Apple’s MacBook lineup has become a bit crowded. There’s now six models in total, the most that Apple has ever offered at once, so it’s understandable if you’re a bit confused. And the new MacBook doesn’t help matters. While it’s thinner than the Air, it doesn’t steal its name, and its screen size is different from any preceding model.
Cupertino’s marketing geniuses should probably consider reducing the model line if they’d like to retain the company’s reputation for simplicity. Until then, though, here’s what you need to know to make your purchasing decision.
Here are the six models of MacBook now available, counting different display sizes as distinct models.
- MacBook Air 11-inch
- MacBook Air 13-inch
- MacBook Pro 13-inch
- MacBook Pro with Retina 13-inch
- MacBook Pro with Retina 15-inch
Right away, we can remove two models from the list of systems you should purchase. Those are the MacBook Pro 13-inch and the MacBook Air 11-inch.
The reason the regular Pro gets the axe is obvious. It’s essentially a three year old laptop, complete with 5,400RPM mechanical hard drive, outdated Core processor and downright ancient 1,280 x 800 display. Frankly, we’re confused why Apple even continues to sell it. It’s simply not competitive with anything on the market, even the MacBook Air.
As for the Air 11-inch, well, it was never the best MacBook. It’s not bad, but it’s too small for some buyers to use comfortably, it has a lackluster resolution of 1,366 x 768, and it’s now equipped with a slower hard drive than its larger 13-inch cousin. While it holds up the bottom end of the line-up as a budget options, you really should splurge the extra $100 for a 13-inch Air. Or if saving money is your number one priority, you can always buy a refurbished model.
The real competition begins
With those two notebooks out of contention, the real battle begins. Let’s start with the shiny newcomer.
You might expect the MacBook, the newest entry, to easily walk over its older siblings. It’s slimmer, lighter, and most importantly newer. Fanless and wafer-thin, the MacBook looks like a laptop from the future. But it does have flaws.
The first problem is the processor. Intel’s Core M is incredibly advanced, but it’s also meant for extremely slim systems that are often passively cooled. That means it’s not as quick as its siblings. In our review of the MacBook we found it offers roughly three-quarters the performance of a standard fifth-generation Core. That’s not bad, but it’s a fairly large gap.
That gap extends to graphics performance, as the Core M has Intel’s HD 5300 graphics chip, which is one of the slowest integrated graphics solutions shipped with current processors. We’re not confident enough in our previous testing to say exactly how much slower it will be than what’s found in other MacBooks, especially given the difference in graphics API between a Windows machine and a Mac (the later tends to use DirectX, while the latter uses OpenGL). Still, it’s unquestionably slower, and even the MacBook Pro isn’t a gaming powerhouse.
Then there’s the port problem. The MacBook offers two; a single USB-C for all peripherals and for charging, and a headphone jack. The Air and Pro, meanwhile, at a minimum offer two USB 3.0 ports alongside a video output, plus an independent charging jack. Using a MacBook with any third-party peripherals will prove far more difficult than with its siblings.
There is one argument in favor of the MacBook, and that’s portability. It is the lightest and smallest. But even here there’s a tradeoff, because the MacBook is quoted at nine hours of endurance, while the 13-inch Air can last up to 12 hours and the 13-inch Pro with Retina can hit 10. It’s easier to pack the MacBook, but it won’t last longer on a charge.
The MacBook Pro 15 is good, but you may want to wait
Anyone who is looking for a very powerful MacBook will instantly gravitate to the Pro 15 with Retina display. Equipped with a quad-core Intel processor, and available with optional AMD Radeon discrete graphics, it’s by far the most capable mobile Mac.
In a way, that leaves it without competition. There’s some overlap between the MacBook, the MacBook Air 13, and the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina, but none of those overlap with the Pro 15. So you’d think the 15-incher would be an obvious buy.
That’s not to say the Pro 15 is slow, but it’s due for an update, and will likely receive one soon.
Not so fast. While it’s fast, and well built, Apple’s largest Mac has lagged the progress of computing as of late. It’s still using Intel’s 4th-generation quad-core processor, rather than a 5th-generation or the latest 6th-generation chip. Its optional AMD Radeon R9 M370X GPU isn’t exactly a powerhouse, either.
That’s not to say the Pro 15 is slow, but it’s due for an update, and will likely receive one soon. Normally, a generational leap from one notebook to the next would change performance significantly, but in this case the Pro 15’s already aging hardware will amplify the leap to new Skylake quad-cores and a new graphics chip.
If you really need a 15-inch workstation Mac right now, then use, the Pro 15 with Retina is the obvious pick. Once again, I recommend a refurbished model direct from Apple. The minimal hardware updates in recent history mean its possible to pick up a Pro 15 that’s very similar to a new model for hundreds of dollars off retail.
And the winner is…
That leaves two veterans to duke it out, the 13-inch Air and the 13-inch Pro. Which should you buy?
If you can at all afford it, the Pro is the way to go. In recent years the Pro line has lost so much weight that the Air’s existence is barely justified. When the 13-inch models are compared side-by-side the Pro turns out to be just a few fractions of an inch thicker, and one pound heavier, than the Air. The difference is absolutely noticeable in-hand, but it’s hard to feel when both are shoved into a backpack for travel.
That extra pound accounts for seriously improved hardware. The Retina display offers roughly twice the pixels of the Air, the processor’s base clock is 1.1GHz quicker, and RAM is doubled from four to eight gigabytes. In addition, the latest Pro comes with the force-click touchpad also found in the MacBook and offers quicker Intel HD integrated graphics. The Air lasts a bit longer on a charge than the Pro, but not much.
The Pro is also $300 more, but that is money well spent. The Air is a system near the end of its life which is struggling to compete with Windows alternatives like Dell’s XPS 13. The Pro, meanwhile, will have a place in Apple’s line-up for years to come and is still the best all-around value for $1,300.
That’s not to say the Air is pointless. It has a place among users who really, really don’t give a damn about display quality, those who want maximum battery life, and those who crave OS X but simply can’t afford the extra $300. These are all valid reasons to go with the Air instead of the Pro.
Related: The new MacBook vs. the Dell XPS 13
For most people, though, the Apple MacBook Pro 13 with Retina display is the notebook to buy. It blends display quality, portability and performance into a potent whole that other MacBooks can’t contend with.