The MacBook mess: Or, why it's so hard to choose an Apple laptop

Commentary: Picking an Apple laptop used to be pretty straightforward. Now it's downright vexing, with at least four competing products in the same basic screen size and price class.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read
Sarah Tew/CNET

I don't like to make a lot of decisions. That's why Apple's laptops always appealed to me. This, or this. This, or this. Like an eye exam. Two options, maybe. A product line that's polished. I'm picking the right tool. I understand the rules.

It got more complicated last year. The new MacBook emerged: 12 inches, thin. As opposed to the MacBook Air, which isn't quite as thin. Or...the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Thicker. Better?

I was shopping for a laptop last summer, and suddenly I hit a wall. If I wanted to carry around a really thin supercool laptop for writing, get the 12-inch...but give up power and ports. The Pro has the power and ports, and the screen...but it's bigger and heavier. The Air, that's the choice...but it doesn't have a nice Retina screen.


I didn't end up getting either one of these laptops.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I spent months deciding. I work as an editor reviewing things, and I couldn't make up my mind. I asked other people what I should do. I wanted the 12-inch

for what were probably stupid reasons. The Air made financial and practical sense. The Pro was what would be a little more future proof. I buy a new laptop maybe once every six years.

I started asking friends over coffee. I asked my family. I asked my wife. It was awful. No one wanted to talk to me about this. Nobody understood why I was asking them. It seemed like the reviews guy was having a midlife breakdown.

What's the best product? Which one should I buy?

(Yeah, I'm sure some of my longtime readers are enjoying the absurdity of this right now.)

Similar options, different weaknesses

I blame myself. But I also blame the current line of MacBooks. It's not an easy decision. Not at all. Dan Ackerman, CNET's longtime laptop reviewer, recommended I buy the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Which I did. And I like it. But he admits he's come to love the 12-inch MacBook. Which I still envy. But am...glad I didn't buy. I think. Meanwhile, everyone in my family uses a MacBook Air and doesn't even understand what I mean when I say there are other MacBooks to choose from.

It feels like these MacBooks are midtransition, like a butterfly crawling out of its chrysalis. We still don't have touchscreen MacBooks. Or tablet MacBooks. The classic MacBooks are frozen in form. The 12-inch MacBook doesn't quite make the leap to something of the future -- it's less powerful than the Air, less versatile than the Pro. It's no surprise that Apple's laptop shipments have declined. I can't even figure out which one I'd want.

And then there are the iPads.

iPad Pro. MacBook. Why are these running in parallel?

Sarah Tew/CNET

That 12.9-inch iPad Pro, lurking like a monolith. Is it something I'd get work done on? I don't think so, really. But I love the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro. I'm working on it now, at a coffee shop. I use it, maybe, more than my laptop. But it's not able to step in yet as a Mac replacement. Not for me, not for my needs.

I can't do work on the Web with it that I need to do. It can't handle files or file downloads as well. It can't be used for easy blogging. The iPad's getting better -- functions are creeping in with every software update. Just baby steps. But it has faster-loading apps, a better-looking screen. And even with the pricey keyboard case, there's no option for a trackpad or mouse.

Count up Apple's current "portable work computers" and there are seven options. The 9.7- and 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The 12-inch MacBook. The 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air. The 13- and 15-inch Retina Pro. And then the configurations, all the configurations. Some have what others lack. LTE on the iPads. Better battery on the Airs. Why must this be so difficult?

Searching for the ideal (not here yet) MacBook

And here's the weirdest, most vexing part: all these laptops and tablets come so close to each other in price. The full-config 12.9-inch iPad Pro and accessories crests past $1,000. The Air hovers near that, with the storage I'd pick. The 12-inch MacBook starts at $1,299. The 13-inch Retina Pro does, too.

I picked the 13-inch MacBook Pro. But I still don't know if I made the right choice.

When he returned to Apple in 1998, Steve Jobs streamlined the Mac line -- including desktops -- down to four basic options in a quadrant grid split between desktops and laptops, and "consumer" and "pro" models. At the time, that meant the iBook and the PowerBook.

It feels good to get a product and know that it's the perfect choice, the clear choice. I need consumer comfort. It's why I like game consoles over PCs. I want to get something, then rest for a bit. I drive myself crazy over all sorts of purchase decisions: what grill to get. What headphones to wear. What hard drive to pick up. The choices paralyze me, obsess me. Maybe I'm weird. Maybe I'm like many people. Apple's glut of 13-inch-and-under computer choices isn't easy to figure out.

It seems like that 12-inch MacBook is a first step toward an idea of a fusion, or an overlap between the iPad and MacBook. But it's still a separate, parallel choice. One I don't feel I'd want to make.

The answer seems simple: make a Retina-display MacBook Air. The thing everyone wanted in the first place. Or make the iPad fly so close to being a laptop that it can finally be a viable, complete alternative.

Neither of these are currently fully here yet.