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

Rob Griffiths | April 16, 2014
Lately, I've been struggling with what's clearly a first-world problem: I have too many computers.

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.

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.

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.

Obviously, the 13-inch is somewhat larger than the 11-inch Air, but not as much as I might have expected (only half an inch wider and just over an inch deeper). When compared to the 15-inch MacBook Pro, the 13-inch Retina is simply tiny. Those tidy dimensions should make it reasonably easy to use in the airlines' coach sections, where I'm usually stuffed on my trips.


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