Should you get the MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro? Here's how to decide!
Apple currently has three laptops in their product lineup — the new and ultralight MacBook, the previous but now cheaper ultralight MacBook Air, and the powerful MacBook Pro. Together, they cover a wide range of portability, performance, and yes, price points. So, which Apple laptop is perfect for you?
CAUTION: Apple is widely expected to update the MacBook Pro and perhaps MacBook Air at the end of October. If you can wait before buying, you should absolutely wait. If you can't wait and need to buy right now, keep reading!
Apple laptop lineup
Apple's MacBook line comprises three separate product categories: the MacBook, MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. The systems are differentiated by their size, weight and relative performance, as well as their price. Each laptop can also be boosted with additional memory, faster processors, and more storage.
Still, it's useful to look at the current baselines.
Note: Apple also still sells the old, non-Retina MacBook Pro with a DVD drive. It's popular with some students but given its age, we can't recommend it to anyone who isn't actively looking for an old Mac with a DVD drive. As a result, we're not including it in this guide.
The display is your window into apps and the internet. The bigger the display, the more you have to carry, but the more you can see.
MacBook is currently 12-inches only. That houses a 2304 x 1440 16:10 aspect ratio display at 226 pixels-per-inch (ppi). That's what Apple terms a "Retina" display, meaning that at normal viewing distance, you can't really see the pixels any more, and it appears like you're looking at a photo or out a window.
MacBook Air comes in two display sizes: 11-inch and 13-inch. The 11-inch model has a 1366 x 768 16:9 display at 136 ppi. The 13-inch model has a 1440 x 900 16:10 display at 128 ppi. They're standard definition, though, not high-definition Retina displays like the MacBook or MacBook Pro. That means, from a normal viewing distance, you can still see the individual pixels on the screen, almost like you're looking through a screen door. Because the 11-inch has a 16:9 aspect ratio, it can show wide-screen TV shows and some movies without letterboxing. It also means it's "short" enough that you have to scroll more often to read web pages and other documents.
MacBook Pro comes in two display sizes: 13-inch and 15-inch. The 13-inch model has a 2560 x 1600 16:10 display at 227 ppi. The 15-inch model has a 2880 x 1800 16:10 display at 220 ppi. They're Retina, like the MacBook, so at normal viewing distance you shouldn't see any obvious pixels.
None of them support the DCI-P3 wide color gamut of the Retina 5K iMac (or 9.7-iPad Pro or iPhone 7). Yet.
- If you want a Retina display, you want the MacBook or MacBook Pro.
- If you want the smallest possible display, you want the 11-inch MacBook Air or 12-inch MacBook.
- If you want the largest possible display, you want the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Macs can also drive external displays — extra monitors you buy and plug in. It's useful if you want a laptop on the go but more of a desktop-like setup when you're home or at the office.
MacBook can connect to USB-C displays, or HDMI (with an adapter) up to 3840 x 2160 at 30Hz or 4096 x 2160 at 24Hz.
MacBook Air can connect to a single 3840 x 2160 over Thunderbolt.
MacBook Pro can also support up to two 3840 x 2160 external displays over Thunderbolt — 5120 x 2880 resolution at 60Hz on a single external display for the highest-end MacBook Pro with AMD Radeon R9 M370X graphics. They can also support 1920 x 1080 at up to 60Hz, 3840 x 2160 at 30Hz, or 4096 x 2160 at 24Hz.
- If you want to drive multiple external displays, you want a MacBook Pro.
- If you want to drive a single 5120 x 2880 display, you want the highest end MacBook Pro.
Apple's laptops have built-in web cameras, called FaceTime after Apple's app of the same name. They let you take selfies, engaged in video calls, and even scan codes.
MacBook has a 480p iSight camera. It's... not great.
MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have 720p iSight cameras.
- If web cam quality is important to you, get a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.
