MacBook Air or MacBook Pro? The decision just got a lot harder

MacBook Air or MacBook Pro? The decision just got a lot harder

Summary: Monday's announcement of a thinner, lighter MacBook Pro with Retina graphics makes the decision between 'Pro and 'Air notebooks much more difficult, for me the Air wins on price and weight.


MacBook Air or MacBook Pro? The decision just got a lot harder - Jason O'Grady

Before April 11 I was a dyed-in-the-wool MacBook Air convert. After schlepping my trusty 15-inch MacBook Pro with me everywhere I went for years, I'd seen the MacBook Air light (pun intended).

After overcoming the MacBook Air's lack of optical drive, ports and its limited storage capacity (thanks largely to OWC's 480GB replacement SSD) I've converted fully to the Air as my primary, full-time Mac.

But then yesterday's WWDC keynote happened. And Apple announced a thinner and lighter MacBook Pro with a compelling set of features. And now I'm on the fence. (It's a good thing that Apple also announced an updated MacBook Air yesterday too, otherwise I'd probably be blogging about my MacBook Pro backorder and how great photos will look on the new Retina display.)

Before June 11, the decision between the thin and svelte MacBook Air and the thick and heavy MacBook Pro was a no-brainer. If you needed a true "desktop replacement" (with an optical drive, FireWire port, 17-inch screen, etc.) -- you needed to get a MacBook Pro. Everyone else got a MacBook Air. And when most people really looked at their computing needs, the majority fell squarely into the MacBook Air camp.

But yesterday's new MacBook Pro will make the decision between an Air and a Pro a lot harder. For starters, Apple put the Pro on a major league diet. The new 15-inch MacBook Pro dropped from 5.6 pounds (2.56 kg) to 4.46 pounds (2.02 kg) pounds, and went from 0.95 inches (2.41 cm) to 0.71 inches (1.8cm) thick.

And naturally, it comes with a new processor (Intel Ivy Bridge), better graphics (NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M), faster RAM (1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM).

But the Retina display is sure to breathe new life into the ailing MacBook Pro, and that feature alone is sure to sell a lot of units. The Retina display's technical specs are impressive:

  • 2880-by-1800 resolution
  • 5 million pixels (3 million more than an HD television)
  • 220 pixels-per-inch (PPI)
  • 178-degree wide viewing angle
  • 75 percent less reflection
  • 29 percent higher contrast

Decisions, decisions.

My ideal MacBook Air 13-inch would be configured with:

  • 2.0GHz Intel Dual-Core Core i7
  • 8GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM
  • 512GB Flash Storage
  • AppleCare (always get the AppleCare on a MacBook)
  • Total: $2,448

Now contrast that with the lowest end MacBook Pro with Retina graphics (keeping in mind that the 15-inch screen is larger that the Air's 13-inch). The base model MBP15 with Retina starts at $2,199 (2.3 GHz, 8GB, 256GB), but in a configuration acceptable for my needs (2.6 GHz, 8GB, 512GB and AppleCare) it jumps to $3,148. Fully loaded (2.7 GHz, 16GB, 768GB, AppleCare) pushes it up to $4,098.

But even the base model MBP with Retina and AppleCare costs $2,548 and that only comes with a 256GB SSD -- which is too small for my photo and music library. This is why I'm leaning toward a loaded MBA13, which costs $100 less and weighs a third less than the Retina MBP.

Fellow ZDNET Blogger James Kendrick is in the same boat as me. He loves the new Retina MacBook Pro, but it's the price that's holding him back.

Apple's updated comparison chart and spiffy new comparison tool helps put all the new MacBook specs into perspective, but for the MacBook Air buyer, the decision just got a lot tougher.

Which new MacBook do you prefer? Air or Pro?

Topic: Apple

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  • Price

    Price has always been a problem with the pro but it was more manageable with traditional drives.
  • comes down to...

    I think it comes down to if you need Retina, and/or a Geforce GT 650M. If an Intel HD 4000 works for you, and you really don't need the retina display, the 13" Air is a great machine. The new 15" Pro is great if you really need a high end screen and a faster GPU. Using only Apple's prices, the new Retina display Pro is actually cheaper than they sell the standard Pro with SSDs of the same size.
  • I really wanted ...

    ... to order a new Mac Book Air for work, but when it boiled down to it, with "only" the 2.0Ghz dual-core i7 and 8GB RAM, it just won't be nearly the workhorse of the quad-core Retina MBP, especially with 16GB RAM (which also ensures a bit longer lifespan as the OS and apps are upgraded in the coming years).

