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MacBook Pro M1 vs MacBook Air M1: The Ultimate Guide

In a bold move, Apple has begun transitioning its Mac lineup away from Intel processors to its own custom-designed Apple silicon. The first Macs powered by the game-changing M1 chip arrived in November 2020 in the form of a new MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini.

For the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro in particular, the M1 chip enables a massive leap forward in performance, power efficiency, and capabilities compared to their Intel predecessors. But with these two laptops sharing the same chip, the decision between the M1 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Pro is more nuanced than ever.

In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll compare the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with M1 across every aspect from performance and specs to design and value. By the end, you‘ll have a crystal clear picture of which M1 MacBook is right for your needs and budget.

M1 Chip Architecture and Performance

The star of the show in the new MacBooks is undoubtedly the M1 system-on-a-chip. This is Apple‘s first processor designed specifically for the Mac, and it‘s a remarkable feat of engineering.

The M1 features an 8-core CPU with four performance cores and four efficiency cores. The performance cores offer industry-leading performance for single-threaded and lightly-threaded workloads, while the efficiency cores handle lighter tasks while sipping power.

Fabricated on a 5-nanometer process, the M1 packs a whopping 16 billion transistors onto a single chip. It integrates the CPU, GPU, unified memory, Neural Engine, Secure Enclave, SSD controller, image signal processor, encode/decode engines, and Thunderbolt controller all onto one SoC.

This tight integration allows for incredible performance and efficiency. Apple claims the M1 delivers up to 3.5x faster CPU performance, up to 6x faster GPU performance, and up to 15x faster machine learning compared to the latest Intel-based MacBook Air.

In Geekbench 5 benchmarks, the M1 MacBooks achieve single-core scores of around 1700 and multi-core scores of about 7500. That puts them on par with high-end desktop CPUs like the Intel Core i9-9900K and AMD Ryzen 7 3700X in single-core performance.

Geekbench 5 Scores Single-Core Multi-Core
MacBook Air M1 1687 7433
MacBook Pro M1 1714 7476
Dell XPS 13 (Core i7-1165G7) 1540 5432
HP Spectre x360 (Core i7-1165G7) 1317 4541

As you can see, the M1 MacBooks outperform top-tier Intel Tiger Lake laptops by a significant margin, especially in multi-core tests. But perhaps more impressive is the fact that the MacBook Air achieves nearly identical results to the MacBook Pro despite having no fan.

The M1 also integrates an 8-core (or 7-core in the base MacBook Air) GPU on the same chip. This enables much faster graphics performance than the integrated GPUs found in Intel laptops. The M1 MacBooks can even outperform some laptops with discrete GPUs in certain tests.

In GFXBench 5.0 benchmarks, the 8-core M1 GPU is 5-7x faster than the Intel Iris Plus Graphics in the previous MacBook Air. It also tops the Intel Iris Xe graphics in the Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre x360.

GFXBench 5.0 Aztec Ruins (Normal Tier) FPS
MacBook Air M1 8-core GPU 54
MacBook Air Intel Iris Plus 8
Dell XPS 13 Intel Iris Xe 36

With this level of graphics prowess, the M1 MacBooks can handle demanding tasks like 4K video editing, 3D rendering, and even gaming far better than typical integrated graphics. For example, the MacBook Air can edit multiple streams of full-quality 4K ProRes video in Final Cut Pro without dropping a frame.

Another key aspect of the M1‘s performance is the unified memory architecture. The M1 uses a single pool of RAM that‘s shared between the CPU, GPU, and other components. This allows all parts of the SoC to access the same data without having to copy it between multiple pools of memory, further boosting speed and efficiency.

The M1 MacBooks support up to 16GB of unified memory, which may not sound like a lot. But because it‘s part of the M1 package and offers much higher bandwidth than standard laptop RAM, 16GB is plenty even for very demanding workloads.

All of this remarkable performance is made even better by the fact that the M1 chip is incredibly power efficient. The MacBook Air achieves its speeds while staying completely fanless, and both laptops deliver all-day battery life. The M1 MacBook Air lasts up to 18 hours of video playback, while the M1 MacBook Pro reaches 20 hours – the longest battery life ever in a Mac.