The central processing unit (CPU) is what drives the computer. The smaller and more power efficient the processor, the less it can do but the quieter it is and the longer it can do it for. The bigger and more powerful, the fan noise kicks in, but so does the pure speed. You can also have more processor cores. That means you can do more things at once.
MacBook uses Intel Core m processors, currently of the Skylake generation. They're not as powerful as the Core i5 or i7 processors in the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, but they also don't require a fan, which means MacBook is always whisper quiet. You can get the anemic 1.1 GHz Core m3, the better 1.2 GHz Core m5, or the even better 1.3 GHz Core m7, all with 4MB L3 cache.
MacBook Air uses Intel Core processors, currently of the previous Broadwell generation. They start with 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with 3MB shared L3 cache and go up to 2.2GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 with 4MB shared L3 cache.
MacBook Pro also uses Intel Core Processors. The 13-inch has the current-generation Skylake processor. The 15-inch has the previous-generation Broadwell processor. The 13-inch starts with a 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 3MB shared L3 cache but goes up to 3.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.4GHz) with 4MB shared L3 cache.The 15-inch starts with 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with 6MB shared L3 cache but goes up to 2.8GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with 6MB shared L3 cache.
- If you want a MacBook but still want decent performance, you need the m7.
- If you want an ultralight but you need better performance, you want MacBook Air.
- If you want high performance, you want a MacBook Pro.
- If you want maximum performance for things like video editing, you want a quad-core MacBook Pro.
The graphics processing unit (GPU) handles rendering and pushing the pixels. That includes everything from the macOS interface to photo and video editors to video games. The more powerful the graphics, the more pixels it can render and push, and the smoother and better the animations, apps, and 3D you'll get.
MacBook has Intel HD Graphics 515. It's enough to drive the built-in Retina display and a single external display, but it's integrated graphics, so intensity isn't its thing.
MacBook Air has Intel HD Graphics 6000. Again, it's enough to drive the built-in standard resolution display and a single external display, but it's integrated and that always has limits.
MacBook Pro has Intel Iris Graphics 6100. As built-in graphics go, it's better than previous generations, but it's still built-in. The highest end model is the only one with the option for an extra graphics boost, AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB of GDDR5 memory.
- If you want graphical power, you want the MacBook Pro.
- If you want the biggest graphics boost you can get, you want the MacBook Pro with the AMD Radeon discrete graphics processor.
These days, the one thing more important than power is power efficiency. It doesn't matter how fast your laptop is if it runs out of juice. So, both Intel on the chipset side and Apple on the macOS side have been working on making everything last longer.
MacBook is rated for up to 10 hours of web browsing, 11 hours of iTunes movie playback, and 30 days of standby.
The 11-inch MacBook Air is rated for up to 9 hours of web browsing, 10 hours of iTunes movie playback, and 30 days on standby. The 13-inch MacBook Air is rated for up 12 hours of web browsing, 12 hours of iTunes movie playback, and 30 days on standby.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro is rated for up to 10 hours of web browsing, 12 hours of iTunes movie playback, and 30 days on standby. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is rated for up to 9 of web browsing and iTunes movie playback, and 30 days on standby.
(iTunes movie playback is hardware accelerated, so YouTube in Chrome will consume way more power, for example.)
- If you want the longest battery life possible, and you don't mind the extra weight, get the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The amount of random access memory (RAM) in your Mac determines how many apps you can keep live at a time, how big your photo or video editing projects can be without having to swap data out back and forth on the drive, and otherwise keeps everything super fast.
MacBook only has one memory option: 8 GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3.
The 11-inch MacBook Air starts at 4 GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 memory but can be upgraded to 8 GB. The 13-inch MacBook Air only comes with 8 GB.
The 13-inch MacBook Air starts at 8 GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory but can be configured with 8 GB. The 15-inch MacBook Pro only comes with 16 GB of 1600MHz DDR3L memory.
- If RAM is important to you, you want the MacBook Pro.
Storage used to consist of big, noisy hard drive platters than spun around and didn't take well to bumps or power problems. Now they're solid state — Flash chips with no moving parts. They don't hold as much as old style hard drives and are still more expensive, but they're ultra-fast and far more resilient.
