With the current line of MacBooks, it’s harder than ever to know which MacBook is right for you. In late 2016, we were introduced to the long-awaited MacBook Pro updates with the OLED Touch Bar, and improved hardware under the hood. It wasn’t the giant update a lot of users were looking for, but it certainly was controversial. Between the Touch Bar, the offering of ports, and the price, Apple’s line of laptops is a more contentious topic than ever before.
Speaking of the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, we’re not convinced it’s actually all that revolutionary. In a lot of cases, it’s a solution searching for a problem — and its constantly-shifting nature requires more attention that classic function keys.
In mid-2017, the processors across all the new MacBooks were then brought up to 7th-generation Intel processors to stay competitive, though we may now be waiting until next spring to see an update to 8th-generation, which many Windows laptops have.
Now — let’s find your next MacBook.
Here are the five models of MacBook currently available, counting different display sizes as distinct models.
- MacBook Air
- MacBook Pro 13-inch
- MacBook Pro 13-inch (with Touch Bar)
- MacBook Pro 15-inch (with Touch Bar)
While that may not look like a vast selection compared to prolific brands like Dell or HP, it’s fairly swollen for Apple.
Don’t buy the MacBook Air
One year ago, we would have automatically removed the MacBook Air from our list of eligible systems. It wasn’t bad, but it seemed dead in the water due to the fact that it hadn’t gotten an update in years. That’s why we were surprised when Apple announced a small update in June of 2017 that boosted the processor speed up to 1.8GHz.
While Apple is keeping this product alive, it’s not exactly the update it needs to keep the MacBook Air competitive in today’s market. With the “Air” brand being phased out of the iPad line, it’s only a matter of time before the MacBook Air gets discontinued, too.
The MacBook Air suffers from a lackluster display resolution of 1440 x 900, and doesn’t offer the quickest hardware. While it holds up the bottom end of the lineup as a budget option, it’s still hard to justify at the price. You can get a lot more mileage about of $1,000 elsewhere. Comparable Windows laptops deliver 1080p resolution, more RAM, and faster processors.
If you absolutely need a MacBook Air, or want a Mac on a tight budget, you can always buy a refurbished model at a discounted price. You may even want to consider something like the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, which starts at just over $800 with the Smart keyboard included.
Why not the 12-inch MacBook?
With the MacBook Air out of the running, the real battle begins. Let’s start with the slim and shiny MacBook.
You might expect the MacBook to easily walk over its older siblings. It’s slimmer, lighter, and more portable. Fanless and wafer-thin, the MacBook looks like a laptop from the future. But it has 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.
Apple attempted to fix the poor performance with a processor update in mid-2017. Moving it up to seventh-generation processors, the MacBook now offers two options: The $1299 “Core m3” and the $1599 “Core i5.” In our tests, the Core m3 showed itself to be impressive for a mobile processor, competing with the MateBook X’s Core i5-7200U in single-core performance, but it still lags behind the previous generation MacBook Pro.
While we haven’t tested it yet, it should be noted that the “Core i5” version of the MacBook is not the same i5-7200U processor you’ll find in something like the MacBook Pro or standard 2017 Windows laptops. It’s a rebranded, seventh-generation version of the old Core m5 chip — you can blame Intel for the confusion there.
Then there’s the port problem. The MacBook offers two: a single USB-C for all peripherals and for charging, and a headphone 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, weight just above 2 pounds. But even here there’s a tradeoff, because the MacBook’s battery life isn’t exceptional. It’s not bad — but, given it price, we expect more.
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 $150.
What if you’re thinking of going Pro?
Now that the two less powerful options have been dispatched, only the freshly redesigned MacBook Pro remains. The high-end machine packs in 6th Generation Intel processors, PCIe SSDs standard, and a Retina display in all models.
In that sense, the MacBook Pro sets itself apart from the low-power options further down the ladder. Whether it competes with other systems in its price range is another story.
The 13-inch version competes most directly with the Dell XPS 13. The slim PC is one of our favorite laptops, and unfortunately undercuts the MacBook Pro 13’s price fairly seriously in terms of base model, starting at $799 to the MacBook Pro 13’s $1,300, which is for the model without a Touch Bar and two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
The MacBook Pro 15 is in a better position, despite the higher price. Its most obvious competitor is the Surface Book 2, which starts at the same $2,300 price point. The Surface Book 2 beats out the MacBook Pro 15 in terms of graphical and processor performance, screen resolution, and of course is a 2-in-1 with a touch screen and stylus.
Other issues came to light once we actually had the system in our hands. The Touch Bar wasn’t the revolution in computing Apple hyped it up to be. Features like suggestive text and tab previews work well on smartphones, but their presence is often unnecessary, and many users may find themselves setting the Touch Bar to operate as brightness and volume control, instead of custom app controls.
The keyboard has a frustratingly short throw, which makes typing for long periods uncomfortable. Finally, battery life is seriously lacking, and that was one of the major selling points of previous models.
However, the MacBook Pro models fight back with a large touchpad, excellent hard drive performance, and forward-looking ports. Like previous MacBook Pro models, it’s also sleek and attractive, but you’ll have to decide how much that’s worth to you. It’s a very expensive system, and arguably not a great value. But then again, Macs have never been the budget option.
And the winner is…
There was just an update to the MacBook Pro line, so if you really want something that runs MacOS, that’s the only system to consider. Your best bet is likely the 13-inch MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar. It presents the most competitive value, albeit without the standout feature, which again, we’re not that fond of. If you’re a pro user who needs some serious performance power, the 15-inch MacBook Pro also offers a fairly competitive value, though the 13-inch model is much more affordable for the average buyer.
There’s still serious hardware under the hood on the base 13-inch MacBook Pro. The Retina display offers roughly twice the 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 a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports.
It isn’t the flashiest option, but the MacBook Pro 13 is the best choice for anyone looking to pick up a MacOS laptop. If you don’t have that much to spend, you’re probably better off reaching for a Windows PC, or purchasing a refurbished Mac.