which is right for you.
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MacBook Pro vs Air 2015: Design
All of Apple’s MacBook laptops have great aluminium bodies. The bottom, the lid and the keyboard surround are all-metal. MacBook Airs and Pros all feel great.
Their contours are a bit different, though. There are 15-inch and 13-inch versions of the MacBook Pro, and both have fairly blocky bodies. Both are 18mm thick.
Go by the dimensions alone and the Pro laptops don’t seem all that much chunkier than the 11-inch and 13-inch Airs, which are both 17mm. All that fuss for 1mm?
Well, in reality the MacBook Airs do seem significantly slimmer because their bodies are much more tapered. At their thinnest the Air laptops are only 3mm thick, and you can really feel it when you pick them up.
In pure practical terms, what matters more than just the feel is weight. Here’s the weights of the various models available in 2015:
MacBook Pro 15: 2.02kg
MacBook Pro 13: 1.58kg
MacBook Air 13: 1.35kg
MacBook Air 11: 1.08kg
The only one of these MacBooks you probably wouldn’t want to lug around every day is the 15-inch MacBook Pro. However, every little helps when it comes to portability. The 11-inch MacBook will pretty much sink into your bag without trace. In a good way.
All of these laptops only come in one shade, silver. While the new MacBook comes in Space Gray, Gold and Silver rather like Apple’s iPhones, the old guard laptops don’t.
It’s actually the MacBook Airs that are ageing a bit in design terms, though. They have contoured screen bezels rather than fully-flat screens, and quite obvious rubber protectors around the display. It's clearly a design of a few years ago.
MacBook Pro vs Air 2015: Screen
One of the most important differences between the Air and Pro laptops is screen quality. To put it simply, MacBook Pros have great displays. MacBook Airs do not.
While Apple has announced new MacBook Air 11-inch and 13-inch versions for 2015, both have rather dated screens. Many were hoping for Retina screens for the next Air refresh, but we didn’t get them.
Instead, both Air models have fairly low-resolution screens using TN panels rather than the IPS kind now being used widely in higher-end laptops. Here are the specs of the MacBook Air pair:
11 inch: 1,366 x 768 pixels, TN LCD
13 inch: 1,440 x 900 pixels, TN LCD
There’s a bump up in pixels for the larger-size laptop, but both suffer from fairly clear pixellation. Most Windows laptops at the price get you better resolution.
The TN LCD panels also come with their own set of image quality issues. Colour reproduction isn’t that great and brighter areas of images can appear washed-out.
For a screen of this type they are great, but then laptops have started to move on to better screen technologies. Viewing angles are limited too. When you tilt the display back or forwards much, contrast shift sets in, as it always does with TN screens.
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Here's what contrast shift looks like
The MacBook Pro twins, on the other hand, are totally different. Both have excellent screens that are ‘Retina’ grade. One again, here are those specs:
13.3 inch: 2,560 x 1,600 pixels, IPS LCD
15.4 inch: 2,880 x 1,800 pixels, IPS LCD
All of the issues with the Air twins are solved in the Pros. Images look far more rich, viewing angles are just about perfect and colour performance is way, way better.
MacBook Pro vs Air 2015: Connectivity
As generally happens with laptops, the bigger you go the better connectivity you get. The 11-inch MacBook Air has pretty limited connections while the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros have the same, pretty complete, array of connections.
That full load-out consists of two Thunderbolt 2 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card and a full-size HDMI port. Sure, an extra USB would come in handy, but it’s otherwise pretty good.
Scale down to the MacBook Air 13-inch and you lose one Thunderbolt port and the HDMI socket. It’s slightly less versatile, but you can do an awful lot with that one Thunderbolt port, including hooking up the laptop to an external display.
Move one step down again to the 11-inch MacBook Air and you lose a pretty serious element, the SD card slot. This is not good news for camera enthusiasts.
In the past, the MacBook Air laptops have also lost out on a few wireless connectivity standards, but now they are on-par with the MacBook Pros. All four laptop styles have Wi-Fi ac, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2.
MacBook Pro vs Air 2015: CPU, GPU and RAM
There’s an awful lot of variance in power and processor between the various MacBook models. The only set with consistency are the MacBook Air models. Both the 11-inch and 13-inch Airs use dual-core Broadwell Intel Core i5 CPUs clocked at 1.6GHz, which can be upgraded to 2.2GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 CPUs.
While these processors are pretty powerful, they’re also designed for high efficiency rather than max performance.
The Pro models get you a level-up in power terms, and are the better choice if you want a serious computer as well as one that’s pretty portable. That said, the 13-inch MacBook Pro still uses dual-core CPUs that care an awful lot about efficiency.
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It’s only when you step up to the 15-inch Pro model that you get full-blooded quad-core laptop CPUs. While at present the 15-inch Pros use 4th-generation Haswell processors rather than the Broadwell CPUs seen in the other models, they are still far more powerful.
Still, if you’re looking at a 15-inch model you might want to wait a bit to see what Apple comes up with in the next MacBook refresh: it probably won’t be a year away. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is also the only one that comes in a gamer-friendly configuration too. For £2,000 you can get a laptop with an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M card.
