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Which 2015 Apple MacBook should you buy?

Between the new 12-inch MacBook and updates to the Pro and Air lines, it comes down to balancing battery life, connections and weight.

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This year has already seen a wealth of new Apple products, including the Apple Watch , the new 12-inch MacBook, a new version of the Logic Pro music-making software, and updates to both the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro laptops.

For anyone considering a new MacBook purchase, all this new hardware makes choosing which one to buy even more difficult. Unfortunately, there's not one single perfect MacBook recommendation for everyone, and each model has its strengths and weaknesses. It comes down to a combination of budget, required features, and just how portable you need to be.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The new 12-inch MacBook is a design and engineering marvel, but is also missing features some might find irreplaceable, such as nearly all the common ports and connections, or a mainstream Core i5 processor. It's also expensive, and costs just as much as the much more powerful 13-inch MacBook Pro (although the same $1,299 initial investment gets you a 256GB solid-state drive in the MacBook, but only a 128GB SSD in the MacBook Pro).

Meanwhile, the 13-inch MacBook Air soldiers on, relatively unchanged year after year. It's a testament to just how far ahead of the curve this laptop was that it's only now started to look dated, as the best Windows laptops finally catch up.

The Air is stuck with a lower-resolution screen and ugly wide bezel around the display, but it's also only $999, which makes it a great way to get the Mac experience at a mainstream price (note that for about $100 less, you can trade down to the 11-inch Air). It also continues to break battery life records, with the 2015 update adding a new fifth-generation Intel Core i5 processor for 18 hours of life in our video playback battery drain test, and 10 hours in a tough online streaming test.

Note the larger footprint of the 13-inch Air. Sarah Tew/CNET

The chart below outlines the most important specs for each 2015 MacBook, although there's no substitute for going to a brick-and-mortar retail store and getting a little hands-on time with each model before making a decision.

2015 Apple MacBooks compared

MacBook (12-inch) MacBook Air (13-inch) MacBook Pro (13-inch)
Starting price $1,299, £1,049, AU$1,799 $999, £849, AU$1,399 $1,299, £999, AU$1,799
CPU 1.1GHz Intel Core M 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 2.7GHz Intel Core i5
RAM/Storage 8GB/256GB SSD 4GB/128GB SSD 8GB/128GB SSD
Resolution 2,304x1,440 1,440x900 2,560x1,600
Ports (1) USB-C (2) USB 3; (1) Thunderbolt 2/Mini DIsplayPort; (1) SD card slot (2) USB 3; (2) Thunderbolt 2/Mini DisplayPort; (1) HDMI; (1) SD card slot
Weight 2.04 lbs (0.93kg) 2.96 lbs (1.34kg) 3.48 lbs (1.58kg)
Battery life (hours:minutes) 12:27 18:00 15:46

The best choice is...

In the final analysis, it's clear that the 13-inch MacBook Pro is the most all-around useful laptop Apple makes. But, it's not the right choice for everyone.

The Pro is not nearly as portable as the other two models, even if it could still go along with you in a laptop case a couple of times per week without too much aggravation. Meanwhile, the 12-inch MacBook is the perfect portable laptop, and it's so thin and light, you'll hardly notice you're carrying it, but it forces many feature and performance compromises.

That means a lot of MacBook shoppers will still end up looking seriously at the 13-inch Air. While it's not the superstar it once was, it's hard to ignore at $999. Our key takeaways include:

  • The 13-inch MacBook Pro has excellent battery life, a beautiful, higher-res screen, and plenty of ports and connections.
  • The 12-inch MacBook isn't powerful enough for more than casual tasks and web surfing, and you'll be lucky if that battery lasts a full day.
  • The 13-inch MacBook Air still works well enough for most any mainstream workload, and it has the best battery life of any laptop we've ever tested.