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MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Which should you buy?

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Do you go MacBook Air or MacBook Pro this Christmas?

There are two main lines of Apple laptop. The MacBook Air is the more portable option, while the MacBook Pro is there for the people who need a laptop with the sort of power you might normally associate with a desktop PC.

Both MacBook lines have had very minor revisions in 2014, bringing in subtly improved CPUs. In the MacBook Air's case, it also got a fairly significant £100 price cut.

However, there is a slight overlap on pricing, meaning that it might not actually be that easy to choose which one to buy. The top-end 13-inch MacBook Air is actually £100 more expensive than the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro.

So which is the best laptop for you? Here’s a closer look at the benefits of each.

When Were the Latest Versions Announced?MacBook

Whenever you consider buying an Apple gadget, you should always consider when the last version was released. Apple tends to release a new edition of each of its main lines each year, like clockwork.

The last MacBook Air line-up was revealed recently, in late April 2014. Not only does that mean that we're probably due a new model within four months, but internet rumour suggests that this could be the long-anticipated Retina display-equipped Air. This would arguably be the most significant new model in the range since the original launched back in 2008.

Meanwhile, the MacBook Pro Retina line was updated in July 2014, making it ever so slightly more current than the Air range.

Ultimately, we're likely to see a new Air model before a new Pro model, and it should be a much more significant update too.

Next, which is better?


The MacBook Pro is more powerful than the AirMacBook

We’ve already mentioned this, but the extra power of the MacBook Pro is one of the main reasons to buy it over the Air. This is especially true now that none of the Pro models have an optical drive, which was the other reason to buy one before.

All base versions of the MacBook Air feature a dual-core Intel i5 1.4GHz processor, with a Turbo mode clock speed of up to 2.7GHz. If you’re willing to spend an extra £120 you can get a dual-core i7 CPU.

These are relatively efficient CPUs designed to promote battery life just as much as performance. The Pro models all offer higher clock speeds, with the base model using a dual-core 2.6GHz Intel Core i5 CPU. MacBook 2

Upgrades in the Pro model go much higher than the Airs too – you can get a quad-core Intel Core i7-powered MacBook Pro if you have deep enough pockets. This extra upgradability is seen in RAM too. MacBook Airs comes in 4GB and 8GB varieties, MacBook Pros in 8GB and 16GB.

If you’re out for one of the cheaper MacBook models, beware of the non-Retina MacBook Pro, though. It does not use the latest-generation Haswell type of processor, but an older Ivy Bridge model. This is both slower and less power-efficient. Avoid, unless you really know what you’re getting into.

Aside from this ‘dud’ model, the MacBook Pros all have more powerful GPUs than the Airs. The Intel HD 5000 integrated graphics used in the MacBook Airs aren’t too shabby by old standards, but the Intel Iris chips of the Pros are slightly more powerful.

The real difference? The Intel Iris chip is clocked at 1.2GHz, just 100MHz up from the 1.1GHz of the HD 5000, and it’s designed to run at the higher 28W power of the Pro, rather than the 15W of the Air. They are of the same generation, but the Pro’s GPU is a bit more powerful. And the 15-inch version has the even more powerful Iris Pro edition as well, which has an extra 128MB eDRAM.

Those who want to be able to play modern games on their MacBook should consider the top-of-the-range 15-inch MacBook Pro, which comes with with a dedicated NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card. However, these don’t come cheap – you’re looking at spending at least £2,000.

If you're a hardcore gamer, though, a Windows laptop is still the way forward for gaming. Despite improvements, Windows OS X gaming support still trails behind Windows by a considerable margin.


MacBooks

The Air and Pro come in different sizes
MacBook

This point is dead obvious – the MacBook Air and Pro laptops come in different sizes. Although these days there is more overlap than there once was, relatively speaking.

You can get 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch MacBook Airs and both 13.3-inch and 15.6-inch MacBook Pros. There was once a 17-inch MacBook Pro, but it was discontinued without much ceremony in mid-2012.

