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Which MacBook Pro 13 should you buy?

The MacBook Pro 13 is the Apple machine of choice for professionals who want an extra-portable laptop that can still handle more demanding tasks. However, choosing the right configuration isn’t always easy.

Apple currently provides four starting points, each with its own customization options. These four are essentially split down the middle: The two cheaper starting points use older 8th Gen Intel CPUs while the other two offer newer, pricier 10th Gen CPUs.

However, you can’t simply configure any component. With the 8th Gen MacBooks, you have up to four configuration possibilities with the CPUs, memory, and storage options Apple has to offer. On the 10th Gen MacBooks, you have up to five.

That said, allow us to recommend the best configuration and why we picked it.

Best overall: 1.4Ghz quad-core processor, 512GB storage ($1,499)

MacOS Catalina Hands-on | Macbook Pro
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The $1,299 baseline 13-inch MacBook Pro has a 256GB SSD, which may be too small for long-term storage. This is especially true if you download lots of music and movies. You want a laptop that won’t fill up after several years and force you to buy external storage.

However, you can configure the storage to 2TB, but that raises the price by $800, meaning things start to get really expensive. The 4TB SSD is only available in the two higher starting points and adds a hefty $1,000 to the final price. Ouch.

The next starting point, the $1,499 configuration with 512GB of storage, should be a better fit for most MacBook users on a budget. It too has the option to configure a better processor, more RAM, and more storage, allowing you to use a more powerful machine for highly demanding tasks if necessary.

All in all, it keeps to the minimalistic ideals of the MacBook while offering the right amount of power and storage.

All about storage

Stock photo of MacBook Pro

It’s vital to choose the right amount of storage when you buy a MacBook Pro, as you won’t be able to manually upgrade the SSD later.

Of the four MacBook Pro 13 starting points, there are three default storage options: 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB. However, these can be increased up to 2TB or 4TB if you need more space, depending on the starting point you choose.

All storage options are PCIe-based SSDs. That means reading and writing data will be significantly faster when compared to older SATA storage. Most smaller ultrabook-style laptops are moving to SSD storage because of these benefits, so it isn’t a huge surprise.

Do these storage-related decisions matter to you? To help, let’s break the question down in two different situations:

You don’t need much storage

As seen with our top pick, go with the 512GB option. You get the storage amount you need and also avoid the risk of filling up your SSD before you are ready to move on to another laptop.

While the 256GB capacity is cheaper, you also need to consider MacOS, the Mac App Store apps, desktop software, and games you plan to install. Let’s not forget all the fun stuff you want to store locally, like photos from your iPhone and iPad backups. You may find that 256GB just isn’t adequate.

Still, both may be suitable for work-focused MacBooks that don’t need to store large video or music files.

You need a lot of storage

In this case, you have two main choices: You can either bite the bullet and invest in a larger, more expensive SSD while configuring your Mac or go with a smaller capacity and buy a secondary external hard disk drive (HDD).

There are a few things to note about this choice, however.

First, Apple’s PCIe SSDs will be significantly faster than an external HDD. That may not be a problem if you use the HDD to store files you rarely access, but if you frequently use it, you may feel the slowdown.

Second, the MacBook Pro currently only has Thunderbolt 3 (via USB-C) ports, so if you buy an external HDD, make sure you buy one that’s compatible. Even more, buy an external SSD that supports Thunderbolt 3 so you can take advantage of the fast 40Gbps transfer speeds.

Additional hardware

Aside from choosing the right amount of storage, Apple provides the means to customize your MacBook Pro’s memory and processor before purchase.

As previously stated, Apple divides the four starting points in half: The bottom two rely on older 8th Gen Intel CPUs while the other two use newer 10th Gen Intel CPUs.

More specifically, the first two starts with the Core i5-8257U four-core chip that you can reconfigure with the Core i7-8557U four-core chip. These configurations only offer two Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports.

The second two starting points offer the newer Core i5-1038NG7 four-core chip by default that you can reconfigure to the Core i7-1068NG7 four-core chip. These configurations include four Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports.

If you need to run a lot of demanding software on your Mac for work or school, then choosing a more powerful chip may be worthwhile. However, keep in mind that these options will add anywhere from $200 to $300 to your final cost. If you don’t care about processor speed or software, then don’t reconfigure the base CPU just because you can. Save the money.

The same rule applies to RAM. The base 8GB of RAM is probably all the memory the average laptop user needs. Configuring the MacBook with 16GB of RAM can help when running a lot of complex programs, like AutoCAD, but if you’re doing that, you probably wouldn’t be buying the 13-inch MacBook Pro over its 16-inch sibling. Don’t choose more RAM just because the number is bigger. It’s only good if you have a specific reason for getting it.

A quick word on Retina

MacOS Catalina Hands-on | Macbook Pro
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

A glance at these four starting points will show they are all “Retina” MacBooks with a 2,560 x 1,600-pixel resolution. “Retina” is Apple’s branding for its newest generation of computer screens, but it doesn’t represent a fixed resolution or pixel count.

So what is it?

Simply put, “Retina” indicates that the pixels are too small for you to see from a reasonable viewing distance. For the MacBook Pro 13, Apple says that means a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 at 227 pixels per inch (ppi).

For other devices, that changes. The MacBook Pro 16, for example, has a resolution of 3072 x 1920 at 226ppi. The iPhone 11 Pro Max has a 2,688 x 1,242 resolution at 456ppi.

Generally speaking, Apple calculates this based on roughly how far away from the screen you will be in general usage. We tend to hold our phones a lot closer to our faces than our computers, hence why the MacBook Pro 13 has fewer pixels than the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Don’t worry, though — that Retina label means it’ll still look beautifully sharp and crisp, something we noted in our review.

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