A Guide to the Apple MacBook Lineup

Which MacBook Should I Buy?

Apple may be all about the iPads and iPhones these days, but they still make a few very impressive notebooks. While iPads are starting to reach the point where they really could be the only computer you need, they aren’t there yet. So if you want a fully featured computer that’s also incredibly portable, the MacBook is still where it’s at.

Right now, there are only four models of MacBook on sale from Apple itself. You’d think that would make things easier, but actually choosing between some of these models can be a real challenge. So we’ll go over each model by itself and then discuss which computer is meant for which user.

MacBook Air (Retina)

The value proposition of the MacBook Air is clear – this is the lightest, thinnest MacBook on offer. It’s a 13.3″ laptop with a 2560 x 1600 Retina display. It also features the True Tone technology we saw on the iPad Pro line of tablets, where a light sensor checks the ambient light and adjusts the screen for a consistent image under any lighting condition. That makes it appropriate for content creators on the go.

The MacBook Air only weighs 1.24 kg. That’s very light, although still porkier than a 12.9″ iPad Pro with a keyboard case. In absolute terms, it makes little difference though. You get a dual-core i5 CPU from the recent eight-generation Intel line and can push the RAM all the way up to 16 GB.

This comes with two Thunderbolt ports only, as is the fashion now with MacBooks. So budget for at least one decent USB-C with Thunderbolt dongle (LINK) as part of the overall cost of ownership.

Having just two cores in 2019 and beyond really limits the sorts of things you can do with this machine. It’s going to be perfectly fine for browsing the web, writing, office work, and the sort of general light-duty computing most people do. If you plan on using a MacBook for video editing, Photoshop, or other mid-grade productivity, this is probably the wrong choice. The i5s are plenty fast, but with just two cores juggling modern multi-threaded software you better not be in a hurry. The reliance on onboard Intel graphics also limits this from doing anything with 3D graphics, or at least from doing it well enough to be worth the effort.

If you want a general-purpose PC that’s as thin and light as possible without sacrificing usability, the Air is a great choice. Everyone else should skip it.

MacBook Pro 13-in

The 13″ MacBook Pro has a similar footprint to the Air, although it is not quite as thin. In terms of weight, this is only 100 grams or so heavier than the Air, which most people will not have the ability to differentiate without a scale.

Despite the “Pro” moniker, the entry level 13″ Pro is really a mainstream computer, with a quad-core CPU. So yes, this is a perfectly acceptable computer for mid-tier productivity. Video editors on the go will be very happy with this MacBook. We are still stuck with onboard graphics, but the Intel Iris Plus chips have come a long way. You can even get away with playing some AAA games from yesteryear on that lovely True Tone Retina display.

Forget about the fact that this is called a MacBook “Pro”, this is the MacBook that most users will be most happy with. It’s the mainstream MacBook in all but name.

It’s important to note that you can buy a version of this MacBook with two or four Thunderbolt ports. Since these are the only ports you get, it’s very important that you are sure your choice is the right one. For one thing, those lovely dual-hub USB-C dongles won’t work on the two-port models, since both ports aren’t on the same side!

MacBook Pro 15-in

The 15″ MacBook Pro is the fastest MacBook you can buy. It’s also the largest and heaviest, but at only 1.8 kg that’s a relative concept. It’s only 0.6 mm thicker than the 13″ MacBook Pro as well, so don’t think of this as some sort of honking-large laptop.

Of course, having the larger 15″ Retina display is nice, with a 2880 x 1800 resolution and True Tone technology.

On the CPU side, you can go all the way to a blazing-fast 8-core CPU. The top-end i9 option can turbo up to an astonishing 5 Ghz! This is a proper professional machine and should handle just about anything you expect a mobile computer should before we enter the “luggable” workstation laptop class of machine. Maximum RAM is “only” 32 GB, which also separates it from the workstation class, but even 4K video editing should be fine if you go for that configuration. The standard 16 GB allocation is enough even for the most-power users this MacBook is designed for.

While the Radeon Vega Pro graphics chips on offer here have been eclipsed by chips from Nvidia, they are more than powerful enough for most users, especially on the go. You can always use one of the Thunderbolt 3 ports to attach an eGPU when docked. Then this can truly become a “Pro” machine.

While there are non-Mac laptops that exceed the specs of the MacBook Pro 15″, none of them do it with this light form-factor and style. If that matters to you and you need this much grunt, then you’ve found the right model for you.