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MacBook Air or MacBook Pro: Which Should You Buy?

Picking the Right Apple

My hands were clammy with excitement one July day a little more than a decade ago. I was obsessively refreshing the FedEx website to watch a very special shipment make its way from Suzhou in China's Jiangsu province to my home in Oregon. I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of a shiny-white, first-generation MacBook with an Intel Core Duo processor and 1GB of memory.

A lot has changed since those anticipatory days. Aside from the obvious fact that the $1,289 I spent on my Core Duo MacBook will get you far better components today, the sheer amount of choice in the Apple laptop line today would have boggled my teenage brain. Of course, that choice pales when compared with what's available to Windows laptop shoppers, but if you have your heart set on a Mac, you'll almost certainly find a machine to fit your needs. Here's what to look forward to, as well as some pitfalls to avoid.

The MacBook: The Smallest Pick

You'll see vast differences between the first MacBook (the one I bought soon after it went on sale in 2006) and the one currently for sale. Apple stopped selling the MacBook for several years while it completely revamped the design, and the result is stunning. Reintroduced in 2016 in its current form, the MacBook is a marvel of engineering that has spawned many clones.

The first thing you notice about it is the diminutive stature. Not only is the 12-inch screen on the small side, since most consumer ultraportables these days have 13.3-inch displays, but the chassis itself is achingly thin and light, at just 0.52 by 11 by 7.8 inches (HWD). It's Apple's most compact laptop, and if you can stomach the small screen size, it's the best choice for road warriors and couch potatoes, but not people who will use it on a desk all day.

12-Inch MacBook

A small panel size doesn't mean the MacBook's screen is low quality. Despite the fact that it's not the highest-resolution 12-inch display you can buy, the LED-backlit panel impresses with its brightness and clarity. The native resolution is 2,304 by 1,440 pixels, which results in a 16:10 aspect ratio that's slightly shorter and wider than your TV.

The display uses in-plane switching (IPS) technology, which means that the remarkable picture you see while sitting in front of it doesn't degrade much if you turn it to show a colleague what you're working on. Still, it doesn't seem quite as bright as the screens on the 13-inch or 15-inch MacBook Pro, because its backlight is rated at 340 nits, compared with 500 nits on the MacBook Pros. It also doesn't provide the wide P3 color gamut that you'll get from the Pro screens, so it's not the top choice if video/photo color correction or matching are issues you're concerned with.

To fit everything into the small enclosure, Apple made a few sacrifices in terms of the MacBook's connectivity and power. The most limiting factor is the single USB Type-C port, which handles every connection apart from audio output, from recharging the battery to connecting an external display or hard drive. You may well need to buy a third-party expansion dock with additional ports if you choose the MacBook.

Also limiting is the Intel Core m3 processor in the base configuration. It's fine for tasks like watching web videos and editing text documents, but it could struggle with multitasking, and it will certainly balk at demanding requests like transcoding video files or applying filters in Adobe Photoshop. Fortunately, if you're wedded to the MacBook's tininess, you can spend some extra money to max out the key specs, boosting things up to an Intel Core i7, 16GB of memory, and a 512GB solid-state drive (SSD).

Apple MacBook 12 Inch Model A1534 6

The MacBook is an ideal travel companion, and given its sleek styling and Apple's cachet, a bit of a status symbol to boot. But since you'll spend at least $1,299 on it, you'll want to at least consider the other, larger Apple portables that offer more power and connectivity.

The MacBook vs. the MacBook Pro

The closest Apple alternative to the MacBook is the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro. Both machines have identical starting prices for their base configurations ($1,299), but in return for a bit of extra bulk you get a more powerful Core i5 processor. In fact, every processor available on the MacBook Pro is more powerful than the equivalent CPU on the MacBook, since the MacBook ones have lower clock speeds that let them consume less power and generate less heat. On the other hand, the base-model MacBook Pro has a 128GB SSD, a paltry amount of storage that you'll quickly outgrow if you have a large photo library or a modest collection of digital movies.

Specs aside, the physical-features superiority of the 13-inch MacBook Pro over the MacBook is its key selling point. You get a second USB Type-C port and a larger screen, which means you might get away without buying a docking station and will spend much less time squinting to read small text. All of that fits into a slightly larger and heavier chassis: 0.59 by 12 by 8.4 inches and 3 pounds. Out of the entire MacBook family, this is without question the model that most consumers should buy to use as their everyday workhorse, and as such it is our current Editors' Choice award winner for best Mac laptop.

