MacBook Buyer's Guide: Which MacBook is Right for You?

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With the recent introduction of the 12-inch MacBook, Apple's added a whole new product to the existing MacBook Pro and MacBook Air lineup, making it more difficult than ever to decide which MacBook is right for you.

If you're planning a purchase and you just aren't sure which Apple notebook suits your needs, read through this guide, which will walk you through all of the options and give you the pros and cons of each machine.

You can basically think of Apple's product lineup as meeting two different needs: power and portability.

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If you're looking for a machine that's going to handle whatever you can throw at it, you're going to want the MacBook Pro. If you're looking for something that's portable and more than capable of handling every day tasks, you're going to want to look at the MacBook Air. And if you want the newest technology, the latest form factor, the ultimate in portability, and you don't mind the price tag, the MacBook is the machine for you.

Retina MacBook Pro

The Retina MacBook Pro is Apple's workhorse MacBook, with the fastest processors, the best graphics, and the most available RAM (via upgrade). If you want to do things like serious photo, video, or audio editing, this is the Mac for you. Use Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, or Logic Pro X on a regular basis? You probably need a MacBook Pro.

You're also going to want to choose a MacBook Pro if you want a machine capable of playing modern system-intensive games. Don't care about games and just want to do things like browse the Internet, write papers, and answer emails? The MacBook Pro may be more computer than you need -- consider a MacBook Air if you don't care about a Retina screen, or a MacBook if you don't mind the price.

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Within the MacBook Pro family, there are 13 and 15-inch models and several different configurations at various price points. As the price goes up, so does the power. Most of Apple's MacBook Pro models have a Retina screen, aside from the 13-inch MacBook Pro priced at $1,099. You don't want to buy this model -- it's years old and technologically lagging way behind newer models.

In the past, many people have chosen a MacBook Pro because it was the only notebook that offered a Retina display, but with the recent addition of the 12-inch two-pound MacBook, there's no longer a need to compromise between portability and a decent display. If you don't need the power of a MacBook Pro but want a Retina display, the MacBook is now the machine to choose.

The MacBook Pro is Apple's most powerful notebook, but be warned: it's also the biggest and heaviest. The 13-inch version weighs in at 3.48 pounds and the 15-inch version is 4.46 pounds. That doesn't sound like much in print, but carrying four pounds on your back all day is a lot more taxing than 2 or 3 -- the weight of Apple's lighter notebooks. All Retina MacBook Pro models have two thunderbolt ports and two USB 3.0 ports, along with an HDMI port, a headphone port, and an SD card slot.

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So, 13-inch or 15-inch? The 15-inch machines are more powerful, with quad-core processors, Intel Iris Pro Graphics, and the option for a discrete graphics card, and (obviously) a bigger display, but they're also more expensive. The 13-inch models have dual-core processors and are limited to integrated graphics.

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After a recent update to the 15-inch model, both the 13 and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros come with a pretty cool Force Touch trackpad that has new gestures, and they've got speedier flash storage.

The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro was last updated in March of 2015 and the 15-inch model was last updated in May of 2015. The 13-inch model got new Broadwell processors, but the 15-inch model continues to use Crystalwell processors in the Haswell family. These aren't quite as speedy or efficient as Broadwell processors, but Intel's delays have prevented Apple from introducing processor upgrades. We don't expect to see another update to the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro for several months to come, but the next model will use improved Broadwell or Skylake processors.

macbookpro13large
Here's a rundown of the differences between the 13 and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro models and their prices:

  • $1,299 - 13-inch 2.7GHz dual-core Broadwell processor, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, Intel Iris Graphics 6100
  • $1,499 - 13-inch 2.7GHz dual-core Broadwell processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Intel Iris Graphics 6100
  • $1,799 - 13-inch 2.9GHz dual-core Broadwell processor/8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Intel Iris Graphics 6100
  • $1,999 - 15-inch 2.2GHz quad-core Crystalwell processor 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Intel Iris Pro Graphics
  • $2,499 - 15-inch 2.5GHz quad-core Crystalwell processor 16GB RAM 512GB SSD, Intel Iris Pro Graphics and AMD Radeon R9 M370X

All of these models have custom build-to-order options that let you boost the processor, the SSD, and the RAM for extra money. On the high end, you can get a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro with a 3.1GHz dual-core Broadwell processor, 16GB RAM, and a 1TB SSD or a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro with a 2.8GHz quad-core Crystallwell processor, 16GB RAM, and a 1TB SSD.

