I recently wrote about how the Apple Thunderbolt Display is the worst Apple product I’ve ever owned (and I used to have an Apple Mouse). Now I want to write a comparison of all MacBooks.
I wanted to upgrade my setup, but keep costs down, and prepare for the inevitable future of displays and how I work. I wanted to know: could I do my work happily without the external display, and just use the larger MacBook Pro screen? After a few days of testing this setup: yes.
What I do
If it’s not obvious from this site, I do web development and design work. Here’s what I do:
- Constantly use my machine for at least 8-10 hours a day.
- Stream iTunes music for most of that time.
- Run apps ranging from AirMail to Photoshop. Many apps, including AirMail, Twitter, iTunes, ReadKit, 1Password, and Reminders always run in the background. Plus Dropbox and Backblaze syncing.
- Running Adobe Creative Suite applications. I’m running CS6 these days.
- Occasionally rendering off a video or audio clip — I do this maybe once or twice a quarter.
- I often play Civilization or SimCity 2013.
I’ve tested this setup recently with a 13″ MacBook Air built-to-order with a Core i7 processor. I’ve also run a 13″ Retina MacBook Pro with an i5 processor. The 15″ Retina MacBook Pro is an i7. All were running 8 GB of RAM.
Real World Scenario
Forgetting benchmarks and tests, I trusted what I felt using the machine. Sometimes things were obvious. The 13″ MacBook Pro felt slower on most everything. It crawled with SimCity. In fact, I had better luck running SimCity on the Air, but both required textures, lighting, and rendering to be on “Low”. With the 15″ MacBook Pro, I could bump this up to “Medium” on everything. The 15″ handles it perfectly and smoothly. Every machine’s processor was consumed on this task and the 15″ actually lost a little charge on the battery even while it was plugged in. Clearly the Turbo Boost on the i7 was kicking in and running for prolonged periods of time.
The Air felt just as fast as the 15″ Pro, as they should considering the processors was about the same. The Air had a 2.3 Ghz Processor, the 15″ a 2.0 Ghz, but with a larger cache size.
The retina screens are very nice. I had the Air sitting to the left of my Thunderbolt Display. That setup worked well. The issue I had was knowing that the Air was likely to get a retina upgrade from Apple at some point soon, likely this year or next. When that happens the value of the existing non-retina screens will drop.
The Thunderbolt Display is due for an upgrade, too. But when you sit the retina screens next to the Thunderbolt Display, the blurriness and sizing of things is so off from one to the other it gave me a headache. I always wanted to keep as much on the laptop display and at some point you wonder why you bother with the Thunderbolt Display.
But the Air and the 13″ Pro have screen sizes that are just too small for what I do. I need to be able to arrange several screens at once. Even if you bump the resolution of the 13″ Pro up so it’s no longer retina-quality, but just with more pixel real estate, eventually things get small and hard to read.
Enter the 15″ MacBook Pro. The 15″ has just enough screen size and, at higher resolutions, enough pixel real estate to comfortably use it like a larger display. Once I received the 15″ Pro I haven’t plugged it into the Thunderbolt Display once and I can honestly say I don’t really miss it.
I run the 15″ Pro in retina resolution when I’m going to be using it casually for a bit, like surfing the web or doing email on the couch.
The audio on the MacBook Air is pretty awful. Given it’s size the speakers lack any bass and the sound of things is tinny. It’s good enough when you’re out and about for a bit and need to get some audio feedback. But it’s not great for prolonged music listening or video. The 13″ Pro is a bit better, but not by much.
The 15″ Pro, however, has great audio. It’s not Thunderbolt Display quality, but with the extra room for speaker grills on either side, it produces sound that’s not painful to listen to all day. But I came up with a better solution: I use my Jawbone Jambox in Live Audio mode on my desk to stream music. It sounds better than the Thunderbolt Display did, it’s smaller, and very effective.
Size and Portability
Obviously the Air is the smallest and lightest, the 15″ Pro is the heaviest and largest. However, we’re talking about the difference between a couple pounds here. It’s not that big of a deal.
I carry my laptop around to the couch, my desk, Starbucks, the library, and to client meetings. But the weight of the 15″ Pro isn’t unwieldy. In real world use, I don’t notice it. Or if I do, I don’t care.
Go with the 15″ Pro
What I can’t figure out is why anyone would really want the 13″ MacBook Pro. It seems like the bastard middle child when you compare the full lineup from Airs to 15″ Pros.
If you can afford it, get the 15″ Pro. It’s the better machine all around. If you can’t afford it, get the 13″ MacBook Air custom built with an i7 Processor. Even without the retina display, the Air with an i7 is more forward-looking than the current base model 13″ MacBook Pro.
I suppose you could get an i7 in the 13″ Pro, but at that point, you might as well spring an extra couple hundred for the 15″ and get all the other better specs.
Avoid the i5 series on any machine. Always get at least 8 GB of RAM. I don’t even know why Apple ships the base models of the Air and Pro with 4 GB. That’s almost an embarrassment in 2014.
If you want to do any games more advanced than Solitaire, get the 15″ Pro. If you want one machine for everything, get the 15″ Pro. If you want to save some money or don’t need to do advanced games, get the 13″ MacBook Air with an i7 processor. Get an external display if your budget allows later when they’re upgraded and not so buggy.