Tip of the Week: Which Small Mac Laptop Is Right for You?

Apple updated its entire laptop lineup at WWDC. The company currently sells no fewer than four different laptop models with 12- or 13-inch screens, not including upgrade options for CPU, RAM and storage.
  • The 12-inch MacBook
  • The 13-inch MacBook Air
  • The 13-inch MacBook Pro (2016 with function keys)
  • The 13-inch MacBook Pro (2016 with Touchbar)
The only thing they have in common is that they all come with 8 gigabytes of RAM. Each model has its own set of pros and cons. Some are more expensive, some have better performance and some are thinner and lighter. How should you go about deciding which one is right for you if you're looking for a small Mac laptop? There are four key questions to ask yourself.
  • How much do you want to spend (price)?
  • What kind of work will you be using it for (performance)?
  • How long do you plan to keep it before you upgrade to a new laptop (longevity)?
  • How portable does it really need to be (portability)?
Here are the basic specs for each model (these don't include upgrade options for the CPU, RAM and storage, each of which will add to the total cost):

Model12" MacBook
Screen12" Retina (2304 x 1440)
CPU1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor 
CPU MaxTurbo Boost up to 3.0GHz
Storage256GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage
GraphicsIntel HD Graphics 615
Other Ports1 USB-C, Headphone
Battery Life10 hours
Weight2.03 lbs.

Model13" MacBook Air
Screen13" (Non-Retina 1440 x 900)
CPU1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
CPU MaxTurbo Boost up to 2.9GHz
Storage128GB PCIe-based flash storage
GraphicsIntel HD Graphics 6000
ThunderboltOne Thunderbolt 2 port
Other Ports2 USB-3, SDXC, Headphone
Battery Life12 hours
Weight2.96 lbs.

Model13" MacBook Pro (2016 w/Function keys)
Screen13" Retina (2560 x 1600)
CPU2.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
CPU MaxTurbo Boost up to 3.5GHz
Storage128GB PCIe-based SSD
GraphicsIntel Iris Graphics 640
ThunderboltTwo Thunderbolt 3 ports
Other PortsHeadphone
Battery Life10 hours
Weight3.02 lbs.
Model13" MacBook Pro (2016 w/Touchbar)
Screen13" Retina (2560 x 1600)
CPU3.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor
CPU MaxTurbo Boost up to 3.6GHz
Storage256GB PCIe-based SSD
GraphicsIntel Iris Graphics 650
ThunderboltFour Thunderbolt 3 ports
Other PortsHeadphone
Battery Life10 hours
Weight3.02 lbs.
OtherTouch Bar and Touch ID
Given Apple's specs, here are the four factors to consider:

1. Price
The MacBook Air is the cheapest. If you've only got $1,000 to spend on a Mac laptop, it's your only option. The downsides of the Air are that it's the only laptop Apple still makes without a Retina display, and the Air hasn't been substantially updated in two years. Apple will probably be phasing it out in the next year or so, as soon as they can make a regular MacBook that can hit a sub-$1,000 price point. The Air does have a couple of things to recommend it. It's basically the same weight as the more expensive 2016 MacBook Pro models, and it actually has better battery life, according to Apple (your usage patterns may differ from Apple's, of course). That gives it the edge in portability. If you need more performance, and have a little more money to spend, the 2016 MacBook Pro with Function Keys is a good option. It's only slightly heavier than the air, but has much better performance.

2. Performance.
If you routinely edit video, manage a large library of digital photos, or play moderately demanding games, you'll want the best-performing laptop you can afford. That's the 2016 MacBook Pro with Touchbar. You'll have to factor in more than just the sticker price though, because the 2016 Pros only have Thunderbolt 3 ports (which double as USB-C ports). Hooking up any device that's not one of those two will require an adapter or dock. That includes your iPhone, most standard USB Flash drives, and the SD memory cards from most digital cameras. If you are willing to give up a little performance, the 2016 Function Key model is a much cheaper option with only a small step down in performance.

3. Longevity.
If you need a laptop that's going to last four or more years before you replace it, you can scratch off the Air . Apple may not be supporting the Air in its latest OS four years from now. The MacBook and the 2016 Pros will all likely be supported well beyond 2022. If you know you'll be upgrading in three years or less, the Air does offer a nice value option.

4. Portability.
Will your new laptop spend most of its life sitting on your desk, or will you be carrying it everywhere you go? If it's the latter, weight becomes a big consideration. If portability trumps all else, the 2-lb. 12" MacBook can't be beat. The downside is that it only has a single USB-C port for charging and to connect anything else. That means you'll need a need an adapter like this one just to charge your laptop and back it up at the same time. You'll also need adapters for anything that doesn't have a USB-C plug on it. If the idea of lugging around a bunch of adapters doesn't appeal to you, the next best option is the MacBook Air, which retains the older USB-A standard ports and an SD memory card slot, but is almost a pound heavier. If you want a current generation model with more than one port, the 2016 Pro with function keys is the way to go, and only slightly heavier than the Air. You'll still need those adapters for it though.

By weighing how much you value each of the four factors above, you should be able to figure which of Apple's small laptops is the one for you.


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