If you want a super-sharp Retina screen in your next MacBook, you’re down to one basic question: Should I buy the new 12-inch MacBook or a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display? After all, these two radically different MacBooks actually start out at the same price — about $1,299.

In some ways, your choice comes down to this simple metaphor — the new MacBook is a sleek sports car while the 13-inch MacBook Pro is a powerful pickup truck. Except that’s not quite right because the MacBook Pro is also faster than the MacBook.

It’s easy to assume that your core decision is based on portability vs power, but there’s more to choosing a MacBook than simply computing performance and the basic form factor — and Apple never makes the decisions easy.

For instance, the small size with a workable Retina screen is desirable, right, but so is a color option other than silver — psychologically, I’m a little turned off by the constant silver MacBooks. I like black. The new 12-inch MacBook comes in Space Gray, Gold, and Silver. Finally a bit of choice. So there is something to be said for the mind-calming effect of a color you like. I get that.

But it’s not usually enough.

New Design vs Traditional Excellence

The new 12-inch MacBook has a super-slim 13.1 mm “wedge” design that takes it cues from the MacBook Air. To get everything this small, Apple had to redesign the keyboard with a new butterfly mechanism that takes up less space, but according to Apple, delivers a better typing control.

The most radical difference is the lack of ports on the new MacBook — it has just one port, a new USB-C type port that lets you charge the MacBook as well as attach peripherals like external displays and storage.

While this single port is versatile and cool, there are some downsides. Until USB-C devices hit the market, you’ll need to buy adapters to use external displays or storage.

Another little MacBook annoyance is the loss of Apple’s MagSafe power cord system, which lets a person trip over an attached power cord and break the magnetic connection rather than pull the MacBook off a table or out of someone’s lap.

In contrast to a single port, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina for early 2105 offers two Thunderbolt 2 ports, two USB 3 ports, an HDMI port, and an SDXC card slot (for memory cards from cameras).

Feel the Force Touch Trackpad

What about Apple’s new Force Touch trackpad? Apple also brought its Force Touch trackpad to the 2015 updated 13-inch MacBook Pro, so that’s not a decision factor. The Force Touch trackpad uses haptic vibration to simulate the feel of a “click” (with surprising success). Plus it allows for longer, harder types of presses, which Apple calls a Force Click, that can engage apps in new ways.

MacBook vs MacBook Pro: Portability vs Power

The key difference betweens the MacBook and the MacBook Pro is size and computing performance. And in case you’re wondering, the all-day battery life is nearly the same — 9 hours for the MacBook and 10 hours for the MacBook Pro.

First, the size. The MacBook is tiny. It weighs just two pounds and is .52 inches at its thickest point (13.1 mm). The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, on the other hand, weighs 3.48 pounds and is .71 inches thick throughout. The bottom line is that the MacBook is an ultraportable wonder while the MacBook Pro is simply portable.


The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display blends portability with performance.

As for computing performance, the MacBook Pro is a nice step up. You’ll be able to edit long home video with ease and multitask until your dock is overflowing. Both Macs use 8GB of memory, with the Pro getting memory that’s slightly faster. And the processors? Very different.

The MacBook uses Intel’s new Core M processor, which is a very efficient processor that produces less heat, which allows it to be crammed into small devices without fans needed to keep it cool. The downside? The 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core M processor in the MacBook is a lot less capable than the 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor in the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

What about beefing up the base model configurations with a custom order? It’s not usually worth the money and effort for the mild processor speed boost — I recommend choosing the right tool in the first place from Apple’s standard offerings to get the best bang for your buck.

There’s more, though: graphics. The MacBook uses Intel HD Graphics 5300 while the 13-inch Pro uses Intel Iris Graphics 6100. This will manifest itself in better game play and what will feel like a snappier graphics experience for those who really pay attention. The Pro will also power two massive 3840 x 2160 external monitors while the MacBook will only power one external monitor of that size.

The bottom line? While the MacBook will handle web, email, and office apps with ease, as well as let you edit photos and home video, the MacBook Pro will do all that and more, faster — in a bigger form factor.

The Difference in Storage

One edge that goes to the MacBook is that the base level storage starts at 256GB. If you have a lot of photos, video, and iTunes content, you’ll appreciate the breathing room. The base model 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display starts at 128GB. If you’re not sure how much storage you need, read “Is 128GB Enough Storage on a New MacBook?” (And know this: While it is possible to crack your case and upgrade storage in some MacBook Pro and Air models sometime in the future, it’s so far unclear if you’ll be able to do that with the MacBook.)

MacBook vs MacBook Pro Recommendation:

The recommendation for a MacBook with a Retina display is pretty easy, actually, and it comes down to just one question: Do you want a small and amazing ultraportable MacBook or do you want a powerhouse MacBook that’s still pretty darn portable?

If your MacBook will spend most of its time on a desk or table at home — rather than in a backpack or on the go — get the MacBook Pro with Retina display. You’ll appreciate the slightly larger screen and a snappy computing experience that will last for years.

(Of course, if you’re serious about portable power or Mac gaming, step up into the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.)

Special Note: B&H is running a massive sale on MacBook Pro, MacBook, MacBook Air, iMacs, and more. If you want a new Mac this season, now is the time to buy — check out the B&H price and tax savings, plus fast & free 2-shipping.
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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.