Battle of the 13-inch MacBooks: Which one wins?
If you're shopping for a new 13-inch laptop, you may have noticed that Apple's product line in that category is a bit more crowded than in other spots. The company has three distinct 13-inch models - the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Which model should you get? Let's compare, but let me warn you at the outset: I think you should wait.
On the weekends I work at a local Apple Specialist. Anecdotally, I see more 13-inch MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs go out the door than any other model. They're all compact, lightweight and powerful machines, so it's little wonder that they hit the sweet spot between features and price.
Once you scratch below the surface, though, there's a lot of diversity there. At $1,199, The MacBook Air occupies the low end of the 13-inch price range, but it's a well-rounded performer: a dual-core 1.8 GHz Core i5 processor doesn't tell the full story of the machine's performance, thanks to the use of Solid State Disk (SSD) storage. With 128 GB storage standard, the MacBook Air may not be big enough for digital pack rats. Apple will double the storage for an additional $200. Four GB RAM comes standard, with 8 GB also available.
The MacBook Air is terrific for portable convenience. It weighs less than three pounds and measures a bit more than half an inch thick with the screen closed. Thunderbolt and two USB 3.0 ports make peripheral connection easy, and Thunderbolt's flexible enough to work with high speed storage, Gigabit Ethernet and external displays, using the right attachment.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro is yeoman model of the bunch, priced the same as the thinner, lighter MacBook Air. Its more conventional technology appeal to people looking to maximize storage (500GB hard drive comes standard; SSD is a pricey additional option) or who might still need a DVD burner. The machine also sports a faster processor - 2.5 GHz. Options like a faster processor and more RAM are available -- a well-appointed model runs $1,499.
The downsides of the standard 13-inch MacBook Pro include a heavier weight - 4.5 pounds - and a thicker frame. But that thicker frame also permits this workhorse to have dedicated Ethernet and FireWire 800 connections, along with Thunderbolt and two USB 3.0 connections.
Positioned next to a conventional 13-inch MacBook Pro, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display shines. The stunning display with its 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution, rich color and fantastic detail make it easy to differentiate, and its sleek chassis retains many of the benefits of the MacBook Air like SSD storage and a thinner and lighter design (almost a full pound lighter, and less than an inch thick). It's also priced at $1,499, though storage options can drive the price higher (upgrading SSD storage isn't for faint-hearted or those planning on keeping their warranty intact.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display wins for performance and usability - an elegantly designed machine that's flexible enough to handle everything that's thrown at it. And with SSD options stretching to 768 GB, plenty of space for big files.
If there's a downside to all three models, it's that the integrated graphics processor - the Intel HD Graphics 4000 - can get overtaxed especially when the Retina Display is driving scaled, higher resolution modes. Also, these machines are all based around Intel's Ivy Bridge architecture, which is about to be supplanted by something else that could be a really big deal for Apple's mobile Macs - something that's as applicable to the 15-inch models as it is to the 13-inch ones.
Intel's Haswell microprocessor should start shipping in quantity by the same time Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference happens next month. Haswell sports much greater power efficiency and a significant improvement in graphics performance. Even if Apple doesn't change the form factor or feature list of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro significantly, the smart money is to put off any purchase until we see how Apple's roadmap with Haswell plays out.
Are you pining for new 13-inch hardware from Apple? Besides Haswell processors, what else do you think the new models are likely to have? Tell us in the comments.
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