Beyond choosing a specific MacBook Pro model, you also need to decide whether you want to make any additional build-to-order upgrades. It's important to note that these components can't be upgraded later, so you need to think ahead to what you might need in the future. Upgrading the RAM or the CPU will keep your machine feeling fast longer.

Need a ton of storage space for videos and photos? Get the storage upgrade. Want the best gaming performance? You'll want to opt for the higher-end 15-inch Retina MacBook, which has a discrete graphics card. Do complex 3D modeling, intensive video/audio/photo editing tasks often? The extra RAM might be worthwhile. Individual workloads are going to vary significantly, so there's no one-size-fits-all solution for all users -- that's why Apple offers so many options.

retinamacbookpro15inch
When deciding between a 15-inch model and a 13-inch model, aside from display size and price, the biggest difference is the processor. With the 15-inch model, you're getting a quad-core processor, but with the 13-inch model, it's dual-core. Quad-core processors are better if you plan to do a lot of multitasking with many apps open at once, or if you plan on playing intensive games, you'll benefit from a quad-core processor. Single-core performance between the two MacBooks is similar, but multi-core performance is much better in the quad-core 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro.

Need the ultimate in power and money is no object? Go with the 15-inch model. On a budget but still want more power than a MacBook Air will provide? Get the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. It's still a powerful machine that's going to do all of your photo, video, and audio editing tasks with ease.

MacBook Air

The MacBook Air used to be Apple's most portable computer, but with the introduction of the 12-inch super thin MacBook, it's now just Apple's most affordable notebook. Its low price tag comes at a cost -- it's the only notebook in Apple's lineup without a Retina display. The 11-inch model's display has a resolution of 1366 x 768, while the 13-inch model's display has a resolution of 1440 x 900.

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It's not Apple's lightest portable notebook anymore (that title goes to the 2.03-pound MacBook), but the MacBook Air is still lighter and thinner than the Retina MacBook Pro. The 11-inch model weighs in at 2.38 pounds, while the 13-inch model weighs 2.96 pounds. Both models are 0.68 inches thick.

macbookairmeasurements
If you're on a budget and need a portable laptop for under $1,000 that's powerful enough for your day to day needs like web browsing, email, and light application use, the MacBook Air is the notebook to choose. It'll handle some games and apps like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro, but it won't do as well as the MacBook Pro. If you have a bigger budget, the Retina displays of the MacBook Pro and the MacBook are worth the extra money.

There is another situation where you might want to choose the MacBook Air over the MacBook or the MacBook Pro, and that's if you need portability and ports. The MacBook Pro is heavier (and thus less portable), and while the MacBook is thinner and lighter, it's only got one USB-C port, which might not fit into some workflows. If you need Thunderbolt and standard USB ports, don't want to deal with adapters, and don't mind the lack of a Retina display, the MacBook Air might be the machine for you.

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It's worth keeping in mind that the MacBook Air's dual-core processor is also going to outperform the Core M processor in the Retina MacBook, but the performance difference isn't going to matter much if you're getting a machine for day to day tasks. When considering performance, think of it as Retina MacBook Pro --> MacBook Air --> MacBook.

Spec wise, both the 11 and 13-inch MacBook Air models have the same processors and RAM so they perform similarly, but there are two very compelling reasons to choose the 13-inch model over the 11-inch model, aside from screen size: it's got a solid state drive that's twice as fast as the drive in the 11-inch MacBook Air, and its battery life is three hours longer. Here are the available models:

  • $899 - 11-inch 1.6GHz dual-core Broadwell processor, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD, Intel HD Graphics 6000
  • $1,099 - 11-inch 1.6GHz dual-core Broadwell processor, 4GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Intel HD Graphics 6000
  • $999 - 13-inch 1.6GHz dual-core Broadwell processor, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD, Intel HD Graphics 6000
  • $1,199 - 13-inch 1.6GHz dual-core Broadwell processor, 4GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Intel HD Graphics 6000

You can upgrade the MacBook Air with a 512GB SSD ($300), a 2.2GHz dual-core Broadwell processor ($150), and 8GB of RAM ($100), which puts it on almost on par performance wise with the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, but that bumps it up to MacBook and MacBook Pro pricing ($1,249 for the 13-inch upgraded MacBook Air vs. $1,299 for the MacBook/MacBook Pro) with no Retina display. The MacBook Air's highest upgrade options also can't quite match the processing power and the graphics of the Retina MacBook Pro, which has a 2.7GHz processor and Intel HD Graphics 6100 even on the low-end machine.

macbook_air_yosemite_roundup
Unless you need near-Retina MacBook Pro performance in a slightly less heavy package or a slightly longer battery life (13-inch MacBook Air battery is 12 hours, 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is 10 hours), there's no reason to shell out for a fully upgraded MacBook Air over a Retina MacBook Pro.