Apple Macbook Pro 15 Inch 2017 2

Now that you know our top pick, you could very well stop reading here, but I hope you don't. There's a unique aspect to the more expensive MacBook Pro models that you must consider if the "Pro" part of the name applies to you: the Touch Bar. This is a long, thin, touch-enabled OLED screen that comes mounted forward of the keyboard on all 15-inch MacBook Pros and higher-end 13-inch ones. The Touch Bar is unique to Apple and highly specialized. It's Apple's answer to touch gestures in Windows 10, and it's most useful in professional apps like the Adobe Creative Suite and Final Cut Pro X, which let you use the Touch Bar to scrub through a video timeline, switch tool selections, and much more.

The Touch Bar is not a substitute for the touch screens that you'll find on many Windows ultraportables, however. You cannot use it to interact with basic screen elements like the menu buttons on websites, nor can you use it to draw on the screen. An Apple iPad or a Windows laptop is your best alternative for these tasks.

If you are a multimedia professional who might benefit from the Touch Bar, you'll need to consider whether you want the 13-inch or the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The factors to consider here are more than just the two extra inches, which help push the 15-incher's weight above 4 pounds. You also need to decide whether you need the extra horsepower that a discrete GPU and an optional Intel Core i9 CPU can provide. If you're a video or photo editor, you'll want to strongly consider the 15-inch model with an AMD Radeon Pro graphics card, which can speed up editing tasks even though it's not powerful enough for high-end gaming. (The 13-inch model only comes with Intel integrated graphics.)

Typing and Clicking

Now that you've amassed the above laundry list of specs to decide on, the rest is easy, since pretty much every other attribute is the same across all Apple laptops.

For starters: They all have the same excellent, oversize glass touchpads with virtual "haptic" feedback instead of a physical click mechanism. This increases reliability, lets you click anywhere on the pad with the same feedback, and even lets you disable the click completely and change other parameters in the System Preferences app. No Windows laptop we've tested comes close to this level of touchpad luxury.

Apple MacBook Pro 15-Inch (2017)

The keyboards are more contentious. Each Apple laptop also has the same type of keyboard, with ultra-low-profile key switches with underlying mechanisms that extend and retract like a butterfly flapping its wings. The keys feel quite flat, much more so than almost any others on the market, and the feel is a unique and polarizing issue. Some praise the stability and satisfyingly deep clicking sound that the keys make, while others lament the extremely shallow travel and impact on their fingers. Whether you love or hate the keyboard, I've found it possible, at the very least, to get used to it, and if you're a novelist or a gamer, you should be investing in a larger external keyboard for most of your typing, anyway.

The Refreshed MacBook Air

There's only one Apple laptop that you should avoid if possible: the 2017 MacBook Air, which Apple still sells. This model was once the pinnacle of thin-and-light laptop designs, but it hasn't changed much since it was introduced more than a decade ago. That means both the MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro are now thinner than the Air, as are many Windows laptops. More a concern: The 2017 Air's specs are stuck in the past, with an Intel processor that's quite a few generations old and a low-resolution display.

The good news is that Apple has released an updated MacBook Air, and it's excellent. Though no speedster, the refreshed-for-2018 MacBook Air has a Retina Display and an up-to-date Intel processor, making it a sleek ultraportable laptop worthy of its pioneering predecessor's name. Unfortunately, at a starting price of $1,299, it's also more expensive than its predecessor. That pricing puts it in the zone, too, of the straight-up MacBook, so a choice between the 2018 MacBook Air and the non-Air MacBook should be based on your desire for a bigger screen (Air) or a smaller, lighter laptop (non-Air). The 2018 MacBook Air has also graduated to the same keyboard as the rest of the current Apple laptop line, so that's no longer a differentiator; the 2017 model is the last holdout with Apple's "classic" board, really the only compelling reason apart from price to potentially opt for that model.

Perhaps given that pricing overlap with the non-Air MacBook, Apple continues to sell the old MacBook Air at a starting price of $999, which makes it the cheapest Apple portable you can buy. If you absolutely must have a new Mac laptop at the cheapest price, it's an option, but only if you are ruling out all similarly priced Windows competitors.

