2019 MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro: Which is right for you?

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MacBook on desk
Look at all those ports!
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Apple’s current laptop lineup is the simplest it’s been in a while. It consists of the 13-inch MacBook Air, and two sizes of MacBook Pro, which are almost identical apart from size.

If you want a 15-inch Apple notebook, then the choice is easy. But if you want a 13-incher, which should you pick? That’s what we’ll look at today, pitching the 13-inch MacBook Air against the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Apple’s simplest laptop lineup in years

The MacBook Pro Touch Bar.
The MacBook Pro Touch Bar.
Photo: Apple

In the July 2019 update, Apple ditched the old 12-inch MacBook entirely. The company also upgraded/removed the “MacBook Escape,” aka the MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar.

As a result, Apple’s new laptop lineup is much less confusing. Here are brief descriptions of the Air and the Pro (all references here are to the 13-inch MacBook Pro unless stated otherwise), followed by some comparisons, thoughts and buying advice.

MacBook Air

The MacBook Air, good enough for most people.
The MacBook Air is good enough for most people.
Photo: Apple

The newly updated MacBook Air looks amazing. It starts at $1,099 and packs a gorgeous True Tone Retina display. And, thanks to across-the-board drops in SSD upgrade prices, you can now afford to increase its storage without getting ripped off. Like the MacBook Pro, the Air offers Touch ID and the T2 security chip,  which attempts to make the MacBook as secure as iOS devices. It’s the lightest Mac notebook at 2.75 pounds (1.25 kilograms) versus the Pro’s 3.02 pounds (1.37 kilograms).

Like the base MacBook Pro, the Air offers two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports. Both models also share a big Force Touch trackpad and Apple’s revamped butterfly keyboard.

The Air delivers better battery life than the Pro, with 12 or 13 hours of use versus “just” 10 for the Pro. The Air also runs with the less-powerful Intel UHD Graphics 617.

MacBook Pro

The MacBook Pro adds a Touch Bar and a better display.
The MacBook Pro adds a Touch Bar and a better display.
Photo: Apple

The MacBook Pro is now only available with a Touch Bar, and therefore no physical escape key. If you love hardware keys and you want an Apple notebook, then you will have to pick the Air.

The Pro is also the only choice if you want more than two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, but you’ll have to buy the $1,799 model to get them (it has four ports, as do all the 15-inch models).

The Pro also has Bluetooth 5.0, against the Air’s Bluetooth 4.2.

The high-end model’s display delivers a wider color gamut, which means more colors. Speaking of displays, the Pro also boasts better graphics chips: either Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645 or Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655.

MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro

So how do the two current Apple laptop lines stack up?

Main differences:

  • Touch Bar
  • Processor
  • Weight
  • Battery
  • Graphics + screen
  • Ports

Same

  • Keyboard
  • Touch ID
  • Trackpad
  • Stock 8GB memory
  • Base model storage (128GB)
  • Size, more or less
  • Support for external GPUs

How to pick the right MacBook

Some of the differences are easy to digest. If you love or hate the Touch Bar, then your choice is made. If you want the cheapest option no matter what, then the Air is for you. But other differences prove more subtle.

All MacBooks come with the same crappy keyboard.
All MacBooks come with the same crappy keyboard now.
Photo: Apple

Both the base models come with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. The RAM is enough for most uses, but 128GB is pretty sparse. Especially if you’re using the Pro as a pro machine and need to store music/photos/video on the internal SSD. Fortunately, Apple dropped the prices on storage upgrades, and these upgrades cost the same for both models.

What about RAM? Both the Air and the Pro come with 8GB, and can upgraded to 16GB for $200 extra. Storage and RAM-wise, then, both models are equal. And if all you need is more than two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, a dock/hub will take care of that for much less than the extra $500 needed to get them built-in.

Processor and display

Other than the Touch Bar, then, it all comes down to processor and display. The MacBook Pro has superior (faster) graphics and a wider color gamut display. The MacBook Pro is also the only one with faster processor options.

If you need a faster processor, then you already know it. If you’re not sure, then you don’t. Basic processor speed is more than fast enough for almost everyone these days. So really, it comes down to the display.

Our (non-surprising) final advice

If you’re buying a MacBook for photography or video, then, you should buy the Pro. The faster processor will help crunch those frames, and the better screen is essential.

For music production? RAM and storage are more important than processor speed for most projects, so a MacBook Air with extra storage added is fine. But on the other hand, the Touch Bar is really nice to have for Logic Pro — the app really takes advantage of it. And for music, the extra colors in the display don’t matter a bit.

Our advice, then, is that the MacBook Air is probably best for most people, and the MacBook Pro is better if you need its extra pro features. Both can be upgraded with extra storage and RAM if you need it. The only confusion is the Touch Bar, and that comes down to your own preference.