13-inch MacBook Air vs. 13-inch MacBook Pro: Which should you buy?

One's thin. One's thick. Both start at $1,199. Picking between the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air has never been tougher. Find out which one is for you.

MacBook Air. MacBook Pro. Once upon a time, these two products were significantly different from each other, two totally different products. That dividing line's been blurring, especially when it comes to the world of 13-inch MacBooks.

The MacBook Air used to be an underperforming, expensive laptop with stellar design, while the 13-inch Pro was a full-featured, far more robust machine. The truth is, these systems are closer in performance and price than ever before.

Last year, I thought Apple MacBook buyers in 2012 wouldn't suffer the confusions of picking a 13-inch MacBook because I thought there would be only one product : a fusion MacBook Air with some of the best Pro features incorporated. Alas, there is no such chimera. Entry-level 13-inch MacBook Air and Pro laptops now cost the same $1,199, but you'll still have to make a decision: do you value hard-drive space, or portability? Weight, or ports? Easy upgrades, or faster boot times?

In 2011, I thought the go-to laptop remained the 13-inch MacBook Pro by the narrowest of margins. This year, I think the scale has tipped to the MacBook Air.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I acknowledge that the Air still lacks sufficient solid-state drive (SSD) storage for those wanting it to be their everyday computer for storing photo libraries, music, and other files, and some people still want DVD drives. However, the 13-inch Pro simply hasn't stepped up with any killer features to earn it distance from the Air, and doesn't feel worth its price as much as the Air does.

Let's go through the key differences between the 2012 13-inch MacBook Pro and 13-inch MacBook Air.

13-inch MacBook Air (June 2012) 13-inch MacBook Pro (June 2012)
CPU 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 (third-gen) 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 (third-gen)
RAM 4GB (max 8GB) 4GB (max 8GB)
Storage 128GB SSD (max: 512GB) 500GB HDD (up to 750GB HDD or 512GB SSD)
Ports Thunderbolt, 2 USB 3.0, SD card slot Thunderbolt, 2 USB 3.0, SD card slot, Ethernet, FireWire 800
Optical drive No Yes
Weight 2.96 pounds 4.5 pounds
Screen resolution 1,440x900 1,280x800
Battery life 447 minutes 417 minutes
Price $1,199 $1,199

Size and weight
The 13-inch MacBook Pro weighs 4.5 pounds. The MacBook Air weighs 2.9 pounds. The Pro feels like a solid slab; the Air feels like a blade. Winner: Air.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Screen
The 13-inch Air has had a higher-resolution screen than the MacBook Pro for several years. Odd, but true. The Pro's screen is bright and has great viewing angles, but it also exhibits far more glare when compared side-by-side with the Air. The Pro's display feels particularly weak considering the higher-res antiglare offerings on the 15-inch MacBook Pro and, needless to say, the Retina Display Pro . Winner: Air.

Keyboard/touch pad
The Air and the Pro share a large, excellent multitouch clickpad. Both have backlit keyboards. The Pro's keys are taller, with more travel; the Air's are shallower. Nevertheless, both perform excellently. Winner: Tie.

Performance
In the entry-level $1,199 configurations I reviewed, the 13-inch Air and Pro performed incredibly closely. It's very nearly a wash. The Pro led by seconds in our tests, but the Air's boot times are far faster. In higher-end Pro configurations, a faster Core i7 processor and an SSD upgrade should provide greater separation, but those extras will add up...and no 13-inch Pro comes close to the offerings of the 15-inch Pro (quad-core CPU, Nvidia graphics), leaving it sitting awkwardly in the middle. Winner: Tie.

Ports and extras
The MacBook Pro has more ports: an added FireWire 800 port and a dedicated Ethernet port, plus a slot-loading DVD drive. That's it, though. A separate USB-to-Ethernet dongle for the Air can provide direct line-in Internet access, and you can always buy a USB-connected DVD burner. Yes, the Pro has more features, but not by a wide margin. Winner: Pro.

Storage space
The MacBook Air has a new 512GB SSD storage option, but upgrading will pump the price to nearly $2,000. The included 128GB of SSD storage at $1,199 is fine for basic use, but it won't do for locally storing large libraries of music, movies, or photos. The $1,199 13-inch Pro has a 500GB hard drive that operates at a slower speed, but has plenty of room to spare. Winner: Pro.

Battery life
The 13-inch Air ran for roughly 7 hours and 30 minutes in our battery test, while the 13-inch Pro ran for just under 7 hours. Both have excellent batteries, but the Air's just a bit more robust. Winner: Air.

Laptop least likely to feel obsolete in two years
Well, that's a loaded question, isn't it? In terms of a design that'll stick around and still feel relevant (and have a higher resale value), bet on the MacBook Air. However, in terms of future upgradability (more RAM, a standard SSD), the Pro will be a little more flexible. Then again, in two years, who will be using a DVD drive? Winner: Air.

And, some other quick-hit recommendations:

What to get if you like older ports and flexibility: the Pro.

What to get if you want a basic go-to laptop: the Air.

What to get if you want lots of storage: the Pro.

What to get if you're a student: the Air.

What I'd buy: the Air.

Do you agree? Read my review of the 13-inch MacBook Pro and 13-inch MacBook Air.

 

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