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MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air comparison review: Apple laptop buying advice

This is the PC Advisor MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air laptop comparison. 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.

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 was 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. The 2013 11-inch MacBook Air weighs the same as the 2014 model. (See also: best laptop)

The 2014 13-inch MacBook Air model is probably a fairer comparison, and that weighs in at 1.35 kg, just 220 g less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina. The 2013 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 2013 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 2013 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. Last year the 13-inch model was a tiny bit thicker at 1.9 cm, the thickness of the 15-inch model hasn't changed. 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.

There's a hefty premium for the top model MacBook Pro over the entry-level £1699 Retina MacBook. The extra £500 still buys you an Intel quad-core processor with built-in Iris Pro graphics and 6 MB of L3 cache. But baseline clock speed is raised from 2.0 to 2.3 GHz. Instead of 8 GB of low-power DDR3 memory, there's 16 GB; and also doubled is the solid-state storage, from 256 to 512 GB.

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.

Playing Batman: Arkham City at 1280 x 800 resolution, Intel's graphics averaged 63 fps at both Medium and High detail settings, while nVidia's graphics lagged slightly at 60 fps. Raising the output resolution to 1440 x 900, nVidia barely crept ahead at 52 versus 51 fps.

Using the Unigine Heaven OpenGL benchmark, the two graphics solutions effectively tied at 28.6 and 28.5 fps (1440 x 900, Medium), the tenth of a frame per second in Intel's favour.

Only when we tried Cinebench could we see nVidia convincingly pull ahead – and then only in the new R15 revision of the rendering app. Using Cinebench R11.5 both graphic chipsets recorded results of 44.9 fps; but the latest R15 build showed a convincing lead of 53.5 against 28.0 fps.

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.

Cinebench's single- and multi-core CPU tests showed around a 10% improvement in point scores for the 2.3 GHz chip, compared to the cheaper 2.0 GHz Retina laptop. So where the latter scored 115 cb points with one core and 564 points in multi-core mode, the 2.3 GHz notebook hit 126 and 623 cb points respectively.

That 10% increase in performance score was echoed by Geekbench 3 tests too, which rose from 3148 and 12,306 points, to 3461 and 13,571 points (single/multi mode results). The last figure here of 13,571 points is the highest score we've ever seen from a Mac notebook. But Intel's fourth-generation of Core-series processors is all about extracting raw performance at lower clock speeds, rewarding us with cooler running and longer battery life. Last year's best Retina MacBook with an Ivy Bridge chip was clocked at 2.6 GHz, which may be 13% faster yet it only scored 12,670 points here.

Battery life was very good for the new 2.3 GHz nVidia-equipped Retina MacBook, if unsurprisingly a little short of what we measured from the 2.0 GHz model.

Where the base model ran for 8 hour 14 minute in our standard rundown test (looped MPEG-4 film played wirelessly from NAS with screen at 120 cd/m2), the faster laptop expired half an hour sooner at 7 hour 46 minute. In this test the nVidia graphics are not engaged, but remember there's twice the system memory to power up alongside the faster-clocked main chip.

Can the MacBook Air compete? You bet it can. The previous Mid-2012 MacBook Air with its 1.8 GHz Intel Core i5-3427U reaped 4497 points in this general test of computer speed and responsiveness. This Mid-2013 version with its lowly 1.3 GHz Intel Core i5-4250U scored 4602 points, suggesting a modest but measurable 2.3% boost in overall performance.

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, 2.6 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 2.6 GHz part that runs predominantly underclocked at half its baseline speed.

Since PCMark 7 also measures the speed of storage as part of the test suite, this better-for-less result could also be attributed to the upgrade in flash memory. There's now 128 GB as standard across both 11.6in and 13.3in models, and importantly this takes a new form-factor that bypasses any SATA bus. Instead it uses a direct PCIe connection, obviating the intermediary and unneeded SATA stage.

In fact, turning to Geekbench 2 test, we can see that raw processor and memory performance is overall slightly down on last year's model. The latter averaged 7903 points, while 2013 MacBook Air recorded 6770 points. Memory for this generation and the last is 4GB as standard, configurable to order to 8 GB, and this is now low-power LPDDR3 SDRAM running at 1600 MHz.

Apple seems to have taken several strategies to help eke out more runtime with the Apple MacBook Air (Mid-2013) 13.3in notebook. The larger factor is still almost certainly the shift in Intel processor from third-generation IvyBridge to fourth-generation Haswell.

But unplugged operation is also helped by a slightly larger battery, up 10% in capacity from 49 Wh to 54 Wh, and perhaps the use of low-power memory too.

We put the 2013 MacBook Air to the test in Windows 7 Home Premium, using the venerable MobileMark 2007 (Productivity) benchmark test. And here we recorded a runtime that comfortably exceeded the specified 12 hours, hitting a new record figure of 13 hours and 57 minutes.

Allowing for times when you may be working the machine harder than the MS office and Adobe apps that comprise this test, even an eight-hour stretch between charges means you can yet charge your laptop for the morning, take to work and comfortably last the day without dependence on a mains charger.

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: best laptops.)

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 £1,099. As of 29 April 2014, the MacBook Air pricing now starts at £749, this is £100 less than the 2013 model, which started at £849. That's a £350 saving between the entry-level models of MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

If you wanted to compare like for like, the 13-inch MacBook Air pricing starts at £849, £250 less than the Retina display model. Note: the price of the 2013 MacBook Air 13-inch was £100 more at £849, so back then the difference between the two 13-inch models was just £150. Now the difference is £250, which could allow you to purchase a separate screen which, although not Retina, would be bigger than 13-inches.

What do you get for your £250? The key differences are a faster processor (2.4 GHz compared to 1.4 GHz - 1.3GHz in terms of the 2013 model) and Intel Iris Graphics as opposed to the Intel HD Graphics.

128GB PCIe flash storage1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processorTurbo Boost up to 2.7GHzIntel HD Graphics 50004GB memory12 hour battery128GB PCIe flash storage2.4 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processorTurbo Boost up to 2.9GHzIntel Iris Graphics4GB memory9 hour battery

The MacBook Air might be the cheapest option, but it's still worth considering paying just £250 more to can get a lot more power and features from the MacBook Pro with Retina display. However, you might prefer to keep your £250 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.



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