MacBook Air 2020 vs. 13-inch MacBook Pro (2016): Which would I buy?

A friend asked which MacBook he should buy. Here's the answer

macbook air 2020 gold

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“Should I buy a MacBook Air 2020 or a13-inch MacBook Pro made in 2016?” That’s the simple question an old friend asked me this week.

Although I do not lean toward Apple hardware in any way, my time spent testing, prodding and riding PC hardware, as well as monitoring all things related to computers, gives me a pretty strong position to answer this question, even if it is on the other side of the aisle.

Answering a question like this is always a little tough because most of the people asking aren’t technical enough to know which CPU, how large of an SSD or how much RAM the laptops have. That means the answer has to be somewhat dithered to fit a variable amount of hardware that could be used.

To form my advice, I looked at a “Late 2016” MacBook Pro which featured a 6th gen “Skylake” Core i5-6267U with Intel Iris 550 integrated graphics. Its chip is a dual-core CPU built on a 14nm process.

The rest of the laptop is built like most of Apple’s MacBook Pro models, with a very solid aluminum chassis and a 13.3-inch 2560x1600 resolution screen hitting 500 nits. It has Apple’s Touch Bar on the keyboard deck, Wi-Fi 5 and four Thunderbolt 3 ports.

The current 2020 MacBook Air has a 10th gen “Ice Lake” Core i5-1030NG7 CPU with Intel Iris Plus integrated graphics. The screen is 13.3-inches with a resolution of 2560x1600. It also has Wi-Fi 5, but only has two Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Both laptops have about the same battery capacity, but the new MacBook Air should have the advantage in battery life over the older laptop.

macbook pro 2016 touchbar IDG

Even Mac fans mostly think the Touch Bar is useless

The Zoom factor

Zoom—the video conferencing app that's now in vogue thanks to the pandemic—has a fairly esoteric list of CPUs that can be used with its excellent virtual background feature. That’s the feature that people use to insert themselves into a picture or video instead of showing what's actually behind them in a camera shot.

On many older computers—especially those with older dual-cores processors—Zoom's feature doesn’t work. Fortunately, the 6th gen Skylake CPU in the 2016 MacBook Pro (with an appropriately updated OS), can handle Zoom's still frame and 720p video virtual backgrounds.

But with that 2016 laptop, you can't do 1080p video backgrounds, according to Zoom's requirements. The $1,299 quad-core Core i5 MacBook Air can do Zoom's 1080p video backgrounds, but the lower-end $999 dual-core Core i3 MacBook Air cannot.

My recommendation

My recommendation to my friend was to skip the 2016 MacBook Pro 13 and buy the 2020 MacBook Air.

At the processor level, the MacBook Air's Core i5 can have a slight advantage with its quad-core processing and Hyper-Threading over the dual-core in the 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro can run its CPU harder and at higher temperatures than the MacBook Air, but Intel’s 10th gen Core i5 (the one in the MacBook Air) features newer media engines in the graphics core and is built on a more efficient 10nm process than the much older 6th gen Skylake’s 14nm process. (If you want to see both CPUs side by side you can visit Intel.)

The deal breaker for me not recommending the 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro is its keyboard. The keyboard has Apple’s butterfly mechanism that makes many Mac users unhappy and appears to still be prone to failing. Since my friend will be buying the 2016 laptop used, that’s like buying a car with a known defect and expecting it not to fail. It’s just not worth the risk. That keyboard was such a failure that Apple essentially dumped the whole concept overboard and went to a new mechanism in its newest laptops, like the MacBook Air 2020.

There is definitely a cost savings to the 2016 MacBook Pro in some cases, but looking at used prices of the laptop on eBay, the laptop's price ranges from $850 to $1,200. A new MacBook Air 2020 with a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and 512GB SSD is $1,300.

I would actually recommend a Dell XPS 13 or HP Spectre x360 13 or a half-dozen other PC laptops, but my friend wants a Mac.

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