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MacBook vs. MacBook Pro: how to pick between Apple’s two $1,299 laptops

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017

I badly need a new computer. The last time I bought one was in the summer of 2011, not long after the MacBook Air’s first (and only) redesign. It was perfect timing: my last MacBook, the white plastic kind, had wiring literally sticking out of it after taking a spill. And Apple had just dropped the Air’s price down to $1,299 — the same price I believe my original MacBook had cost.

It’s now six years later, and Apple is hitting that pricing sweet spot again in a big way. Not only does the super-slim MacBook start at $1,299, but so does the new MacBook Pro. And since the MacBook Air, still selling for $999, is woefully out of date — with a low-res screen that’ll look bad next to any current smartphone — $1,299 is essentially the starting price for a modern Mac laptop. So I’ve been wondering: if I want to spend $1,299 again, which one should I get?

I’ve been testing both laptops for the past few weeks, and while I don’t think there’s an easy answer for everyone, what’s impressed me the most is just how capable the tiny little MacBook has become. If you’re heading off to college or just want a great laptop for typical laptop tasks — watching YouTube, browsing the internet, working at a coffee shop — this is going to be an excellent choice.

But the MacBook Pro is subtly better in a number of ways: it’s better for watching movies, better for editing movies, and is just generally a bit more flexible and future proof. I’m surprised by just how much the entry-level MacBook Pro can handle — but how far that’ll get you depends on how serious of a workload you intend to throw at it.

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017

First I want to talk about the MacBook, because it’s changed the most since I last spent some time with one. This year’s model has the exact same design as the prior two versions, but there’s nothing to complain about there. It’s so small and light that I’m constantly surprised when picking it up, as though I’m cradling some special device that expands into a real computer when I open it.

The MacBook has a 12-inch screen, and, at $1,299, comes with a 1.2Ghz Intel Core m3 processor (of the latest generation, Kaby Lake), 8GB of RAM, Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 615 GPU, and 256GB of flash storage.

Ever since the current MacBook debuted, there’s been concern around its use of low-power processors. The upside is that they’re better for battery life and mean the laptop stays cool and doesn’t need a fan — perfect for watching videos. But the downside is that the MacBook tends to operate slower than the laptops we were used to, getting sluggish when trying to do too many things at once.

Don’t worry about the MacBook’s slower processor

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017 USB-C ports

I’m happy to say that’s no longer the case. Or, at least, it hasn’t been in the time I spent with the latest MacBook. I’ve had Slack, Tweetbot, Airmail, TextEdit, and Chrome all open at the same time and occasionally had a second monitor hooked up while working at the office, and the MacBook never felt sluggish. I’ve even been able to use Photoshop (I put one dog’s head on top of another dog’s head, to prove a point to a co-worker), edited some large RAW photos in Lightroom, and was even able to cut up a short 4K video in Premiere. Photoshop was as smooth as I could ask for, and Lightroom — always a heavy app — responded with only occasional hesitation. Premiere ran surprisingly well, though playback broke down with each adjustment I put on top of the clip.

My biggest gripes with the MacBook — and I wouldn’t necessarily characterize them as “big” — are around the movie-watching experience. The 12-inch screen is just fine for doing work, but it felt noticeably smaller when watching videos after years of sitting in front of a 13.3-inch laptop. The screen’s colors are a bit duller than the MacBook Pro’s, too, though I don’t think you’d notice unless you have the two computers side by side. The bigger problem is the MacBook’s stereo speakers, which sound less like stereo speakers and more like a single center channel fired straight up into the air. It’s workable, but sometimes distracting.

Battery life could be better, but it should get you through a day of classes

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017

It’s also worth remembering that, aside from the headphone jack, the MacBook only has a single USB-C port, which also has to be used for power. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s an occasional frustration that means you’ll absolutely need to buy an adapter or two for any peripherals you might own. (You’ll even need one to charge your iPhone.)

During my testing, battery life averaged out to a bit under six and a half hours. That’s a little lower than I’d like (and much lower than Apple’s estimated 10 hours of battery life), but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone using the MacBook mostly for handling notes and emails, and not watching too many videos, was able to eke another hour out of it. (Using Safari instead of Chrome would probably help, too.) Either way, I suspect it’ll last long enough to get through a day of classes.

To me, that’s what this laptop feels the most suited for. If you’re heading off to college, the MacBook seems like it should get you through four (or, hopefully not, five) years of work without issue. Going for the lighter computer is always a good call when you’re moving around a bunch, too. I still noticed the MacBook’s two pounds of weight when carrying it in my messenger bag, but it never got to be a problem during my commute.

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017 speakers

Then there’s the MacBook Pro, which is maybe the more traditional and versatile of the two laptops. It’s much more in line with the MacBook Air’s legacy: it has a higher-power processor, multiple ports (though two out of three of them are still USB-C), and a bigger screen. It’s not really a “pro” machine, it’s just a laptop that’ll ensure you get by when doing somewhat more demanding tasks.

