Which MacBook Should You Buy? MacBook vs. Air vs. Pro

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With a starting price of $899, MacBooks don't come cheap. Still, Apple's laptop lineup is undoubtedly the best in the industry. You get sleek and sturdy aluminum designs, excellent keyboards and touchpads, long battery life and an easy-to-use operating system that keeps your files in sync across multiple Apple devices. Owners of iPhones will appreciate the ability to take calls on their Mac and send and receive text messages.

The new 12-inch MacBook includes a faster Core M processor and faster flash memory, as well as an extra hour of battery life. However, the general benefits (extreme portability) and disadvantages (single USB-C port) remain the same, as does our take on this notebook's position in Apple's overall lineup. 

Update July 6: There are rumors that Apple may not update the MacBook Air at all this year, and that it may focus more on the MacBook and MacBook Pro. Expect to see discounts on the Air soon if that's the case.

  Most Portable Good for Students Longest Battery Life Best Bang for
the Buck
Best
Performer
 

mb-1212-inch MacBook

mb-air-1111.6-inch MacBook Air

mb-air-1313.3-inch MacBook Air

mb-pro-1313.3-inch MacBook Pro

mb-pro-1515.6-inch
MacBook Pro

Rating

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bb-logo-red-stars-4.5

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Price $1,299 $899 $999 $1,299 $1,999
CPU 1.1-GHz dual-core Core m3 1.6-GHz dual-core Core i5 1.6-GHz dual-core Core i5 2.7-GHz dual-core Core i5 2.2-GHz quad-core Core i7
Display (pixels) 2304 x 1440 1366 x 768 1440 x 900 2560 x 1600 2800 x 1800
Ports 1 USB-C 2 USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2 2 USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2, SD card 2 USB 3.0, 2 Thunderbolt 2, HDMI, SD card 2 USB 3.0, 2 Thunderbolt 2, HDMI, SD card
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 515 Intel HD Graphics 6000 Intel HD Graphics 6000 Intel Iris Graphics 6100 Intel Iris
Pro Graphics, optional AMD Radeon R9
M370X*

* AMD graphics included only with 2.5-GHz MacBook Pro, which costs $2,499

Our top overall pick for the money is the 13-inch MacBook Air ($999) because of its long battery life and strong performance from its 5th-generation Core i5 processor. But if you're willing to splurge on a sharper and more vibrant screen, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display ($1,299) is a fantastic choice. That said, other MacBooks have unique strengths of their own.

There's some pretty significant differences between the assorted members of the MacBook family, which includes the 12-inch MacBook, two MacBook Airs (11- and 13-inch) and two MacBook Pros (13- and 15-inch). You'll find a wide range of processor options, storage capacity and ports. Here's a breakdown of every MacBook and how they compare in terms of our test results to help you choose the right model.

Best Portability: MacBook

The 12-inch MacBook is so compact and light some people mistake it for an iPad when they see it closed. And it's very easy to carry, because the MacBook weighs just 2.03 pounds and measures 0.52 inches at its thickest point. The 11-inch Air is a close second at 2.4 pounds. However, keep in mind that the MacBook offers only a single USB-C port, which means you can't charge the notebook and plug in another device at the same time (like the iPhone) without using a dongle.

Apple-MacBook-12inch-ontheGo
While still relatively light, the 13-inch MacBook Air is about a pound heavier than the 12-inch MacBook, and it's considerably taller and wider (partly because of its large screen bezel).

The 3.5-pound, 13-inch MacBook Pro is somewhat hefty given its screen size, but it makes up for that with beefy performance and a great display. The 4.5-pound, 15-inch MacBook Pro is among the lightest in its class of 15-inch notebooks.

Best Battery Life: 13-inch MacBook Air

The updated 13-inch MacBook Air is one of the longest-running laptops, period. It lasted an epic 14 hours on the Laptop Mag battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi. The 13-inch MacBook Pro is no slouch, though, lasting a little more than 12 hours on the same test.

battery_life_MB-face-off-4-16
The 15-inch MacBook Pro's 9 hours of endurance makes it one of the longest-running laptops with that size display. The new 12-inch MacBook lasts slightly longer than the 11-inch MacBook Air, and both offer above-average endurance.

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Best Display: Tie Between MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro

There are MacBooks with Retina Displays, and there are those without. You'll notice a huge difference in terms of resolution and color quality. For instance, the 13-inch MacBook Air has been stuck at a fairly low 1440 x 900 pixels for several years, while the new, smaller 12-inch MacBook sports a 2304 x 1440-pixel panel. So even though the MacBook has a smaller screen, it offers a sharper picture and seems larger than it is.

