Once upon a time, Steve Jobs drew quadrants on a slide and, if you wanted a new notebook rather than desktop, all you had to decide between was consumer and pro, for a brief time, between MacBook and MacBook Pro. Then he pulled a MacBook Air out of a manilla envelope and things got — and stayed — more complicated. Today, with an old Air and new, a 12-inch and several levels of Pro, it can seem downright confusing.

But it doesn't have to be.

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The New Grid

The old grid is gone. The old grid is dead. But I'd argue there's a new, almost as simple grid that's taken its place and can help you whittle down to your ideal MacBook pretty quick.

  • If you just want a MacBook you can take pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything with, then you've got the new baseline, the new MacBook Air.

  • If you absolutely have to have a MacBook but just can't or won't pay over $1000 for it, you have the old Air still in the lineup.

  • If maximum portability is more important to you and you're willing to pay a premium for the thinnest and the lightest, but not too much of a premium, then there's the m3 12-inch MacBook.

  • If you want a little more power as well as portability, and premium is no problem, then you can go up to the i7 12-inch MacBook Pro.

  • If you need power more than portability, and you're willing to pay a premium for that, you've got the MacBook Pro, starting with the 2017 13-inch sans TouchBar.

  • If you demand maximum power and performance no matter the premium, then you can go all the way up to the just-released 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro with mobile Vega graphics.

Yes, there still lots of room to fuss with exact processor, memory, and storage options in between, but that part has kinda always been true.

Which is why grids only ever really took us so far. So, let's try something better.

MacBook Air: The Baseline

If you need a new MacBook and that's all you really know or care about, if you're a student or teacher, if you want to work at home and at coffee shops, if you mostly use the web and documents, photos and messaging, get the MacBook Air.

It's not only the least expensive modern MacBook in Apple's lineup, it's also the simplest. You pick your color, you pick your storage, you pick your memory, and that's it. It's almost iPad simple for people who just want a Mac without all the fuss. And that's what the MacBook Air is for — everyone who wants a traditional computer without the traditional computer hassles.

Here's what you get:

It has Intel's Amber Lake processor, which is a more mobile-friendly, Y-series version of Coffee Lake, so it's the latest generation. It's just doesn't run quite as fast or as hot. And it has two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, one for power when you need it, and the other or both for just about everything else… though you'll like need a USB-A adapter or two as well, at least for the foreseeable future.

It's got a Retina display, which means a person with average vision from an average working distance can't see pixels, just sharp text and graphics, though it's not quite as bright or as colorful as the pro displays.

It's also got Apple's latest T2 Security Chip, which makes it harder for anyone to steal or infect your stuff, and Touch ID, which makes it easier for you to unlock and authorize Apple Pay.

That entry-level starts at $1199. And yeah, that's more expensive than the old model, which is still around for $999. But it's a hundred bucks less expensive than that old model was at launch, or than any 13-inch Air has ever been at launch, especially the original which, ten years ago, started at $1799.

With that entry-level, you get 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, which is probably fine if you do and keep a lot of your work online, and especially if you use Safari instead of a ton of Chrome tabs and apps.

If you want or need more breathing room, you can go to 16GB of RAM or an extra $200, and to 256 or 512GB, or 1.5TB of storage, for an extra 200, 400, and 1200 bucks respectively. You've got to never want to clean up or offload your Mac to shell out for that much storage on an Air, though.

If that's priced outside your reach, and you still really want a Mac, there is that previous generation Air for $999. It lacks a Retina display and a modern processor and ports, but it does have USB-A and even an SD Card slot. You can also keep an eye out for discounts and sales, because there can be good hones, and refurbs. Or, if you're open to alternatives, the iPad or iPad Pro.

Otherwise, the new MacBook Air really is the new normal for everyone who, like I said, just wants a new Mac to take with them everywhere and do pretty much everything you need doing.

See at Apple

12-inch MacBook: The Ultralight

If you need a new MacBook and even the Air isn't quite thin or light enough for you, if you're an executive or manager, you're always on planes or walking trade shows, if your workload is light so you want your Mac to be the same, and you're willing and able to pay a bit more to carry a bit less, then you want the 12-inch MacBook.

Here's what you give up:

Because the MacBook is smaller, the screen is also smaller — by an inch and change, and the resolution is 2304 by 1440 instead of 2560 by 1600 pixels. The pixels are also slightly less colorful at standard instead of full sRGB.

