We’ve broken down Apple’s entire line of MacBooks to help you pick out which one is best for your needs.
BY BRANDON CARTE
AUG 21, 2018
Macbook vs. Macbook Air vs. Macbook Pro
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Apple has always been about simplicity, but as product lines keep expanding, naming schemes get confusing and complicated. Take the iPhone, for example. Today, you have the choice of an iPhone 7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus, X, or SE. The same can be said about Apple’s laptops — there are multiple models to pick from. We’re here to help you differentiate and decide which MacBook is best for you.
Apple ditched the old MacBook’s polycarbonate body for aluminum in 2015 and made it available in silver, gold, space gray, and rose gold. Starting at $1,299, the new MacBook has a sharp 12-inch Retina display and an ultra thin body. In fact, it’s Apple’s thinnest and lightest laptop ever — measuring 0.14 inches at its thinnest point and weighing just 2 pounds. The 12-inch screen, which offers a 2,304 by 1,440 resolution, does seem smaller when watching videos, especially if you’re used to a 13.3-inch screen. Its stereo speakers also aren’t as loud and don’t sound as good as other MacBooks do, either.
The MacBook is quite zippy and has excellent battery life considering its small form factor.
You have a choice of a 1.2GHz dual-core 7th-generation Intel Core m3 processor, a 1.3 GHz dual-core seventh-generation Intel Core i5 processor, and a 1.4 GHz dual-core 7th-generation Intel Core i7 processor; each comes with 8 or 16 GB of RAM, Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 615 GPU, and 256 or 512 GB of flash storage. Even if you opt for the cheaper model with lower specs, the machine is more than capable of editing images in Photoshop, running several tabs in Chrome, or listening to Spotify while you’re typing a Word document on its full-sized keyboard. Apple says you should get between 10-11 hours of battery life. Ars Technica gave the MacBook its stamp of approval, calling it “well-constructed and versatile” thanks to its increased speed, improved keyboard, and better battery life.
The MacBook lacks a fan and most ports that come standard on laptops, but what it lacks in ports, it makes up for in portability. Aside from its headphone jack (which Apple killed off on new iPhones), the only other port the MacBook has is a single USB-C port, which it also uses for power. To make ends meet, you’ll have to buy dongles, hubs, docks, or adapters to plug in all your peripherals and charge your smartphone. We really hope Apple will squeeze in an additional USB-C port on the device in future generations, but until then, you’ll be stuck with one port.
The MacBook Air has been a beloved laptop for many since Steve Jobs first pulled one from a manila envelope in 2008 during Macworld. Now a decade later, the computer is still incredibly thin and has above-average build quality with a comfortable keyboard, a fantastic trackpad, and an impressive 12- to 14-hour battery life. Despite all of this, we don’t recommend it for most users.
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The MacBook Air has an outdated 1.8 or 2.2GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, from Intel’s fifth-generation line of processors, known as Broadwell. The newer, more efficient, and much faster seventh-generation Kaby Lake processors power the MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops. The one in the MacBook Air, however, is much slower.
Not only is the CPU outdated, but the display and overall design is too; Apple’s been using the same design for the Air since 2010, and it’s 73% thicker than the MacBook and weighs almost a pound more. It has a screen resolution of 1,440 by 900, meaning it’s not sharp enough to watch videos in full 1080p HD. The weak resolution also makes it difficult to have multiple windows open simultaneously. Not only that, but the screen isn’t an IPS display like the other MacBooks, but rather it’s a TN panel — so its colors and viewing angles are harsh and hard to see.
The Air offers a longer battery life than any other Apple laptop — up to a whopping 14 hours.
The biggest advantage the MacBook Air has over the MacBook is its multiple ports. Although the Air lacks a USB-C port, it has two full-sized USB 3 ports, a SD card reader, a headphone jack, and a Thunderbolt 2 port that doubles as a Mini DisplayPort. There’s also a MagSafe power adapter, so if you trip over the charging cord, it detaches (rather than dragging your computer along with it to the ground for its probable demise). This is one feature we wish Apple would have kept with its newer MacBooks.
Nevertheless, the MacBook Air remains the most affordable Apple laptop. It starts at $999, and it comes with either 128, 256, or 512 GB of storage, 8 GB of RAM, and Intel’s HD Graphics 6000 GPU. The sleek, lightweight laptop delivers enough processing power for writing papers, watching Netflix, or just general web browsing. Plus, it comes with a slightly better FaceTime camera than the MacBook (720p versus the MacBook’s 480p), and has much better battery life than any other MacBook. Wirecutter said that the Air should last for almost a full work or school day of real-world use, whereas the MacBook and MacBook Pro need charging by early afternoon.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that there has been some rumors of a new MacBook Air with a Retina Display. 9to5Mac reported that the laptop is even rumored to have a lower asking price.
