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?
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.
All of current crop of laptops - everything except the $1,099 MacBook Pro — comes with 802.11ac wireless networking, or "Gigabit Wi-Fi." In practice, an 802.11ac-equipped Mac is capable of transferring data wirelessly up to three times faster than the 802.11n Wi-Fi found on older machines like the standard MacBook Pro.
That depends on using an 802.11ac-equipped base station like Apple's AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule, or other 802.11ac-based systems working on the same network. Otherwise your new MacBook Pro will step down to the fastest speed available. 802.11ac is backwards-compatible with 802.11a, b, g and n standards.
Bluetooth 4.0 comes standard across the product line.
The MacBook Airs both come equipped with two USB 3.0 ports and one Thunderbolt 2 port. The Thunderbolt 2 port can be used for connecting to an external display, a RAID system and other devices (it's daisy-chainable, too). The 13-inch MacBook Air adds an SDXC card slot, making it easy to import images and movies from SD card-based cameras.
SDXC card slots are standard across the MacBook Pro with Retina display line. They also support Thunderbolt 2, but there are two Thunderbolt 2 ports. There are also two USB 3.0 ports and an HDMI connector, so you can attach your MacBook Pro directly to an HDTV if you'd like.
The $1,099 MacBook Pro has a built in Gigabit Ethernet connector, FireWire 800, a single Thunderbolt port, two USB 3.0 ports and an SDXC card slot.
The MacBook uses USB-C standard. USB-C replaces power and connectivity — it's a single port on the MacBook. USB-C follows the USB 3.1 standard. Unlike other USB interfaces, USB-C is reversible (like Apple's Lightning connector on the iPhone). It's also very small.
All new Macs ship with OS X 10.10 "Yosemite" pre-installed. Yosemite, which was released in October, 2014, features integration with iOS 8 through "Continuity" features - Handoff enables you to start an email or view a web page on your Mac, then seamlessly transition to your iPhone or iPad. The reverse is also true - Call Relay lets you make phone calls from your Mac, as long as your iPhone is within range. What's more, Yosemite sports a major user interface update to provide a more consistent user experience across iOS devices.
Who should get the MacBook?
The new MacBook is a very different animal than the rest of the product line. It's designed to cater to an entirely different set of Mac users than we've seen before: People whose sensibility about Apple products was formed from their experience with iPhones and iPads.
Regardless, the MacBook is a Mac. It has PCIe-based Flash storage, a gorgeous display, backlit keys and excellent wireless connectivity. It's also a very natural evolution of a process Apple started by developing continuity between iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite with features like Handoff and Call Relay. The Mac already works great with an iPhone. Now it looks great with an iPhone too.
Who should get a MacBook Air?
I liken the MacBook Air to a roadster, like a Mazda Miata. It looks lightweight, and on paper the specs don't blow you out of the water. But get behind the wheel and it's a completely different experience - it's lithe, nimble and a lot of fun to drive.
In the same token, the MacBook Air is a pleasure to use; its solid state architecture, streamlined with PCIe, makes it fast and responsive. For many Mac users who are surfing the Web, running productivity software, even light graphics and design work, the MacBook Air is a perfectly balanced machine that won't cost you a lot of money and does a lot.
The downside is the limited storage capacity. 128 GB isn't a lot, especially if you're a digital pack rat, and SSD costs a lot to upgrade. The inexpensive - and inconvenient - solution is to migrate content to an external hard disk drive.
Who should get a standard MacBook Pro?
The standard-issue MacBook Pro fits a niche between the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro with Retina display. It also fits an important niche in the ecosystem: it's a laptop for people who need a lot more local storage space than they can afford with an SSD-equipped system, or built-in optical storage - useful if you're frequently reading or burning CDs and DVDs.
The downside is that it lacks the faster Wi-Fi, faster graphics and better battery performance of this year's models. So there are compromises.
Having said that, the 13-inch MacBook Pro remains a popular option for many Mac users looking for a good, reliable laptop with plenty of capability. Which is why Apple's left it in current lineup. If you're looking for a flexible machine with lots of storage, this is a great option.
Who should get a MacBook Pro with Retina display?
At $1,299, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is a better value than ever. The size is right for most people; the price is right for many as well. This year's crop of rMBPs are faster and more capable than ever, thanks to an efficient processor core and the incorporation of Mavericks.
If you're doing heavy duty graphics work on your laptop - editing huge Photoshop files, editing digital video, or if you're looking for maximum performance, the 15-inch MacBook Pro is going to be your best best. The Iris Pro graphics are surprisingly spritely for an integrated graphics chipset, and the Nvidia graphics on the higher-end 15-inch MacBook Pro offers no compromises.
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.