Apple recently updated the MacBook Pro 13, but in doing so it managed to seriously complicate matters for anyone who wants to buy one of the company’s smaller pro laptops. Choosing which MacBook Pro 13 you should buy is no longer straightforward.
For one thing, half of the MacBook Pro 13 models run out-of-date processors, while the other half are much more expensive but come with Intel’s 10th-generation chips. Throw in various RAM speeds and capacities, expensive solid-state drive upgrades, differing port options, and things quickly get complex.
Our MacBook Pro 13 buying guide, however, will help you navigate these uncertain waters and decide which model is right for you. We have covered all the major bases, so by the end of this guide, you should have a much clearer idea of which model you should plump for.
The (processor) generation gap
When Apple updated the MacBook Pro 13, it made a big deal of equipping the laptop with Intel’s 10th-generation Ice Lake processors. What Apple did not say was that these chips are limited to only the two most expensive versions of the MacBook Pro 13. The two entry-level models, in comparison, are stuck on older eighth-gen processors.
This is not just a cosmetic change — Intel’s 10th-generation processors perform roughly 15% better in benchmarks than their older equivalents. The eighth-gen chips on offer have base clock speeds of 1.4GHz (for the quad-core i5) and 1.7GHz (for the quad-core i7). In contrast, the 10th-gen quad-core i5 starts at 2.0GHz, while the quad-core i7 has a base clock of 2.3GHz. The latest chips also come with improved Iris Plus graphics, which offer a significant upgrade over their predecessors. All versions of the MacBook Pro 13-inch use integrated graphics, so you’ll need to jump to the larger 16-inch model for discrete graphics.
Together, this all makes a noticeable difference. After all, the MacBook Pro has had eighth-gen processors since July 2018 — if you’re thinking of upgrading from one of those models to one from 2020 and opt for a more affordable option, you will likely be sorely disappointed in the performance department.
That means you should just opt for the 10th-generation models, right? Not so fast. If you want a 10th-generation processor, you will have to pay at least $1,799. The high-end MacBook Pro 13 starts at $1,999. That is an awful lot to pay just to have the latest chips at your disposal. We dislike recommending old components, but paying $2,000 for a laptop that’s still stuck at four cores feels wrong.
Once you have settled on which processor generation you are willing to pay for, you need to decide whether you want an i5 or i7 chip. Most people will be content with the i5 — it will be more than enough to handle basic computing tasks.
If you do more heavy-duty workloads, such as frequent 3D modeling, video exporting, and complex algorithm work, the i7 will suit you better. It typically benefits from higher clock speeds and a larger cache, which will help in professional tasks. But if that’s your sort of work, the MacBook Pro 16 is likely to be more up your street than the MacBook Pro 13 anyway. We have put together a MacBook Pro 16 buying guide if you are leaning more towards Apple’s largest laptop.
How much memory do you need?
Aside from allowing for better performance in the processors themselves, Intel’s 10th-generation chips also work with higher-speed memory than their older precursors. That is reflected in your choices with the MacBook Pro 13.
The two entry-level models (stuck on eighth-generation processors) offer LPDDR3 RAM clocked at 2,133MHz. The two more expensive models, in contrast, come equipped with LPDDR4X RAM that runs at 3,733MHz. That means the costlier versions have memory that is not only faster, but of a newer generation, too.
What is likely to make a larger difference than this, though, is the amount of RAM you opt for. The two most affordable MacBook Pro 13 models start with 8GB and can be upgraded to 16GB for an extra $200. The two more expensive models, meanwhile, start with 16GB and can be bumped up to 32GB for $400.
We think 16GB hits the sweet spot. Although Apple originally priced the RAM upgrade for the entry-level 2020 MacBook Pro 13 at $100, it now costs $200. While that is still a relatively affordable upgrade, it will make a big difference to your Mac’s performance. Going up to 32GB, though, is much more expensive and overall a much tougher ask. You are only likely to need that much if you are doing extremely intensive tasks, and in that case, you should be looking at the MacBook Pro 16 instead.
Should you get a larger SSD?
In a welcome change, Apple now gives all its laptops a minimum of 256GB of super-speedy SSD storage, which is typically much faster than those offered by rival laptops. The previous amount — 128GB — was way too miserly for a modern laptop. Only the most affordable MacBook Pro 13 starts with 256GB, though. The two midrange models come with 512GB, while the high-end version has a 1TB SSD. For the first time, you can now outfit certain MacBook Pro 13 models with a 4TB SSD.
Upgrading the SSD size can be a costly procedure, but the price is completely dependent on the model of MacBook Pro 13 you go for. The $1,299 version, for instance, charges $800 for a 2TB SSD. The $1,999 model, meanwhile, only charges $400 for the same drive.
For most people, 512GB is likely to be a good amount to go for. Unless you have a ton of photos and movies or install a lot of sizeable games, you are unlikely to run out of space soon.
If you do have larger storage requirements, it’s worth taking a look at Apple’s iCloud storage plans. Apple offers 50GB, 200GB, and 2TB tiers, and the 2TB tier costs $10 a month. If you do not mind storing your files in the cloud rather than locally, that could work out a lot cheaper than buying a larger internal SSD with your MacBook Pro.
Ports, AppleCare, and more
There are a few other things to think about when buying a MacBook Pro. One of the most important is how many ports you need. These days, all of Apple’s laptops exclusively use USB-C ports that run at Thunderbolt 3 speeds. While that means you get incredibly fast transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps, it also means you will need an adapter for any devices that do not use USB-C connectors.
The two most affordable MacBook Pro 13 models come with two Thunderbolt 3 ports, while the more expensive versions have four. This is likely to be a secondary consideration compared to things like the processor and storage — after all, you can get USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 docks that give you many more ports — but it is worth thinking about before you pull the trigger.
Apple also offers AppleCare+ insurance alongside the MacBook Pro 13. This extends your coverage from one year to three and covers up to two instances of accidental damage (each with an upfront service fee). For the MacBook Pro 13, this costs $269. When you are paying a minimum of $1,299 for a laptop you hope to use for many years, we think the added peace of mind is worth it.
Which MacBook Pro 13 should you buy?
The exact model you opt for depends a lot on your specific circumstances, but we think the choice will come down to two models for most people.
If you can afford it, pick the $1,799 model. This is the “cheapest” way to get the latest 10th-generation Intel processors in a MacBook Pro 13. It gives you 16GB of faster memory and a 512GB SSD by default, both of which will be excellent for most people. You will also get four Thunderbolt 3 ports instead of two.
However, we know this model is a lot of money. If finances are a bit tighter, the $1,299 option is a decent option now that it has a more generously sized SSD. Note that you are stuck on an older processor, while bumping the storage to 512GB and memory to 16GB leaves it just $100 under the $1,799 model, so you should think carefully about whether it is right for you. This eighth-gen Core i5 should still provide better performance than a Core i7 MacBook Air.
Whichever model you go for, AppleCare+ is worth considering. It will help protect your device in case it breaks and gives you priority access to Apple’s excellent customer service team. When you are spending so much on a laptop, it is worth it to keep it well guarded.
The alternative to buying a MacBook Pro 13 now is to wait until later in the year. Apple is widely expected to release a completely overhauled 14-inch MacBook Pro either at the end of 2020 or in early 2021. This will be a revamped MacBook Pro 13 that will get the same treatment as the MacBook Pro 16 — that means a new cooling system, thinner bezels, and more. If you can hold on until then, we think you will be rewarded.
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