The 512 Guide: ‘What MacBook should I buy?’

Apple is currently selling a lot of notebooks, and its more than a little confusing. Long gone are the days of a more simple product matrix, when the line between what was for consumers and what was for professionals was more clear.

Three out of the five portable machines on this page sport a 13-inch screen. The new MacBook is thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro and MacBook Air actually have ports, but the Air doesn’t come with a Retina display like the MacBook Pro and MacBook.


So, who are all of these computers for? If you’re in the market, where should you be looking in Apple’s line up?

The MacBook Air

Starting at $899, the MacBook Air may be the cheapest of Apple’s notebook offerings, but it is no slouch. Even the base models are more than powerful enough for the everyday user.

The MacBook Air offers a wide range of customizable options for those who may need more, though. A fully-loaded 13-inch MacBook Air with a 2.2 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7, 8 GB RAM and a 512 GB SSD runs $1,749, which is more than the MacBook several SKUs of the MacBook Pro with Retina display.

That aside, most people may only need to bump up the SSD option for a great machine that will serve them well for years.

The MacBook Air also offers crazy battery life. Users of the 11.6-inch and 13-inch models will enjoy up to 9 or 12 hours of battery life, respectively, making it a great option for students or other people on the go.

What’s Hot:

  • The best battery life in the family
  • Lots of ports, including an SD card slot on the 13-inch model
  • Thinnest i7-powered Apple notebook

What’s Not:

  • The 11.6-inch model may be small, but it’s chunky in weird ways with a huge bezel
  • 4 GB RAM as default; no 16 GB option
  • 128 GB base storage option is crazy
  • Non-Retina display isn’t as sharp or color-accurate

Who is it for?

The 13-inch MacBook Air is my default answer for most people wondering what portable Mac to buy. It’s thin and light with great battery life and offers lots of options for those who may need more power or storage.

The MacBook

Apple’s newest notebook computer isn’t even for sale yet, and people are already talking about it, myself included. It’s not hard to see why; the 12-inch Retina display and crazy thin chassis would be enough to consider before remembering the machine has just one USB C port.

That port is really the decisive thing here, as it will define the MacBook experience. If owning a thin and light machine is your goal, the MacBook is for you, but it comes at a cost — using adaptor for common tasks and kissing goodbye Thunderbolt peripherals.

That said, the MacBook may become less annoying as time moves forward. For a while, people complained about the MacBook Air ditching optical media, but now I can’t remember the last time I burned a CD for anything.

There’s also a question as to how the MacBook will perform. With a slower chipset than the rest of the line, it’s going to struggle under loads that the MacBook Air and Pros will handle more gracefully.

What’s Hot:

  • It’s the smallest Retina Mac money can buy
  • The Force Touch trackpad seems like magic
  • Fanless design (this isn’t a pun!)

What’s Not:

  • Expensive dongles and adaptors are required to do common tasks, like charge the computer and an iPhone at the same time or just simply use a USB drive
  • Lower CPU clock speeds
  • That gold option

Who is it for?

If you live life on the road or have a desktop Mac as your primary system, the MacBook looks like a great option.

The MacBook Pro

Not that you would know without digging around Apple’s site, but the company still sells a single SKU of a non-Retina MacBook Pro.

The $1,099, 13-inch machine comes with a spinning 500 GB hard drive and has an 8 GB RAM ceiling. It’s a relic of a time gone past, and while I love the 13-inch MacBook Pro I had several years ago, it’s not a compelling machine today. Even Apple’s press image of the machine hasn’t been updated in a long time.

What’s Hot:

  • Uhhhhh…

What’s Not:

  • Everything about this computer

Who is it for?

I’m convinced this machine is only still around for schools to buy them in bulk. Please don’t buy it.

The MacBook Pro with Retina display

At the top of the notebook family tree sits the MacBook Pro with Retina display. Available with 13-inch and 15-inch Retina displays with high-powered chipsets and lots of RAM, these machines are for those of us who value portable power above all else.

That’s not to say these machines aren’t modern. They get thinner every couple of years, and are getting better battery life than ever. They may not be as sexy as that new MacBook, but they can get any job done thrown at them.

Starting at $1,299 for the entry-level 13-inch model, the MacBook Pro with Retina display is more expensive than the other models, but even the $1,999 price for the base 15-inch model is a far cry from the several thousand dollars Apple used to require for these machines. Yes, you may spend more, but you’ll get what you pay for when it comes to performance.

What’s Hot:

  • Lots of power
  • Flexible options when customizing one to order

What’s Not:

  • The 15-inch hasn’t gotten the Force Touch trackpad yet.
  • The only discrete GPU option is $2,499.

Who is it for?

If you need all the power you can get out of a portable Mac, this is the line for you. People working with multimedia or who are looking for a great notebook to use as a desktop machine shouldn’t look any further.