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MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Which should you buy?

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Which Apple laptop is the best?

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.

However, the somewhat-similar pricing means it’s not actually that easy to choose which one to buy, particularly if choosing between the top-end 13-inch MacBook Air and the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro where there's a minimal £100 difference. 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. We’re unlikely to see new MacBook Airs for quite some time.

Current MacBook Pros have been around for longer. The Retina models were introduced in October 2013, and the best bets suggest we’ll see new models outed at WWDC 2014, which takes place between 2-6 June.

If you’re lured-in by the idea of a MacBook Pro, consider waiting a little longer.

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 2.4GHz 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.

‘Real’ gamers should consider a 15-inch MacBook Pro with a dedicated graphics card. However, these don’t come cheap – you’re looking at upwards of £2,000. Still, a Windows laptop is still the way forward for gaming, not least because Windows support for games is much more comprehensive.


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. 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.

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…
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 little bit sharper, than on a MacBook Air.

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


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. 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. And that it’s made largely of aluminium, not plastic. All MacBooks are.
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.


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.

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.


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. Those who do a lot of video editing, batch image processing or other processor-intensive work should opt for a MacBook Pro. However, more casual buyers may actually be better off with the slightly cheaper, lighter Air.

Next, read our best laptops round-up

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