The MacBook Pro is intended as more of a desktop-replacement than an Air. As such, if you find yourself sat at a desk or table for a large part of your day, working with multiple applications or open windows simultaneously, consider the 15-inch Pro.

A 13.3-inch screen works fairly well as either a portable or everyday laptop, but most of you will find the 11.6-inch display of the smaller MacBook a little too fiddly and cramped for hours-long typing sessions. However, it's perfect for performing light tasks (web browsing, document editing, email composing) in cramped conditions, such as on public transport or in busy conference centres and coffee shops.

Equally, the 15.6-inch MacBook Pro is arguably a bit big to be totally convenient to carry around all day. And weight is an important factor in any laptop you’re going to carry around, as we'll discuss in a later section.
MacBook 1

Retina Pro models have better screens than AirsMacBook

Aside from the power difference, the best reason to buy a MacBook Pro instead of an Air is the Retina display used in all but one of the Pro laptops. With a Retina MacBook Pro you get the sort of screen sharpness you might normally associate with a tablet display. Most other laptops, including the MacBook Air, fall way behind in this respect.

If you want more details, the 15.6-inch Pro has a 2,880 x 1,800 pixel screen, the 13.3-inch version a 2,560 x 1,600 screen. Text will look much smoother, and ultra-high-resolution videos a whole lot sharper than on a MacBook Air.

Resolution on the Air models is good among laptops, but isn’t quite at the same level as the Pro. The 11.6-inch Air has a 1,366 x 768 pixel display, while the 13.3-inch has a 1,440 x 900 display.

The Retina MacBooks offer improved image quality in aspects other than resolution too. Contrast and black level are much improved, giving richer-looking images. The Air is, once again, good among laptops in general, but not quite a match for the Retina Pro team.

If you find yourself consuming a lot of HD video throughout the day, or viewing or editing high resolution images, then a MacBook Pro is clearly preferable. You'll be able to view such content as intended or shot, whereas on the MacBook Air range it will always be a slightly blurry facsimile of the source material.


The Air laptops are a good deal lighter across the board…MacBook

If you’re after a laptop you can carry around all day without getting shoulder ache, you ideally need something that weighs roughly 1.5kg or less. This is something the MacBook Air laptops are fantastic for.

The 11.6-inch Air weighs 1.08kg, the 13.3-inch version 1.35kg. Both are among the lightest Ultrabook-style laptops you can buy.

For an everyday carry-around laptop, we’d suggest discounting the 15.6-inch MacBook Pro. It weighs just over 2kg, making it a bit weighty for the purpose. If you frequently find yourself travelling as much as working on your laptop, the 15-inch Pro may be too much of a burden.

The 13.3-inch version strikes a good balance, though. It is 1.57kg, which is light given the sort of power you get with this laptop. That's also impressive given that it’s made largely of aluminium, not plastic, as with all modern MacBooks.
MacBook 3

… And slimmer, but not by muchMacBook

As well as being lighter, the MacBook Air is a little slimmer than the MacBook Pro. However, the dimensions do not tell the full story.

The MacBook Air is 17mm thick, the Pro 18mm. Not much difference, is there?

These figures tell you how thick they are at their thickest point, but the MacBook Air design is a good deal more tapered. This gives it a much greater impression of slimness. The Pro seems relatively chunky next to the Air, even if there’s not really much in it looking at the figures.

What this means is that if you have a bag with a dedicated laptop compartment, the only real difference between carting the MacBook Pro 13-inch and the MacBook Air 13-inch around is its weight. You won't really free up any practical amount of space by opting for the Air, despite its razor-like front edge.


The Air range has significantly better battery lifeMacBook

The MacBook Air is the Pro’s nimble, slight sibling. And this is part of what gives the Air better battery life. It uses lower-power components, letting it run cooler and go a bit easier on the juice.

