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MacBook Pro (2021) vs. MacBook Air (2020)

Macbook Pro Vs Air Performance
Macbook Pro Vs Air Performance (Image credit: iMore)

If you're just considering specs, the 2021 MacBook Pro is obviously the better computer when compared to the 2020 MacBook Air, but the story is not always that simple. For most everyday tasks, there's simply no need for all that robust power. Depending on the task at hand, the higher price of the MacBook Pro may not be justifiable. Of course, a game designer would beg to differ, so let's take a look at the facts before we make any hasty decisions.

MacBook Pro (2021) vs. MacBook Air (2020): Key differences

Macbook Versus Air

Macbook Versus Air (Image credit: iMore)

It only takes a cursory glance at these technical specs to see that the 2021 MacBook Pro is bigger and better in many respects. To be fair, the MacBook Air is certainly no slacker. Both machines come with Apple Silicon M1 processors, great graphics, high-resolution displays, and upgrade choices for memory and storage. Take a look:

MacBook Pro 2021MacBook Air 2020
CostFrom $1,999From $999
Size14 inches, 16 inches13 inches
DisplayRetinaLiquid Retina XDR
Refresh rateUp to 120Hz60Hz
Resolution3024x1964 pixels2560x1600 pixels
Processor10-core Apple M1 Pro chip or 10-core Apple M1 Max chip8-core Apple M1 chip
RAM(Up to) 64GB(Up to) 16GB
Storage(Up to) 8TB(Up to) 2TB
Camera1080p FaceTime HD camera with M1 image signal processor1080p FaceTime HD camera with M1 image signal processor
SoundHigh-fidelity six-speaker sound system with force-canceling woofersStereo speakers
PortsSDXC card slot, HDMI port, headphone jack, MagSafe 3 port, Three Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) portsTwo Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports, headphone jack
KeyboardMagic Keyboard with Touch IDMagic Keyboard with Touch ID
Dimensions0.61 x 12.31 x 8.71 inches0.63 x 11.97 x 8.36 inches
Weight3.5 pounds2.8 pounds

Despite the impressive specs of the MacBook Air, you can see here that the MacBook Pro has more to offer down the line, from display to speakers to ports. The question here is, how many bells and whistles do you really need?

MacBook Pro (2021) vs. MacBook Air (2020) design: The bigger, the better?

Mac Display

Mac Display (Image credit: iMore)

The two laptops are not so very different, design-wise. Both offer space gray and silver colorways, while the Air also has the additional gold colorway. The MacBook Pro is bigger with 14-inch and 16-inch configurations, and the MacBook Air is both smaller and lighter. The tidy size of the Air could actually be a benefit if you're carrying it around on your shoulder all day, but those who work with graphics and visual content will certainly want a bigger screen.

Both MacBooks have impressive, high-resolution retina displays, but the MacBook Pro has the more advanced Liquid Retina XDR display.

Speaking of screens, both MacBooks have impressive, high-resolution retina displays, but the MacBook Pro has the more advanced Liquid Retina XDR display. This means that the Pro has more pixels per inch and a brighter display overall, providing up to 1600 nits of peak brightness. The Pro model also has double the refresh rate of the Air at 120Hz, so scrolling, gaming, and video playback will look and feel smoother on the Pro machine.

With that being said, the MacBook Air boasts a perfectly lovely LED-backlit display with 2560x1600 resolution and support for millions of colors. For the average user, this is more than enough display to go around. Since both laptops also have Thunderbolt ports, either one can be connected to a bigger, more powerful display as well. However, if you're working with graphics directly on the MacBook, the larger, brighter display on the MacBook Pro will likely be preferable.

MacBook Pro (2021) vs. MacBook Air (2020) performance: M1 was just the beginning...

Let's not beat around the bush. If sheer speed and power are what you need, the MacBook Pro 2021 wins on performance, hands down. These machines aren't just equipped with the Apple Silicon M1 chip. Apple has pushed performance even further with this MacBook Pro by releasing the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips.

While M1 was the first processor that combined CPU and GPU memory into a single, more powerful unified memory architecture, the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips add more cores for even more bandwidth. Both of these chips add graphical quality, speed, and connectivity while using markedly less power than any other processor on the market. The M1 Pro adds more GPU, CPU, and neural engine cores than the M1, while the M1 Max adds more cores in all three categories along with additional unified memory. This means that the Max outperforms both the other chips in speed, performance, graphical capabilities, and support for external displays.

