The MacBook Air and the Retina MacBook Pro are portable, beautiful and high-performance laptops, but there is a £250 price difference between the two types of MacBook. This is the PC Advisor MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air laptop comparison review, which will help you understand which of the two types of MacBook is best for you. Our colleagues over at Macworld UK have done a more Apple-focused piece comparing the two Apple laptops which you should check out too: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review. Also read our MacBook Air 2014 review.
Both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have recieved small updates in 2014, reducing the price of both line-ups and also giving each model a little spec boost. We expect Apple to release bigger updates for its MacBook ranges next year when Intel's Broadwell chips become available.
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air comparison: build, design, portability
The differences here are small but may be significant. Both MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are stunningly built and finished devices, but the 2014 11-inch MacBook Air is 490 g lighter than the lightest Retina MacBook Pro, at 1.08 kg. While the MacBook Air gives the impression of being slimmer, it's still 1.7 cm at the thickest point, just a millimeter different. (See also: What's the best laptop you can buy in 2014?)
The 2014 13-inch MacBook Air model is probably a fairer comparison, and that weighs in at 1.35 kg, just 220g less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina. The 2014 13-inch MacBook Air weighs the same as the 2014 model. Let's take a closer look.
The MacBook Air is the ultimate ultraportable laptop. It has a beautiful unibody chassis that's just 18 mm thick. This is rigid, exceedingly tough and impeccably finished in satin sand-blasted aluminium. Expect Apple's usual high quality.
The Apple backlit keyboard now so widely copied by others is improved over earlier unibody MacBooks, such that light bleed through the sides of keys is greatly reduced. And that keyboard is one of the best in the business, with very short travel keys that we found made typing comfortable and nearly effortless.
The Apple MacBook Air sports the same supreme all-metal build quality that we've yet to see surpassed in other brands' laptops, styled with a wedged taper from rear to front edge. Despite Apple's reputation for assembling premium products at premium prices, we've not seen any Microsoft hardware partner match the features, build and attention to detail, either at the same price or higher.
One small visible change for the new MacBook Air is an extra pinhole on the left flank, marking an additional, second microphone. This trusted tech trickled down from the Retina MacBooks, adding noise cancellation to improve voice clarity in FaceTime and Skype calls.
The MacBook Air weighs in at a swallowable 1.35 kg. Switch to the MacBook Pro and you get a good selection of ports around the chassis, with Thunderbolt now at version 2. Unfortunately the HDMI output looks to be set to the older HDMI 1.2 standard or below as we still couldn't get any better than 1920 x 1200-pixel output through this port. This won't be an issue when connecting to full-HD televisions or projectors, but it does mean you need to use a valuable Thunderbolt port to connect a high-resolution monitor with, eg, 2560 x 1600 display.
You can expect the same quality of design and finish as with the MacBook Air, but in a marginally larger and heavier chasis. The 2014 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is 50 g lighter than the 2012 Retina MacBook, it's now just 1.57 kg. As we said: marginal. The 2014 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is a bit heavier than the 13-inch, at 2.02 kg, but the same weight as the 2012 model. Both models are just 1.8 cm thick. These are not big laptops in any respect other than workspace, and we consider the MacBook Pro to be an ultraportable just the same as the MacBook Air.
The MacBook Pro with Retina Display benefits from an incredible 2880 x 1800-pixel IPS display, configured in HiDPI mode to look like the 1440 x 900 layout of every 15-inch MacBook Pro since 2006. Ports around the chassis are the same: two Thunderbolt 2, one USB 3.0, audio headset jack with Toslink digital audio, and MagSafe 2 power connector all to the left.
Simply: if absolute portability is your thing you may wish to opt for the MacBook Air. But you won't curse lugging around a MacBook Pro. These are all super portable PCs.