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro – Key Differences

Design and Ports

Aside from the internals, the M1 MacBook Air and Pro retain the same classic unibody aluminum designs as their Intel predecessors. The wedge-shaped Air measures 0.16-0.63 inches thick and weighs 2.8 pounds, while the Pro is a uniform 0.61 inches thick and weighs 3.0 pounds.

The Air has a tapered design that feels a bit more sleek and portable, but both are impressively compact machines. The Pro does have the advantage of being actively cooled with a fan, however, which allows it to sustain high performance for longer under heavy sustained loads. More on that later.

In terms of ports, both laptops have two Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports that support charging, 40Gb/s data transfer, and external displays up to 6K resolution. The Pro adds a studio-quality three-mic array with directional beamforming for higher quality audio recording.

Display

The MacBook Air and Pro both feature 13.3-inch Retina displays with a sharp 2560×1600 resolution and P3 wide color gamut. The main difference is that the Pro‘s display is brighter at 500 nits versus the Air‘s 400 nits. The Pro also supports True Tone technology, which automatically adjusts the white balance to match the ambient light.

For tasks like photo and video editing where color accuracy is critical, the MacBook Pro‘s screen will provide a better experience. But for general use, the Air‘s display is still excellent with vivid colors and ample brightness.

Keyboard and Trackpad

Both M1 MacBooks come with Apple‘s much-improved Magic Keyboard with scissor switches. It offers a far better typing experience than the ill-fated Butterfly keyboard in some older MacBook models, with good key travel and a satisfying tactile feel.

The big difference is that the MacBook Pro features a Touch Bar instead of a traditional function key row. This multi-touch strip provides contextual controls and customizable shortcuts for various apps. Some users swear by the Touch Bar‘s convenience, while others prefer the tactile function keys on the Air.

Underneath the keyboard is a large Force Touch trackpad on both models. It‘s the best trackpad you‘ll find on any laptop thanks to its huge size, smooth glass surface, and precise haptic feedback.

Webcam and Speakers

The M1 MacBook Air and Pro have the same 720p FaceTime HD webcam, which benefits from the M1‘s advanced image signal processor. With improved noise reduction, dynamic range, and face detection, the M1 makes the most of the 720p camera for clearer video calls.

For audio, the MacBook Air has stereo speakers with wide stereo sound and support for Dolby Atmos playback. The Pro takes it a step further with high dynamic range stereo speakers and a three-mic array with directional beamforming for clearer recordings. Both have a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Performance

As covered earlier, the M1 chip allows both the MacBook Air and Pro to deliver mind-blowing performance that runs circles around equivalent Intel laptops. The 8-core CPU and up to 8-core GPU provide more than enough muscle for even demanding workloads.

In Geekbench 5, Cinebench R23, and GFXBench benchmarks, the M1 MacBooks come out way ahead of the Intel-based Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre x360. The 8-core GPU also enables smooth gaming at 1080p in titles like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Fortnite, and Civilization VI.

However, there are some differences in performance between the Air and Pro. Because the MacBook Air is fanless, it has to throttle speeds sooner and more aggressively than the Pro under extended heavy loads in order to maintain safe temperatures.

In a 30-minute 4K render in Final Cut Pro, the MacBook Pro with fan was able to maintain its full M1 performance for the entire duration. The Air, on the other hand, had to throttle down to about 80% of its peak performance after about 10 minutes to prevent overheating.

For most users doing everyday tasks and even a fair bit of photo and video editing, this won‘t be an issue. The Air is still an incredibly fast machine in burst workloads. But for professionals with long-running, CPU-intensive tasks, the active cooling in the MacBook Pro could mean significantly faster completion times.

The M1 also excels in terms of SSD speed. Both models come with ultra-fast SSDs that reach sequential read and write speeds of up to 3.3 and 2.2 GB/s, respectively, in BlackMagic Disk Speed Tests.

Another advantage of the M1 chip is instant wake from sleep. The Mac wakes up immediately as soon as you open the lid, much like an iPhone or iPad. It‘s a small detail but it makes using the machine feel that much more responsive.

Battery Life

One of the most impressive aspects of the M1 MacBooks is their stellar battery life. Thanks to the incredible efficiency of the M1 chip and tight integration with macOS Big Sur, these laptops last longer than any other Mac on a single charge.

Apple claims the MacBook Air gets up to 15 hours of web browsing and 18 hours of video playback, while the Pro reaches 17 hours of web browsing and 20 hours of video. In real-world use, both laptops can easily last a full 8-hour workday and then some on a single charge.