The 13-inch and 15-inch Retina MacBooks have even sharper screens at 2560 x 1600 and 2800 x 1800 pixels, respectively. The 15-inch display looks so sharp that Apple ditched the 17-inch MacBook Pro from its lineup. Having this sort of resolution makes it easier to put two windows side-by-side without losing detail. However, while the 15-inch MacBook Pro has a higher resolution than the 13-inch Pro, the former didn't fare as well in color reproduction, accuracy or brightness.

screen-brightness-macbooks The 12-inch MacBook has a sharper display than the 13-inch Air, as well as more saturated colors and better contrast.

Whether you're watching videos, flipping through photos on Facebook or editing in Photoshop, color gamut is an important metric, as it measures how much of the sRGB color spectrum a laptop can reproduce. Close to 100 is ideal, but some notebook screens surpass that figure.

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The 12-inch MacBook notched 107 percent on this test, but the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro was fairly close behind with a mark of 91 percent. Both MacBook Airs posted less than 70 percent, which is relatively poor these days.

All Apple laptops offer above-average screen brightness, but the 13-inch MacBook Pro is at the top of the class, registering 389 nits on our tests. That beats the 12-inch MacBook and 13-inch Air. The 11-inch Air pumps out a lot of brightness for its size, though, registering 370 nits.

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If you work on photos or video editing, color accuracy is paramount. Our Delta-E test measures this attribute and returns a number score, with 0 being perfect. The 12-inch MacBook notched 0.99, which is excellent, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro turned in a very good 1.2. The 15-inch model wasn't too far behind at 2.1. The 13-inch MacBook Air brought up the rear with 4.3, which is worse than the laptop category average.

Best Port Selection: 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro

If you like to plug more than one peripheral at once into your laptop, you'll want to avoid the new MacBook, as it uses a single USB-C port for both power and connecting other devices. You'll need a $20 adapter to attach your iPhone or any other USB gadget. Want to get power and connect a peripheral and display at the same time? That will be $80 for another dongle.

MacBookPortComparisons-675
Between the 13-inch Air and 11-inch Air, we give a slight edge to the 13-incher because it offers an SD card slot. Otherwise, both pack two USB 3.0 ports and a Thunderbolt 2 port for connecting a display. The MacBook Pros have the most ports because they have the most room on their chassis, adding another Thunderbolt 2 port and HDMI to the above assortment.

Best Performance: 15-inch MacBook Pro

Creative pros and power users who are willing to invest two grand in a laptop need look no further than the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The combination of its quad-core Core i7 CPU and optional AMD R9 M370X graphics smoked all other Mac laptops in various tests. However, the 13-inch MacBook Pro offers very good performance per dollar.

On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, the 15-inch MacBook Pro more than doubled the score of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Nevertheless, the 13-inch Pro's score of 7,113 is considerably higher than other 13-inch laptops, like the Dell XPS 13 (6,374). The 13-inch Air's Core i5 CPU and speedy SSD paced it to a fairly good score of 5,780. The 11-inch Air, which has similar components, scored a slightly higher 5,800.

geekbench_life_mb_face-off_4-16
The 6th-generation Core m5-powered MacBook is considerably faster than its predecessor, notching a score of 5,906. 

Another key measure of an Apple laptop's performance is its flash storage, as it determines such factors as app open times and the ability to quickly load and browse large libraries of content. To gauge this performance we copy a batch of mixed files and time the results to arrive at a speed rating in megabytes per second (MBps).

Once again the 15-inch MacBook Pro obliterated every other Mac with a score of 636 MBps, thanks to its next-generation PCIe technology. Nevertheless, the 13-inch Air and Pro both performed well at over 350 MBps. The 12-inch MacBook was in the same ballpark at 355.9 MBps, while the 11-inch Air brings up the rear.

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Best Graphics: 15-inch MacBook Pro

This is why you splurge for the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The AMD Radeon R9 M370X graphics in the $2,499 configuration makes quick work of photo and video editing, making this machine the best choice for creative pros.

cinebench_MB-face-off-4-16

On the OpenGL portion of Cinebench, which measures graphics performance, the 15-inch Pro notched 62.5. That's more than double the next fastest MacBook, the 13-inch Pro (28.9). It's important to note that the 13-inch model doesn't have a discrete graphics option.

