Apple’s MacBook lineup has become a bit of a mess. There are now six models in total, each with different configurations, and they compete with one another in bizarre ways. The latest MacBook is thinner than the MacBook Air, but the MacBook Air is more powerful, and the MacBook Pro lineup still includes an extremely outdated non-Retina option.
Apple’s marketing gurus should probably consider paring down their lineup 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 currently available, counting different display sizes as distinct models.
- MacBook Air 11-inch
- MacBook Air 13-inch
- MacBook Pro 13-inch
- MacBook Pro 13-inch (with Retina)
- MacBook Pro 15-inch (with Retina)
Right away, we can remove three models from the list of systems you should purchase. Those are the MacBook Pro 13-inch (non-Retina), and both MacBook Air models.
The reason the regular Pro gets the ax is obvious. It’s essentially a 4-year-old laptop, complete with a 5,400 RPM mechanical hard drive, an outdated Core processor, and an ancient 1,280 x 800 display. Honestly, we’re still confused as to why Apple even continues to sell it. It’s simply not competitive with anything on the market — though, it is a great accessory if you need something to go with your 2012 memorabilia, such as your Gangnam Style t-shirts and stack of Ron Paul bumper stickers. Remember the Harlem Shake? Yeah, that was more recent than this laptop.
As for the Air, well, it was never the best MacBook. It’s not bad, but it hasn’t aged particularly well. It has a lackluster resolution of 1,366 x 768 (11-inch) or 1440 x 900 (13-inch), and it’s now equipped with a slower hard drive than its 13-inch cousin. While it holds up the bottom end of the lineup as a budget option, neither the 11- or the 13-inch Air can really be justified for the price. You can simply get a lot more mileage about of $899 or $999 elsewhere. If you absolutely need a MacBook Air though, you can always buy a refurbished model at a discounted price.
But if what you want is the thinnest laptop available, look no further than the Acer Swift 7. It’s currently the thinnest laptop in the world — about half as thick as a MacBook Air — and it’s got a black-and-gold style that’s sure to turn heads. Oh, and it’s actually on par in terms of performance, with a Core i5 and a 1080p display.
Why not the 12-inch MacBook?
With those three notebooks out of contention, the real battle begins. Let’s start with the shiny newcomer: the newest MacBook.
You might expect the MacBook, as the newest entry, to easily walk over its older siblings. It’s slimmer, lighter, and more importantly, newer. Fanless and wafer-thin, the MacBook looks like a laptop from the future. But it’s got some glaring flaws.
The first problem is the processor. Intel’s Core M is pretty advanced for a mobile processor, but it’s also meant for extremely slim systems that are often passively cooled. That means it can’t be as quick as its siblings, or it’ll melt itself into a puddle of goo. In our initial review of the MacBook, we found it offers roughly three-quarters the performance of a standard fifth-generation Core, which is two generations behind the most recent processors from Intel. When it came out, that wasn’t a huge gap in performance, but now it’s practically the Grand Canyon.
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 Pro, meanwhile, at a minimum offers two USB 3.0 ports alongside a video output, plus an independent charging jack. Because of this, 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’s the lightest and smallest laptop Apple has ever produced. But even here there’s a tradeoff, because the MacBook is quoted at 10 hours of battery life, while the 13-inch Air can last up to 12 hours and the 13-inch Pro with Retina can also hit 10. It’s easier to pack the MacBook, but it won’t last as long as other models on a single charge.
Alternatively, you could pick up a similarly priced Dell XPS 13. It’s solid, professional, and comes with a slick display and impressive aluminum-and-carbon-fiber construction. It offers a similar form factor, high build quality, and much better performance. You’d even save about $150.
Why not the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina?
Anyone who is looking for a powerful MacBook will instantly gravitate toward the MacBook Pro 15 with Retina. Equipped with a quad-core Intel processor, and available with optional AMD Radeon discrete graphics, it’s by far the most capable mobile MacBook. It hasn’t seen an update in more than a year, but it’s not as far behind as the rest of the MacBook lineup.
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-inch model 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 the Pro 15 is fast and well-built, Apple’s largest Mac is showing its age. It’s still using Intel’s 4th-generation quad-core processor, rather than a 5th-generation or the latest 7th-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. A generational leap from one notebook to the next should change performance significantly, and in this case, the Pro 15’s aging hardware will only amplify the leap to new Kaby Lake quad-cores and a new graphics chip.
If you really need a 15-inch Mac right now, the Pro 15 with Retina is the obvious pick. Once again, we 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 the initial retail price.
And the winner is…
The Dell XPS 13, the Acer Swift 7, or any number of other options that offer better performance at a lower price. But, if you need a Mac immediately and you can’t wait a couple months for the inevitable refresh, you’re not entirely out of luck.
If you need a Mac and you’ve got the cash, the 13-inch Pro is the way to go. In recent years, the Pro line has lost so much weight that Apple’s slimmer offerings are only slightly lighter. The difference is absolutely noticeable in-hand, but it’s hard to feel when both are shoved into a backpack.
Those extra pounds account for seriously improved hardware, though. The Retina display offers roughly twice number the pixels as the Air, the processor’s base clock is 1.1GHz quicker, and RAM is doubled from four to eight gigabytes. The latest Pro also comes with the same Force-click touchpad found in the MacBook, and offers quicker Intel HD integrated graphics and decent battery life.
For most people, the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina display is the notebook to buy. It blends display quality, portability, and performance into a potent — if outdated — whole that other MacBooks can’t contend with.