MacBook

The 12-inch Retina MacBook is Apple's latest and greatest notebook, and will very likely replace the MacBook Air entirely once Apple is able to bring its costs down enough, though this may take a few generations. It's fresh on the market, having been released on April 10, and it features all of Apple's newest technology. Like to have the coolest product on the market? This is it. Looking for the most portable Apple notebook? You found it. Want to wow your friends? You need a Retina MacBook.

retinamacbookyosemite
Weighing in at just two pounds with a body that's smaller than the 11-inch MacBook Air, the Retina MacBook is a good on-the-go computer to have if you travel often. You're barely going to notice it in a backpack or a bag, and it's compact enough that you can pull it out anywhere. It's only 13.1mm thick. For reference, that's half an inch and about the thickness of the original iPad.

The Retina MacBook's major claim to fame is its thinness melded with its Retina display, which comes in at 2304 x 1440 with 226 pixels-per-inch. It's basically the Retina MacBook Air that we've been hoping for, with a lot of extra bells and whistles thrown in. Unlike the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air, you can get the new MacBook in one of three iPhone-style colors: Silver, Gold, or Space Gray.

retinamacbooks
The major downside to the new MacBook is its price. Whenever Apple introduces new technology, it tends to be priced higher than some of its older products. The new MacBook starts at $1,299 and goes up from there. Here are the two configurations:

  • $1,299 - 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core M Processor plus Intel HD Graphics 5300 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage.
  • $1,599 - 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core M processor plus Intel HD Graphics 5300 with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of flash storage.

There aren't many upgrades available for the Retina MacBook, but you can opt for a better 1.3GHz processor. If you've got the cash, it may be worth the upgrade to eke out all the performance you can get. As with the MacBook Air, it maxes out at 8GB RAM and 512GB storage space. If you want more RAM, a Retina MacBook Pro is the only option.

The Retina MacBook comes with an Intel Core M processor and Intel HD Graphics 5300, so based on CPU and GPU, it's not at the level of the 2015 MacBook Air, but it's still more than adequate for day-to-day tasks. With the entry-level 1.1GHz Retina MacBook model, you can think of it as an iPad Air 2 that runs OS X -- the speeds are fairly similar. The higher-end Retina MacBook that comes with a 1.2GHz processor and the optional 1.3GHz upgrade give you some extra processing power and those will outperform the iPad Air 2 by a decent margin.

Because it's using that super low power Intel Core M processor, the Retina MacBook has no fan inside. That means it runs completely silently. It's also got some specialized batteries inside, giving it a full nine hours of battery life when web browsing. That's on par with the Retina MacBook Pro, but below the battery life the 13-inch MacBook Air gets.

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Like the MacBook Air, the Retina MacBook is going to be able to run most modern software, but with pro-level software like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro, intensive tasks aren't going to be as fast or as smooth as they would be with a more powerful machine. It's also not going to handle multiple apps open at once as well as the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.

With the Retina MacBook, you're essentially trading performance for portability, but it does come with some pretty cool features. It has the new Force Touch trackpad which doesn't actually click but feels like it does. The Force Touch trackpad enables new feedback methods and pressure-based gestures within Mac apps, bringing up new interactions with a hard press.

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For example, if you press down when hovering over a word in Safari, it brings up a Wikipedia entry, and when editing in iMovie, the Force Touch trackpad will offer feedback to let you know when you hit the end of a clip. It's all very cool and we've really only touched the surface of what's possible -- developers are going to be adding Force Touch to third-party apps in the coming months.

The new MacBook uses MacBook Pro-style black bezels and it has a redesigned edge-to-edge keyboard that makes it look pretty slick. The keyboard uses new butterfly technology for the keys, which are thinner and more stable than traditional keyboard keys. It's a different key feel than a traditional MacBook Pro or MacBook Air keyboard, so you might want to give the MacBook a try in a store before buying. Not everyone likes the new keys and they make take some time to get used to.

retinamacbookkeyboard
Another major change to the Retina MacBook is its lack of ports. It has a single USB-C port on the side, which is used both to connect to peripherals and to charge. Apple's got adapters in its online store already, and additional adapters will be coming out from third-party sources, but getting used to a single port is going to be tough, especially if you're used to using several peripherals at once. One other quick note -- the Retina MacBook's got a downgraded 480p FaceTime Camera, while the other MacBooks have a 720p front-facing camera.