Now, for that sort of money you could get a ‘proper’ gaming laptop with far, far greater gaming power. But it’s a pretty good variant of that card with 2GB GDDR5 RAM.
Bringing up RAM introduces a whole other element to consider. These laptops don’t have the same kind of main system RAM either.
The MacBook Pro 13 has 1866MHz LPDDR3 system RAM where all the others have slower 1600MHz RAM. That includes the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
What will affect people more, though, is the amount of RAM. MacBook Airs come with 4GB RAM by default while all MacBook Pro models now have at least 8GB RAM. That extra bump-up gives you far smoother general performance when, for example, you have a half-dozen applications running and about five zillion browser windows opened.
Upgrading to 8GB RAM in an Air costs £80. We strongly recommend upgrading to this if you’re going to do any heavy image or video editing.
MacBook Pro vs Air 2015: Storage
All MacBook Air and Pro models use SSDs for their storage, which are way faster than the hard drive you have had in your last laptop or desktop. The problem with SSDs is what while prices are gradually coming down, unless you’re willing to spend big they don’t have anywhere near the capacity of HDDs.
MacBook Airs and Pros both start off with 128GB SSDs. That’s not a great deal for laptop. All sizes of Apple laptop can be upgraded to 512GB, while Pro models can go all the way up to 1TB. However, going from 512GB to 1TB will cost you an eye-watering £400.
One way to get more storage one the cheap is to buy the old, outdated 13-inch MacBook Pro, the model that sells for £899/$1099. It has a 500GB hard drive. However, we don’t recommend it as the processor is quite old and its screen is nowhere near as good as the more up-to-date Pro laptops.
MacBook Pro vs Air 2015: Keyboard and Trackpad
All MacBooks use pretty good slimline chiclet keyboards. And all of them including the 11-inch MacBook Air, have full-size keys. They are pretty great to type on, every one, but if you want something to act as a ‘main’ computer, we suggest opting for one of the 13-inch or larger models.
They feel that bit more steady, and give you a bit more room to work with. It’s not so much about the spaciousness of the keys (they’re pretty much the same), but the 11-inch MacBook does have a smaller trackpad and cut-down function keys. These make up the top row of the keyboard. The keyboard surround is also way smaller, which is what makes the 11-inch model feel a bit more cramped.
All MacBooks have backlit keyboards, though, making it easy to type away in the dark.
The MacBook Airs and 15-inch MacBook Pros use the same tech for their trackpads, with a hinged glass-top pad. However, the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a new Force Touch pad that is a bit different.
It looks exactly the same, sure, but no longer has that hinged design. Instead, it barely moves, instead relying entirely on haptic feedback for that classic trackpad ‘click’. The old models use a software-managed click mechanism, but don’t rely entirely on it.
What this enables is a new pressure-sensitive gesture. A standard tap acts like it always does, but you can press down harder to get secondary functions, like seeing web link previews in Safari. It’s pretty neat, especially as the haptic feedback also provides a more meaty second click to ensure it feels right.
As the new 13-inch MacBook Pro trackpads have a slightly less pronounced first click than the other MacBook models it does take a little getting used to, although you can customise this to an extent in the Settings menu.
MacBook Pro vs Air 2015: Battery Life
So far the MacBook Airs look a bit like poor relations of the MacBook Pros. And they are in some respects, but it’s also true that their strengths lie in different areas.
One of the best reasons to buy a MacBook Air is battery life. The 13-inch MacBook Pro lasts for up to 12 hours off a charge. We’ve been using the various models for the past week or so in series, and the stamina difference is obvious.
This is the pay-off of using a more reined-in CPU. Here are Apple’s figures on the battery life of the latest models:
MacBook Pro 15: 8 hours light use
MacBook Pro 13: 10 hours light use
MacBook Air 13: 12 hours light use
MacBook Air 11: 9 hours light use
As you can see here, the MacBook Air 13 is the clear king of stamina. If you’re just working with emails, documents and so on, you’ll let a long day’s work out of the Air, while we’ve drained down the 13-inch Pro within a day’s graft without much trouble.
As the figures state, the 15-inch MacBook is really designed for those who are going to use it at home as well as out and about. Eight-hour stamina is great for a laptop that size and resolution, but it’s a way off Air-style longevity.
Which MacBook should you buy? Well if you want the most up-to-date of the lot, there’s only one choice, the MacBook Pro 13-inch model. It’s the lone laptop to benefit from a Retina screen and the latest Broadwell processors.
The Airs have seriously ageing screens and the 15-inch MacBook Pro still uses last-generation processors. It’s not what you want when you’re paying upwards of £1000/$1200, is it?
However, if you can’t wait until the Air and 15-inch MacBook Pro either get a more serious update or are outright replaced, they still have their uses. The 15-inch MacBook Pro comes in configs that’ll blow the 13-inch MacBook out of the water, and is the only one that can come with a dedicated graphics card.
As for the Air, its stamina is still unbeatable. If you’re going to be doing work rather than watching movies, the screen quality needn’t be too much of an issue, and both sizes of Air are also wonderfully light.