Help infrequent upgrader decide between 2020/2021 M1 MBP or MBA

Hello all,

Would appreciate some advice.
Currently still running on the previous (c/o Marco Arment) “best Apple laptop”, being a BTO 2015 15" 16GB, 1TB SSD MBP.

It is my second Mac laptop. I tend to keep them running for long.

Whilst I have thankfully skipped the entire butterfly keyboard range, I was nonetheless a bit sad on missing out on the Touch Bar (contrary views aside, I think I would’ve BetterTouchTool(ed) the heck out of it).

My current machine, whilst much loved – is starting to show its age. Battery service is recommended – and it would probably benefit from a nuke & pave, since it’s starting to creak a bit (very slow to wake with multiple monitors plugged in, and just “slower” in everyday tasks).
I have a 2020 11" IPP, and would arguably benefit from a M1 with the closer integration (screen-sharing wise) between the laptop and iPad.

I am in higher education, in the social sciences (law) side of things. I do occasional video editing, and virtually zero photo editing – but do have large storage needs due to large PDF/research databases, and storage of video files (lectures/seminars etc.). Currently have about 250GB free, of the 1TB SSD.

Whilst I don’t do that many CPU intensive tasks, I regularly have many, many apps open at any given time, with multiple widows (Preview; Safari with many, many open tabs; Firefox; DEVONthink with many, many windows; Excel; Word, lots of open docs; Outlook with many open emails; MS Teams; Miro; Scrivener; Bookends; etc. etc).

Budget came in for a laptop upgrade, to be purchased via Employer. Keep in mind, we pay quite a hefty Apple tax these parts.

We have the option to purchase the laptop back, at discounted price, after 4 years. I also have the option to “top-up” on the amount the employer provides, to get a better-specced machine.

Further caveat: We have to include the pricey local equivalent of Apple Care onto any machine we purchase (this to cover the Apple users, given the Dell service care options that come with the pc’s purchased via the employer).

Budget, as is, will just cover an 2020 M1 MBP, the M1 CHIP 8C CPU/GPU version – with 512GB SSD, but 8GB’s of RAM (nice on SSD, worried about RAM) – Option 1.

Or, Option 2: 2020 M1 MBP, 16GB 512GB, with me adding quite a bit on top of employer’s contribution.

Option 3: 2020 M1 MBA, 16GB 512GB (nice on SSD and RAM, bit worried about if it has enough “grunt”, considering my needs?)

Option 4 (mentioned reluctantly): Blow my budget out of the water, and look at 2021 14" MBP. I shouldn’t even mention this as an option. The price disparity between the 2020 and 2021 model, is significant.
But… The only(?) real benefit – apart from the fact that the 2021 models are so awesome – would be that when I buy it back in 4 years, I can comfortably get more life out of it. But is the difference between the 2020 and 2021 models that significant?

** Oh wait. Option 4 is also more tempting because it involves possibly less dongles. University = HDMI.

What should I do, given my needs and budget? What would you do?

I run a YouTube channel so edit video all the time and the M1 Air with 16GB RAM and 1TB of storage has been excellent. I was a big upgrade over a Mac Mini that was newer than what you are on.

I have a counselling degree and still read research papers as well so run a large DEVONthink database alongside a few thousand Obsidian notes and the only thing the Air ever feels a bit “slow” on is video renders. It only started to feel slow when they released their newest chips recently.

I think the M1 Air will be entirely suitable with 16GB of RAM and get as much storage as you can.

Don’t get anything that’s not M1. It will be slower today, and only hamper you in the future.


Do you happen to know your current RAM usage? I would guess that you want to stick with 16 GB with all the applications you leave open. Would you be opposed to getting a smaller SSD and buying an external SSD? This would help your budget to some extent.

Are you running multiple monitors? There was an issue with the M1 mac mini’s running multiple displays.

I have your Option 2, the only difference is a 1 TB SSD for storage. I love this computer, but I am feeling jealous of all the ports on the new 2021 MBPs. It does everything I need, including running X-Code to build iOS apps, so plenty powerful. I’m sure it will meet your needs and you’ll be happy with it.

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For the most part, that seems to be just one nowadays.
e.g. this (no experience with it), or this with fewer things (which is the one I use).

Personally, I would go with option 4 and buy them out after four years. You’ll have a good computer with any kinks worked out, and that has been well cared for. Maybe a year or two later you’ll need a battery.
You’ll also get to use a nicer, more capable machine those four years.

I currently have a 2020 M1 MBP 16GiB, 1TiB, and feel no need to spend $1k to upgrade.

Thanks — I’m also inclined to focus on the RAM, with 16GB being the minimum. Good to know the MBA is no slouch. Think the M1 allows for a bit of headroom that would not have been advisable with the Intel generation (MBP generally being a bit more grunty than the MBA).

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I usually run two externals in addition to my laptop screen. So hope those issues don’t apply to the MBP/MBA of the 2020 range. That said, these are stock standard DELL 24” 1080p monitors — so nothing fancy. Will surely be ok?

Will just need to get dongles to convert the HDMI/DVI to usb-c then, presumably.