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Choosing Which to Buy

When it comes to choosing a computer, the main thing you want it to be able to do is run modern apps and perform every day tasks, and all of Apple's notebooks are powerful enough to do so (at varying levels of performance, of course). Beyond that, you need to choose what specialized features you want.

If you plan to do major photo or video editing or run other system intensive apps or games, then you want a Retina MacBook Pro. For the absolute best performance, the 15-inch model is the one to pick, but if you also want portability, the 13-inch model is going to handle most of what you can throw at it too, just a bit more slowly.

retinamacbookpro
If you want something that's super portable and ideal for frequent travel, the best option is the 12-inch MacBook. It's lightweight, incredibly thin, and it's got all the bells and whistles. It's not going to handle apps like Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, or iMovie as well as a MacBook Air or a Retina MacBook Pro (expect apps to load slower and tasks to take longer) but it's going to be more than adequate for browsing the web, answering emails, writing, and other tasks one might do on the go.

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Creative professionals, gamers, and other people who use heavyweight apps might not want to own the 12-inch MacBook as their sole computer, but for the average person, it offers plenty of processing power in a form factor that's very desirable.

If you need a middle-of-the-road computer that's got more power than a MacBook but more portability than a Retina MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air is a good choice. It's also Apple's most affordable notebook, and the one you're going to want to choose if you're on a budget and don't mind the lack of a Retina display. It really hits the sweet spot between performance and portability, and it's got some of the best battery life.

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We don't recommend the 11-inch MacBook Air model unless you need the portability and can't afford a Retina MacBook -- the last update left its SSD performance lagging behind the 13-inch model.

Bottom line: If you need something for travel that's ultra light and can be carried all day, get the Retina MacBook. If you need performance for games and serious app usage, go for the Retina MacBook Pro. If you need something under $1,000, get the MacBook Air.

At a Glance Stats

Rankings:

  • Fastest processor: 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro
  • Lightest weight: MacBook
  • Thinnest: MacBook
  • Best Battery: 13-inch MacBook Air
  • Most RAM: Retina MacBook Pro
  • Fastest SSD: 13-inch MacBook Air, 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro
  • Best graphics: High-end 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro
  • Second best graphics: 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro
  • Most ports: Retina MacBook Pro

Standout features:

  • 13-inch MacBook Air: Faster SSD, 13 hour battery life
  • 13-inch and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: Faster SSD, Force Touch trackpad
  • 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro (high-end): Discrete graphics card, quad-core processor
  • 12-inch MacBook: Force touch trackpad, keyboard
Related Roundups: MacBook Pro, MacBook Air
Buyer's Guide: MacBook Air (Neutral)

Top Rated Comments

(View all)
Avatar
69 months ago
I feel like this whole write up could just get replaced with a flow chart graphic. Something like:

Do you edit pictures, videos, audio, 3D models, code, or play games?
-> Yes: Do you want Taptic and Force Touch?
--> Yes: Get 13" MBP now, or wait for new 15" MBP.
--> No: Get the 13" or 15" MBP now.
-> No: Do you do anything besides surf the internet and type emails?
--> Yes: Do you want retina?
---> Yes: Get the new MacBook.
---> No: Get the MacBook Air.
--> No: Get an iPad.
Score: 3 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
69 months ago
If the MacBook Air had retina it would be game over
Score: 3 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
69 months ago

aside from the 13-inch MacBook Pro priced at $1,099. You don't want to buy this model -- it's years old and technologically lagging way behind newer models.

Even though it's still a nice solid computer and the only one with upgradeable RAM?
Score: 2 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
69 months ago
It's statements like the following that concerns me with the new MacBook "With the entry-level 1.1GHz Retina MacBook model, you can think of it as an iPad Air 2 that runs OS X -- the speeds are fairly similar. " if all I am doing is browsing the web, checking email, and writing the occasional document then I really don't need OS X. IOS has optimized apps that can perform all of those tasks very well. Get an iPad Air 2 and a lightweight Bluetooth keyboard cover and you pretty much have a better and cheaper version of the MacBook. Better yet wait a few months for the iPad Air 3 which will be even faster then the MacBook.
Score: 2 Votes (Like | Disagree)

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