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MacBook 12-inch vs. MacBook Pro: The $1,300 question

Having trouble deciding between the svelte 12-inch MacBook and the bigger and more powerful 13-inch MacBook Pro? You're not alone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For the past few months, I've been sitting on a couple of Apple gift cards. Now that the company has refreshed nearly its entire line of Mac computers, it seemed like the perfect time to get rid of them. But there's a problem: I'm trying to choose between the new 12-inch MacBook and the entry-level, MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar, which recently got a price cut.  Both now start at $1,300.

We have both in the office, so I have good sense of what they're all about, but I've been struggling with making a decision, so I figured I'd have a talk with an Apple sales associate to see whether he or she could sway me in one direction or another. At the core of the struggle: I want the superlight MacBook but don't want something that feels underpowered, especially at this high price point.

As our review states, the performance of the third-generation MacBook (2017) has markedly improved over last year's model, but it's still behind the MacBook Pro. The gap has narrowed some but there's still a gap.

The MacBook 12-inch and MacBook Pro 13-inch in an Apple Store.

David Carnoy/CNET

"What are you planning on doing with the computer?" the sales associate asked me, cutting to the chase. I'll call him Don, though that wasn't his real name. "Are you more of a casual user or more of a power user? 

"I'm a casual user with a mild case of power user-itis," I said.

He didn't know exactly what that condition was, so I clarified. I told him that for most of the applications I was running, the 12-inch MacBook would work just fine. But at some point I envisioned myself doing something more intensive -- like editing some video -- and I'd regret not getting the MacBook Pro.

Also, little things bothered me, like the fact that the MacBook Pro's USB-C ports -- yes, it has two -- were also Thunderbolt 3 ports, while the MacBook's single USB-C port wasn't. Apple touted the numbers: 40Gbs/s of throughput for Thunderbolt 3 vs. 5Gb/s for standard USB-C. I could use the MacBook Pro with a LG UltraFine 5K Display or Thunderbolt drive. Who knew if I ever would, but the difference in numbers seemed significant. 

Don agreed. "If you're at all worried about power, get the Pro," he said. "I do a lot of digital photography, so I'd never get the MacBook. But I have three relatives who've bought it and love it."

Apple's MacBook 12-inch on top of the MacBook Pro 13-inch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I picked up one of the 12-inch MacBooks that was tethered to the blond wooden table and felt its weight in my hand. Then I picked up a 13-inch MacBook Pro. You wouldn't think a pound would make that much of a difference, but at these sizes, it represents a 50 percent weight increase: the 2-pound MacBook felt so much lighter than the 3-pound MacBook Pro. I also liked the idea that the MacBook was fanless (it doesn't use fans to cool itself) and essentially silent. 

I left the Apple Store and headed into CNET's New York office still undecided but leaning toward the MacBook Pro. As I walked into the office, I ran into Senior Editor Scott Stein, who splits his time between a laptop and an iPad, sitting at a table in the office's open kitchen area. I told him about my dilemma, which he was familiar with. Just two years earlier, he'd opted for a MacBook Pro over the original 12-inch MacBook because the computer he was purchasing was going to be the primary computer in his household. He still pined for the 12-incher, though.

"Getting a 12-inch MacBook is like getting that little sportscar you've always wanted," he said. "It's that second car you play around with on the weekends when the weather's good. But it isn't necessarily something you'd want to use everyday, all-year round. It's a luxury. If I were you, I'd get it."

I popped into our computer lab, where I found Senior Associate Editor Joseph Kaminsky, who benchmarks laptops for CNET. He was dismissive of the 12-inch MacBook.

"The Core m3 is a glorified Atom chip," he said referring to the Intel processor inside the MacBook. (That was somewhat true a few years ago, less so with the current Kaby Lake Core m chips.) "That's all it is. I couldn't deal with that on a day-to-day basis. Personally, if I'm paying that kind of money, I've gotta have more power."

When I pointed out that you could upgrade the MacBook to a low-voltage Core i5 or Core i7, he laughed. "Come on. Those aren't real Core i5 or real Core i7. They can call them that but it's not the same. They don't have the same performance. They're updated versions of the Core m5 and Core m7. They're just calling them Core i5 and Core i7."

The two laptops stacked.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Section Editor Dan Ackerman, standing nearby, was more bullish on the 12-inch MacBook. "Don't listen to him," he said. "What are you going to do with it? It works well for 95 percent of the things you're going to use it for. You're not doing crazy stuff. You're not gaming on it. Who games on a Mac anyway? The 12-incher is all about portability. If that's what you're after, get it. It's great."

What about the missing Thunderbolt 3 port? Or that the MacBook only had a single USB-C port?

"Yeah, that's a shame," Ackerman admitted. "I can't help you there. There are some trade-offs. But at least they improved the keyboard."

"And you can add RAM," I added.

"And I would," he said. "That would make a bigger difference than upgrading the processor."

I'd already considered that. Going from 8GB to 16GB would cost $200. Upgrading the processor to the Core i5 would cost another $100. It wouldn't offer much of a performance bump, but it was something. That would bring my total up $1,600, which was still $200 cheaper than the base 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. Somehow that made the upgraded configuration seem like a better deal. 

Also a factor: The 12-inch MacBook comes with a 256GB SSD while the entry-level MacBook Pro only comes with a 128GB SSD, which is probably too skimpy. To get the MacBook Pro's SSD bumped up to 256GB would cost me an extra $200, bringing my total up to $1,500. 

This is how the mind works when buying Apple products. Often, it feels like a choice between the lesser evils. And often, to make yourself feel better about the choice you're making, it costs you more money.

"So what's it going to be?" Ackerman asked. "MacBook or MacBook Pro?"

"MacBook," I said.

"You sure?"

I wasn't. But I could take some comfort in the fact that I had 14 days to decide whether to return it or keep it.

"You'll keep it," he said.

"We'll see," I said.

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