The biggest difference between the new MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro is in the fan

It’s a little odd that Apple would sell the 13-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro at the same time, but maybe not more than today — because Apple’s new $999 and $1,299 laptops seem nearly identical if you look beyond the different curves frame. They have the same M1 processor, the same memory and storage options, the same ports, and very similar screens.

I’m not kidding when I say: the biggest difference is the fan.

This fan, which is exclusive to the MacBook Pro:

The 13-inch MacBook Pro’s fan

I mean, it’s kind of funny that the MacBook Air is now an airless laptop as it’s amusing how the Air continues to be a technically thicker laptop than the 13-inch Pro. (I guess it’s been a long time since manila envelopes were a thing.)

Compare the MacBook Pro’s dimensions
The main difference is a tapered frame

But you shouldn’t knock that fan because here’s a little-known fact about today’s CPUs: they can almost all run far faster if you give them better cooling. A CPU’s thermal design power (TDP) in watts is a better predictor of performance than its gigahertz clock speed because some of the weakest laptop and phone chips can “boost” up to multiple gigahertz these days until they heat up.

That’s basically happened in the new MacBook Air powered by the Apple M1, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini. Each computer has the same exact processor (with one wrinkle I’ll address in a sec), which can theoretically run at the same speed — but the fan in the MacBook Pro and Mac mini lets them sustain peak performance for longer.

The Mac mini’s fan

Apple tries to have both, of course: during its presentation, first praising the MacBook Air for using no fan, then talking about the “active cooling solution” (aka the fan you’ve had for years) on the MacBook Pro.

While the fan might be the most meaningful difference, it’s not the only one. Here it is, and more:

  • At $999, the MacBook Air comes with seven GPU cores instead of eight, because Apple is salvaging some weaker chips (a common process known as binning) by disabling one core.
  • But at $1,249, the MacBook Air has the same eight CPU cores and eight GPU cores as the $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro.
  • The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a slightly larger battery (58.2Wh vs. 49.9Wh) and quotes two additional hours of battery life compared to the MacBook Air.
  • The 13-inch MacBook Pro’s screen is slightly brighter at maximum (500 nits vs 400 nits).
  • The 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with the Touch Bar instead of physical function keys, though both have a Touch ID fingerprint sensor.

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