MacBook Pro 15 vs. MacBook Pro 13: Which should you buy?

The choice between the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros is about more than size

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Thinking of getting a new MacBook Pro? There’s one major decision you have to make first: Should you go for the 13-inch or 15-inch model? It’s a big call, because this isn’t as simple a choice as just size preference.

If you were to face this choice at some point in the last three years, it would be easier. That’s because if you didn’t want the Touch Bar, Apple’s OLED control strip, you needed to opt for the 13-inch model, as it was the only MacBook Pro that let you go without. Recently, that’s all changed, as every MacBook Pro — 13-inch or 15-inch — now comes with the Touch Bar. Now, other factors come into play, like the processor, graphics and, of course, price.

We’re here to help. Just follow this guide and you’ll know exactly which MacBook Pro you should go for.

Design

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

In terms of design, there’s not much of a choice to be made. Both the 13-inch and 15-inch models looks essentially the same, featuring the classic unibody aluminum design Apple has used for many years now. Now that the Touch Bar is on all MacBook Pros as well, there’s even less separating the two models.

The Touch Bar gives you app-specific shortcuts on an OLED control strip located where the Function keys used to live. It’s been fairly divisive since its debut, although it undoubtedly has a lot of potential. The Touch Bar also gives you a Touch ID button to quickly confirm purchases and log in. That’s a useful feature also included on the MacBook Air, which lacks the Touch Bar.

Speaking of divisive, you’ll get the butterfly keyboard in every MacBook Pro. This has undergone several revisions over the years and remains a point of contention with MacBook users due to its low travel and relatively high failure rate. You get the same keyboard regardless of which model you pick, however.

The most obvious design difference between the MacBook Pro 15 and the MacBook Pro 13 is the size of the display and chassis. The former comes with a 15.4-inch screen and a body that’s 13.75 inches wide and 9.48 inches deep, weighing 4.02 pounds. The latter, in contrast, has a 13.3-inch display, while its chassis measures 11.97 inches wide and 8.36 inches deep, and weighs 3.02 pounds. That’s something to consider if you’re going to be hauling your laptop around on commutes.

Aside from raw dimensions, there are a few more differences to each model’s Retina display. The 13-inch model comes with a native resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 at 227 pixels per inch. The 15-inch model sits at 2,880 x 1,800 and 220 pixels per inch. In other words, although the resolution is higher on the 15-inch version, they will look very similar to the naked eye in terms of pixel density. According to Apple, both hit 500 nits of brightness and are equipped with a P3 wide color gamut and True Tone tech, which adjusts the white balance based on the surrounding ambient light. They both have superb color accuracy, too.

Both versions give you super-speedy Thunderbolt 3 ports, although the number you get depends on the model you choose. Every iteration of the 15-inch MacBook Pro gets four Thunderbolt 3 ports; the two entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro options give you two ports, while the two high-end versions have four ports. Thunderbolt 3 can hit transfer speeds of up to 40 Gb/s, and is also compatible with USB-C (which hits peaks of 10 Gb/s).

You’re in for a treat when it comes to audio, as both models come with industry-leading speakers. Back when we reviewed the 13-inch MacBook Pro in 2016, we called its speakers “the best we can recall hearing in a 13-inch system.” Our review of 2019’s 15-inch MacBook Pro, meanwhile, says its speakers are so good they “[make] the speakers on other laptops sound pretty pathetic in comparison.” Oh, and both versions come with a 3.5mm headphone jack in case you were wondering.

Performance

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Performance is where the real differences between the 13-inch and 15-inch models come to the fore. In early 2019, Apple kitted out its 15-inch models with eight-core Intel Core i9 processors, a significant step up from the 13-inch’s best offering of a quad-core Core i7.

What does that mean in practice? Well, the 15-inch’s Intel Core i9 hit some seriously impressive numbers in our review. It scored 5,423 for single-core and 29,708 for multi-core in our Geekbench tests. For a laptop this thin, that’s pretty remarkable.

As for the 13-inch model, it’s no slouch either. Although you won’t be able to kit it out with a beastly i9 processor, you can still fit it with a quad-core i7 chip with Turbo Boost up to 4.7GHz. That difference, though, means that the 15-inch model is really suited to those who need true power and don’t mind paying for the privilege. The 13-inch model is more suited to you if you want a laptop that can handle your reasonable-to-high needs but you don’t require something that really pulls out all the stops.

Elsewhere, both models can get a serious graphics boost by hooking up an external GPU (eGPU). This makes use of Thunderbolt 3’s 40Gb/s transfer speeds to massively ramp up the MacBook Pro’s graphics performance.

For instance, Apple claims that adding a Blackmagic eGPU can give the 13-inch model 3.2 times the performance in Final Cut Pro X and the 15-inch model 4.7 times the performance in Maxon Cinema 4D when compared to doing the same tasks without an eGPU. That’s an eye-catching increase.

