When it comes to buying the best laptop with an Apple logo on the lid, there really are only two options these days – the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. They’re both capable laptops, but which one you choose will very much depend on what you’re looking for in a computer.
Let’s be honest, neither of these is the cheap option although one is definitely cheaper than the other. But if you’re shopping on features alone you’re going to need to take a long, hard think about what it is you’re looking for, what it needs to do, and how long you’re likely to need it to do it for.
But with all the excitement around the newly released MacBook models, there's bound to be some buyers who are torn between which is the best MacBook for them. Fortunately, we've been testing both laptops for years, and we're here to break everything down for you so you get the right MacBook model for your needs and budget.
MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Price & Availability
Right now, the Apple MacBook Air (M1) starts at $999 for a base configuration and the MacBook Air (M2) starts at $1,199 / £1,249 / AU$1,899. You can pay much more than that if you add more RAM and storage, of course – the MacBook Air tops out at $2,499 – but you probably shouldn’t go that high on the specs. At that point, you might as well just get a MacBook Pro 14-inch.
Choosing the MacBook Pro means starting at $1,299 / £1,299 / AU$1,999 for the MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2), but that’s a model that you really shouldn’t buy. If you’re on a budget, the MacBook Air is a better bet, while the MacBook Pro that you really want is the MacBook Pro 14-inch (2021), which starts at $1,999 / £1,899 / AU$2,999.
Upgrade to the monster MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) and prices start at $2,499 / £2,399 / AU$3,749. Again, you can upgrade these things to include huge specifications and downright obscene prices. In all cases, you may be able to save through one of the many Apple promo codes available at the moment.
With the release of the new MacBook Pro 14-inch (2023) and MacBook Pro 16-inch (2023) models, the starting prices are the same in the US, so you won't have to pay more for the price of entry like you do for the new MacBook Air (M2).
In the UK and Australia, though, the starting prices for the new MacBook Pros have gone up a bit, with the 14-inch model starting at £2,149 / AU$3,199, and the 16-inch model starting at £2,699 / AU$3,999.
In terms of availability, the situation is much better than it once was. You can buy a preconfigured MacBook Air or MacBook Pro and get it delivered within days, and Apple Stores should have stock as well. Start customizing things and you’ll have to wait a little longer, though.
- Winner: MacBook Air
MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Design
There are multiple versions of both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with different industrial designs based on what you’re willing to spend.
Kicking things off with the MacBook Air, Apple is still selling the previous generation model with M1 chip inside. Externally, that’s essentially the same MacBook Air that Apple has been selling for years and, frankly, it’s a bit boring. You still get to choose from Space Gray, Rose Gold, and Silver colorways at least.
The better option is the newer M2-powered MacBook Air with an all-new look. That includes a design that’s no longer tapered like the MacBook Airs of old, and there’s a notch at the top of that 13-inch screen that houses the camera. It also means that the bezels are smaller which means the display itself is slightly larger – 13.6 inches vs 13 inches – and the overall aesthetic is just much more modern. You also get to choose from more colors including Midnight, Space Gray, Starlight, and Silver.
Upgrading to the MacBook Pro again means there are two options. Well, technically three.
The lineup starts with the 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro, which you really shouldn’t buy. It’s an older design and includes the much-maligned Touch Bar atop its keyboard. The machine can be upgraded at the time of purchase, like any Mac, but the CPU can’t. If you want M2 Pro or M2 Max power, you’re going to need one of the other MacBook Pro options.
Those options are essentially the same machine but with 14- and 16-inch screen options. Compared to the 13-inch model the overall design is much more modern, including that notch that some people love and others hate. What it does mean is that the bezels are smaller, just like the MacBook Air. And that’s never a bad thing. The rest of the design is just more modern and while the 13-inch MacBook Pro can be had in any color you want so long as it’s Silver, the bigger machines add a Space Gray alternative.
There’s another big benefit of choosing the modern MacBook Pros, too – ports. Lots of them. You’ll enjoy three Thunderbolt 4 ports, an HDMI port, an SDXC card slot, and a MagSafe 3 port for charging. You can’t say that about any other Mac portable.
- Winner: Tie
MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: Performance
If it’s raw performance that you’re looking for, there really is only one machine for you – the upgraded 16-inch MacBook Pro. But it’ll cost you.
Priced at $3,499 / £3,749 / AU$5,599 before you even add any options, this model comes with an Apple M2 Max chip with 12 CPU cores and 38 GPU cores. The 32GB memory is joined by 1TB SSD storage and you can of course upgrade both of those – up to 96GB and 8TB, though the highest spec configuration is going to be incredibly expensive by any measure.
That will of course get you the best laptop Apple has to offer, but that doesn’t mean that the M2 MacBook Air should be ignored. If the beefed-up MacBook Pro is built for people who need to edit 8K video or hundreds of audio tracks on battery power, the MacBook Air is there for everyone else.
The M2 chip is more than fast enough for most people and is the best thin and light laptop on the market, and it will be for some time yet. You can of course add a little more RAM and storage to meet your requirements, as well. But if pure longevity is what you need, any of the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros will serve you well for years to come, no matter what.
- Winner: MacBook Pro
Which one should you buy?
Right at the beginning we said that choosing between a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro would depend on what you need it to do and for how long you want it to do it. That’s still very much the case, although we’ve now established that you should avoid the 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro and only choose the M1 MacBook Air if you’re on the tightest of budgets.
But when it comes to the M2 MacBook Air and 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, it’s all actually surprisingly simple. If you are someone who needs the extra power of the MacBook Pro, you probably already know that’s the machine for you. You’re a professional whose workflow demands the very best. When time is money, quite literally for freelance creatives, for example, it pays to choose the notebook that saves it.
But for everyone else, the MacBook Air is the only option that matters. The M2 chip is crazy fast, the entire machine is silent, and you can choose from some gorgeous colors. It isn’t cheap, sure. But M2 MacBook Air buyers can rest easy at night knowing that their new Mac will last for years and years. Can you say that about every notebook on the market today?
- Winner: Tie
Sign up for Black Friday email alerts!
Get the hottest deals available in your inbox plus news, reviews, opinion, analysis and more from the TechRadar team.
Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back.