Apple MacBook AIr 2

In fact, ruling out Windows brings us to the final consideration for prospective Apple laptop owners: They all run macOS. This simple, powerful operating system was the single biggest draw for me when deciding on my first college laptop, and that remains the case for millions of students. Others vehemently disagree, of course, but don't forget that all Macs can run Windows too, either from a separate hard drive partition that Apple makes easy to set up or via emulation software like Parallels. The upshot is that if you are a fan of Apple's superb design and craftsmanship, you can buy one of the company's laptops even if you need or want to use Microsoft's operating system.

Investing in the Future

So, what happened to that white-plastic first-generation MacBook I bought? It lasted for three years before I traded it in for a similar model with Intel's upgraded Core 2 Duo processor. That second machine is still ticking away thanks to a few key upgrades, including replacing the hard drive with an SSD and doubling the RAM.

I performed these upgrades myself in less than 30 minutes, something that, alas, is impossible with current Apple laptops; all of their chassis are sealed shut. I'm sad that Apple has turned a cold shoulder toward tinkerers, forcing people who want to future-proof their laptops to spend a lot of money maxing out the specs at purchase time instead of upgrading later when the prices of components come down or new needs arise.

Still, there's no denying that Apple laptops are highly innovative, influential machines. You can see it in the many MacBook-inspired designs among the legions of clones in the laptop aisles at your local Best Buy, Fry's, or MicroCenter. Browse the alternatives, by all means, but rest assured that you made a good choice if your laptop-shopping excursion ends by carrying a white plastic bag out of an Apple Store with one of the laptops listed below.

If you're not sure if a MacBook is your thing, also take a look at our roundup of the best laptops overall.

  • Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2017)

    Pros: Excellent battery life. Thin and light. Crisp Retina display. Price drop from last year's model.

    Cons: Connectivity limited to two USB-C ports. Small 128GB hard drive.

    Bottom Line: The base model MacBook Pro gets an updated processor and a price drop, making it the best choice for Mac shoppers who want a blend of power and relative affordability.

    Read Review
  • Apple MacBook Pro 15-Inch (2019)

    Pros: In test configuration, excellent performance on CPU-limited workflows. Beautiful Retina display. Oversize, accurate trackpad. Four Thunderbolt 3 ports.

    Cons: Expensive as configured, with wildly pricey top-capacity SSD. Key travel remains very short. Bezels could use some slimming. No dedicated video output or USB Type-A ports.

    Bottom Line: Thanks in part to its Intel Core i9 CPU option, the sleek 2019 reboot of the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro we tested is one of the most powerful laptops you can buy for multimedia editing, data analysis, and other similar tasks. We'd just like to see some bolder design moves in the next model.

    Read Review
  • Apple MacBook Air (2018)

    Pros: Retina Display offers vivid colors. Very comfortable Force Touch trackpad. Secure boot capability. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Excellent battery life.

    Cons: No CPU configuration options. Y-series, not U-series, CPU. No touch screen. No USB Type-A ports or dedicated video output. Shallow key travel. Expensive as configured. Occasional fan noise.

    Bottom Line: Though no speedster, the refreshed MacBook Air finally gets a Retina Display and updated components, making it a sleek ultraportable laptop worthy of its pioneering predecessor's name.

    Read Review
  • Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2018, Touch Bar)

    Pros: Excellent touchpad. Gorgeous display. Titanic-capacity SSD in test model. Improved keyboard comfort. Full-disk encryption. "Hey Siri" functionality.

    Cons: No option for discrete graphics. Using ports will require adapters or dongles, in most cases. Expensive as configured.

    Bottom Line: A pricey but superior tool for creative pros, 2018's Touch Bar version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro brings four-core moxie to Apple's handsome ultraportable, with options for cavernous local storage.

    Read Review
  • Apple MacBook (2017)

    Pros: Astonishingly thin and light. 15+-hour battery life. Retina display offers crisp text and bright colors.

    Cons: Connectivity is limited to a single USB port and a headphone jack. Components are not upgradeable after purchase.

    Bottom Line: The ever-slim Apple MacBook gets a faster processor and remains a battery life champ, but a persistent dearth of connectivity ports makes it unappealing compared with the similarly priced MacBook Pro and Windows competitors.

    Read Review
  • Apple MacBook Air (2017)

    Pros: Thin and light. Long-lasting battery. Multiple USB ports.

    Cons: Low-resolution display. Older Intel Core i5 CPU.

    Bottom Line: The MacBook Air remains an excellent ultraportable choice for students and other macOS fans with basic computing needs, but despite killer battery life, it will disappoint power users with its low-resolution display and outdated processor.

    Read Review

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