MacBook Pro vs. MacBook Air vs. white MacBook: Which 13-inch Apple laptop should you buy?

We look at the most-recent 13-inch laptops from Apple.

Update (7/25/2011): the white MacBook has been discontinued and new MacBook Airs have been released. Read our new side-by-side 13-inch comparison and purchasing advice here.

In contrast to the dozens of models offered by some Windows vendors, Apple's streamlined product line can be liberating for those who want an easier time deciding what computer to buy. That said, Apple does offer no fewer than three different models of 13-inch laptop: the white "classic" MacBook, the MacBook Air, and the MacBook Pro. Two of those--the Air and the Pro--come in two different stock configurations (with additional tweaks available via Apple's Web site).

That's five 13-inchers, for those keeping count at home. Their starting prices range from $999 up to $1,499. So, which one is best for you?

The white MacBook is the oldest laptop in Apple's line; its current version was released in the spring of 2010, and some might say it's desperately due for a refresh. The second-generation MacBook Airs are more recent, having come out in October 2010. But the freshest models are the new MacBook Pros, with Intel's second-gen Core i-series processors, released just a few weeks ago (late February). If you're interested in having a 13-inch laptop that won't be updated soon, go with the Pro.

For those who want the best computer for the money, fingers point to that same $1,199 MacBook Pro. The next-gen Intel Core i5 CPU is a big improvement over previous MacBook processors, and you also get a slightly larger hard drive, along with a better HD Webcam and a Thunderbolt port. On the other hand, you can save $200 by choosing the basic non-Pro white MacBook.

If thinness and swift start-up times truly matter, the MacBook Air isn't a terrible deal: its fast flash-based storage, however, offers less than half the storage space you'd get on the MacBook Pro, and it comes with half the RAM. That ULV Core 2 Duo processor also makes it lower-performing than the white MacBook, although the Air can boot up incredibly quickly. However, if you're considering an Air, the identically configured, smaller-screened 11-inch Air costs less, but lacks an SD card slot.

Now to the benchmarks, including battery life.

CPU performance: The clear performance winners are the second-gen Intel Core i-series MacBook Pros, which fairly trounce the Air (and also the older white MacBook). Interestingly, the MacBook Air's performance in single-task benchmarks isn't all that different from the basic MacBook's, lending it that "feels like a normal laptop" experience. In multitasking, however, it's less than half as efficient.
Edge: 13-inch MacBook Pro

Graphics: Last year's Core 2 Duo 13-inch MacBook Pro ran our Mac-based Call of Duty 4 test at 36.3 frames per second at native resolution, compared with 48.3fps in the white MacBook and 40.5fps in the MacBook Air, all using Nvidia's low-end GeForce 320M graphics. The new Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics on the 13-inch Pros are actually less robust than the Nvidia graphics in the other 13-inch models. Note that the 15-inch Pros all include AMD discrete graphics, which would easily best any of these.
Edge: MacBook Air or white MacBook

Battery life: This favors the more powerful MacBook Pros. They approached 7 hours of battery life, compared with a little under 5 hours from the Air. Sure, the Air is thinner and lighter, but 100-plus minutes of extra time away from an outlet is a big difference. Intel would claim this is because of the efficiency of its new Sandy Bridge processor platform, and so far that seems to be the case.
Edge: 13-inch MacBook Pro

And now, some recommendations on a case-by-case basis.

You want the best value for the money: Take the $1,199 Core i5 13-inch MacBook Pro, and save $300 over the step-up Core i7 version. You can always upgrade that 320GB hard drive to 500GB for $50, and the Core i5 and i7 CPUs in the new 13-inch Pros really didn't perform that differently. In most other instances, the cheaper Pro has all the same features, including RAM and graphics, as the $1,499 version.

You're a coffee-shop worker and frequent traveler, an "iPad man": Choose the MacBook Air. The light weight and quick boot times will be appreciated, and its single-task performance is better than you think.

You're a student who needs to save money, but wants a Mac: The white MacBook is technically the least expensive, but you should really consider spending an extra $200 for the 13-inch Pro. Trust us, in another six months you'll be grateful you did.

Money is no object, you want the best computer: Get the step-up $1,499 13-inch MacBook Pro.

You're an executive with an expense account: Spring for the $1,599 256GB SSD MacBook Air, of course...show-off.

Overall, you could make a strong case out of these results that the $1,199 MacBook Pro would offer the best balance of performance, affordability, and features out of the current 13-inch MacBooks. However, it's no accident that Apple has cleverly priced all these configurations to be tempting--a savings or expenditure of a few hundred dollars here and there can be appealing to different shoppers for different reasons.

In the future, we hope Apple will streamline its 13-inch offerings somewhat to make this less of a laptop logjam.

Read our reviews:
White MacBook (Spring 2010)
13-inch MacBook Air (128GB)
MacBook Pro Winter 2011 (Core i5, 13-inch)
MacBook Pro Winter 2011 (Core i7, 13-inch)

 

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