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 ultralight MacBook, the previous, but now cheaper ultralight MacBook Air, and the powerful and brand new 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.
Note: Apple has also chosen to keep the previous generation 13- and 15-inch MacBooks Pro on the market. I'll refer to those as MacBook Pro 2015 and the current generation as MacBook Pro 2016.
Still, it's useful to look at the current baselines.
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 offered at 12-inches only. That houses a 2304x1440 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 anymore, and it appears like you're looking at a photo or out a window.
MacBook Air now only comes in 13-inches (the 11-inch model has been discontinued). The 13-inch model has a 1440x900 16:10 display at 128 ppi. It's standard definition, though, not a high-definition Retina display 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.
MacBook Pro comes in two display sizes: 13-inch and 15-inch. The 13-inch model has a 2560x1600 16:10 display at 227 ppi. The 15-inch model has a 2880x1800 16:10 display at 220 ppi. They're Retina, like the MacBook, so at normal viewing distance you shouldn't see any obvious pixels.
The 2016 version of the MacBook Pro also supports DCI-P3 wide color gamut and other advanced technologies that provide brighter reds, deeper greens, and blacker blacks. It's like HDR for your display.
- If you want a Retina display, you want the MacBook or MacBook Pro.
- If you want a DCI-P3 wide gamut display, you want the 2016 MacBook Pro.
- If you want the smallest possible display, you want the 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 3840x2160 at 30Hz or 4096x2160 at 24Hz.
MacBook Air can connect to a single 3840x2160 display over Thunderbolt.
MacBook Pro 2015 can also support up to two 3840x2160 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 1920x1080 at up to 60Hz, 3840x2160 at 30Hz, or 4096x2160 at 24Hz.
MacBook Pro 2016 can support up to one 5120x2880 (5K) display for the 13-inch model, and up to two 5120x2880 (5K) displays for the 15-inch model.
- If you want to drive multiple external displays, you want a MacBook Pro.
- If you want to drive multiple 5K external displays, you want a 15-inch 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, engage in video calls, and even scan codes.
MacBook has a 480p iSight camera. It's... not great.
MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have 720p cameras.
None of them have 1080p cameras.
- If web cam quality is important to you, get a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.
- If web cam quality is really important to you, you'll need to get an external camera and plug it in.
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 1.1GHz Core m3, the better 1.2GHz Core m5, or the even better 1.3GHz 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 2015 has the current-generation Skylake processor for the 13-inch and the previous generation Broadwell processor for the 15-inch. 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.
MacBook Pro 2016 has current-generation Skylake processors for both the 13-inch and 15-inch models. The 13-inch model starts with a 2.0GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 or 2.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor for the version without the Touch Bar, and 2.9GHz or 3.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, or 3.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor for the version with Touch Bar. The 15-inch has options for a 2.6GHz, 2.7GHz, or 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor.
- 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 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016.
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 GPU, 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 2015 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.
MacBook Pro 2016 has Intel Iris Graphics 540 for the 13-inch version without Touch Bar and Intel Iris Graphics 550 for the 13-inch version with Touch Bar. The 15-inch version has both Intel HD Graphics 530 for low power and discreet graphics for high performance. There are options for Radeon Pro 450 with 2GB of GDDR5 or 460 with 4GB of GDDR5 on the 13-inch model, or Radeon Pro 455 with 2GB of GDDR5 or Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB of GDDR5 on the 15-inch model.
- If you want graphical power, you want the MacBook Pro 2015.
- If you want the biggest graphics boost you can get, you want the MacBook Pro 2016 in the 15-inch model.
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 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 2015 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 2015 is rated for up to 9 of web browsing and iTunes movie playback, and 30 days on standby.
All versions of the MacBook Pro 2016 are rated for 10-hours of web browsing or 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 don't miss Retina display, get the 13-inch MacBook Air.
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 13-inch MacBook Air also only comes with 8 GB.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2015 starts at 8 GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory but can be configured with 16GB. The 15-inch MacBook Pro 2015 only comes with 16 GB of 1600MHz DDR3L memory.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 without Touch Bar starts with 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 memory and can go to 16GB. The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 with Touch Bar starts at 8GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory and can go to 16GB. The 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 only comes with 16GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory.