There’s really a lot to like about the MacBook Pro. It’s smaller than the Air, despite having the same 13.3-inch size screen. And while it isn’t as remarkably tiny as the MacBook, it’s small and light enough to not really feel like a “pro” machine (which, again, I’d argue it’s not). The bigger screen also feels significantly roomier after coming from the 12-inch MacBook. Its colors are ever-so-slightly more vibrant, too, and the laptop’s speakers are a big improvement over the MacBook’s. And while this model of the Pro doesn’t include Apple’s fancy new Touch Bar, I don’t consider that a loss; the feature just isn’t that useful yet. The only thing you really miss out on with this cheaper model is Touch ID for logging in and buying things from iTunes, the App Store, and the web.

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017
MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017 side view

For $1,299, the MacBook Pro comes with a 2.3Ghz Intel Core i5 processor (also Kaby Lake, but not ultra low power), 8GB of RAM, Intel’s integrated Iris Plus Graphics 640, and 128GB of flash storage. Yeah, just 128GB: to get the price down on the Pro machine, Apple cut down its storage, so there’s only half as much as you’d get from the MacBook. Having lived with a 128GB MacBook Air for the past six years, I’ll say that putting up with this tiny amount of space is doable (especially thanks to cloud storage) but occasionally headache inducing. If you’re trying to cut costs, living with a 128GB drive is not the worst trade-off. But you will absolutely hit that limit at some point, so you’d better get comfortable with deleting apps and offloading files to storage drives or the cloud.

To me, the bigger downsides to the Pro are hits to its portability: added weight and reduced battery life. On weight, it’s about the same as a MacBook Air — three pounds — and while that’s not exactly heavy, I started to feel it over my shoulder much sooner than the MacBook, which is a full pound lighter. That’s not a problem if you’re mostly going to use your laptop around the house or office, but it’s a bit more of an issue for students or anyone frequently on the go.

The Pro’s battery life is even more of a problem. I got an average of just over five hours — compared to almost six and a half for the MacBook, while doing the same exact tasks. The longest battery life I got with the Pro was about six and a half hours, and that really felt like the upper limit for me. That’s far beneath the 10-hour average that Apple estimates the computer will get. If you’re going out for a while, plan on bringing a charger.

The power difference really isn’t that noticeable

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017 keyboards

Of course, part of the reason for the bigger size and reduced battery life is this computer’s higher-power processor. In theory, it’s much faster than what’s in the MacBook. And its graphics unit should be more capable, too.

In practice, though, these things aren’t all that noticeable. Perhaps they would be as the two computers aged a bit more. But at the moment, I’m not seeing any big distinctions in the two computers’ day-to-day tasks: browsing the web, watching videos, answering emails — nothing was any faster on the Pro. The only difference was that, occasionally, the Pro’s fans would start to blare.

Where the processor’s improvements do come into play is during more intensive work, such as photo and video editing. Lightroom was snappier — though it still showed very slight delays when touching up photos with the brush tool — and Premiere was able to deliver smoother previews of the short 4K test clip I was editing.

But I’m not confident that the processor and integrated GPU in this laptop will be enough for bigger projects. And I’m quite sure that actual pros won’t be able to get by with a $1,299 machine. Which kind of makes me wonder: who is this entry-level “pro” machine for?

MacBook and MacBook Pro 2017

Even after three weeks with these computers, I find choosing between the two of them to be difficult. If you must have the technically better and more capable computer, the $1,299 MacBook Pro is the way to go. You’ll appreciate the extra screen size and its added vibrance, the better speakers, and the extra power. You’re on your own with the whole 128GB of storage thing, though.

But if you’re planning to regularly move around with your laptop, I don’t think any of the MacBook’s shortcomings should hold you back from picking it up instead. Having twice as much storage will make using it a bit easier, since you’ll spend less time managing files; the computer’s processing power has caught up in a big way; and its battery life is significantly better.

For someone really serious about editing or graphics work, I’m not sure that either of these computers will be right for you. You’ll probably want to spend more on a MacBook Pro, or else look to Windows where there are often better deals. In fact, if you’re not tied to the Mac, Microsoft’s very good Surface Laptop offers similar specs to the MacBook Pro, but with twice the storage, for $1,299. And for $100 more, Razer offers a laptop with a faster processor, four times as much storage as the Pro, and twice as much RAM. (Though, in all cases, you’ll still have to spend more to get better graphics.)

For me? I’m leaning toward the Pro, but I’m not sure the entry-level model is the one I’ll get. And I have a strong suspicion that’ll be the case for a lot of people: if you want a $1,299 Mac laptop, pick up the MacBook. But if you’re looking at the Pro, you may find yourself wanting a bit more — and ultimately, spending a bit more to spec it out.