Why I chose a Retina MacBook Pro over a MacBook Air

by Sam Barillaro. 1 Comment

The Premise
Around 6 months ago I accidentally cracked the screen on my 2010 13-inch MacBook Air. Don’t ask. It was still usable so I held out for Apple’s WWDC 2012 announcements before making any hasty decisions.

MacBook Air cracked screenApple announced some great updates to their range of Airs and Pros, including the introduction of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display (rMBP). Although tempted, I had all but decided to hold out for another year to see if a Retina MacBook Air was released. The very next day, the crack on my MacBook Air screen worsened…

With the cost of a replacement screen almost as much as a refurbished 2011 Air, the decision was made for an upgrade. I purchased the 13-inch MacBook Air.

13-inch MacBook Air
Arguably Apple’s most impressive MacBook. Great performance in such a compact package, it’s taken years for the competition to catch up. This was a significant upgrade to the 2010 Air. Faster SSD, more memory and a much better processor.


MacBook Air, 13-inch

  • 1.8GHz Intel Dual-Core Core i5
  • 8GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM
  • 128GB Flash Storage

You could tell there was a speed improvement from the 2010 model. This was most notable when waking the computer from sleep and performing tasks that use the SSD. If I was upgrading from last years model, I don’t think I would have noticed much of a difference.

Despite the upgrade, it still felt like I got the same computer. Obviously this is because of the same form factor. Turns out the small speed improvements weren’t enough to keep me happy.

I started to notice little things that had changed for the worse (in my opinion). One of which was the hinge on the MacBook Air is now looser. This is great when you’re lifting the lid, as you no longer have to try hold the base of the laptop down while you lift the screen. However, this means every time you lift or move the laptop a significant amount, the screen will open up the whole way.

The problem I had was I went into this purchase not having decided whether I wanted to stick to the light and portable 13-inch, or move up to a 15-inch rMBP. After 2 weeks with my new Air, I had decided to return it and order the rMBP.

MacBook Pro with Retina display
I must have read every review of the rMBP I could find on the web. This wasn’t a decision I was going to make lightly. This is the most indecisive I’ve been about an Apple purchase. In the end, I’m glad I went through the process of purchasing the new MacBook Air before returning it for the rMBP.


MacBook Pro with Retina display, 15-inch

  • 2.6GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7
  • 16GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM
  • 256GB Flash Storage

The rMBP isn’t as portable as an Air, it doesn’t really come close. But it’s as portable as any 15-inch laptop can be. I worked out a crude way of testing the weight out before I purchased the Pro. If you have a 13-inch Air and a new iPad, put one on top of the other (carefully!) and you have roughly the weight of the rMBP. Not too bad right?

Portability wasn’t a key issue for me. I rarely carry my laptop around for any significant distance. The thing I was really concerned with was heat and fan noise. The only time I would even hear the fans on my Air, or feel heat from it on my lap, was when I was streaming video or browsing Flash heavy sites.

I’ve had the rMBP for just over a week now. In short, I’m impressed, but not for the reasons I expected.

The screen, although impressive, almost becomes normal too quickly. Maybe this is because we’ve been previously spoilt with the move to Retina on the iPhone and iPad.

As impressive as the screen is, it doesn’t take long to run into apps that aren’t yet Retina compatible. Despite a lot of reviews stating that it’s easy to get over, it really isn’t. I’m struggling with using Safari again as I can’t stand the blurriness of Chrome when rendering text. This has been fixed in Canary, but I don’t really want to install a potentially buggy piece of software just to browse the web. I’m lucky a combined search and URL bar has finally been added to Safari in Mountain Lion. The one good thing about using Safari is the text. It’s just so crisp. One of the first things I did was change the theme of this site to remove any images just so I wouldn’t have to worry about it looking blurry on my rMBP.

One of the reasons for moving to the rMBP was increased screen space. I’ve been using the rMBP on the 1680 x 1050 resolution (which isn’t actually 1680 x 1050, but I’m not going to get into that here). If I understand the way the Retina screen works, it means I’m getting slightly less pixel density than on the ‘Best for Retina’ setting. Things still look sharp though, sharper than on the Air.

Speed. The rMBP starts quicker than any computer I’ve used before. When you click on an app, it opens almost immediately. I haven’t done much in the way of converting video yet, but the few Photoshop tasks I’ve done have been quick. No doubt this is to do with the SSD. I had always told people my 2010 MacBook Air seemed quicker than our 2010 iMac because of the SSD. The downside of course is having a smaller hard drive than you would with a traditional spinning disc. I had already been used to 128gb on the Air. With more and more being stored in the cloud, iTunes Match or Spotify for music, Netflix for movies, there’s less of a need for local drive space. Any movies and music that I have digital copies of are on an external drive hooked up to my iMac and shared over the network. I really don’t need a large local drive and going to 256gb now gives me a nice buffer. It’s still nice to have Thunderbolt and USB 3.0, which make expansion options in the future easier. After experiencing SSD on my 2010 MacBook Air for the first time I told myself I wouldn’t buy another laptop without one. That still stands. I can’t stress how much quicker it makes things.

The two things I was worried about most were heat and fan noise. So far I couldn’t be happier on both fronts. I’ve streamed video (using Flash), browsed the web, worked on small projects in Xcode, edited images in Photoshop and so far it hasn’t once got too hot to have on my lap. If you’re just browsing the web, it will barely get warm at all.

Performing the same tasks, I’ve only once had the fans increase in speed to about 2600rpm (they will sit at about 2000rpm by default). At the standard speed you can’t hear a thing. As I write this I’m in a completely silent room and I can only hear the fan if I put my ear within a centimetre of the keyboard. Even when the fan has gone up to around 2600rpm, it’s still very quiet. I don’t play any games on the computer and haven’t tried converting video, both things I would rarely do anyway. When it comes down to it, the performance is pretty damn good in terms of heat and fan noise.

Conclusion
All in all I think I’ve made the right choice for my routine. If you need to carry a laptop around all day and don’t have the need for the extra power, the MacBook Air is the way to go. For me, I don’t use a desktop machine, or plug my laptop into an external monitor. My desktop is my laptop, and I don’t carry it around often. Portability wasn’t an issue, so I’m glad I’ve gone for the extra power, better screen and something that will last me for many years to come. Fingers crossed I don’t have another accident with the screen!

  • CaseyB

    Sam,
    Thanks for the very informative article.
    All articles agree that the screen is gorgeous, power impressive, etc.
    Not many article address the heat and noise issues, which are one of those very important unknowns when buying a new laptop.
    Can you inform me whether you believe that surfing the web while streaming movies from an internal NAS be enough strain (sometimes also transferring pictures from an SD card to iPhoto) to rev up the fans and heat up the back of the MBPr? I have an older MBP (late 2008) and the back can become so hot it can burn my skin and the noise from the fans wakes up my wife every time! I also have the latest generation 13″ i7 macbook air, and it manages these tasks silently and the back is barely warm. The only reason i’m consdering change is that I can use the extra screen size. Like you the laptop is my only computer and I don’t travel that much with it. Your comments would be greatly appreciated. Best regards from Geneva, Casey