Choosing an Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display laptop can be a nerve-wracking decision — but it doesn’t have to be once you understand the core elements that really matter.

To start, the MacBook Pro 13 and 15-inch with Retina Display Macs are oxymorons: They are advanced marvels of engineering that are hobbled by non-upgradable memory and difficult to upgrade storage capacities. The very things that make them awesome — like super-fast flash-based storage — also hold them back. You must choose wisely.

Fortunately, the MacBook Pro 13 vs 15 decision is easier when you ignore most of the tech specs and focus on a few key questions.

Breaking News Update: Apple Announces New MacBook Pro Models

Apple just announced brand-new MacBook Pro models that feature slimmer, lighter, redesigned forms. In addition, two models have a new “Touch Bar” that replaces the top row of the keyboard with a rectangular touch screen. This new Touch Bar is sort of cool, sort of handy, and could become important for professional-grade applications. For most of us, it will be more cool than necessary for a long time.

All that said, the new MacBook Pros are high-end devices that come with high-end price tags. Nearly all of the previous generation advice below also holds true for decision factors today. The biggest potential buying issue is storage. The base models all come with 256GB of built-in, non-upgradable storage. Is this enough for you? That’s your primary question with these new models. If you’re the kind of person who wants to backup your 128GB iPhone 7 to your MacBook Pro, as well as have a photo library of photos and videos — not to mention back up more than one iPhone in your household — 256GB just might not be enough to do this easily.

Your next major decision factor is price. How much are you willing to spend?

All-in-all, if your budget matches your storage needs in a new MacBook Pro, you’re going to be happy. If your budget isn’t quite there, don’t fret yet — the newest MacBook Pro models with the new Touch Bar won’t even ship for a few more weeks.

If you don’t care about the new Touch Bar, you might be able to find a better deal on a previous generation MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro.

MacBook Pro Value: Is price a factor?

If you’re in a budget-sensitive situation, we can stop this conversation right now: Choose the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro and change your usage habits to match your budget. How? When you need more storage than the paltry 128GB, get a Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 external hard drive to hold your extra media files (like movies) or start using high-capacity USB thumb drives.

Instead of letting your Photos library explode with photos, get ruthless and only pack around the photos you really love on your Mac. And, when you plan on sitting at a desk and working long hours, invest in an eternal monitor. I have a 15-inch MacBook Pro and I still find myself using my 24-inch monitor for much of my workday.

The point is, if you can learn to store large files externally, a 13-inch MacBook Pro will serve you well for years to come, especially if you’re a home user or a student. (If you must upgrade, for some older models, you can buy an SSD upgrade kit to increase your difficult-to-upgrade Apple MacBook Pro SSD storage.)

Conversely, if price is not a problem, stop worrying and buy the MacBook Pro 15 with 512 GB of storage and the better graphics processor. Your experience will be so good, most every other laptop screen will make you feel like there’s sand in your eyes.

Do you need a big screen?

macbook pro osx mavericks

Which MacBook Pro? The 13.3 inch or 15.4 inch, and how much flash storage? The 13-inch is best for most people, the 15-inch best for heavy workloads. Take action: check models and prices at Amazon.

The new Retina displays on the MacBook Pro 13 and MacBook Pro 15 are slightly different, and the way the resolution of a Retina display is utilized means that the actual pixels (tiny dots of light) packed onto the screen don’t map to workable space like they used to years ago — especially when you’re working with image files. Both displays look fantastically crisp, bright, and vivid. The 15.4-inch screen simply has more available real estate to work with, and that’s the key: Do you need all you can get?

To get that screen real estate, though, requires a major price leap: $700 more if you consider the low-end and $500 more if you want to compare the mid-level MBP 13, which has 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage. Of course, the entry-level 15-inch MacBook Pro now has 16GB of memory and 256GB of storage, giving you a boost in memory, which is worth it if you get into editing a lot of video, playing intense games, or working with a lot of different apps at the same time.

Unfortunately, Apple has this whole pricing fetish that’s attached to size — bigger screens always cost more. If you’re like me, you would appreciate a mid-level MacBook Pro that has mid-level processors . . . but still has a larger screen. Sorry, with Apple, “bigger” and “better” always go hand-in-hand. Consequently, if you need more working space directly on your MacBook Pro, you must get the pricier model.

When you travel, will you need to do serious work for long hours?

macbook pro 13 vs 15-inch review

Review Takeaway: The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is the best all-around MacBook for most consumers.

If you travel and work a lot, you need to consider the nature of your work: Will you lose productivity if your screen size is smaller than at your office desk? For me, writing and working simply takes longer on a smaller screen. No way around it. When I travel, I lose a bit of productivity, and for me, productivity is key. I can’t imagine going back to any screen smaller than a 15-incher.

On the other hand, if your travel requires you to pull your MacBook Pro out and use it for short bursts of activity several times a day — say, in airports and lobbies and remote offices or coffee shops, libraries, and classrooms — for things like email, word processing, and web browsing . . . the portability of the 13-inch MacBook Pro wins. Which leads to the next question.

Will you pack your MacBook Pro around a lot?

If you’re a student or a person who can’t leave home without your MacBook, go with the MBP 13 (or a MacBook Air). At 3.46 pounds, it weighs only one pound less than the 4.46 pound MBP 15, but the smaller footprint and weight will make it feel much more nimble.

Are you a pro? A movie-making enthusiast or gamer?

If you’re a pro, I’m surprised you’re reading this. Buy the MBP 15 for the quad-core Intel Core i7 processor and get on with it. The MBP 13s come with dual-core Intel Core i5 processors. For intensive applications, you’ll want the MacBook Pro 15-inch models.

If you’re a video enthusiast on a budget, you can get by with the $1499 or $1799 MacBook Pro 13-inch models (usually less at B&H), but if you’re a Mac-loving user who simply has an unbearable desire to play rich, vibrant games on your Mac, go big with a stacked 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Here’s one last thought: Don’t fret so much in your decision. If you make a mistake, your MacBook Pro will hold its value well. You can sell it and only lose a small chunk of your investment. In the process, the consolation is that you will have learned something valuable about yourself — and your real MacBook Pro needs.

What about the new Force Touch trackpad on the 13-inch MacBook Pro?

review macbook pro 15 retina vs 13

Review: The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (Mid 2015) is Apple’s most powerful notebook.

Apple recently updated the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display and 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display with slightly improved graphics, faster flash storage, and Apple’s new Force Touch trackpad. The performance boost is welcome — but not a factor compared to the 15-incher. The new trackpad, though, is a matter of personal preference. Why? It has two features that are interesting but far from necessary — vibration feedback for some types of presses and an ability to press and then press harder to trigger an action. For example, if you tap on a date in an email and then continue to press harder, you can automatically open up a calendar entry. Or if you fast forward in a movie and press harder, it will fast forward faster. Cool? Yes. Life changing? No. (Heck, I still prefer to use a Magic Mouse 2.) Bottom line? If you need a MacBook now, I recommend that you choose based on screen size and storage capacity.

Shop MacBook Pro 13 vs 15 Retina Display: 

 

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About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and sublime tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite, share Apple-focused opinions on TechNewsWorld, and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. For something different, check out If They Mistake the Moon for the Sun. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.