    So, I just ordered a new base MBP Retina (2.3Ghz quad-core i7) with 16GB RAM but the base 256GB SSD, since most of my storage is on network volumes that I can access both from work and home.

    It isn't nearly as feathery as an MBA, but it's nearly as slim and trims roughly 1/5th the weight off a regular MBP, plus has speed and display advantages.

    If the MBA had been faster and with more RAM, I would have opted for it, though, over the Retina MBP. The Retina display was really just a bonus -- not the deciding factor on the purchase.
  • The thing that sucks about the new Pro Retina...

    ... is there is very little, if any upgrade path. I'm sure that new SSDs will come along in a couple of months after OWC and others reverse-engineer the connector, BUT with the RAM soldered to the logic board of this machine, you might as well go for the 16 GB model. And just like in the Air, not having upgradable RAM was a stupid mistake on many levels on Apple's part, but it's made worse when you consider that this machine is squarely aimed at photo and video pros who actually need 16 and 32 gigs of RAM to do their job faster.

    Hopefully, Timmy figures out that people want upgradable RAM and fixes this issue with either a silent revision or in next year's model.
    • Upgrade path? Are you serious?

      Remember, this is Apple we're talking about here- when your device becomes inadequate for your needs (especially considering that battery is non-replaceable too) you simply go out and buy a new 2000-dollar machine.

      It would be inexcusable on a business-class machine, yes- but make no mistake: this laptop is still consumer-class equipment.
      • Consumer class? Are you serious?

        Talk to anyone at, a 100+ million dollar company (in Aug 2011) where all development is done on Macbooks. Make no mistake about it: this laptop is enterprise-class equipment.
  • This is so confusing, way too much choice

    All this choice is too confusing for consumers. Please eliminate all your models except for 1 so that you don't promote all this horrible confusion in the marketplace.

    • Now there is a surprise

      Note the sarcasm, it's no surprise based on your post history 1 + 1 confuses you.
  • Correction

    "Before April 11"

    I believe you meant:

    "Before June 11"
  • Can you

    burn me a cd of that song?
  • Apples

    Smaller screen than a desk top.
    Haven't used such a small screen as 15" this millenium...
  • Ailing?

  • MBA vs. MBP--HD Size, Screen Size, what's a fella to do?

    Many folks say that the internal storage space shouldn't be an issue because people put their photos, videos, etc. on an external drive.

    I certainly have lots of junk... old photos, programs I never use, programs I sometimes use that are memory hogs, and gobs of apps and iTunes backups that are consuming huge amounts of HD space. It's the reason I've hesitated to go for an MBA. I now have a 250gb HD in a MBP, and truly wonder if I could live with only 128gb SSD. I'm not sure. Of course, we rarely rummage through the old photos and it might work fine to have them stashed somewhere besides a regular backup. And, it might be smart to have such things as tax returns, etc. only on a secured hard drive somewhere and not on a laptop that could be inadvertently left somewhere or stolen.

    It would also be really pricey picking a 13" MBA with a 256gb SSD to as it adds $450 to the price of the base unit...

    WAIT, NO IT DOESN'T. It adds only $300! Hmm... that's looking pretty good. Total of $1,450, however, feels like more sticker shock than $1150.

    More than HD size, though, the Pro vs. the Air decision for me comes down to screen size. I'm so used to a 15" screen that I'm just not sure I could even manage a 13" one. (The higher resolution screen is not a help to me as it makes everything so small.) I'm typing this right now in a Safari window on my 15" MBP sized to the screen dimensions of a 13" to test things out and...

    well, I just don't know.
  • Price

    I wish us Brits could buy Macs as cheap! Above, a 13 inch MBP is $1,199; for the same model in the UK, it's £999. If it was pro rata with the exchange rate, it should be $1,599. (or, to put it another way, we should only have to pay £749.
  • Price again

    Another example is Apple TV, which is pounds for dollars. You pay $99, we pay £99, when we should be paying about £66 or thereabouts.
    This isn't called Rip-off Britain for nuthin' :(
  • antonio22m

    Macbook Air is undoubtedly a very good notebook
    Price and lack of optical drive can affect a large number of users whose decision during the judgment can be negative so that they can decide to choose another manufacturer.
    Air is perfect and the best "second computer" that you can wish for.
    His task was not to be the main and only computer we can possess.
    If you want excellent laptop computer that will be able to carry it with you wherever you go, the Air is an excellent choice for perfectly reasonable size and more pronounced weight that barely exceeds one kilo.
    Take a look at this comparison at and You will see comparison to the another Apple laptops.Anyone considering purchasing this laptop needs to see the information in this chart.