MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Which should you buy?

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: Apple has finally updated its range of MacBook Airs for 2018, adding some features and functions that until recently were only available on the higher-specced (and more expensive) MacBook Pro laptops. But which ones should you buy, and why?

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air: What’s the difference?

Key features for the MacBook Air 2018 include the 13.3-inch screen which conforms to Apple’s Retina Display standard, a Touch ID fingerprint scanner, an always-on audio driver for Siri, and a 3rd-gen butterfly switched keyboard – all features which are present and correct on MacBook Pro 2018 models.

So, what else is new with the MacBook Airs? How do they differ from the MacBook Pros, and which is right for you? Where does this leave the 12-inch MacBook from 2015 or are you better off taking your money elsewhere? Let’s take a look.

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MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air – Touch Bar and Touch ID

One of the most opinion-dividing features Apple’s introduced in recent years (after binning off 3.5mm headphone jacks on iPhones) has to be the Touch Bar.

This is a thin OLED touchscreen which sits above the keyboard on MacBook Pros, right where you’d normally expect to see twelve function keys.

As well as giving you software versions of the F1-F12 keys, this context-dependant touchscreen has the ability to present a number of other controls too. If you’re scrubbing video in Final Cut Pro, for example, you get the ability to jump to different points in the clip with the Touch Bar. Likewise, with the Spotify app, you get improved media controls.

In Safari, it’ll show your bookmarks and a search field, in Photos you can scroll through pics.There’s also auto-suggestions for when you’re typing, too – a bit like SwiftKey, but for a laptop. It looks cool, and frees up space on your display for other things.

But it’s not for everyone.

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touch bar

Apple’s Touch Bar changes depending on the programs you’re using.

Returning for the 2018 MacBook Pro line-up, the Touch Bar is now a standard feature of the range – no longer will you get to opt for a cheaper version with function keys, unless you pick up a MacBook Pro from previous generations. For the 2018 MacBook Pros, it’s Touch Bar or bust.

This move may have alienated some buyers, who felt like they’re being forced to pay for extra tech that they’re not going to use.

These buyers may find some solace in the refreshed MacBook Air range, which has good old-fashioned function keys and nothing resembling a Touch Bar in sight.

Both the 2018 MacBook Pros and 2018 MacBook Airs feature Touch ID, a smart fingerprint scanner. Not only does Touch ID let you quickly unlock your laptop, but it can also be used to confirm iTunes and App Store purchases.

Whether you want to use it for that or not is another thing, but it’s certainly quicker and less hassle than having to hammer in a long and complex password every time.

And if your passwords aren’t long and complicated… please, do something about that.

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro – Display size and design

The refreshed MacBook Air has thankfully done away with those chunky old bezels which made the old 2017 Airs look decidedly retro (and not in a good way).

At the launch event, vice president of hardware engineering Laura Grove talked a lot about how her teams had taken the display right up to the edge of the enclosure, basically pushing it as far as they could, resulting in a 50% reduction in bezel size.

While we’ve not been able to measure up, there doesn’t appear to be much difference between the screen-to-bezel ratio of the new Airs and the current Pros. They’re both very slim and borderline unnoticeable. Were it not for the FaceTime HD cameras crammed into each one, we get the impression that Apple may have been tempted to push things further.

Those hoping for a MacBook Air bigger than 13-inches will be disappointed, however. There’s just one size, 13.3-inches.

The resolution is 2560×1600, the same as that of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. In terms of things like colour temperature, brightness and colour gamut, the 13-inch MacBook Pro 2018 blew us away in our tests, giving us 100% sRGB coverage, 84% Adobe RGB and 98.9% DCI-P3, and a colour temperature was 6514K. Whether the MacBook Air can match that or not is another thing. Seeing as it’s not aimed at photographers, we would assume not.

In terms of maximum brightness, the MacBook Pros quote 500 nits on their spec sheets. In our tests, we actually got a little more than that, 514 nits. The new MacBook Airs promise maximum nits of 300. That’s still a decent level of max brightness, but this means the Airs might not be quite as good for working outdoors. We’ll update this once we’ve got a new MacBook Air in for testing.

