With the launch of the 2013 version of the MacBook Air, which has Intel’s power-sipping 4th generation Core processor inside, many have asked us if they should purchase an MacBook Air 13-inch or the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The former laptop offers epic battery life in the same sleek design we’ve come to know and love from the Air, while the latter boasts one of the sharpest and richest screens ever to grace a notebook. We’ve broken it down to help you determine which MacBook is best for your needs.
Weighing 3 pounds and measuring 12.8 x 9 x 0.11 – 0.68 inches, the Air is essentially unchanged in dimensions and design since last year. While the Pro is thicker, at 0.75 inches, it has a smaller footprint than the Air (12.4 x 8.6 inches). At 3.75 pounds, the Pro weighs more than the Air but is still fairly easy to carry. Both notebooks follow the familiar Apple aesthetic: a solid aluminum body with a black keyboard and excellent touchpad.
Winner: MacBook Air. The Air wins this round because it’s thinner and lighter. You barely notice it when this laptop is in your bag.
No contest here: At 2560 x 1600 pixels, the Pro’s Retina display blows the Air’s 1440 x 900-pixel panel out of the water. Text looks a lot sharper on the Retina Pro, whether you’re looking at app icons or text on websites that have been optimized. Plus, there are more than 250 apps in the Mac App Store that take advantage of the Retina display, including Photoshop CS6, Tweetbot, Pocket and Real Racing 2.
At 313 lux, the Pro’s display was also brighter than the Air’s, which measured 263 lux. Although the Retina Display’s screen looks a bit glossier than the Air’s display, the Retina offers deeper blacks and better color saturation.
Winner: MacBook Pro. A sharper, brighter and richer screen helps the MacBook Pro win this round easily.
Ports and External Display Support
The Air has the same port spread as last year, with two USB 3.0 ports, one Thunderbolt port and an SDXC card slot. By comparison, the 13-inch Pro with Retina has two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, an HDMI port and an SDXC card slot.
The Air can support up to one additional monitor at a resolution of 2560 x 1600; the Pro with Retina supports two additional displays at that resolution.
Winner: MacBook Pro. Apple’s beefier 13-incher has a wider selection of ports, and it supports two external monitors, whereas the Air supports only one.
The latest MacBook Air comes with a 1.3-GHz Intel Haswell ULT processor, 4GB of RAM and new flash storage (based on PCI Express). Although the clock speed is ostensibly slower versus its predecessor (1.8 GHz), Haswell can get more work done per clock cycle. Plus, the new Air promises 45 percent faster flash memory and 40 percent greater graphics performance via the new Intel HD 5000 GPU.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with a full-voltage, third-generation 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of flash storage.
The Air’s score of 6,769 on Geekbench nearly equaled that of the Pro (6,760). However, when it came to duplicating 5GB of multimedia files, the Air’s zippier PCIe flash storage crushed the Pro, 242 MBps to 196 MBps.
Does the Intel HD Graphics 5000 GPU perform better than the 4000-series? This question is a little murkier, considering that it isn’t an Apples-to-Apples comparison. On the Cinebench OpenGL test, the Air’s score of 21 edged out the Pro’s Intel HD 4000 graphics, which mustered a score of 17.
In “World of Warcraft,” the Air averaged 26 fps at maximum settings, with resolution set at 1440 x 900. The Pro, with its display set to 1432 x 894, averaged just 16 fps.
Winner: MacBook Air. With Intel’s new Haswell chip, this notebook manages to tie, or beat, the Pro on a number of tests.
One of the benefits of Intel’s Haswell 4th generation Core processors is that they offer greater battery life than the previous generation. Coupled with a larger battery, the 13-inch Air lasted 11 hours and 40 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi). The Pro lasted 7 hours and 38 minutes, which is good, but still 4 hours less.
Winner: MacBook Air. At nearly 12 hours, the Air blows past the Pro’s endurance level. Of course, the Pro could narrow this gap once it gets upgraded to a Haswell processor.
Price and Value
The least expensive version of the Air costs $1,099 and comes with a 1.3-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, Intel HD Graphics 5000, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of flash storage. The Pro with Retina display starts at $1,499 and includes a 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of flash storage and Intel HD graphics 4000.
The more expensive version of the Air costs $1,299 and has the same processor and RAM as the starting version, but comes with 256GB of storage. The $1,699 model of the Pro has a 2.6-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage.
Winner: MacBook Air. We love the Retina Display, but the $400 cheaper starting price for the Air makes it a heck of a value.
Configurations and Upgrade Options
With both models of the Air, you can upgrade to a 1.4-GHz Intel Core i7 for $150 and 8GB of RAM for $100. On the $1,299 configuration, you can also upgrade to 512GB of storage for $300.
Apple lets you customize the Pro a bit more. If you select the starting model, you can upgrade to a 2.9-GHz Intel Core i7 processor for $200 and boost the storage capacity to 256GB ($200), 512GB ($500) or 768GB ($900). If you purchase the more expensive configuration, you can upgrade the CPU to a 3.0-GHz Core i7 processor ($200) and the storage to 512GB ($300) or 768GB ($700).
Winner: MacBook Pro. More options make the MacBook Pro a laptop you can better customize to suit your needs.
The MacBook Air wins four rounds to the Pro’s three, making it the better choice for the majority of shoppers. The Air has a thinner and lighter chassis, offers slightly better performance and lasts much longer on a charge. Most importantly, the Air costs less than the Pro.
However, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a sharper and richer display, and you can use Pro with two external monitors at once (compared to just one for the Air). Plus, you get an extra Thunderbolt port, HDMI and a greater number of configuration options.
Overall, the new MacBook Air is a better value, especially for frequent travelers, and the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a great choice for creative pros who need the best possible display quality — and are willing to pay extra for it.