In a battery rundown test looping a 4K video at 150 nits screen brightness, the MacBook Pro lasted over 16 hours and the Air over 14 hours. That‘s about 30-50% longer than leading Intel ultraportables like the Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre x360.

Software and App Compatibility

One potential downside of the transition to Apple silicon is app compatibility. Because the M1 chip uses a different architecture (ARM) than Intel‘s x86 processors, software written for Intel Macs won‘t run natively on the M1.

However, Apple has made the transition nearly seamless with its Rosetta 2 translation software. Rosetta 2 automatically translates existing Intel apps to run on the M1 without any modifications from the developer. In most cases, these translated apps run faster on the M1 than they did on Intel Macs.

For example, Adobe Lightroom Classic runs about 50% faster on the M1 through Rosetta 2 than on an Intel MacBook Pro. As developers update their apps to run natively on the M1, performance will only get better.

Another benefit of the M1 chip is the ability to run iPhone and iPad apps natively on Mac for the first time. You can download iOS apps directly from the Mac App Store and use them side-by-side with Mac apps. This opens up a huge library of new software for M1 Mac users.

All of Apple‘s Mac apps like Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, Xcode, and iWork have also been updated to run natively on the M1 with major speed boosts. And important third-party apps like Microsoft 365, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, and Google Chrome all have native M1 versions available.

Value and Price

Starting at $999 for the MacBook Air and $1299 for the Pro, the M1 MacBooks offer incredible value for their performance and features. Compared to premium Windows ultrabooks in their price range, these laptops provide a significant jump in performance, battery life, and overall user experience.

The $300 price difference between the base models is largely justified by the Pro‘s brighter display, active cooling, Touch Bar, and studio-quality mics. For users with sustained heavy workloads like video editing and 3D rendering who will benefit from the fan, the Pro is worth the extra cost.

However, for the vast majority of users doing everyday productivity tasks, light creative work, and even some coding, the base MacBook Air is hands-down the best value. There‘s simply no other ultraportable laptop that can match its combination of performance, build quality, and battery life at its price point.

The Verdict

Choosing between the M1 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Pro largely comes down to your specific needs and workload. Here‘s a quick summary of which model is better for different use cases:

  • Basic computing (web browsing, productivity, video calls): MacBook Air
  • Students and travelers who value portability: MacBook Air
  • Photographers and designers who need a bright, color-accurate display: MacBook Pro
  • Video editors and 3D modelers who do long renders: MacBook Pro
  • Developers and coders (unless you‘re compiling very large projects): MacBook Air
  • Music producers who need high-quality built-in mics: MacBook Pro
  • Anyone who wants the best overall value: MacBook Air

The MacBook Air is the clear choice for most users thanks to its lower price, completely silent fanless design, and nearly equal performance to the Pro in all but the most demanding sustained workloads.

Compared to the Intel-based MacBook Air, the M1 model is a massive upgrade in every way. It‘s 3.5x faster, has 5x faster graphics, and lasts up to 6 hours longer on battery. Unless you absolutely need legacy ports like USB-A or an Intel processor for specific software not yet supported on M1, there‘s no reason to buy an Intel MacBook Air anymore.

The case for the M1 MacBook Pro is a bit more niche. If you‘re a creative professional who needs performance on par with high-end Intel laptops for tasks like 4K video editing and 3D modeling, the MacBook Pro‘s active cooling will help it better maintain peak speeds under load. The brighter screen and Touch Bar are nice additions for pro users as well.

However, the performance difference between the M1 Air and Pro is actually quite small in most real-world use cases. For the vast majority of users, the Air will be just as capable while being $300 cheaper.

Ultimately, you can‘t go wrong with either laptop. The M1 chip is a true game-changer that makes both the MacBook Air and Pro the most impressive ultraportable laptops on the market by a wide margin. Whether you choose the Air or splurge for the Pro, you‘ll be getting unrivaled performance, battery life, and user experience for the price.

The transition to Apple silicon is off to an incredible start with the M1 MacBooks. If this is just the first taste of what‘s to come, the future looks very bright for the Mac lineup. As Apple continues to scale up its custom silicon to the iMac, 16-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac Pro with even more powerful chips, Intel and AMD will have their work cut out for them to keep up.