MacBook Pro vs. MacBook Air: How to decide which Apple laptop to buy

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A close-up shot of the 16-inch MacBook Pro's keyboard.

June One/ZDnet

This year has been an eventful one for the MacBook. In January, new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro configurations appeared on the scene. In the summer, Apple released the larger MacBook Air, and in October, the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models were upgraded to the new M3 chipset.

If you’re in the market for a new MacBook, you may wonder whether it makes more sense to buy a MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air. With Apple announcing five MacBook configurations and officially retiring three laptops in a year, buying confusion is especially certain.

Also: Apple’s M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max chipsets: What you need to know

When buying a MacBook, you’ll want to consider the computer’s display size, storage capacity, computing power, and price. For example, the 2022 13-in And 2023 15-inch MacBook Air The models are equipped with Apple’s M2 chip, which boosts their performance, offers more functionality and has longer battery life than MacBooks with an M1 or Intel chip.

The most recent MacBook Pro models debuted with Apple’s M3 chips, which are more efficient and capable than the M2 chips.

Think of yourself as Goldilocks in this situation; You’ve come across four different MacBook models, but you need to find the right one for you. So, before deciding which one to buy, let’s cover the main differences between Pro and Air

What is the difference between MacBook Pro and Air?

Believe it or not, there are a lot of differences between the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. The biggest difference between the two is price and computing power. The most affordable MacBook Pro with an M2 chip will cost more than the most affordable Air with an M2 chip. However, the Pro is more powerful, thanks to upgraded internals under the hood.

Revaluation: Apple 16-inch MacBook Pro (M2 Max, 2023): A content creator’s dream machine

The M3 MacBook Pro models have more unified memory, longer battery life, more ports (including HDMI and SD card), and, generally, more sophisticated GPUs and CPUs than their Air counterparts. There are two MacBook Pro display sizes: 14-inch And 16-inch.

The M3 MacBook Pro has improved internal computing components for greater efficiency and performance. The M3 family consists of three chips: M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max. The M3 model’s media engine has been improved to better handle video playback. The M3 chips have the same amount of CPU and GPU cores and neural engines as the M2 chips, and both the base M2 and M3 chips can support the same amount of unified memory.

According to Apple, M3 chips are 15% faster than M2 chips, so if you’ve recently upgraded to an M2 MacBook Pro, you’re not behind on computer power.

MacBook Pro on a table.

Here’s the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

June One/ZDnet

If you’re looking for a new 13-inch MacBook Pro, unfortunately, Apple discontinued the 13-inch MacBook Pro after releasing the new 14-inch MacBook Pro. You can no longer buy the 13-inch MacBook Pro on Apple’s website. Apple has also stopped selling the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models with the M2 Pro and M2 Max chips.

Also: M3 MacBook Pro with top-of-the-line specs? You’d be surprised how far under $10,000 it is

The 14-inch and 16-inch Pros can be equipped with Apple’s new M3 Pro and M3 Max chips, and you can buy a 14-inch Pro with the base M3 chip. If you’re going big with the 16-inch Pro, understand that your only options are the M3 Max or M3 Pro chips, which will increase the price.

The upgraded chipsets are also more powerful than the base M2 chips found in the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Air. These upgraded chips make the 14-inch and 16-inch Pro suitable for pro-grade video footage (up to 8K), 3D art rendering, music creation and high-resolution photo editing in Adobe Photoshop.

However, the more power you want with the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros, the more expensive it becomes. 14-inch Pro starts $1,599 And, with chip and internal storage upgrades, it can go up to $3,199. 16-inch Pro starts $2,499 And, with interior upgrades, it goes up to $3,999.

If you’ve decided you want a MacBook Pro and need more guidance on deciding which Pro model works best for you, check out ZDNET’s M3 MacBook Pro buying guide.

The MacBook Air 15-inch at WWDC

The 15-inch MacBook Air is the largest of its kind, but lacks the side-firing speakers found on the Pro models.

Jason Hiner/ZDNet

The 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Air are only equipped with Apple’s base M2 chip, but that doesn’t mean the Air is a less-capable computer. Thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air Pro because it has less internal hardware, ditching ports for things like HDMI and an SD card slot and a cooling fan. Instead, Apple is banking on its chips’ ability to dissipate heat and keep laptops well-stabilized.

Review: I can’t recommend the 15-inch MacBook Air enough, even if it’s not for me

And, of course, less hardware means the MacBook Air is less expensive, but you can add a few upgrades. For the 13-inch Air, you can choose between two M2 chip configurations, as the upgraded base M2 chip has two more GPU cores than the others. The upgraded GPU means your computer can process graphics more efficiently, making 4K video editing faster and smoother.

The 15-inch Air is already equipped with the M2 chip with a 10-core GPU, so the upgrade is included in the base price.

Revaluation: Apple MacBook Air (M2, 2022): Slicker, faster

13 inch air starts $1,099 And it goes up to $2,399 if you max out the internal storage and GPU. 15 inches of air starts $1,299 And goes up to $2,499 for more storage. For buyers who are on a tight budget or don’t need much computing power, Apple still offers M1-powered MacBook Air for $999.

If you’re sure you want a MacBook Air and need more help deciding which Air floats your boat, check out ZDNET’s M2 MacBook Air buying guide.

Which MacBook is right for you?

The answer depends on how you see yourself using the laptop and how display size and weight factor into that equation. A reliable computer is an investment; You don’t want to spend too much on an over-qualified laptop, yet you also don’t want to buy a computer that isn’t powerful enough for your needs.

If you are a graphic designer, music producer, professional photographer, videographer, 3D artist, or iOS game and app developer, MacBook Pro That’s it to go as far as MacBooks are concerned. Pro models can handle intense graphics processing and more software running in the background without significantly lagging, overheating or slowing down.

If you are a student or someone who spends most of your time in Microsoft Office Suite or Google Suite, a MacBook Air Could be a better fit. If you want the MacBook to casually surf the Internet, watch YouTube or Netflix, respond to emails, and FaceTime your friends, the Air model is not only adept at handling those tasks but also won’t weigh you down with it around.

No matter which model you buy, a MacBook is great for users who want to expand their personal Apple ecosystem with a device that works seamlessly with iPhones, AirPods, and other products. Handoff, for example, lets you switch FaceTime calls between your MacBook and iPhone, and your MacBook can easily access your iPhone files, messages, contacts, and photos.

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