The $1,299+ MacBook Pro is the most versatile Mac OS laptop available. It comes in two configurations — one with a Touch Bar and Touch ID, and the other without. And with a 11.97-inch width and 0.59-inch height, it’s smaller and thinner than the MacBook Air. It weighs 3 pounds, and it’s outfitted with louder and more powerful speakers than other Mac laptops. It comes in space gray or silver colors. During our testing, we were big fans of its oversized trackpad, design, and its newly improved butterfly-mechanism keyboard.
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The MacBook Pro’s Retina displays are brighter and more vibrant and power efficient than any other MacBook. You have a choice of a 13.3- or 15.6-inch size, but both offer exceptional quality with accurate colors and a 2,880-by-1,800 pixel resolution. The screen is gorgeous from any angle, and it has the same wide color gamut as the 5K iMac. The latest iteration also features “True Tone technology,” a feature that automatically adjusts the white balance of the screen to match the ambient lighting in a room, which helps reduce eye strain.
As we previously mentioned, some MacBook Pros have a built-in second display, or a Touch Bar, which is a high-resolution multitouch display strip that changes functionality depending on what app you’re using and the tasks you’re performing. The Touch Bar models also support Touch ID for logging in, buying things from iTunes, the App Store, or using Apple Pay to purchase something online. The newest model is packed with a “T2 chip,” which allows you to call for Siri with your voice just like you would on your iPhone and iPad. The chip also adds a bunch of security and handles the encryption for files.
The more affordable Mid 2017 MacBook Pro laptops come with dual-core seventh-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 Kaby Lake processors, but the newer 2018 models feature quad-core eighth-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 processors . You have a choice of 128, 256, 512 GB, or 1, 2, or 4 TB of SSD storage, coupled with either 8, 16, or 32 GB of RAM. Depending on the price point, each 13-inch laptop comes equipped with the Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 or 655 GPU, with the latter being better suited for running more applications simultaneously. As for the 15-inch Pro models, they come standard with a discrete AMD Radeon Pro 555X graphics processors, but can be upgraded to a Radeon Pro 560X GPU for even better performance.
The MacBook Pro is made with power users in mind.
In daily use, the Pro delivers exceptionally fast performance. Compared to the previous generation MacBook Pro, the 2018 version delivers a speed bump of up to 75% during intensive tasks such as editing RAW photos, processing 4K video, and rendering 3D graphics. You’ll have no issues switching back and forth between Adobe Lightroom, Final Cut X, and Photoshop with either model.
However, those who need to edit 4K video with the cheaper 13-inch models will likely be disappointed by occasional lag. Not only that, the sans-Touch-Bar models have two fewer ports, slower memory, and a weaker GPU. As for the Touch Bar Pro, it has four USB-C ports and a headphone jack. There’s no longer a HDMI port or SD card slot on either model, and you’ll need a dongle or hub to charge your Lightning cable mouse, trackpad, Bluetooth headphones, and iPhone.
Battery life is also worse than the other MacBooks. Apple says users should expect 10 hours, and during our time with the mid-2017 notebook, we got between 8 and 9 hours of mixed use from a single charge, but achieved closer to 10 hours with the mid-2018 Pro, which has a larger battery.
15-in Macbook Pro review
Our Review of the Latest 15-inch MacBook Pro
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One last thing: The MacBook Pro’s incredibly low-profile keyboard has also been reported to be more failure-prone than previous models. To address the issues, Apple now offers a 4-year warranty and free repair service for any customer who experiences problems with their MacBook’s keyboard. The mid-2018 Pro did get an updated keyboard, but Apple says the new keyboard is quieter, not that it’s more reliable.
So, Which One’s for Me?
Apple 12″ MacBook
We think the MacBook is the perfect computer for college students or casual on-the-go users who don’t plan on gaming, working with 4K video, or importing several RAW image files. While it combines portability and performance in a beautiful package, its sole USB Type-C port will limit its appeal to power users.
If you want a Mac on the cheap for basic browsing, maybe get the MacBook Air, but know that it has older legacy ports, and a low-resolution screen, and it won’t be as capable over time because you won’t be able to upgrade it.
If you’re considering the MacBook Pro, you have a little bit of a catch-22. Apple has built a beautiful computer that’s powerful, portable, and capable. However, Apple took away features that professionals use and rely on every day, like the SD card slot, the HDMI port, and a USB 3.0 port. There’s no doubt that the MacBook Pro is the best, most powerful Apple laptop, and if you’re a power user looking for ultimate performance on every occasion, this is the MacBook to get.
However, if you’re going to commit to the Apple ecosystem, you’ll have to make some sacrifices — similar to how Apple required iPhone users to forgo the headphone jack that had been around since Apple’s inception. Just prepare to spend at least $40 on a dongle if you opt for a newer MacBook, so you can use your proprietary accessories.
Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro without Touch Bar (Mid 2017, Space Gray)
Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro (Mid 2018, Silver)
Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro (Mid 2018, Space Gray)
Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro (Mid 2018, Silver)