- If RAM is important to you, you want the MacBook Pro.
Storage used to consist of big, noisy hard drive platters that 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 2015 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 2015 comes with 256 GB of PCIe Flash but can be upgraded to 512 GB or 1 TB on the highest end model.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 comes with 256GB PCIe Flash storage but can go up to 1 TB. The 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 starts with 256GB PCI Flash storage on the low-end model, 512GB PCIe Flash storage on the high-end model, and both can go to 2 TB.
- If you want the fastest storage possible, you want the MacBook Pro 2016.
- If you want the largest amount of storage possible, you want the 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016.
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 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 3.5mm headphone jack.
The 13-inch MacBook Air has 2x USB 3 ports, 1x Thunderbolt 2 port, an SDXC card slot, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Ethernet is available with an adapter.
The MacBook Pro 2015 has 2x USB 3 ports, 2x Thunderbolt 2 ports, an HDMI port, an SDXC card slot, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Ethernet is available with an adapter.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 without the Touch Bar has 2x Thunderbolt 3 ports (USB-C), both the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 with the Touch Bar have 4x Thunderbolt 3 ports (USB-C), though the two right ports on the 13-inch aren't full speed.
- If you want the most ports available on an Apple laptop, you want the 2015 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.
MacBook has a new, flatter keyboard that uses domes and butterfly switches to create a large, stable surface for your typing.
MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 2015 use Apple's older scissor switch system that's a bit looser but also has much better travel.
MacBook Pro 2016 uses a second generation dome and butterfly switch system for an improved but fundamentally similar typing experience to the MacBook.
- If you love the 12-inch MacBook keyboard, you'll love the MacBook Pro 2016 keyboard.
- If you hate the 12-inch MacBook keyboard, you might want to stick to a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro 2015.
Touch Bar and Touch ID
The higher-end 13-inch and every 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 includes the new Touch Bar. OLED with a matte finish that matches the feel of the keyboard keys, it can display Esc and function keys and system and media controls, just like the old function row. But it can also display curated, contextual shortcuts for whatever app you're working in at the time. That includes volume sliders, content scrubbers, color selectors, and anything else a developer can dream up.
To the right of the new Touch Bar is Touch ID. Once exclusive to iPhone and iPad, now you can have it on the Mac. It works off an Apple T1 chip, which is like a tiny, integrated iOS device embedded right in the MacBook Pro. It handles the secure enclave and secure presentation of Apple Pay information, but that fusion is hidden away.
All you see is the sensor. Place your registered finger on it and you're authenticated! You can even use it for fast account switching.
- If you want a traditional function key row, Apple has a lower-end 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 or any of the other MacBooks for you.
- If you want the new Touch Bar or Touch ID, you want a higher-end MacBook Pro 2016.
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 2015 only come in silver aluminum.
MacBook comes in silver, space gray, gold, and rose gold.
MacBook Pro 2016 comes in silver or space gray.
- If you really want a color other than silver, you want the MacBook. Unless space gray is okay, in which case the MacBook Pro 2016 is an option as well.
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 lowest 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 2015?
Last year's MacBook Pro still packs plenty of punch, at a lower price point, and with all the legacy ports you can throw a cable at. It's 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 Retina but don't care about wide gamut, if the Touch Bar and Touch ID hold no appeal, and Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are a future you can't see yet amid USB Type A, HDMI, and Thunderbolt 2 accessories galore, save some cash and consider the 2015 MacBook Pro.
Who should get the MacBook Pro 2016?
The newly updated MacBook Pro is cutting edge but also cuts some things out. Gone are the legacy ports and in their place the fastest I/O possible, inside and out. It's for those who want the bleeding edge and don't care what it costs.
If you want a DCI-P3 wide gamut display and the best screen tech in the business, a larger Force Touch trackpad, a lighter and denser chassis, Skylake on the 13-inch, AMD Polaris graphics on all 15-inch models, and Touch Bar and Touch ID on the higher end 13-inch and all 15-inch versions, you want the 2016 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.