It's got a couple hours less battery life — 10 for web browsing instead of 12, and only one USB-C port, no Thunderbolt 3 included.

It's also got a 480p FaceTime camera, which, yeah, is straight out of… I don't know… 2008? The keyboard is also gen 2 instead of gen 3, which means no inner membrane. And, yeah, no Touch ID.

Here's what you gain:

It's up to a tenth of an inch thinner and almost three-quarters of a pound lighter. And it makes the Air look positively Pro-plump by comparison.

You also get processor options. Apple didn't bump them up to Amber Lake like the new Air, so it's still the previous generation Kaby Lake Y-Series. And the entry-level comes with an m3, which is about as low as you can go. There's an i5, though, which is last year's version of the i5 in the Air. But there's also an i7, which can give you even better performance than the Air and in a package that's even more portable. If you're willing and able to pay for it.

The MacBook starts at $1299, and for that extra hundred bucks over the Air you get the m3, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage.

If you want performance as well, you can go to the i5 for an extra 100 bucks or top it out with the i7 for an extra 250.

Yeah, it's a lot to pay for a little, little Mac, but if you simply don't want to carry any more Mac than you absolutely have to, and maximum portability is worth the premium, then the 12-inch MacBook is for you.

See at Apple

13-inch MacBook Pro: The Workstation

If you need a new MacBook but you need it to do quote unquote real work bracket TM close bracket, if you're a pro photographer, videographer, audio producer or engineer, designer or coder, if time is money and power is worth a premium, then you want the MacBook Pro.

Here's what you give up:

It's squared more than wedge-shaped like the Air, and a quarter-pound heavier. It's also got 10 instead of 12-hours of web browsing battery life. And, at the lowest-end — well, low-end for a Pro — the 13-inch without the Touch Bar, also has no Touch ID. And while it has full U-series processor options, they're the previous generation Kaby Lake, not the current generation Coffee Lake.

All the higher end versions, though, have Touch ID and Coffee Lake.

Here's what you get:

The 13-inch screen is the same size and density as the Air, but 200 nits brighter and with a wide P3 gamut, it's much more colorful.

Processor options are… well… buckle yourself in: You can get that aforementioned dual core Kaby Lake U-series version without a Touch Bar starting at $1299 for the i5 or, for an extra 300 bucks, i7.

You can also get quad core Coffee Lake with a Touch Bar and Touch ID in either i5 or, again for an extra 300 bucks, i7. And, if you're willing to go up to the 15-inch, not only can you get a 2880-by-1800 screen, but 6-core Coffee Lake in either i7 or, for an extra 400 bucks i9.

It's a lot to pay but it's a lot of performance you're paying for.

For the 13-inch, you can go from 8GB of RAM to 16GB for an extra 200 bucks. For the no touch bar model, you can go from 128GB of storage to 256 or 512GB, or 1TB for an extra 200, 400, or 800 bucks. With the Touch Bar, from 256GB of storage to 512GB or to 1TB or 2TB for 200, 600, or 1400 bucks. For the 15-inch, you can go to 32GB of RAM for 400 bucks, 1, 2, or 4TB of storage for 400, 1200, or 3200 bucks. And to Pro Vega 16 or Pro Vega 20 graphics for 250 or 350 bucks.

That's a lot of options, and a lot of money, but if you're a hardcore, keyboard clacking, pixel pushing, RED rendering, code crunching, design daring doer, your time is worth more than money, and you'll pay just about anything for performance, then you want the MacBook Pro.

See at Apple

The Decision

OK, so I know that got real complicated real fast there at the end. So I'm going to rewind and bring it right back to the beginning.

  • If you just want a MacBook you can take pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything with, then you've got the new baseline, the new MacBook Air.

  • If you absolutely have to have a MacBook but just can't or won't pay over $1000 for it, you have the old Air still in the lineup.

  • If maximum portability is more important to you and you're willing to pay a premium for the thinnest and the lightest, but not too much of a premium, then there's the m3 12-inch MacBook.

  • If you want a little more power as well as portability, and premium is no problem, then you can go up to the i7 12-inch MacBook Pro.

  • If you need power more than portability, and you're willing to pay a premium for that, you've got the MacBook Pro, starting with the 2017 13-inch sans TouchBar.

  • If you demand maximum power and performance no matter the premium, then you can go all the way up to the just-released 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro with mobile Vega graphics.

And if even that is still too complicated, just get the new Air.

VECTOR | Rene Ritchie

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