Have toyed with the external SSD option, but would much prefer to keep all “inside”. That said, will need to do some serious pruning to get my existing data under 512GB as it is…

And yes, as mentioned above — 16GB should be fine, since my workflows won’t change much, and are fine with the current RAM available.

Option 2 is tempting — but with Apple care, will almost need to add a further 1/3 onto the price. But yes… cannot but help thinking the MBP will just offer that bit more security than the MBA in the long run…

That’s why I’m here though — logical part of me is suggesting I would probably manage just fine with the MBA…

Oh believe me, I resonate on every level with the wishful thinking that the 2021 version is the one I need…

But if I am being honest — it’s the one I want, not necessarily the one I need

Have to make the call over the next day or so, so get it in for this year’s financial year… And it’s probably the toughest decision I’ve had to make, ito computer choices…

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I wouldn’t invest on the 2020 M1 MacBook Pro.
It’s the previous gen chassis, Touch Bar is being phased out and the performance gains over the MacBook Air M1 is very minor, if any.

The MBA M1 16GB/512BG would be the best bang for your buck IMO.
Having said that, the external design will probably be updated next year and it only has 2 Thunderbolt ports, which means you’ll have to live in “dongletown.”

The 2021 MacBook Pro 14" is a beast of a machine, has other ports other than Thunderbolt/USB-C, a gorgeous display, an updated external design, full height Function keys.
It’s heavier and way more expensive than the MBA though.

You’ll have to decide what features are important to you and how far you want to go, price-wise.


These are valid points as well. It had slipped my mind that the MBA was just two ports. As it stands, currently using both USB-3’s and both TB ports when plugged in at my desk, so would definitely sail into single land if taking something other than the 2021 MBP 14”…

Sigh. Might actually hold off until next year, then. Would get a better idea of what is planned for the future of the MBA, and MBP pricing might see a sale/special or two…

You might want to go with a 2020 MBA, Brad. The savings you’ll make from not getting the 2021 you could dedicate to equipping your new machine. Definitely get the 16 gb RAM. And with yours usage I’d surmise that 1 TB hard disk space would work out well.

I have the 512 MBA 2020 M1 with 8 GB RAM. I have a lot of graphic files and half of the hard disk is full. I got my Mac in July!

This computer is a speed demon in just about every way. It has never crashed. It holds a charge for about three days. It charges up quite rapidly. The keyboard is a dream. The graphics are lovely. The sound is terrific. I have nothing negative to say about it and, for once, my timing was perfect. I keep a lot of apps open as you do.

Even though I wish I had more RAM, I expect this Mac to last until I’m good and ready to get another. Like you, I expect it will last and still work well even then.

Besides, imho, it is a real bargain. I haven’t heard much negative about it. Wonderful machine. You’d love :two_hearts: it!


Appreciate the feedback, Katie! Unfortunately a BTO 1TB is pretty much off the table – pretty sure that any BTO order brought in through the local Apple resellers, requires a deposit in advance – which doesn’t fit in with my employer’s purchasing options.

The more I have been researching, the more I am beginning to think the MBA with 16GB is probably more than adequate for my needs.

HOWEVER – the penny has only properly dropped now that the MBA limits me to basically a single TB/USB4 port on the left side – which makes a dongle only viable on the left side as well (as opposed to left and right of my current MBP, and the 2021 version).

I say this since this laptop is being used 80% of the time as a desktop, with two external monitors (along with external TM drives being attached) – so I presume(?) I can take it as granted that the one TB port is going to be permanently plugged in? Or do people comfortably use the M1 MBA unplugged, with external monitors/drives plugged in? Surely the latter impacts on battery life otherwise?

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WAIT! Am I understanding correctly that there is no native support for TWO external 24" 1080p monitors on the 2020 M1 MBA? :astonished:

I’m coming across some workarounds now – but in my use case, this is quite a central consideration.
Any M1 MBA owners over here who are managing with TWO externals?

I think otherwise the M1 MBA with one T and 16 GB RAM would work very well for you. But there are two ports (slots in the vernacular) both on the left side.

Couldn’t you run some sort of long dongle that splits into two? (I’m not even sure they make them).

Here is a list of some adaptors available.

I don’t have any external monitors so I don’t really know though.

If you can think your way around your specifications I do know you’d be getting one tremendous little machine.

And the gold is a nice color. :wink:

I just upgraded from a 13” M1 MBA to the 14”.
What a difference! Ports galore, great keyboard and a screen I can (literally) stare at all day.
Just to be the devils advocate, there’s a lot of long term benefits in the 14’’ that are worth while to consider (and the cost benefit therein)

I love the MBA screen but then again I am one of these rare people that doesn’t mind a slightly smaller screen. I love the keyboard as well. But the ports are limited.

I hear you — but the 14” is almost double the cost.

That said — when factoring in a decent dongle/dock solution, and then some more convertors to get my 1080p externals to work with the MBA… :man_shrugging:t2:

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I switched job’s and had to return my MBP. I originally thought that the 14” was too expensive. When I looked at the cost of a new MBP 13” with 16gb RAM And 1TB disk the difference dropped to ~$500. The difference was explainable and acceptable. Again- devils advocate here. Either way, you’re going to have a great machine. Nice to finally be able to say that about an Apple laptop!

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We’ve been able to say that for a year now. :slightly_smiling_face: