Apple’s M1 chip in the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13 is the biggest improvement to the MacBook range in years, making them top laptops for 2021. This system-on-a-chip (SoC) features an eight-core CPU and either a seven-core or an eight-core GPU (depending on the model). It increases the power and performance of Apple’s laptops in incredibly impressive ways and gives them an enormous battery boost to boot.
If you are in the market for a new MacBook, that means you have a lot to think about. What should you consider when choosing between the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro? Should you go for an M1 model or a laptop using an Intel processor? And if you do go for an M1 MacBook, what are the features and benefits, and which is the best choice? That is what our guide will explain. We have examined all of Apple’s current Mac laptops to find the best MacBook for your money.
Your MacBook options
How much does a MacBook cost? That depends on the model, and there are three main ones currently available from Apple:
- MacBook Air — $999
- MacBook Pro 13 — $1,199
- MacBook Pro 16 — $2,399
Each model has its own benefits and drawbacks. Let’s look at them in detail.
The MacBook Air is a superb choice
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Apple’s MacBook Air has always been the laptop to go for if you want a lightweight, portable machine. That used to mean you had to sacrifice performance for portability, but the M1 chip has changed all that in a huge way.
Who is the MacBook Air right for? Interestingly, the M1 chip means many of the same people who want a MacBook Pro will love the MacBook Air. That’s because when we reviewed the M1 MacBook Air, we found its performance was on par with the MacBook Pro 13 (also outfitted with the M1). In HandBrake, it was 12 seconds behind the Pro, while still posting a very speedy score in its own right. It finished slightly behind the Pro in the Cinebench R23 benchmark but beat it in our Geekbench 5 test — in fact, the MacBook Air’s single-core score was one of the highest Geekbench 5 results we have ever seen, with only the M1 Mac Mini and the 24-inch iMac pushing ahead.
What is even more remarkable is that the MacBook Air does all this without a fan. The M1 chip is so power-efficient that Apple has been able to cool the Air completely passively, while still enabling it to post some truly beefy performance numbers. If you love your laptops to be absolutely silent, this is a major draw. All that extra power efficiency means the Air lasted 18.5 hours in our video-playback test and 15.5 hours with light web usage. That is incredible longevity.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Elsewhere, you get classic Apple design with the MacBook Air, including a rock-solid aluminum body and top-notch build quality. The keyboard is Apple’s Magic Keyboard, which boasts improved travel and reliability over the butterfly keyboard. There is no Touch Bar — you instead get a full row of function keys and a Touch ID button on the right-hand side for logging in and confirming purchases.
As for the Air’s Retina display, Apple rates it for 400 nits (although our testing set it slightly lower, at 389 nits). It has strong ratings for both color accuracy and contrast (1.39 and 1130:1, respectively, both of which are better than average). It hits 100% of the sRGB gamut and 79% of Adobe RGB — that is a little higher than most Windows laptops, but below the MacBook Pro’s rating. If you need a laptop for color-sensitive work, you should consider the Pro over the Air.
What about storage? And how much does the MacBook Air cost? Well, you will get 256GB of storage in the $999 entry-level MacBook Air. The 512GB model is $1,199, the 1TB version costs $1,399, and the 2TB model is $1,799. You can choose between 8GB or 16GB of memory, although this uses a unified memory architecture (UMA), which makes it much more efficient than standard laptops at using its onboard RAM. In almost all consumer use cases, 8GB of UMA memory will be plenty.
Do you need to go Pro?
The phenomenal upgrade the M1 chip has brought to the MacBook Air puts the MacBook Pro in something of an awkward spot. The difference between the two is no longer so pronounced — in many ways, it is razor thin — but there are still some instances where the Pro is the better option.
Weirdly, performance is not one of those areas. As we mentioned in the MacBook Air section, the Pro’s performance lead has evaporated thanks to both laptops using the same chip. It did still pull ahead in some areas during our testing, such as the multicore test in Cinebench R23, where it held a sizeable lead of 7,547 to 6,680 over the MacBook Air. It was also faster at exporting videos in HandBrake. In some scenarios, the extra GPU core over the entry-level Air will help in terms of performance.
If performance was not a clear win for the MacBook Pro 13, its Retina display and speakers are. Its screen is rated for 500 nits of brightness, which we found to be 485 nits in our testing. It also beats out the Air for contrast (1470:1) and Adobe RGB compliance (91%), making it much better for creative users. Its speakers are also a joy to listen to — rare for a laptop. While those on the Air are by no means bad, they are not on the same level as the Pro’s audio setup.
Unlike the Air, the Pro comes with a fan. While there is no guarantee it will operate silently, we never heard it spin up once during our review, not even when it was being pushed to the limit. The M1 chip’s ability to stay cool under pressure also means it can massively extend the Pro’s battery life, even beyond that of the Air. We recorded a huge 21 hours for video playback and 16 hours for light web browsing.
The MacBook Pro also comes with Apple’s Touch Bar instead of the row of function keys. This touch-sensitive strip features app-specific shortcuts and buttons, although it may be on the way out. There is also a Touch ID button on the right.
The Pro’s starting price is $1,299, which gets you 256GB of speedy storage. For $1,499. you get 512GB, $1,699 gets you 1TB, and the 2TB model is $2,099. The higher price means you need to think carefully about whether the outlay is worth it. Yes, you get a better display and speakers, but the MacBook Air can do everything else just as well for $300 less. Unless you are a creative professional, the Pro is quite a hard sell.
You also need to be aware of what is coming in the near future. The MacBook Pro is heavily rumored to get a major update in 2021, with the 13-inch model being upgraded to a 14-inch version with a larger, brighter screen, a new chassis design, the inclusion of more port variety, and more. This is scheduled for the middle of the year, so if you can hold on a little longer, your patience could be rewarded with the largest MacBook Pro overhaul since the 2016 redesign.
What about the MacBook Pro 16?
When the MacBook Pro 16 came out in 2019, we said it was “the best Mac in years.” It’s funny how quickly things change because, at the moment, its lack of an M1 chip makes it the least attractive MacBook on offer unless you have specific needs. That might make you wonder who it is right for.
The MacBook Pro 16 is not slow, but in most cases, it cannot keep up with the M1. Its single-core score of 1193 in Geekbench 5 is way behind the M1 MacBook Pro’s 1707, and that’s on the Intel Core i9 model of the MacBook Pro 16, which costs a cool $2,799. Things were closer in the multicore test, but the M1 Pro still came out on top and costs less than half the price. When you really max out the MacBook Pro 16, it can surpass the M1 chip in terms of performance, but that can really hit your wallet hard.
However, the MacBook Pro 16 has some advantages. Like the MacBook Pro 13, the 16-inch model has an excellent, color-accurate Retina display and superb speakers. Combined with the large screen, that makes it great for content consumption. In fact, those extra few inches on the display are perfect if you need more screen space, but it is one of the few reasons you would pick the larger MacBook Pro over either M1 MacBook.
You will pay $2,399 for the entry-level MacBook Pro 16<