Apple’s Laptop Lineup May Finally Make Sense

Apart from that one weird MacBook Pro

Key Takeaways

  • The next 13-inch MacBook Pro won’t have the Liquid Retina XDR display.
  • Apple’s laptop range is better differentiated than it has been in years.
  • The next MacBook Air might shake things up even more.
Close up of MacBook Pro keyboard and "MacBook Pro" name

Moritz Kindler / Unsplash

For years, Apple's MacBook lineup has been utterly confusing, but finally, there are some good reasons to pick the MacBook Pro over the Air—and vice versa. 

Up until the launch of the new 2021 MacBook Pro, Apple's Pro laptop lineup had little to distinguish it from the entry-level Air. If you wanted a small, lightweight laptop with great power and battery life, then you bought the Air. If you wanted something to provide ambient white noise with its howling fans while quickly running the battery down, you bought a Pro. Now, as we shall see, the choices are clear. But what about the weird in-between 13-inch MacBook Pro? And will the next MacBook Air, expected in March, close the gap or make the differences even more obvious?

"To the average consumer, the main difference between Airs and Pros is the size and general design. Airs are smaller, sleeker, and lighter than Pros, and while they may have a few less features, most users only recognize the size/design differences," Kristen Bolig, founder of SecurityNerd, told Lifewire via email.

The Grid

Years ago, Apple’s Steve Jobs used a keynote presentation to show its lineup on a four-section grid. It showed pro and regular on one axis, desktop and laptop on the other. That structure has been stretched to the breaking point in recent years, but it’s coming back.

Right now, the lineup is still unfinished. The 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, and the iMac, have both been redesigned based on Apple Silicon chips, and the MacBook Pro also has a slew of pro features. The Air, meanwhile, is still the same old Intel-based computer, only with the M1 chips inside. 

"To the average consumer, the main difference between Airs and Pros is the size and general design."

Despite this in-flux lineup, the differences are clearer than they’ve been for years. The MacBook Air has a light, slim design with absurd battery life. It’s $999 and is the best computer for most people. 

The MacBook Pro is no longer a compromise. Now, it runs almost as cool as the Air, has battery life that’s almost as long, and it’s a bit thicker and heavier. In return for these small reductions, you get the screaming M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, a pro-level array of ports on the sides, and the incredible Liquid Retina XDR display.

But how might the next Air stay well-defined? And what about that weird 13-inch Pro?

Transition Complete

The latest rumor from Apple-watcher Mark Gurman says the next entry-level MacBook Pro will forego the Liquid Retina XDR display, ditch the Touch Bar (yes, it still has one), and use the upcoming M2 processor. 

That leaves the possibility that the smaller Pro will come with the same array of connectors and ports as the bigger Pro. But that still leaves it in an odd, in-between position. The XDR display is so great that it alone might be reason enough to buy a Pro machine, and it would be a great way to set the smaller MacBook Pro apart from an Air. 

But when it comes to the MacBook Air, things get a lot clearer.

We’re only going on rumors and predictions at this point, but the smart money is on something like a cross between the slab-sided 24-inch iMac and the iPad Pro. The Air will double-down on its thinness and lightness, will probably get slimmer borders around its screen (allowing the computer itself to shrink even further), may come with a MagSafe power connector and color options. And it may be the first Mac to add cellular connectivity. 

Black MacBook laptop resting on coffee table with coffee mug

Tomáš Stanislavský / Unsplash

"Cellular connectivity is a long and often requested feature addition that Apple users would love to see come to the MacBook lineup," software and web developer Weston Happ told Lifewire via email. "No longer being tethered to an iPhone (or other mobile hotspot device) would be a huge win in the eyes of thousands of on-the-go travelers."

If these predictions hold, the difference between Pro and Air models will be clear. If you want portability and power, get the Air; if you want a better screen, better connectivity, and even more power, get the Pro. 

Which still leaves that 13-inch MacBook Pro as a weird in-betweener. Perhaps it's only there so Apple can claim its Pro lineup starts at $1,399, not $1,999? Or maybe it's there so people who love to use a machine with "Pro" in the name can do so by spending $300 extra over the Air?

One thing is certain—you should almost certainly buy one of the other MacBooks instead.

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