MacBook Pro vs. MacBook Air: how I made the choice

13 inch macbook pro

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Lately, I’ve been struggling with what’s clearly a first-world problem: I have too many computers.

There was my main iMac, which I love. Then there was my “power” laptop, a mid-2010 15-inch MacBook Pro (with the 1680-by-1050 display and a recently installed 750GB SSD), which I love. And there was my “light” laptop, a mid-2012 11-inch MacBook Air, which I love (and which replaced an older 11-inch Air). So what was the problem?

The problem was that I don’t travel often enough to justify owning two laptops. And even if I did, I’d still be stuck answering the “Which one should I take on this trip?” question. Generally, I take the big heavy MacBook Pro beast when I need the extra screen-space and the more powerful (or so I thought) CPU; when I don’t need those two things, I take the Air. And then I also have to deal with the issue of which machine has the files I need for each trip. In short, it was a horrid setup, and it needed fixing.

My proposed solution: Sell both of the old laptops, and replace them with one that provides a large pixel count, light weight, and powerful CPU, yet is still small enough to fit in most any bag I want to take on a trip. And this being the real world, I needed to keep the total cost under $2,000.

The contenders

In my search for a replacement laptop, I considered both the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro lines.

Given that I’d already tried an 11-inch Air and found its screen-size wanting for some tasks, that model was quickly ruled out.

The 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro was tempting, but I hit a few deal-breakers. First, the weight: At 4.5 pounds, it’s a pound lighter than its 2010 predecessor, but fully three pounds heavier than the 11-inch Air. That’s a huge difference. Second, the size: You can only make a package so small if it’s got to hold a 15-inch display. Third, the cost: With my $2,000 budget limit, I’d only be able to afford the entry-level Pro, and I wasn’t sure its 256GB of drive space would be sufficient for my needs.

macbook air

The MacBook Airs.

So that left only two models to consider: the 13-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. I went back and forth between these two models quite a bit; one day, I spent enough time at my local Apple Store that I think I spoke to every single employee there. The Air was tempting for its light weight (just under three pounds, versus about three-and-a-half for the Pro), the Pro for its faster graphics and more powerful CPU. Back and forth I went, like some overly anxious father-to-be pacing the delivery room.

The screen question

With the Air, I was concerned that I wouldn’t find the 1440-by-900 display roomy enough, especially not after the 1680-by-1050 MacBook Pro screen I was accustomed to. I didn’t have that concern with the Retina MacBook Pro.

Why didn’t I care? Because I intended to take advantage of OS X’s “scaled” displays option, which lets the display act as though it has either 1440 by 900 or 1680 by 1050 pixels of resolution. That last setting would give me the same pixel count as my old 15-inch MacBook Pro, yet bundled in a tidy 13-inch package. So I spent a lot of time looking at the screen while running it at 1680 by 1050 (as well as time using it in Retina mode); it seemed fine for my eyes.

scaled resolution

Scaling resolutions in System Preferences > Displays.

In addition to the resolution differences, a 13-inch MacBook Air configured with upgraded RAM and storage space (and with the faster CPU) was only $150 less than an equivalent 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. For that extra $150, I’d get better graphics (Intel Iris versus Intel HD Graphics), and a notably faster CPU (a 2.8GHz Core i7 versus a 1.7GHz Core i7).

The decision

So that was that: I made my decision, and purchased the $1,999 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, equipped with the 2.8GHz Core i7, 8GB of RAM, and 512GB of PCIe-based Flash storage. (The Apple Store even had that unit in stock, which surprised me; the online store showed that it would only be available as a build-to-order.)

Once I got the new machine home, I was curious to see how it compared to the two laptops it’d be replacing in terms of size, screen, and performance.

I started with the basics: comparing the dimensions and specifications (RAM, CPU, and so on). Just for fun, I also included my mid-2011 iMac in the mix, though I didn’t bother with its dimensions.

macbook specs

Comparing the specs (click to enlarge).

One observation is that although all four machines have Core i7 processors, those are all very different CPUs, each from a different generation of Intel processors. As you’ll see, that differences are reflected in performance.

Dimensionally, I’ll be carrying an extra pound (and a few inches of size) over my Air, but saving over two pounds (and many inches of size) from those times I traveled with the MacBook Pro. When the laptops are stacked one atop the other, the size differences become apparent.

macbooks side by side

Stacked on top of each other, their size differences became apparent.

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