Of course, any such performance spike comes with a cost. Blackmagic’s compatible eGPU boxes start at $699 including the graphics card. You can get a Razer Core X eGPU case for $299, but that doesn’t include a graphics card. In short, with great power comes a great price tag. But if you’re considering getting an eGPU, you should be looking at the 15-inch model rather than the 13-inch version — a massively powerful graphics card should be matched with a massively powerful processor in order to avoid bottlenecks, after all.

Configurations

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Digital Trends

Now to get our hands dirty. Performance really should be the deciding factor between buying a 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro. The simplest way of breaking it down is that unless you need your machine for editing 4K video or playing games, you probably don’t need the extra power that comes with the larger model.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with four different basic configurations, each of which can be further customized, ranging in price from $1,299 to $1,999. The base model starts with a 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz. It has 8GB of memory, a 128GB SSD and Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645. This model can be customized to have a 1.7GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel i7 chip with Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz, 16GB of memory and up to 2TB of SSD storage.

If you wanted to get the most powerful 13-inch option, you’d go for the $1,999 version. This comes with a 2.4GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz, 8GB of memory, a 512GB SSD and Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655. You can upgrade this to have a 2.8GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel i7 processor, 16GB of memory and up to 2TB of SSD storage. Even completely maxed out, you’re still a solid $400 below the entry-level price of the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

While that shows the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a fair amount of wiggle room when it comes to customization, there are some limitations. For example, there’s no way to upgrade the on-board graphics card or go beyond 16GB of memory. That’s because, really, the 13-inch model is aimed more at consumers than professionals — the type of person who may encode the odd video here and there, but doesn’t go much beyond that. If your workload demands more power, you need to start looking at a 15-inch configuration.

The larger model has two basic models to choose from: A 2.6GHz six-core model starting at $2,399, and a 2.3GHz eight-core version starting at $2,799. Those extra cores are where the true strength of the 15-inch MacBook Pro lie.

The first of these options comes with a 2.6GHz six-core 9th-generation Intel i7 processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz, 16GB of memory, a 256GB SSD and a Radeon Pro 555X. This can be customized to have a 2.4GHz eight-core 9th-generation Intel i9 processor with Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz, 32GB of memory, a Radeon Pro 560X graphics chip and up to 4TB of SSD storage. That maxed-out configuration will set you back a whopping $4,799.

If you were to start with the top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro, you’d have a 2.3GHz eight-core 9th-generation Intel i9 processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.8GHz, 16GB of memory, a 512GB SSD and Radeon Pro 560X graphics by default.

If you want to max it out, you can give it a 2.4GHz eight-core 9th-generation Intel i9 chip with Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz, 32GB of memory, a Radeon Pro Vega 20 graphics chip and up to 4TB of SSD storage. This’ll cost you a pretty penny, though, setting you back $5,149 for this configuration. That’s as expensive as laptops get.

What all this tells us is that if you want the ultimate power and customization, the 15-inch model is your best bet. It’s the only one that lets you add a discrete graphics card and more than 16GB of memory. It’s also the only one that gives you 9th-generation Intel chips (including the beefy Core i9). That’s because the larger MacBook Pro is really designed for creative professionals who need the extra core count and more powerful graphics options that it comes with. The 13-inch model can go plenty powerful for more common work, but just isn’t designed for the sort of multithreaded workloads that the 15-inch version can gobble up.

The MacBook Pro 15’s customization wins out

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Riley Young/Digital Trends

Apple has designed its 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro laptops for different use cases. If you’re looking for an excellent portable computer but don’t need pro-level power, the 13-inch model is the one for you. If you have a heavy workload and need a device that won’t hold you back, however, go for the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Now that Apple has updated the base 13-inch MacBook Pro to have the Touch Bar and quad-core 8th-generation Intel chips, it’s a seriously tempting option. Starting at $1,299, it’s Apple’s most affordable MacBook Pro, and still packs in a beautiful display, industry-leading trackpad and lightning-fast Thunderbolt 3 ports. That makes it a great option for the majority of consumers, but you should also consider the cheaper MacBook Air if you don’t need much in terms of extra power.

The thing is, if raw power is what you need, the 15-inch version will be more up your street. Yes, you pay more for the privilege, but you likely won’t mind if you have demanding tasks that need to get crunched in the minimum time possible. Not only do you get a roomier screen and bigger speakers, but you get far more in the way of customization. Being able to add a discrete graphics card alone may justify the step up in price.

The more powerful components across the board are what really make it stand out. Extra memory, better graphics cards and more capacious storage will come in handy whether you want to encode videos, edit photos or run complex AI algorithms. Those tasks will feel more constrained on the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

That’s why we have to give the nod to the 15-inch model. If you’re not on a tight budget and need portable power, it’s the MacBook Pro to go for.

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