MacBook comes with 256 GB of PCIe Flash storage but can be upgraded to 512 GB.
MacBook Air comes with 128GB of PCIe Flash storage but can be upgraded to 256 GB or 512 GB.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with 128GB of PCIe Flash storage but can be upgraded to 256 GB, or 512 GB on the highest end model. The 15-inch MacBook Pro comes with 256 GB of PCIe Flash but can be upgraded to 512 GB, or 1 TB on the highest end model.
- If you want the largest amount of storage possible, you want the highest end MacBook Pro available.
All of Apple's laptops come with built-in Bluetooth 4.0 for pairing to headphones and other accessories, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi for connecting to wireless routers and, through them, the internet.
None of Apple's current laptops include cellular radios, but you can easily tether them to your iPhone or iPad if you have one.
Wired connections like USB, Thunderbolt, and HDMI let you connect to high-performance accessories like external displays, drives, networks, and more.
MacBook only has a since USB-C port that can be used to connect to USB-C drives, standard USB, VGA, or HDMI with adapters, and to plug in and recharge with a USB or AC adapter. It also has a 3.5 mm headphone jack.
The 11-inch MacBook Air has 2x USB 3 ports, 1x Thunderbolt 2 port, a 3.5 mm headphone jack, and a MagSafe power port. The 13-inch MacBook Air has 2x USB 3 ports, 1x Thunderbolt 2 port, an SDXC card slot, and a 3.5 mm headphone jack. Ethernet is available with an adapter.
The MacBook Pro has 2x USB 3 ports, 2x Thunderbolt 2 ports, an HDMI port, an SDXC card slot, and a 3.5 mm headphone jack. Ethernet is available with an adapter.
- If you want the most ports available on an Apple laptop, you want the MacBook Pro.
Force Touch trackpad
Apple now uses Force Touch technology for their trackpads. It uses a Taptic Engine to simulate the click feeling of a traditional trackpad, but over the entire surface, and without the actual mechanical switch. Some people don't like the feeling, but it adds pressure sensitivity, is less prone to breakdown, and can be used in ways far beyond a regular trackpad.
MacBook and MacBook Pro have the Force Touch trackpad.
MacBook Air has the traditional trackpad.
- If you want a standard trackpad, get the MacBook Air.
- If you want the Force Touch trackpad, get the MacBook or MacBook Pro.
For a long time Apple only made laptops with silver, bead-blasted aluminum finishes. The bead-blasted aluminum part is still true, but recently Apple has started adding some colors to the Mac lineup.
MacBook Air and MacBook Pro only come in silver aluminum.
MacBook comes in silver, space gray, gold, and rose gold.
- If you really want a color other than silver, you want the MacBook.
Who should get the MacBook?
MacBook is ideal for executives, managers, and travelers who want the absolute lightest Mac, but one that still has all the latest technologies.
If you want the closest thing to an iPad in Mac clothing, that's incredibly light, ridiculously portable, with an incredible display, and you're not turned off by the poor camera and lower performance, then you want the MacBook.
Who should get a MacBook Air?
MacBook Air is ideal for those who want a Mac laptop at the lower possible price, and something that's still ultra-portable without sacrificing ports.
If you want an ultralight Mac that still has multiple USB ports and a Thunderbolt Port, and you're not turned off by the standard resolution display and mechanical trackpad, then you want the MacBook Air.
Who should get a MacBook Pro?
MacBook Pro is ideal for professionals who need the most power, memory, and storage possible, bigger screen options, and for whom weight and price aren't issues.
If you want the most powerful laptop Apple makes, with a high-density display, Force Touch trackpad, maximum memory and storage options, and the fastest processors and graphics Apple has available, then you want the MacBook Pro.
If you're still having trouble choosing between the MacBook MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, make sure to pay our Apple notebooks discussion forums a visit and become part of our awesome online community.