The MacBook Pro’s display also features TrueTone software, which the new Airs don’t. True Tone is ambient light colour correction software Apple introduced with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. It uses light sensors and cameras to measure the ambient light of your surroundings and dynamically adjust the screen colour temperature so it’s a little easier on your eyes. It’s not an essential feature by any means, but a nice thing to be able to turn on, especially if you find yourself working late.

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MacBook Pro Touch Bar

Ever wanted to quick access to emojis instead of having dedicated Function Keys?

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air – Specifications

All the key specs of the MacBook Pro 2018 and MacBook Air 2018 ranges placed side by side:

MacBook Air 2018 MacBook Pro 2018 (13-inch) MacBook Pro 2018 (15-inch)
Display 13.3-inch Retina Display, 2560 x 1600 LED, 300 nits 13.3-inch Retina Display, 2560 x 1600 LED, 500 nits, True Tone 15.4-inch Retina Display, 2560 x 1600 LED, 500 nits, True Tone
Processor 1.6GHz dual-core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz), 4MB L3 cache 2.3GHz quad-core 8th gen Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz) / 2.7GHz quad-core 8th gen Intel Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz) 2.2GHz 6-core 8th gen Intel Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz) / 2.6GHz 6-core 8th-generation Intel Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 4.3GHz) / 2.9GHz 6-core 8th-gen Intel Core i9 processor (Turbo Boost up to 4.8GHz)
Memory 8GB / 16GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM 8GB 1600MHz LPDDR3 RAM 32GB / 64GB 2400MHz DDR4 RAM
Storage 128GB, 512GB, 1.5TB SSD / 256GB, 512GB, 1.5TB PCIe-based SSD 256GB / 512GB / 1TB / 2TB PCIe-based SSD 256GB / 512GB / 1TB / 2TB / 4TB PCIe-based SSD
GPU Intel UHD Graphics 617 Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655 Intel UHD Graphics 630, AMD Radeon Pro 555X / 560X, both with 4GB of GDDR5 memory
Ports 2 x Type-C USB (supporting Thunderbolt 3), 3.5mm headphone jack 4 x Type-C USB (two supporting Thunderbolt 3), 3.5mm headphone jack 4 x Type-C USB (all supporting Thunderbolt 3), 3.5mm headphone jack
Connectivity 802.11ac Wi‑Fi, Bluetooth 4.2 802.11ac Wi‑Fi, Bluetooth 5.0 802.11ac Wi‑Fi, Bluetooth 5.0
Misc 720p FaceTime HD camera, Touch ID, T2 security chip, 3rd-gen butterfly switched keys 720p FaceTime HD camera, Touch ID, T2 security chip, Touch Bar, 3rd-gen butterfly switched keys 720p FaceTime HD camera, Touch ID, T2 security chip, Touch Bar, 3rd-gen butterfly switched keys
Dimensions 4.1–15.6×304.1×212.4 mm 14.9 x 304.1 x 212.4mm 15.5 x 349.3 x 240.7mm
Weight 2.75 lbs (1.25kg) 3.02 lbs (1.37kg) 4.02 lbs (1.83 kg)
Battery Up to 13 hours video playback (iTunes) Up to 10 hours video playback (iTunes) Up to 10 hours iTunes film playback
Price range £1199-£2579 i5 £1749-£3329 / i7 £2019-£3599 i5 £2349-£5769 / i7 £2699-£5939 / i9 £2699-£6119

As you can see from the table, the smaller MacBook Pro isn’t far off the MacBook Air in terms of weight, so even one of the MacBook Air’s supposed key benefits – lightness and portability – is fairly moot in 2018.

Still, the slightly slimmer profile may appeal to people who want a laptop that’ll easily slip into a satchel or backpack. Let’s not forget that the new MacBook Airs cost a whole lot less.

View now: MacBook Pro at Tesco.com from £1249 

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air – Processor

As the ‘Pro’ in the name suggests, the MacBook Pro is aimed more at professionals while the Air sits as the choice for users who want something more portable to do light work on the go.

Every 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with a quad-core 8th generation Intel Kaby Lake-U Refresh processor running under the hood, while the 15-inch versions have six-core 8th Gen CPUs, with the highest-end option coming with a powerful Intel Core i9 chip.

The name(s) of the Intel Core-i5 CPU which sits in the new MacBook Airs hasn’t been named, but Apple’s listed its basic clock speed as 1.6GHz dual-core 8th‑generation Intel processor which boosts up to 3.6GHz, but no other information has been released so far.

