New MacBook vs Air and Pro: Will gadget lust blind our smart laptop shopper?

After waiting for a refreshed Retina-based MacBook Air, David Gewirtz is lusting after Apple's new super-light MacBook. But is it too much show and not enough go?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

It's time for a new laptop. Actually, it's been time for quite a while. Last season I was convinced Apple was going to refresh the MacBook Air, but a refresh just wasn't in the cards. But now, there's the new hotness: the all-new MacBook.

For some reason, this MacBook just does it for me. I'm not an Apple fan (as you all very well know), but I've switched mostly to Macs because I can run all the software I need -- both Mac-based and Windows-based.

CNET Review: A minimalist MacBook that proves less can be more

It's been a year or so since I had a really flexible laptop. I have a few honkingly powerful desktop machines, and when out, I've been living off a combination of my Chromebook and my iPad 3.

That works for basic productivity tasks, but neither supports the grading system I need for my university students and neither supports all the tools I use when I'm doing development.

I really do need a versatile laptop Mac, and the new MacBook seems to fit the bill.

During the Apple keynote, I watched Tim Cook talk about the Apple Watch and had to fight to stay awake. But when he showed the terraced batteries of the MacBook, the little barely-flex keys, the haptic-based trackpad, the hi-res Retina screen, the gold shell, and all of it weighing in at about 2 pounds, I got all warm in my private places.

This was the machine I had been waiting for.

Unfortunately, Cook's reality distortion field doesn't last as long as Steve's did, so the slower M processor and the single USB C port began to nag at my thoughts. It was hotness, all right. But was it the machine for me?

Let's deconstruct the choices. Apple offers the 11-inch and 13-inch refreshed MacBook Air, the 12-inch MacBook, and the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro.

The MacBook Air

Up until now, the MacBook Air was the go-to machine for those who wanted portability and light weight. It was also available at something resembling an entry-level price (at least for Apple).

The Air ranges in price from $899 to $1,999 depending on screen size and size of SSD. They all have roughly the same 1.6Ghz Core i5 processor and HD 6000 graphics.

For an extra $250, you can bump the processor to 2.2Ghz and RAM from a barely-useful 4GB to a relatively robust-for-most-applications 8GB.

The Air does come with some ports (like you can plug in power and USB at the same time), but it doesn't come with a Retina display. The 11-incher is 2.38 pounds -- exactly the same weight as my very light Chromebook. The 13-incher is 2.96 pounds and, obviously, a bit bigger.

The MacBook Pro

At the other end of the spectrum is the MacBook Pro, the workhorse of the Apple laptop offerings. This bad boy comes in 13-inch and 15-inch varieties and you can get it with or without a Retina display.

I'm going to skip discussion of the 15-inch, because if you want a bigger display, the MacBook Pro is your only choice. But when you're looking at the 13-inch variety, you're slapping right up against both the MacBook and MacBook Air.

13-inch MacBook Pros range in price from a Retina-free version at $1,099 up to a 2.9GHz Retina version with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of PCIe flash storage and HD 6100 graphics. That model will set you back $1,799.

For another $200, you can add another 8GB of RAM, and for up to yet another $300, you can increase processor speed to a Core i7 at 3.4GHz.

In addition to the heftier price, which is not inconsiderable, the MacBook Pro is a physically heftier machine as well. The 13-inch models are 3.48 pounds and about twice as thick as the MacBook.

The MacBook

So let's look at this new MacBook with clear eyes. The big headline is that it weighs just over 2 pounds, substantially less than either of the two MacBook Air models. You could say the new MacBook is more "air-like" than the MacBook Air.

Prices range from $1,299 to $1,599 for a 1.1GHz or 1.2GHz Core M processor and either 128 or 256GB of flash storage. Graphics is based on the HD 5300 chipset.

Performance, therefore, is substantially lower than the Air and well below that of the MacBook Pro. Given that the new MacBook has a Retina display and therefore has a lot more pixels to push, the reduced heft of the processor could be quite costly in terms of actual day-to-day performance.

And while you can get the MacBook in a variety of sexy tints, it maxes out, like the Air, at a decidely unsexy 8GB.

Comparing them all

Let's use the 256GB models as our comparison, since all three machines offer that storage level -- and it's enough to actually get work done. Let's also compare the 8GB RAM variations and see what we get in terms of price/performance.

Model Price Processor Onboard memory Retina Display
MacBook Air 11-inch $1,199 1.6GHz 1600MHz LPDDR3 --
MacBook 12-inch $1,299 1.6GHz 1600MHz LPDDR3 Yes
MacBook Air 13-inch $1,299 1.6GHz 1600MHz LPDDR3 --
MacBook Pro 13-inch $1,499 2.7GHz 1866MHz LPDDR3 Yes

Clearly, the MacBook is a trade-off machine. It's right in line with the 13-inch MacBook Air, but while it's much lighter and has Retina, it's also slower -- which could be a problem with Retina.

The MacBook Pro is half a pound heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Air (and a pound and a half more than the MacBook), but for a $200 price bump, it's a vastly more capable machine than the MacBook.

And while you can't push the MacBook any further, no matter the price, you can push the MacBook Pro to 16GB RAM for another $200, add a faster processor, and more storage.

Maxed out, the MacBook Pro with 1TB flash storage, 16GB of RAM, and a 3.1GHz Core i7 will set you back $2,699.

Of course, it's not all about performance. If you're trying to eek out a few more minutes of battery life, there may be a benefit to a slightly slower machine. That said, the new MacBook is reported to have roughly the same performance as a 2011 MacBook Air. Not great.

What will I choose?

There seem to be three viable choices. Choose the 11-inch, $1,199 MacBook Air with 8GB of RAM. It's smaller and lighter and costs less, but the lack of a Retina display could be painful after a few hours of work.

Spending an extra $100 nets the MacBook with the better display, but a bit more anemic processor. Will the silent running, light weight, and insanely portable form-factor balance the reduction in processor speed, especially since the Core M can boost to up to 2.4GHz when needed?

Conversely, it doesn't make sense to top up the MacBook Pro with all the bells and whistles, since that drives the device almost into Mac Pro territory in terms of cost. A mid-range configuration with a 2.7GHz processor, Retina display, and 16GB will cost about $1,699.

Surprisingly, given it's previously strong run, I'd immediately rule out the MacBook Air. It's either go light and silent or spend $400 more and go heavy with extra capacity.

That's a tough decision. The new MacBook is insanely portable, but limited on almost every front. The MacBook Pro is powerful, heavier, and more expensive, but has, you know, ports.

As much as I'd like to save $400 and a pound and a half carry weight, I could get an equally light and much more inexpensive offering that the MacBook in the Asus ZenBook. But it's not Mac and wouldn't run some of the software I need.

By the time you're spending over a grand on a laptop, you darn well better make sure it will do everything you need. Otherwise, why not just go back to the disposable devices like my long-suffering Chromebook?

Sadly, that means I'll probably pony up the extra bucks and carry the extra weight. The MacBook Pro is a much more versatile answer, despite the unquestionable sexiness and appeal of the new MacBook.


By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

See also:

Editorial standards