MacBook Buying Guide 2014: What to Get Right Now

If you want a new Apple MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, the challenge is figuring out which MacBook — the svelte Air or the powerhouse Pro? And which size? Most people overthink the decision, focusing on tech specs that don’t matter. Here’s what matters, and here’s how to find the right MacBook for you, right now.

The easy way to figure out which MacBook to buy is to answer some basic questions — the answers will tease out what matters most.

1. Do you care more about super-light portability or raw power?

The 11-inch MacBook Air comes in at an ultralight 2.38 pounds and the 13-inch MacBook Air weighs just 2.96 pounds. In addition, they are just .68 inches thin at the widest spot, which makes them easy to slip in and out of bags or pack one-handed. If you are constantly on the go, the MacBook Air is a compelling choice.

However, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is just .71-inches thick throughout and it weighs just 3.46 pounds. For just a little extra bulk, you gain a more powerful processor, twice as much memory (8GB), better graphics, and you get the high-density Apple Retina display. Why does Retina matter? The MacBook Air already has a bright and sharp screen, but the Retina display packs many more tiny pixels of light into the screen, giving you sharper images and smoother text. Retina screens look fantastic, and you can’t get them on the MacBook Air.

Speaking of power, the MacBook Air is plenty powerful enough for watching movies, browsing many open web pages, email, and productivity “office” applications. You can even edit photos and video. But if you want to make home movies that are more than fast clips or you want to play graphic-intensive games, go with the MacBook Pro.

If you value portability, go with the MacBook Air. If want peace-of-mind power, go with the MacBook Pro.

2. Which MacBook Air is best — 11 or 13?

In my mind, the 13-inch MacBook Air packs the best bang for your buck — you get a larger, easier-to-see screen with battery life that lasts up to 12 hours (the 11-inch Air lasts 9 hours). In addition, you get an SDXC card slot in the 13-inch Air, which is handy if you take photos or video with cameras other than your iPhone.

Truly, though, both units are fantastic. Customer satisfaction is through the roof. (And getting into an Apple Mac for less than $900 is a big deal, arguably the best buy.)

Note: There is one wild card here in 2014 — the chance that Apple might deliver a MacBook Air with Retina display this fall. There are some rumors that suggest Apple will deliver a 12-inch Retina-based MacBook Air in the September-to-October timeframe. Just this spring, Apple updated the MacBook Air with a faster processor and a lower price, so the value right now is excellent . . . except for this potential new Retina display option; however, because a new MacBook form factor would likely need new processors from Intel, the latest rumor thinking says we might not see any new MacBook models until 2015. If you need a MacBook this year, I have a hard time telling anyone to wait for this rumor. As for the next release of the Mac OS X operating system — Yosemite — you’ll be able to upgrade to it free no matter what.

If you do need a new MacBook right now . . . particularly if you don’t like the idea of not buying a Retina Mac, go with the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. It’s almost as light as the MacBook Air, but it packs a lot more processing punch, and Apple just upgraded it to 8GB of memory.

3. Which MacBook Pro is best — 13 or 15?

The battle of the MacBook Pro 13 or 15 is much harder to pin down. If cost is your primary factor, stop hemming and hawing and just get the low-end MacBook Pro 13-inch version. It’s a solid unit that will run well for years. In fact, it offers the best overall performance and features for your Apple-loving dollar.

If you’re going to be handling a lot of photos or video, however, or you like to play games or do a lot of hardcore work, stepping up into the mid-level 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is a really smart move. This mid option comes with 256GB of storage, which is simply more comfortable for anyone messing around with a lot of photos or videos.

Conversely, the higher-end 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display — which retails for a little less than a whopping $1,800 — just isn’t that great of buy. Only buy the high-end 13-inch Pro if you’re willing to overpay for the minor performance boost and 512GB of storage.

When it comes to the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, all bets are off. If you’re even considering this MacBook, it’s because you’re a power user or you have a big budget. The base model MacBook Pro 15 with Retina display flirts with two-freaking-thousand dollars (Apple charges $1,999 but you can get it for $1,899 or so at Amazon). Why get it? The screen. The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display screen is glorious. You’ve got space to stretch out, to work, to multi-task — and you have plenty of room to edit HD movies. Plus, the processor bumps up from a dual-core processor to a quad-core processor in the 15-incher — this means you’ll be able to run intensive applications much faster than on the 13-inch Pro. Of course, for the vast majority of applications like Safari or Mail, you won’t notice much difference.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro offers a bigger screen and more powerful processor.

The high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display hits $2,499 from Apple ($2,375 at Amazon), but you get 512GB of storage, 16GB of memory, and an even faster processor that also includes a NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M discrete graphics processor with 2GB of memory. This bad boy switches on to deliver better graphics performance when you really need it. Most people, it turns out, don’t really need it. Gamers and graphics professionals need this laptop. The rest of us? Not so much.

Note: Will Apple update the MacBook Pro in 2014?

Recent history suggests Apple will make an update this fall, but Apple’s summer memory upgrade puts those rumors in doubt. Furthermore, the most prevalent rumors suggest that Apple won’t be able to get enough of Intel’s next-generation processors until early 2015. Should you wait? Again, I have a hard time recommending that anyone wait if they need a MacBook this fall. As for the slight performance boost any such upgrade would likely deliver . . . when you truly think about it, most people can create a better “performance boost” by simply ignoring email for just an hour each day.

The bottom line remains, if you’re in the market and have a need for a MacBook Pro, the current models will meet your needs well. Plus, when Apple releases Mac OS X Yosemite this fall, you’ll be able to upgrade to it free.

Best MacBook Value and Smartest Buy?

The 11-inch MacBook Air for $899 ($855 or so at Amazon) is a crazy good deal. Getting into an Apple MacBook at that price is compelling. Still, which MacBook do I recommend to most friends and family? The 13-inch MacBook Pro. It has the best overall mix of size, power, and price — all of which will likely keep its owner happy for 2-to-4 years.

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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.