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.

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Battle of the 13-inch MacBooks: Which one wins?

15 Comments

i think the best laptop will be the macbook pro retina, but i think people should wait until june 10-14, when the wwdc conference is over and maybe there will be new and better models, so is better to wait at least a few weeks more and make the right choice

Easily the retina. The screen will blow you away, it comes with 8 GB of ram, and its only a little thicker and heavier than an Air.

Great post Peter. I agree that it's best to wait. WWDC is just a few weeks away, so there may be some kind of MacBook update(s).

One minor omission: the 13" MBP non-Retina has 1 Thunderbolt and 2 USB 3 connectors.
The 13" MBP with Retina has 2 Thunderbolt and 1 USB 3 connector.

Off-topic, but my wishlist of physical features for the MacBook Air is:
- Black glass bezel, all glass "top half," in white or black.
- Black glass keys.
- Slate anodized color option for aluminum "bottom half."

There would be two color options: black glass "top" with anodized slate "bottom," or white glass "top" with current aluminum "bottom." And the white Apple logo would be hidden on the white "top half" models until the lid is opened.

Bezel around the screen would be black on all models, like on the current MB Pro. You'd have a glass sandwich of screen and black bezel on the keyboard-facing side and and black or white glass (both with glowing white Apple logo) on the outer side. And the top outer glass would be textured to match the anodized aluminum bottom.

Wishlist of physical features for MacBook Pro (Retina and non-Retina):
- Black glass keys.
- Slate anodized color option.

Getting sick of plastic keys on keyboards. I want glass keys.

I'll be seriously tempted by a Haswell Retina MacBook Pro 13-inch. 15 is great but big and heavy. Air isn't really powerful enough.
Your move, Apple! :)

I can't see Apple taking a more powerful processor and opting for a graphics card as well. Not happening.

I don't expect them to add a discrete graphics card, but if the Haswell refresh happens like I expect, integrated graphics will get a very nice boost.

This post is without doubt one the best ones I have read at iMore; however, it belongs not here but at TidBits, Verge, 9 to 5, et al. A true iMore articles is René's longform analysis of iOS software, hardware and their implications for consumers, competitors, productivity, creativity, and other aspects of past, present and future. I believe the day will arrive when iOS and Mac OS will be one and the same thing — case in point: the 128 iPad 4 is taking us there —, so long as hardware is more potent and design follows through in a cheaper and more democratic fashion. That said, I wish René, Peter and Richard would unite their individually analytical takes and synthesize for us the readers what the present of Mac OS implies for the future of iOS each and every time Peter Cohen or Richard Devine report on Mac OS. It's great to talk about Mac OS hardware and software news and proposals; however, at least when it comes to iMore I want to understand where you three feel we are all headed in mobile. For someone who has never used a Mac as is my case, all I can attest is that changing from Microsoft Windows to my iPad 3 has been a remarkable productivity milestone for me, so long as you choose the right apps. TODAY'S HOMEWORK: How does the 13-inch Mac article here in question affects us all in our mobile future, starting with the iPad? That's what iMore is all about: the "i" for i-Phone, for i-Pad and for i-Pod. In one word: i-future.

My dream laptop from Apple would be a 13" Macbook Pro (non-Retina) with the body of a Retina Macbook Pro, SSD, and a dedicated graphic card. I hope future Macbook Pros will come close to this.

what wins? depends on the users needs. Form some cost is an issue, others it's lots of storage, others it's expandability, some it's screen resolution, Some it's power, etc. What "wins" is all about what an individual user wants, must have, and can live without. And that will vary. For example my parents have two macs but they've never ever bought anything but a budget freindly model, only imacs. Never laptops let alone expensive retina ones. It all varies by user.

Not sure that'll be relevant soon. The price of solid state storage is quickly dropping...as the capacity (and reliability) continues to increase. Haswell will provide 'power' and efficiency (battery life)---both on the CPU and iGPU, now approaching discrete speeds. Not that they're there yet....but these generational updates to Intel's silicon become more and more SoC style, ala ARM and Tegra (nVidia). Both the GPU and CPU on the same die...smaller wafer production, increased visibility in the mobile market....I think Intel missed this mark completely and are now on top of providing 'mobile' power as well as increasing efficiency in their traditional 'computer' chips. These next couple of years will be exciting. And not just for the CPU and GPU updates....but what they'll provide in the sense of HiDPI displays without challenges....the IPS vs OLED and the race to such high resolution that we are unable to determine pixels with our human vision. High speed Broadcom chips for LTE and soon, 5g with theoretical download speeds @ 1Gb/s....etc. There's a lot going on at Intel to remain relevant in a more 'mobile' world....and their recent change in management ...as well as OEMs demanding more power, better graphics, and longer battery life (power efficiency)...it's impossible to count Intel out. With a world population exceeding 7 billion and growing daily, there's plenty of room for SoC competitors and 'ideas' on how best to implement all earlier discussed attributes. When I bought my 15" rMBP, I was a bit concerned about the lack of an optical drive so I did buy Apple's external drive. I plugged it in once to transfer my FCP and Logic projects and al, of the extra content that come with each program. Since then, I've had no need for it. Our audio and video projects are now either shared via cloud storage or USB thumb drives. Or simply computer to computer with AirShare on the newer Macs

I just don't think there will be three lines of 13" MBPs soon. Maybe two...as I think we are a bit early with energy technology to stuff retina into a MBA. But soon....as soon as Intel, AMD, or ARM is able to yield powerful enough silicon and graphics with complimentary battery technology....we'll be there! 10 hour battery life in the laptop. Two days in the tablets...a week on your smartphone. We're getting there...and it's exciting to me as a 42 year old and my first computers in the early 80s being a Commodore 64--- then the venerable Apple IIe, a high school career without cell phones...and starting off as a kid listening to vinyl and 8 tracks In the car....to cassette. To CD. To DVD. To Blu Ray and digital download...it's been an amazing three decades and hard to imagine the iPod or iPhone being as antiquated in 2025 as the Sony Walkman is today;)

I have been a bit spoiled carrying around my Samsung Chromebook recently, so what I would really like from Apple is a non retina MBP (13 inch) with the lighter, thinner MBP retina body. If I saw this in a sub 3 lbs laptop I'll be sold.
Edit: Didnt know the 13 inch MBP w/ Retina didnt come with a dvd drive. I need one of those and I doubt Apple will be adding them back in (it needs to play blu ray also). Oh well.