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MacBook Pro 2018 memory options vary depending on whether you go for a 13-inch or 15-inch version – you get the option of 8GB or 16GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM with the 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro, or 16GB or 32GB of faster 2400MHz DDR4 RAM with the 15-inch versions. 

Storage options vary greatly depending on the size and in one case the CPU model you opt for. Generally, you can get 256GB, 512GB, 1TB or 2TB of on board storage with all of the 13-inch options, and between 256GB and 4TB with the 15-inchers.

new MacBook-Air-2018

Mojave’s Dark Mode running on the new MacBook Air.

MacBook Air 2018 memory options include either 8GB or 16GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM.

The Air starts with a 5th generation Core i5 CPU and Intel HD Graphics 6000 GPU, with 8GB RAM and a 128GB SSD. You can double that storage if you fancy, though.

Both versions of the 13-inch MacBook Air come with 8GB RAM, while the MacBook Pros can be configured with either 8GB or 16GB RAM.

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MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air – Battery life

On paper, the new MacBook Pros give you over 10 hours of video playback time and 10 hours of general use.
In tests, we found that the 13-inch version with the Intel i7-8559U, would give you roughly seven hours of video playback and six hours of power for everyday use.

Apple’s promising that the new MacBook Airs will give us 13 hours of video playback time, but we’re taking that with a pinch of salt. That said, with the less demanding processor, the new Air should, in theory, give you more miles to the gallon than the MacBook Pros do.

new MacBook-Air-2018 Ports

The 2018 MacBook Airs feature two – two – USB-C ports supporting Thunderbolt 3.

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air – You’d better like USB-C

The new MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs are all about USB-C.

The MacBook Pro ditched the separate USB Type-A and Thunderbolt ports and replaced them with four USB-C ports.  All four USB-C ports on the 2018 MacBook Pros support the Thunderbolt 3 standard.

The new MacBook Pros come with just two USB-C Thunderbolt-supporting ports.

These are compatible with Thunderbolt too, so all your displays will still work, and high data transfer rates (up to 40Gbps) mean you can have all of your data, display and power needs handled by one connection.

While there are more Thunderbolt-compatible monitors, drives and dongles available than ever before, the shift to Thunderbolt and the dongle life will still likely be a pain for some.

MacBook Air

R.I.P. the MagSafe charging port. We shall miss thee.

Related: What is USB-C?

The iconic MagSafe port is gone too, so you’ll be charging your laptop through USB-C. So whether you go for a Pro or an Air, either way, one of your ports will almost always be dedicated to supplying the juice.

The lack of a microSD card reader, let alone an SD card reader, is also pretty painful. The message from Apple seems to be ‘buy some dongles, and a compatible monitor, or deal with it.’

MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air – Prices and verdict

The new MacBook Airs very much feel like they’re being positioned as cheaper MacBook Pros for people who don’t need the extra graphical grunt for their work. If this is you, you should pick a MacBook Air over a Pro.

The cheapest Air is about £600 less dear than the entry-level MacBook Pro. At the other end of the scale, the most expensive MacBook Air costs roughly £1000 less than the most expensive 13-inch Pro.

That said, given that the whole Air ethos is about being slim, light and portable, well, the new MacBook Pros are that, too. They’re not much heavier than a MacBook Air, meaning every time you look at buying something from the higher end of the 2018 MacBook Air range, the more compelling the argument is to just switch to a Pro instead.

For example, the most expensive 2018 MacBook Air costs £2579. For your money, you’ll get a machine that features a 1.6GHz dual-core 8th-gen Core i5 CPU, Intel UHD 617 graphics, 16GB of RAM and a 1.5TB drive.

For £300 more, you can get a 2018 MacBook Pro with a 15.4-inch screen with True Tone technology, a 2.2GHz hexa-core 8th-gen Core i7 CPU, an AMD Radeon Pro 555X GPU, 16GB of faster memory, four Thunderbolt 3 ports instead of two and 1TB of storage. OK, so you get less storage there, but it seems like there’s a bit of an overlap here, and if you need a performance machine, a MacBook Air might cut it in most situations, but if its power you need, you should be shopping around for a MacBook Pro.

What do you think of the new MacBook Airs and Pros? Let us know @TrustedReviews