The Apple MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro with Retina Display choice can be a confusing decision, but it doesn’t have to be: In fact, now that Apple is offering a fairly slim MacBook Pro with Retina Display in the 13-inch form factor — with twice the memory — most people would be better off with a 13-inch MacBook Pro than a MacBook Air, despite the popular allure of the svelte MacBook Air.

Still, most people isn’t necessarily you — but if you consider the core elements of each Mac laptop that really matter, the decision will reveal itself.

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro 2016

First, forget most of the tech specs. Think about how you want to use your new MacBook. These questions will help:

Is price a serious factor?

Price is often a factor, but when considering the 13-inch MacBook Air vs the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, the difference between comparable models can range up to $300 or more.

(While you can get an 11-inch MacBook Air for about $899, it’s really an ultra-mobile little wonder that doesn’t compare well to the MacBook Pro 13 — and FYI, Apple’s newest 12-inch MacBook with Retina display is Apple’s newest ultraportable model (review here).

Bottom line: If you can scrape up $300 extra for the 13-inch MacBook Pro, I highly recommend it because it’s more powerful and includes the super-sharp Retina Display. On the flip side, I’m starting to see some crazy-good deals on MacBook Air, which radically extends the price differential consideration in your MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro decision. If you’re not a heavy photo-editing or video-editing user, this savings might be the key factor for you.

Do you travel a lot or are always on the move?

macbook air vs macbook pro

Which lightweight MacBook is better, the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with Retina Display? For most people, the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro is better but the MacBook Air price is compelling. Take action: check models and prices at Amazon.

The best feature of the 13-inch MacBook Air is the sheer slim size. At 2.96 pounds, it’s light. And it will slip into and out of your bag all day long. If you are constantly on the go, the Air form factor is sweet. On the other hand, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is just 3.46 pounds — just a half pound heavier. It’s still light and nimble.

But wait, there’s more: The MacBook Air will deliver up to 12 hours of wireless web usage while the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display caps out at 9 hours. Why the difference? The Pro unit has a more powerful processor that consumes more energy . . . along with a Retina Display, which also consumes more energy. The slower processor and simpler display lets the MacBook Air get longer life out of a smaller battery.

So, in highly portable environments, the MacBook Air wins out in this MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro battle.

Do you want to be able to do more, longer, with a better display?

The MacBook Air is fantastic for general-purpose computing, but once you start working with a lot of photos or editing home video you shot with your iPhone, the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display gets a lot more compelling. Here’s why:

  • Sharper Screen — Retina Display delivers a sharper screen experience (better for photo and video editing)
  • Faster Processors — Intel Core i5 processor options are faster
  • More Memory — the MacBook Pro has either 8GB or 16GB in the 15-inch version while the Air has 4GB or 8GB
  • Better Graphics — Intel Iris Graphics 6100 are better than the MacBook Air’s Intel HD Graphics 5000 or 6000 (most noticeable in games and video work)
  • More Ports — HDMI (easy TV hookup) plus an extra Thunderbolt port

These additional features — particularly the Retina display — will extend the usable lifespan of your purchase by at least a year, if not longer. Why? You’ll have the new Apple standard display as well as the computing horsepower to run new applications and new versions of Mac OS X farther out into the future. If you want to use your MacBook for at least three years — if not more than three — suddenly a $200-300 price difference enters a new perspective.

There is one more small reason to choose the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display in the MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro decision: Apple’s Force Touch trackpad. The trackpad on the MacBook Pro can sense how hard you press down it, which will reveal some extra Mac OS options, like fast-forwarding through a video at a faster pace. Force Touch is sort of cool, but not yet important.

MacBook Storage Tips:

If you take a lot of photos and video, consider the 13-inch MacBook Pro with 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage — it’s the smartest blend of investment in this segment.

If you’re willing to store most of your photos and video on an external Thunderbolt drive or USB thumb drive, you can get by with less storage in your MacBook. See also, “Best External Hard Drive for Macs, Plus 256GB Flash Drives” and “How to Add Storage to a MacBook Air or Pro.”

Check MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro 2016 Pricing


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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 great 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 and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.