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air comparison: specifications and performance
There's a hefty premium for the top model MacBook Pro over the entry-level £999 13in Retina MacBook. The top spec 15in Retina MacBook Pro will set you back £1,999. The extra £1000 will buy you an Intel quad-core processor with built-in Intel Iris Pro graphics, compared with the dual-core Intel processor with Intel Iris graphics. The baseline clock speed is up to 2.8GHz for the dual-core and 2.5GHz for the quad-core. Choose from 8GB RAM or 16GB, and up to 1TB of PCIe-based flash storage.
For professional users and well-heeled gamers arguably the biggest justification for the top-spec Retina MacBook Pro is the discrete nVidia GPU with its 2 GB of video memory. As with the original Retina MacBook and previous Unibody models, these graphics are configured to automatically switch depending on loaded applications. You could also set only nVidia high-power graphics to be used (System Preferences/Energy Saver and deselect 'Automatic graphics switching'); or use the gfxCardStatus menu app to manually lock Intel graphics on.
For many users the 'low-power' Intel integrated graphics will prove quite sufficient, making the upgrade to nVidia machine less justifiable. In our tests, we found Intel Iris Pro could keep up with nVidia GeForce when playing games at standard screen resolutions. And in fact, Iris Pro could be faster.
For lovers of peace and quiet though, do note that running the Intel Iris Pro graphics means louder fan noise. The integrated graphics run hotter than nVidia's and introduce clearly audible noise throughout most gameplay.
Can the MacBook Air compete? You bet it can. The Mid-20134 of the MacBook Air has a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor.
It's worth noting that this dual-core chip still includes Hyper Threading too, to process four concurrent threads, and will also dynamically overclock to twice its rated speed, 2.7 GHz in Turbo mode. While Intel talks of its Core i-Series chips' baseline speed and their Turbo peak speed, one could also view this processor as a 2.7 GHz part that runs predominantly underclocked at half its baseline speed.
There's 128 GB PCIe-based storage as standard across both 11.6in and 13.3in models.
Graphics on the MacBook Air aren't as powerful as the Pro, but unless you're planning on playing graphics-heavy games you should be satisfied with the Intel HD Graphics 5000 found in the 2014 MacBook Air models.
When it comes to battery life, the MacBook Air is the clear winner. Expect up to 12 hours of use with the 13-inch MacBook Air compared with just 9 hours with the 13in Retina MacBook Pro.
The MacBook Pro is marginally the better performer, then. But we'd wager that you won't be worried about the performance of the MacBook Air. And when it comes to battery the Air is king. (See also: 20 best budget laptops of 2014.)
MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air comparison: UK price
When it first launched in October 2012, the 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display started at £1,449. This was reduced to £1,249 a few months later when the range received a processor upgrade. Now the entry-level price is a much more compelling £999. The MacBook Air pricing starts at £749, this is £100 less than the 2013 model, which started at £849. That's a £250 saving between the entry-level models of MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro.
If you wanted to compare like for like, the 13-inch MacBook Air pricing starts at £849, £150 less than the Retina display model.
What do you get for your £150? The key differences are a faster processor (2.6 GHz compared to 1.4 GHz) and Intel Iris Graphics as opposed to the Intel HD Graphics, plus 8GB RAM rather than 4GB. Of course, there's also that stunning Retina display to take into consideration.
2014 MacBook Air, 13-inch, £849, specs and features
- 128GB PCIe flash storage
- 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
- Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz
- Intel HD Graphics 5000
- 4GB memory
- 12 hour battery
2014 MacBook Pro, 13-inch, £999, specs and features
- 128GB PCIe flash storage
- 2.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
- Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz
- Intel Iris Graphics
- 8GB memory
- 9 hour battery
The MacBook Air might be the cheapest option, but it's still worth considering paying just £150 more to can get a lot more power and features from the MacBook Pro with Retina display. However, you might prefer to keep your £150 and spend it on an external monitor so that you can hook your MacBook up to a second display. It really does boil down to your requirements. You are unlikely to be disappointed either way. (See also: Group test: what's the best ultraportable laptop?)