If you're wondering why we haven't seen a Retina display-equipped MacBook Air before now, this is the primary reason - more pixels equal a greater demand on a device's battery, and the Air is all about lasting a full working day away from a wall socket.

For a fairly direct comparison, the 13.3-inch MacBook Air can last for up to 12 hours (Apple’s figures) while the Pro lasts for up to nine. A three-hour difference is huge – some cheap laptops only last that long in total.

As these are Apple figures, you can expect to exceed them with light use. However, drive a MacBook Air hard and you can drain it within a few hours.

Both the smaller 11.6-inch Air and 15.6-inch Pro offer slightly worse battery life. You get nine hours from the Air and eight from the Pro.

Let’s not get too down on these models though – all the figures are excellent among laptops.


Connectivity is slightly better in the ProMacBook

The number of connections is pretty similar between the Pro and Air models, but there are a couple of pretty important differences. The smaller MacBook Air does not have a memory card slot – enough to rule out a purchase for some people, especially photographers.

In the 13-inch Air and both Pro sizes you get a full-size SDXC memory card slot.

The larger Pro models also offers a second Thunderbolt port. You get just the one with the Airs and the smaller MacBook Pro laptops, but two with the 15.6-inch versions. As we saw with the various configs on offer, this makes the 15-inch Pro a much better desktop replacement.

Both benefit from OS X YosemiteMacBook

Regardless of which model you opt for, you'll get the benefits of the latest version of OS X, which is known as Yosemite.

OS X 10.10 Yosemite is the biggest update to Apple's desktop OS for quite some time. Visually, it's almost akin to Apple's move to iOS 7 last year, with a far fresher and more modern look.

Yosemite uses brighter, flatter, simpler logos, a more legible font (Neue Helvetica like iOS), and pronounced transparency effects for its icy white windows.

All of these new elements have been designed with a high definition future in mind, so OS X Yosemite undeniably shines brightest on the Retina display-equipped MacBook Pros. Everything looks that bit crisper and sharper.

But don't think that the MacBook Air is left in the cold here. In fact, we've found that the brighter, less busy and higher contrast style of Yosemite is more pleasant to use on the MacBook Air's lower-resolution display than OS X 10.9 Mavericks was.

Performance, meanwhile, is universally strong across both MacBook lines, so there are no worries there.

SEE ALSO: OS X Yosemite tips and tricks

Which Apple laptop should you buy?

The MacBook range has caught a lot of flak over the years for being expensive and a case of style over substance. However the shrinking of the market as a whole has meant PC makers have struggled to offer many truly compelling, high-end alternatives on the Windows side. The MacBook Pro and Air really are among the best laptops you can buy, regardless of platform.

Which you should buy depends on how much power you need, and how highly you value screen quality. We've always recommended that those who do a lot of video editing, batch image processing or other processor-intensive work should opt for a MacBook Pro.

But really, you don't have to perform such advanced tasks to benefit from the larger MacBook Pro. This is a bone fide desktop replacement, so anyone who spends most of their time at a desk or table should give serious consideration to purchasing the 15-inch model. Its slightly larger and much sharper display makes juggling multiple windows and dealing with high definition content viable even on such a constrained display.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro is ideal for those who need to do serious, processor intensive work on the go. Don't bother with the non-Retina display model here, though.

More casual buyers may actually be better off with the slightly cheaper, lighter Air - specifically the 13-inch model. The display is still perfectly good enough for lighter, general tasks, it's easy to lug around, and its battery will see you through a lengthy work day with room to spare.

The 11-inch MacBook Air, like the 13-inch MacBook Pro, is a rather more specialised tool. It's really for those who spend a great deal of their time on the road or moving around, and who perhaps aren't able to (or simply don't wish to) lug around a dedicated laptop bag. It's particularly ideal for those who have to snatch their opportunities to work at the least opportune times - in departure lounges, on trains, and standing up at cramped counters.

Next, read our best laptops round-up

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