With the powerful Apple MacBook Pro, available in multiple screen sizes, and the slim, efficient MacBook Air, there are only two broad Mac laptop families to chose between nowadays (unless you go looking at refurbished, used, or older-gen models like the MacBook). But they’re both excellent ones. With similar specs and exterior styling across both the Air and the Pro, deciding which one is best for you largely comes down to which size screen you need and how much processing power your typical computing tasks require.
Picking between the two families is the easy part. Getting down to the nitty gritty within each family is trickier, though. We’ll walk you through all of your MacBook options to help you make sense of all the different CPU, memory, storage, and other component options that Apple offers. (See also our more focused blow-by-blow comparing the 13-inch models alone.)
Apple’s smallest laptop is the MacBook Air. It’s a slim, sleek machine that measures 0.63 inch at its thickest point and weighs just 2.8 pounds. The MacBook Air is also Apple’s cheapest laptop, starting at $899 for students and teachers or $999 for the general public. The cheapest and most portable entry point into the macOS ecosystem obviously has enormous appeal.
A low price doesn’t mean the MacBook Air’s screen is low quality, though. Despite the fact that it’s not the highest-resolution 13-inch display you can buy, the LED-backlit panel impresses with its brightness and clarity. The native resolution is 2,560 by 1,600 pixels. The display uses in-plane switching (IPS) technology, which means that the remarkable picture you see while sitting in front of it doesn’t degrade much if you turn it to show a colleague what you’re working on. However, it doesn’t provide the wide P3 color gamut that you’ll get from the MacBook Pro screens, so it’s not the top choice if video/photo color correction or color matching are important to what you do.
Adobe Photoshop. In addition to the three processor choices, you can also spend some extra money to increase the memory (up to 16GB) and storage capacities (up to a 2TB SSD).
The MacBook Air vs. the MacBook Pro
The closest Apple alternative to the MacBook Air is the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, which tips the scales at 3.1 pounds. In return for a slightly higher starting price ($1,299) and a bit of extra weight, the entry-level MacBook Pro offers a more powerful Core i5 processor. In fact, every processor available on the 13-inch version of the MacBook Pro is more powerful than the equivalent CPU on the MacBook Air, in part because the MacBook Air’s CPUs consume a maximum of 10 watts of power in order to generate less heat and help the battery last longer.
The entry-level configuration of the 13-inch MacBook Pro offers 8th Generation Intel processors in either Core i5 or Core i7 variants, while the upgraded $1,799 model can be equipped with the latest 10th Generation Core i5 or Core i7 CPUs. The newer processors offer faster memory and higher clock speeds, which could make a difference for processor-intensive tasks like video editing, but probably won’t have a significant effect on everyday tasks like editing documents or browsing the web. (Future MacBooks may well be based on chips made by Apple proper, based on ARM designs. See our preview of how future Macs might perform.)
Touch Bar, But No Touching
There’s a unique aspect to the MacBook Pro models that you must consider if the “Pro” part of the name applies to you: the Touch Bar. This is a long, thin, touch-enabled OLED screen that comes mounted forward of the MacBook Pro’s keyboard. The Touch Bar is unique to Apple and highly specialized. It’s Apple’s answer to touch gestures in Windows 10, and it’s most useful in professional apps like the Adobe Creative Suite and Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, which let you use the Touch Bar to scrub through a video timeline, switch tool selections, and much more. This feature is not available on the MacBook Air.
The Touch Bar is not a substitute for the touch screens that you’ll find on many Windows ultraportables, however. You cannot use it to interact with basic screen elements like the menu buttons on websites, nor can you use it to draw on the screen. An Apple iPad or a Windows laptopis your best alternative for these tasks. Fortunately, the trackpads on all Apple laptops are excellent, with oversize glass surfaces and virtual “haptic” feedback instead of a physical click mechanism.
If you are a multimedia professional who might benefit from the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, you’ll need to consider whether you want the 13-inch or the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The factors to consider here are more than just the three extra screen inches, which help push the 16-incher’s weight above 4 pounds. You also need to decide whether you need the extra horsepower that a discrete GPU and an optional Intel Core i9 CPU can provide. If you’re a video or photo editor, you’ll want to strongly consider the 16-inch model with an AMD Radeon Pro graphics card, which can speed up editing tasks even though it’s not powerful enough for high-end gaming. The 13-inch Pro model only comes with Intel integrated graphics.
Apple laptops once had user-replaceable components, allowing owners to replace their hard drives with SSDs and add more memory as computing needs evolved. No more. Such improvements are impossible with current Apple laptops; all of their chassis are sealed shut. It’s too bad that Apple has turned a cold shoulder toward tinkerers, forcing people who want to future-proof their laptops to spend a lot of money maxing out the specs at purchase time instead of upgrading later when the prices of components come down or new needs arise.
Still, there’s no denying that Apple laptops are highly innovative, influential machines. You can see it in the many MacBook-inspired designs among the legions of clones in the laptop aisles at your local Best Buy, Fry’s, or MicroCenter. Browse the alternatives, by all means, but rest assured that you made a good choice if your laptop-shopping excursion ends by carrying a white plastic bag out of an Apple Store.
If you’re not sure if a MacBook Air or Pro is your thing, also take a look at our roundup of the best laptops overall.
The Best For Creative Pros Seeking Portability
Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2020)
The Best For Multimedia Content Creators
Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch
The Best For Frequent Travelers, Everyday Computing
Apple MacBook Air (2020)
Pros: Improved keyboard action and feel
Sleek, lightweight design
Multiple color options
Long battery life
Reasonably priced, for a Mac
Cons: As ever, no touch screen
Limited port selection
Lackluster raw computing performance
No support for Wi-Fi 6
Bottom Line: If you’re a macOS fan who primarily uses a laptop to write and browse the web, the 2020 Apple MacBook Air’s redesigned keyboard and lower price make it easy to recommend.
Pros: Improved keyboard comfort
Excellent Retina display
Four Thunderbolt 3 ports
Long battery life
Good graphics and computing performance
Cons: Expensive as configured
Limited port variety
No support for Wi-Fi 6
Bottom Line: A tweaked keyboard and the option for a 10th Generation Intel “Ice Lake” CPU bring typing comfort and better performance to Apple’s already-excellent 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Pros: Excellent Retina Display, now larger and with slimmer bezels. Revamped keyboard. Comfortable, XL-size touchpad. Superb audio quality. Powerful Intel Core i9 and AMD Radeon Pro 5500M. Long battery life. SSD storage options up to 8TB.
Cons: Lacks microSD slot, USB Type-A ports. As ever, no touch-screen option. Expensive as configured.
Bottom Line: With a larger display, a beefier graphics chip, and (vitally and finally!) an improved keyboard, Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro is a beyond-capable big-screen powerhouse built for creatives.
Tom is PCMag’s San Francisco-based news reporter. He got his start in technology journalism by reviewing the latest hard drives, keyboards, and much more for PCMag’s sister site, Computer Shopper. As a freelancer, he’s written on topics as diverse as Borneo’s rain forests, Middle Eastern airlines, and big data’s role in presidential elections. A graduate of Middlebury College, Tom also has a master’s journalism degree from New York University. Follow him on Twitter @branttom. See Full Bio