The 11-inch and 13-inch Air were pretty neck-and-neck, but the 12-inch MacBook turned in the lowest score on this test. Still, its Intel graphics are faster than last year's model (21.24 vs 19.18).

Overall Recommendations

It helps to think about the family of Mac that will meet your needs before you choose a specific model. The Air is for those who want swift performance and long battery life in a lightweight machine for a reasonable price. Power users and photo and video editors should step up to the 13- or 15-inch MacBook Pro, which offer very sharp Retina displays along with beefier processors in heftier designs. While more expensive, the 15-inch Pro is really the only choice for those looking for workstation-class performance.

The 12-inch MacBook is a niche system. It's the most portable choice in Apple's lineup, but it also costs just as much as the 13-inch Pro (which offers more speed and a bigger display) and it's $300 more than the 13-inch Air (which has more battery life and ports). So get the MacBook only if you want to travel really, really light. For the vast majority of shoppers, the 13-inch Air continues to be the best choice, but the 13-inch Pro is a close second because of its better screen.

Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief on
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35 comments
  • Kevin Says:

    Having been commissioned (by my HBIC ) to research the differences for 13 MBAir and the MBP13, I found your article indespensible. I also appreciated the sept 5 date from above reviewer. Thanks for the article.

  • Ted Roberts Says:

    As to a couple of other people's questions...


    I have a 13" MacBook Air and really like it (it takes time getting use to its keyboard). It's better than the Pro in one key regard-- a larger palm rest. The tapers front edge combined with the larger palm rest means that the Air does not dig into your palm or wrist the way the 13" Pro does.

    Never had any real probs with the Air's lower rates screen... However, if you tilt the monitor back and forth the colors, tint, and contrast change greatly. That's hard on photos, and determining colors of things you want to buy off the web.

    The other thing that happens-- and you should go into a store to compare and see this-- is that the screen flickers when scrolling down a page, say the New York Times. That's a distraction and does NOT happen (or, at least virtually not) on a MacBook Pro's screen.

    Hope that helps others!

    Note: if you can wait until September, I'd recommend doing so. Post- September 5, Apple will be introducing new products and we'll all have a better idea of what to buy then and what our choices are.

  • Ted Roberts Says:

    Great comparison.... Very helpful.

    One nitpick, though, about your very important warning.

    "Update July 6: There are rumors that Apple may not update the MacBook Air at all this year, and that it may focus more on the MacBook and MacBook Pro. Expect to see discounts on the Air soon if that's the case."

    In fact, it could be that we'll start to see discounts on the MBPs to clear out back inventory and avoid complaints when new machines come in and people have recently paid similar amounts for older tech.

    The MBA discounting is, in fact, already going on, but so is it for the MBPs--picked up a 13" the other day for $200 off.

    However, the bottom will fall out of these prices, so if one doesn't NEED to buy a laptop, one should definitely wait until fall.

    I mean if a 2.5-3 pound 13" comes in with multiple USB-C ports or a 14" or 15" at only 3.5-4 pounds, then current tech will be sadly dated and overpriced. OTOH, sometimes new tech creates new problems (loss of ports, require,nets for new adapters, first gen teething issues), so the one-year old models at a discount are a value laden bargain!

  • Richard Says:

    Hi Mark, I am thinking of buying a mac book pro from https://www.powermax.com/productcategory/used-macs-macbook-pro

    I live in california which attracts a 7.5% sales tax. Powermax is located in Oregon which attracts no sales tax.

    My question is, if I buy from Orgeon and have shipped to Califonia, do I have to pay sales tax?

  • Marian florida Says:

    I love it! I just bought my Macbook Air yesterday and its so fast and easy to bring anywhere because its thick and light weight :)

  • sominder arya Says:

    I want apple laptops ,, bt i can't choose in MacBook Pro or air tell ,, plz regarding mbbs

  • Hillary G Says:

    I'm looking at the 15.4 inch and the AMD graphics option is actually $10 cheaper than the Intel Iris Pro, but it sounds like from the article the AMD is the better option? I will be using it primarily for editing photos (Lightroom and Photoshop), writing and research. Thanks!

  • Emily La Voi Says:

    Hi! Based on this chart and article, I am thinking Mac Air 13.3; longest battery life with 2 usb. Not sure you need the super sharp image (doesn't appear to be much different reading article) for the extra money. Let me know what you think.

    Hope trip is going well. Love You!

  • Paul Robinson Says:

    Great review!

    These types of in-depth, feature by feature, test by test comparisons are really valuable!

