I have just finished a significant technology update for my mobile technology, including an new MacBook. I was torn between the 13″ MacBook Air (MBA) and the 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display (MBPr). Ultimately, I decided on the Air, mainly for 3 reasons. I know this will come as a surprise to many who know me (MOAR POOWWEERR!), but there is actually method in this apparent madness.
The first big difference was cost. Yes, I know that the MBPr has substantially more memory, storage and processing oomph when configured to the limits, and when I buy, I go for the top. But the MBA was about $500 or so cheaper, meaning that I could add an iPad Mini to the mix. If I choose the MBPr, the budget I set out would only have allowed the conventional iPad (Yes, I have both. For what I do, it gives me some flexibility, plus I wanted one in the suite of devices for testing anyways. It was a 2-pigs-with-1-angry-bird kind of deal).
The only reason I could give up some performance is that, for what I need the MBA for over the next couple of years, the extra processing power isn’t really necessary. Nor is the extra memory or storage. If I really need those, I still have a 17″ MBP hanging around with quad core and heaps of memory. It just isn’t great for carrying around, and I expect to be travelling more in the coming months. So yes, for once I didn’t buy the most powerful machine available.
The other reason had to do with physical size. I have an older MBA that I bought personally, and one thing I really like about it is that the front edge of the laptop, where you rest your palms when using the keyboard, is supert hin. This makes it quite comfortable, because it is low and long enough that the edge of the machine isn’t cutting into the palms of my hands. Yes, the MBPr is pretty thin, but it is still thicker than the MBA, and I know from using my larger MBP that typing for long periods of time gets annoying, because the edge is right under my palm. When I looked at the MBPr in the store, the edge was just high enough that it was going to get annoying over time.
The MBA is also a tiny bit thinner and lighter than the MBPr, even if it is a bit deeper and wider. Given the other bits I travel with, every ounce counts, and I was willing to trade performance for weight.
I know that the screen on the MBA pales in comparison to the MBPr. The Retina display is gorgeous. But the “effective size” of the MBPr is actually smaller than the MBA. The “default” dimensions for the MBPr is 1280×800, because they assign 4 real pixels to each “virtual” pixel. The MBA is 1440×900, just a little bit bigger. Yes, the MBA screen is nowhere near as sharp, and the screen is driven by the usual Intel integrated graphics only. But to get the best performance, the MBPr screen is effectively smaller.
Then there’s screen performance. Sure, it looks good in the store, but many of the reviews I read indicated that the 13″ MBPr screen was at or just beyond the limits of what the integrated graphics card can really push. They noted occasional jerkiness when scrolling, and while it wasn’t too bad, it was enough to give me pause. The only way to truly drive the screen is with the discrete graphics card, and using it chews through the battery quite rapidly. Apparently things get worse for the 15″ model, where the extra pixels are simply too much for Intel’s rather limited integrated graphics card.
Lastly, there was the lurking question of screen hardware quality. Apparently, you wanted to get a MBPr with the Samsung panel, because the other panel was given to ghosting. Now, these reviews were a few months old, and I hadn’t seen for sure if Apple had dealt with the other panels or not. But I wasn’t prepared to take a chance on it just yet.
Basically, it sounds like the retina display is a step ahead of the supporting hardware, and that it will take an iteration or two before the integrated graphics can catch up, or for Apple to find some other solution to properly use the screen with an integrated GPU.
So, The Air Wins Out For Me
Ultimately, did I give up performance for price and portability? Yes, I did, and I did it willingly. Again, the requirements I have for a portable machine have changed some, and I don’t need the computing and memory. The MBA has, for my current needs, enough RAM, processor and storage to do what I need. I fully expect the Air to get a Retina display at some point (it wouldn’t surprise me if this is the year everything with a screen is Retina, and you won’t be able to get a non-Retina anything anymore). But for now, the 13″ MBA will do what I need. I fully expect things to be different in a few years, on my next technology refresh. Who knows, maybe I won’t need a laptop at all?