If sheer speed and power are what you need, the MacBook Pro 2021 wins on performance, hands down.

In fact, we can't discuss external devices without mentioning that the 2021 MacBook Pro bought back all those ports we so dearly missed. Here you have an SDXC card slot, HDMI port, headphone jack, MagSafe 3 port (for charging), and three Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) ports. This is the most connectivity we've seen in a MacBook for years. But what to do with all those dongles?

Both of the 2021 MacBook Pro models offer the buyer a choice between the M1 Pro and M1 Max chip, depending on how much power is needed. Either one of these will outperform the M1 chip that's held within the MacBook Air. This is all pretty incredible, considering the original M1 chip can already outperform most Intel- and AMD-based CPUs in performance and highly outclass them in performance-per-watt. That is to say, for most tasks, the M1 chip in the MacBook Air is already more than qualified. For those using the MacBook for power-hungry tasks like 3D-modeling or video editing, however, the upgrade to one of the more advanced M1 chips will be more than justified.

MacBook Pro (2021) vs. MacBook Air (2020) price: Where's the bang for your buck?

Buy Macbook Vs Air

Buy Macbook Vs Air (Image credit: iMore)

Price is where the 2020 MacBook Air really shines. This machine was one of the first computers to feature Apple Silicon, and yet it came out with the modest starting price of $999. When you look at performance-per-watt, this is the most affordable computer you can buy. Besides the advanced processor held inside, the MacBook Air also offers a beautiful retina display, Touch ID, and two Thunderbolt ports. All of this is wrapped inside a compact, lightweight package. This laptop is packing a lot of bang for the buck.

When you look at performance-per-watt, the 2020 MacBook Air is the most affordable computer you can buy.

The 2021 MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is a full $1000 more expensive than the 2020 MacBook Air out of the gate. That's before you add any upgrades or expansions. As we covered in the sections above, that $1000 buys you a lot of performance and display capabilities. You get what you pay for here. The question is, do you need all the extras? There are definitely areas where speed and performance are necessary. If you're running extremely heavy applications and working with huge files sizes, all of that power will come in handy. Be careful with those upgrades, though. The larger 16-inch MacBook Pro with the M1 Max processor and all of the expansions will cost you over $6,000!

MacBook Pro (2021) vs. MacBook Air (2020): Which one should you get?

There is no clear-cut answer to the question of which MacBook to buy. This decision will come down to your budget and individual needs. Are you looking for the best of the best, no matter the cost? If that's the case, then the MacBook Pro 2021 is the obvious choice. There's no denying that the Pro model is the better computer for performance, display, and connectivity. For those working with multiple external displays, visual content, heavy applications, and giant files sizes, the MacBook Pro will perform beautifully in every capacity. But that's if you have the budget for all those extras.

For someone like me who uses a MacBook mostly for typing, project management, and research purposes, there's simply no justifying the extra expense. For me, the 2020 MacBook Air does everything I need and then some. The average user or student who's shopping on a budget will likely be more than satisfied with all the MacBook Air has to offer. And at that price, it's almost too good to be true.

The MacBook you choose will need to fulfill whatever kind of workload you throw at it, so this is a very personal choice. Take a hard look at your own professional and performance needs, as well as your budget, and choose the MacBook that best suits you. No matter which you go with, at least you'll know it comes with a piece of that oh-so-efficient Apple Silicon.

Jaclyn Kilani
Jaclyn Kilani

Jaclyn Kilani is a content writer at iMore. She's a longtime Apple addict with a flair for creating (written works, design, photos; you name it!) on her devices. Jaclyn has also worked in the marketing sector for over 16 years, dabbling in a bit of everything from writing to graphic design and digital marketing. In her heart of hearts, however, she is a born writer and an avid reader who adores everything about the written word. Someday she may even churn out a book or two.

Throughout her career, Jaclyn has also developed something of an addiction to all things Apple. Her professional and personal life is enhanced by an ever-growing collection of iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, Apple Watches, and even AirTags. Luckily, this expensive habit is of great use to her work at iMore, where she writes with authority on Apple products and the accessories that go with them.