    Keep up the good work.

  • Jacks Says:

    The release I'm referring to is the release of the new 2016 MacBook Pros expected to come out.

  • Jacks Says:

    For me price is what's important, so my question is when is the best time to get the 2015 MacBook Pro 13 Retina? Currently Best Buy is selling them for $1149. How much can you see this price dropping leading up to the release and after it?

    Thanks

  • Joe S. Says:

    Great article. I mean really good.

  • Diana Says:

    I just got the 13'macbook air ( former owner of pro) and I love it. Its fast and lightweight since I travel a lot. Its a great choice. Hopefully in the future they make it with retina display.

  • Dale Strauss Says:

    Sorry, but this is all irrelevant. With every news outlet predicting a June +/- announcement of all new MacBook Airs/Pros (or a blending of the two lines) why would you buy ANYTHING unless you just dropped your current Mac down a flight of stairs...

  • Jordan Says:

    These price comparisons don't seem to match the equivalent RAM / Storage Capacity builds. Granted the macbook doesn't offer many options.

  • Habung Says:

    Must i wait for new macbook air or buy the 2015 model now..im bit confuse in my decission..pls expertise help me..i got 70000 thousand hardly im still student and belongs from middle class family

  • Charles walker Says:

    Thanks shopping for a new laptop

  • James Mark Says:

    Thanks for the information,I bought a mac book air.
    #Apple Mac book Air

  • Ruturaj Says:

    I guess now is not good time to buy a macbook especially 15 inch pro, since skylake update is due, apple might redesign whole line up this time.

  • Juan J. Says:

    Very thorough and helpful. Thank you!!

  • Richard Y Says:

    Thanks for your comprehensive study and views. Looks like the MB Pro 13 is good enough for my use.

  • datnaijaguy Says:

    I have a mid-2014 MacBook Pro 15" with an nVidia GT 750M and the amazing quadcore processor. I also have a Lenovo Thinkpad W541 which is a mobile workstation also at 15". In regards to keyboards, I think Thinkpads have the best keyboards in the 11 to 15" category. In regards to trackpads/mousepads, Apple by far has the best mousepad. I love both laptops personally. OS X is a good Operating system and my thinkpad is running the latest version of Ubuntu GNU/Linux. Both are great. Both have high resolution 3K screens. I like the Aluminum construction and the speakers of the macbook pro more though

  • AFTAB Says:

    Very usefull for me and i set my mind for Air 13

  • Martha Welch Says:

    Very helpful! Serious about the Pro 13.

  • Ntando Says:

    Macbook is super nice but Air is making me to change my mind.

  • Davis Says:

    This was tremendously helpful! Found my ideal fit in the 13 in MacBook Air. Thank you!

  • *Ben* Says:

    Just the information I was looking for, thanks!

  • peter Says:

    I love macbook is the best laptop to buy-in have everything you can think of I have one before now I enjoying used it

  • John Jeeho Jeong Says:

    THANKS!!!!!!###^^!!!!!!
    It really helped
    I should buy Macbook Air

  • Dr Suresh Britto Says:

    I bought a dud, 13 retina display a Mac book pro, a limited warranty of one year, during the warranty period a series of glitches the age t gave me the run around,
    13 months from the date of purchase a leaking battery and a boken mother board
    Costly experiment
    An Apple only for eating

  • Amario Says:

    I bought latest the Mac Pro with rating and surprised Has no DVD display and wonder that I can't use my DVDs with it.

  • imic9048 Says:

    Thanks for the review! Some great points but I think the keyboard and mouse need a mention as the keyboard especially is very different on the MacBook. The new lighter butterfly keys (I thought anway) were a bit strange on the touch and it lacked the real keyboard feel which Apple computers have done so well over the years. The keyboard is the main way of interacting with a computer so it's important to get it right. I'll get the MacBook Air mainly because I couldn't stand the new Macbook's keyboard (among a few other things).

    Anyway, people should try the keyboard of the new MacBook before buying because it's a very different feel.

  • Janine Says:

    Hi i just finish reading this article about how to buy MacBook laptop

  • Sharon Says:

    Thank so much for your research and findings. It definitely helped me decide between an Air and a Pro.

  • Hunter Says:

    Which would be better for photo imaging, little bit of video editing down the road :

    New iPad Pro or MacBook Air 11.6 ? Budget does not allow more money. The new keyboard for Pro is additional $100. Which product has better keyboard ? Never owned a laptop so most likely more comfortable with mouse.

    Appreciate your input !

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