If the Biggest Thing Separating the New MacBook Pro and MacBook Air Is a Fan, Why Does the MacBook Pro Exist?

Apple M1 MacBook Pro vs M1
Courtesy of Apple
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After a summer of teasing, Apple has finally pulled back the curtain on its long-awaited MacBooks featuring its custom-designed M1 chips and, well…they’re M1 MacBooks.

While Apple was tightlipped on the exact specs of this processor, what we do know is that the M1 is packing 8 CPU cores and (up to) 8 GPU cores (more on this later), along with a neural processor. The company claims it can outperform a comparable chipset in a benchmark test, although that remains to be seen.

In addition, these laptops can now run iPhone and iPad apps — blurring the line between Macs and iPads even further. However, on the surface, they look just like the MacBooks you already know, so much so that the casual observer would have no idea that Apple has radically departed from computer norms.

They still have the same 13-inch design and similar components to what you’ve seen from Apple laptops over the last few years.

This isn’t a bad thing, since Apple is out to prove that an ARM-based chip, which is typically seen in smartphones and tablets, can equal an Intel or AMD x86 chip when it comes to performance.

Apple M1 Chip Courtesy of Apple

That, however, will take time (a year or two, by Apple’s estimate) since developers now have to start coding their MacOS apps to run natively on the new architecture, much like they did when Apple switched to Intel CPUs all the way back in 2006.

Perhaps more interesting than how these M1 MacBooks stack up to their Intel-based peers is how these MacBooks stack up to each other. And here’s the thing: When you look at the specs of these computers side by side, the existence of the new MacBook Pro makes no sense.

Let me explain.

  

The M1 MacBook Tale of the Tape

Externally, the difference is apparent: The MacBook Air has its thinner, wedge-shaped design, while the MacBook Pro has a uniform thickness and maintains the Touch Bar that nobody really uses except to adjust speaker volume and screen brightness.

macbook pro vs air Courtesy of Apple

Internally, however, it’s a different story. All indications suggest that the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro will feature the exact same M1 chip, pack 13-inch displays with identical resolutions, and can be kitted out with identical amounts of RAM and SSD Storage.

The difference in weight is pretty negligible too: The MacBook Air weighs 2.8 pounds, while the MacBook Pro weighs 3 pounds.

One notable difference that Apple pointed out was the inclusion of a fan inside the MacBook Pro. This used to make sense with previous models, since the MacBook Pro typically had components more powerful than the MacBook Air (such as a quad-core CPU instead of a dual-core chip), and thus generated more heat. But with the two computers having nearly identical hardware, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to include a fan in one and not the other.

This has led many on the internet to quip that the only real difference between the two laptops is a fan and a $300 price difference.

To be fair, this stance is a bit hyperbolic, even if it makes for a good Tweet. There are a few more modest differences, and computer makers jacking up the price over small spec bumps is nothing new.

So what are the differences? They include:

  • The Number of GPU Cores: Both available configurations for the MacBook Pro feature eight GPU cores. The base configuration for the M1 MacBook Air only has seven GPU cores, but you can toss in an extra core (and some extra storage) for another $300. It remains to be seen what the difference in performance will be.
  • Screen Brightness: The MacBook Pro’s screen maxes out at 500 nits of brightness, while the MacBook Air only generates 400 nits. This isn’t life changing, but it’s also not nothing.
  • Battery Life: Apple rates the MacBook Pro for 20 hours of real-world usage, while claiming 18 hours for the MacBook Air.
  • Touch Bar: Again, nobody really benefits from this thing on the MacBook Pro, but it’s there.
Apple M1 MacBook Pro Courtesy of Apple

Are these differences huge? With the possible exception of that lone GPU core, no. The rest of these enhancements do not affect performance in the raw, number-crunching sense.

This not only makes you wonder why Apple felt compelled to include a fan in the M1 MacBook Pro, but why it opted to release it at all.

Only Apple and its confidants know the reasons why (for now), but we have a few (very speculative) theories.

  

There’s Something Apple Isn’t Telling Us About the M1 MacBook Pro

While Apple has decided to tell the world that both laptops simply feature the M1 chip, there is a chance that the chip in the MacBook Pro is more powerful after all.

Apple M1 MacBook Pro Courtesy of Apple

Despite having the same chip on paper, the MacBook Pro will still ship with the same 61W charger as its Intel-based counterpart, while the MacBook Air will ship with the same 30W charger as its predecessors. This could maybe suggest that the M1 chip in the MacBook Pro is running at higher clock speeds, which, in turn, would make it more power-hungry.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Apple is notorious for withholding details about its products, which are often borne out once the devices are released into the wild and people start tearing them down. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of feasibility for the MacBook Air to be hiding a few secrets.

  

Apple Is Cashing in on the MacBook Pro Brand

Apple has spent years selling us on the idea that the MacBook Air is for more casual use and the MacBook Pro is for serious computing which, to a certain extent, has proven to be true. (Editor’s note: this article was written and edited on a MacBook Pro.)

But this also wouldn’t be the first time that Apple released a MacBook Pro that was near indistinguishable from the MacBook Air. Just this year, Apple refreshed the Intel versions of both laptops, and in the process slipped in a cheaper version of the MacBook Pro with an 8th Generation Quad-Core CPU that provided no tangible benefits over the 10th-Generation dual-core CPU found in the MacBook Air.

A cynic would say that Apple was simply trying to trick a few rubes into spending a few extra dollars with the promise of extra performance, and they might be on the right track: The general consensus was that anyone in their right mind should have purchased that generation of MacBook Airs over the MacBook Pro.

Apple M1 MacBook Air Courtesy of Apple

So call me a cynic if you must, but it’s possible Apple is simply repeating the process here with the new M1 MacBook Pro and M1 MacBook Air, while maintaining the visibility of its MacBook Pro brand.

  

Apple Planned to Use a Different Chip in the M1 MacBook Pro… and Then Didn’t

This one is tiptoeing into tinfoil hat territory a little, but indulge me anyway. It’s no secret that Apple plans to transition all its Mac computers to its own silicon over the next two years, and there has been informed speculation that different variants of the M1 chip are in production for those computers.

Apple M1 Chip Courtesy of Apple

What if — and just hear me out on this — Apple originally planned to include a different variant of the M1 in the MacBook Pro, but decided against it at the last second? Ultimately, they had to release the thing anyway, even if the end result was basically the same as the M1 MacBook Air. Given the state of the world in 2020 — and the massive disruptions to global supply chains — it wouldn’t be that strange for Apple to run into manufacturing issues, or maybe even design issues. Maybe they just got cold feet?

Is this the likeliest scenario? Probably not.

But it would certainly make much more sense than Apple releasing two virtually identical laptops.

  

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