Buy the MacBook Pro with Retina Display or new MacBook Air

4 minute read

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display at WWDC 2012

If you are lucky enough to be in the market for a new notebook, Apple just made your choice a lot more difficult. Last year I gave up my MacBook Pro and switched to the MacBook Air and have not regretted it one bit. I use my Air primarily for photography1 but from time-to-time I do use Final Cut Pro X to create small family videos. I still use a MacBook Pro for work which is a major bummer because it really isn’t any faster but feels like a giant brick. Which is why I am so very torn on which notebook to buy: the next generation MacBook Pro with a Retina display or the new MacBook Air.

TL;DR

If you currently have a MacBook Pro (or any other non MacBook Air model) your choice is easy…get the MacBook Pro with Retina display. However, if you currently have a MacBook Air I would say upgrade to the Air unless you do photography and/or videography. Or if you are driven mostly by money, it sounds like the 11-inch MacBook Air is the best bang for your buck.

The Configurations

Let’s first look at the numbers where emotions can’t play a part…

FeatureMBA (my current)MBA (new)MBP (Retina)
 Processor     1.8GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7     2.0GHz Intel Dual-Core Core i7     2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7     
 Memory4GB 1333MHz8GB 1600MHz8GB 1600MHz
 Storage256GB Flash Storage256GB Flash Storage256GB Flash Storage
 Price$1699$1699$2199

A couple of points about the new MacBook Air that may not be obvious:

  • The new Intel HD Graphics 4000 offers up to 60 percent faster graphics
  • Flash storage drive up to 2x faster (500MBps read speed)

The Experience

I was very surprised that the MacBook Pro didn’t run hotter or noisier2. All the MacBook Pros I have owned seemed to run hotter than the MacBook Air, but it seems Apple has made some progress with regards to this issue. When I first picked up the MacBook Pro it seemed very heavy; just as heavy as any other MacBook Pro. However, it was noticeably thinner. And of course, I could fly through photos in Aperture, open and close apps at lightning speeds and shutdown/startup times were screaming. BUT THAT DISPLAY. That absolutely stunning Retina display. Amazing. I simply do not have the words to describe, one must experience themselves. But…

Stepping Back

Surprisingly, there are a couple of drawbacks to a Retina display: non-optimized apps and non-optimized Web images. Like using non-Retina apps on the iPad, using apps that have not been updated for Retina displays often have blurry user interfaces. Text in Google’s Chrome browser is even horrendous, though their latest build browser, Google Canary text is beautiful. Honestly though, that does not bother me as much as the weight and form factor of the MacBook Pro.

After a week at WWDC seeing a lot of people with the MacBook Pro with Retina display and visiting the Apple store many times (happened to pass it everyday going to and from my hotel) I am still undecided. Yesterday I even forced my wife to go to the Apple store so she could experience it for herself. I was really hoping she would have a definitive answer for me…unfortunately she did not. She too was extremely impressed by the Retina display, but also (surprisingly) of the form factor.

Digging Deeper

In hopes that this exercise will help (or in the off-chance it helps someone else) I will lay out my current thoughts in the context of my current setup.

My Current Setup

  • 13-inch MacBook Air (personal) - photography, videography, writing (I also have a Thunderbolt display that I hook the Air up to)
  • 15-inch MacBook Pro - work
  • 27-inch iMac - watch shows, iTunes library
  • Mac Mini - doesn’t do much

Hesitations: MacBook Air Upgrade

  • Not sure I will see a huge performance increase though specs and statement from Apple lead you to believe one would
  • Tough to know that I would not have the best (I’m just being honest with myself)
  • Similar to previous statement: I could be more critical to any poor performance

Hesitations: MacBook Pro with Retina Display

  • Leaving behind the awesome form factor of the 13-inch MacBook Air
  • Some visuals could look worse on the Retina display than on a “normal” screen

Hesitations I did not mention with MacBook Pro, but others have…

  • I did not add price to my list because in my opinion you get a ton of features for the $500 difference.
  • I did not add heat or fan noise because I expect some of both when I push the limits of a notebook.

Advantages: MacBook Air Upgrade

  • Less investment now, which would make it more tolerable to upgrade to the next gen
  • Keep the same awesome form factor

Advantages: MacBook Pro

  • I should see a huge performance increase when working with my photos and videos
  • Ohhhhh that beautiful display
  • Potentially will hold its value a bit more

Still Undecided

It is now six days after the announcement of Apple’s updated line of notebooks and I still have not decided which I want to buy…or if I will buy any3. For those that know me and my obsession with gadgetry, understand this gravity.


  1. I just recently switched from Aperture to Lightroom so intend on writing about that soon too.

  2. I was really hoping it did to make my decision easier.

  3. Yes, there is a chance (though very slim) that I may decide to wait to see what the next gen will bring.