Choosing the best MacBook can be hard, but if you consider the core features you value most, the MacBook vs MacBook Pro choice gets easier. When it comes to two of Apple’s most affordable Retina-based MacBooks, the new 12-inch MacBook with Retina display and the updated 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, my key recommendation leans toward a core question: Which do you value more — extreme ultralight portability or overall computing performance?

MacBook vs MacBook Pro: Battle of the Retina MacBooks

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already narrowed down your MacBook vs MacBook Pro choice down to an Apple laptop that has a super-sharp Retina display. The MacBook Air, which is a solid MacBook, does not have a Retina display. Sure, the MacBook Air screen is good, but it’s not as clear and sharp as a Retina display, which has many more small pixels to produce images and text. If you want Retina, you must choose between a MacBook and a MacBook Pro.

macbook vs macbook pro

The MacBook vs MacBook Pro recommendation gets easier when you know which you value most — portability or power?

Apple’s list price for both units starts at $1,299, so the cost is in the same ball park.

The MacBook uses a 12-inch, 2304-by-1440 resolution display while the MacBook Pro uses a 13-inch, 2560-by-1600 display. What you need to know here is that the 13-inch has a slightly larger display area.

Both the MacBook and new Pro models have Apple’s Force Touch touch trackpad that can sense how much pressure you use for various actions.

Ultimately, what’s left? Size, processing power, ports, and different keyboards. So let’s figure out which of these things matter.

Ultralight Wonder vs Best Overall Processing Power

The new MacBook is super thin and super light — it weighs just 2.03 pounds and is .52 inches thick at its thickest point. It’s hard to describe how portable and light this thing is, so trust me: The new MacBook won’t bother you when you slip it into a backpack or bag.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro isn’t exactly bad itself — it weighs 3.48 pounds and is .71 inches thick. It doesn’t seem particularly heavy . . . until you hold it next to the MacBook. At this point, you either get a sense for how crazy light the MacBook really is . . . or how substantial the MacBook Pro really is.

Unfortunately, being so light leads to a computing performance tradeoff for the MacBook while being powerful leads to a weight and size disadvantage for the MacBook Pro.

The MacBook starts with a 1.1 GHz dual-core Intel Core M processor, which is nice because it runs cool and doesn’t need a fan. The downside is that this processor is less capable than what is in some older MacBook Airs. The real question, though, is how big of a deal is this? If you’re an average sort of user who browses the web, does email, and messes around with word processing documents or spreadsheets, it’s plenty powerful. You can do pretty much everything with a MacBook, even edit photos and video — but you won’t do it quite as fast as you will with a MacBook Pro, which starts with a 2.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor.

One Port vs Many Ports

retina macbook vs macbook pro

One of the reasons the 12-inch MacBook can be so thin is that it only has just one multi-purpose port.

The 12-inch MacBook has only one port — a new USB-C port that is also a charging port. USB-C is a new standard that can handle all sorts of communication for a variety of peripherals like storage or external monitors. It’s cool, but the MacBook has just one port, which means there is a good chance that you’ll need an adapter with more ports if you want to use your MacBook on a typical desktop to directly attach to an external monitor, a backup drive, or a printer. Of course, many printers are now WiFi enabled, and you can even transfer your photos from your iPhone to a Mac wirelessly, too — so this feature (or limitation) might not bother you.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is loaded with ports — just not one of the new USB-C ports. It has two fast USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, an SDXC card slot, and an HDMI port, which is handy for connecting your MacBook to HDTVs and many of the newer external monitors.

Force Touch Trackpads and Keyboards

Both of these MacBooks have Apple’s new Force Touch trackpad, which can sense the pressure of your touch and make a few user interface steps easier (but are hardly necessary). So what about the keyboards then?

The 13-inch MacBook Pro has an excellent keyboard — lots of great typing feel and sound. The MacBook, on the other hand, has a new super low-profile keyboard that has reduced key travel using a different mechanism. Despite the MacBook’s small size, the keyboard is a full-size keyboard. It also uses larger keys that are easier to strike. The trouble is, I’m not a fan of the new MacBook keyboard. I think you have to hit the keys with a bit more force and intent — and the lack of travel feedback makes them just a bit less enjoyable to use.

That said, I’m only marginally slower typing on a MacBook than I am typing on a MacBook Pro, and if a MacBook were my primary machine, I’d probably get more used to the keyboard. But come to love it? I’m not convinced. For most use, though, it will get the job done.

Battery Power

macbook pro vs macbook storage

Surprisingly, the 12-inch MacBook’s lowest storage option starts at 256GB while the 13-inch MacBook Pro starts with 128GB.

With either MacBook, you’ll get a full-day of usage out of it. The MacBook, as a consequence of being so small, gets up to 9 hours of wireless web usage while the larger (and more battery hungry) MacBook Pro manages to get 10 hours of wireless web. Obviously it’s packing a bigger battery, which also adds to its overall weight.

Either way, Apple’s battery tech is great in its laptops, so there’s not much to worry about in the MacBook vs MacBook Pro battery battle here.

External Displays

If you want to power an external display, up to 4K (3840 by 2160), the MacBook will power one in addition to is built-in screen. The MacBook Pro will drive two 4K displays as well as its built-in screen [Check out the Samsung UE590 at Amazon, for example]. For most people who don’t have two external monitors, this isn’t a big deal either way, but if you plan to do more intensive work on your Mac, the MacBook Pro wins the MacBook vs MacBook Pro external display decision factor.

128GB vs 256GB of Storage

Both of these MacBooks ship with 8GB of memory, which is plenty for the vast majority of consumers. There is a key difference in the MacBook vs MacBook Pro storage battle, though. For some reason, Apple continues to ship the base model MacBook Pro with Retina display with just 128GB of flash storage. If you’re into photography or shoot a lot of video, this might not be enough storage. If you’re doing standard work with email, office documents, and social media sorts of things, you’ll be OK. (If you’re not sure how much storage you need, read “Is 128GB Enough Storage on a New MacBook?“)

As for the MacBook, Apple’s base model uses 256GB, which is a comfortable amount of storage for most people. Again, if you’re heavy into taking a lot of photos and video and want to store all of your full-size originals on your MacBook, consider your storage needs before you choose. (Of course, you can always decide to offload photos and video to a good external hard drive or thumb drive, see also, “Best External Hard Drives for Macs, Plus 256GB USB Flash Drives.”)

MacBook vs. MacBook Pro Recommendations

Most consumers can’t go wrong with either the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display or the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. They both have super-sharp displays and fit similar sorts of needs. The key differences come back to an extremely light and tidy form factor vs a more full-sized overall package that can hold a more powerful processor. The MacBook wins in the backpack and in frequent travel situations while the MacBook Pro gets the nod for being faster and more powerful. Overall, they can do the same things. For example, while you can edit a long video on a MacBook, you will enjoy the experience a bit more on a MacBook Pro.

The MacBook vs MacBook Pro decision comes down to this:

  • Choose the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display if you love the ultra-light form factor or must have a Gold or Space Gray colored MacBook. I hate to admit it, but the Gold looks great, and while the MacBook isn’t right for my needs, oh baby, it’s still a drool-worthy machine.
  • Choose the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display if you favor better performance, want all of today’s most commonly needed ports, and like traditional MacBook keyboards. In fact, the the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is the Mac that recommend to most people, most often.

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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.