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Three 13-inch Apple Laptops Again: MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro vs MacBook Pro With Retina Display – The ‘Book Mystique

It’s looking highly probable that Apple will once again be offering three different MacBook laptops for sale, as was the case for a couple of years until the white, polycarbonate case MacBook was terminated in July, 2011 for consumer purchasers, and finally as well for education sales this past February (superceded by a $999 in bulk purchases of five units or more education-only variant of the 13-inch MacBook Air that shares internal specs. with the entry-level 11.6″ MacBook Air). That left the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air for consumer customers. I was concerned that the littlest Pro, whose form factor dates back to late 2008, might be on the bubble this year as well. However, instead the little Pro got a substantial refresh in June along with its bigger 15-inch sibling, although the biggest 17-inch Pro did get end-of-lifed then with the release of a new, super-thin, flagship 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

Now if what’s been bubbling forth from the rumor fountains for the past several months is accurate, we should see a 13-inch companion model to the 15- inch rMBP very soon, possibly by next Tuesday if component suppliers have finally gotten low yield problems with the 13-inch Retina panels ironed out. Which will mean three different 13-inch MacBooks on offer simultaneously again, albeit with three different display resolutions ranging from 1280×800 (MBP) through 1,400×900 (MBA) to a whopping 2,560×1,600 (rMBP). All of which poses an interesting embarrassment of choice for those of us pondering the purchase of a new Apple laptop of the physical 13-inch persuasion.

Should one throw caution to the wind and go with the latest, greatest Retina MacBook Pro? Or is it wiser to stick with tried-and true mature technology and opt for the regular 13-inch MacBook Pro. Or take a sort of middle-ground approach with the 13-inch MacBook Air?

There’s of course no “wrong” answer here. It will depend on price and individual needs, preferences and priorities, since each of the three has its strengths and shortcomings.

Personally, I remain unconvinced that Retina displays, whether in MacBooks or iPads, represent an unalloyed advance. Their aesthetic appeal in certain contexts is undeniable, but the IT world in general is not optimized for them, and the hardware overhead, battery drain, and bandwidth penalties they impose are onerous. Those considerations aside, I’m assuming that a 13-inch rMBP will share its 15-inch sibling’s razor-edge thinness with non-upgradable RAM hard-soldered to the logic board and a virtually unreplacable battery, along with only proprietary connector Flash SSD storage, none of which enchants me.

Some of that of course applies to the MacBook Air as well, and in either case makes decent capacity onboard data storage an expensive proposition. A significant distinction between the rMBP and MBA will likely be that the former will somehow cram in a discrete graphics processor unit for driving high-res external displays, supplementing the Intel HD 4000 series IGPU on the Ivy Bridge central processor. How successfully Apple is able to juggle decent battery life with the power draw of a Retina display in an even smaller housing than the 15-inch rMBP also remains to be seen.

Adding to demand on the battery will quite probably be available quad-core i7 CPU silicon in the rMBP, whereas a dual-core i7 is the hottest ticket available in the MacBook Air, and presumably, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro will be available with up to 16 GB of RAM if you’re game to pay for it.

Historically, I’ve loosely targeted three years as an ideal interval between system upgrades, but my late 2008 unibody MacBook with a 2 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU and 4 GB of RAM is now closing on four years old still going strong, with a recent OS upgrade to OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion having given it a bit of a new lease on life. Actually, while it seems stupid, the tipping point for replacing the MacBook looks like it will turn out to be hard drive capacity. Its modest 160 GB, 4,200 RPM HDD is getting packed out on both its Mountain Lion and Snow Leopard partitions. A simple, tide-me-over solution would be to replace the hard drive with a larger capacity unit — drive swaps being exceedingly easy with that model MacBook.

However, I’m reluctant to spend serious money on hardware upgrades for a four-year-old computer whose CPU and graphics processor spec. is just this side of the supported hardware line for Apple’s current operating system version, so a system upgrade would seem to be a timely solution. (note that a wild card factor that hasn’t obtained with my previous system upgrade dynamics is the iPad, which I credit with having indirectly extended my current MacBook’s service life).

Ironically, storage drive capacity promises to be a major factor in determining which model 13-inch MacBook I choose — Air, Pro, or rMBP. The speed, cool running, quietness,and ruggedness of solid state drives are all of course strongly appealing qualities, but the cost vs capacity trade-off definitely is not to the SSD’s advantage, and as The Register’s Alistair Dabbs, who is having sober second thought about the 500 GB SSD he ordered up for his most recent laptop observed in a blog last week, SSD storage is probably not as rock-solid and reliable as he had imagined, and despite all the advantages SSD technology enjoys compared with spinning hard disks, it has another serious disadvantage besides astronomical prices. That would be “if something major goes wrong with the drive, the result for your data is nothing less than catastrophic.” Plus, SSD/flash memory has a fixed lifetime, or at least decreasing performance over time. Dabbs notes that internal hard disks are typically easier to swap out these days was well as cheaper and cheaper, leaving Dabbs wondering rhetorically why he was “so stupid as to put all my faith in a storage technology that’s so fragile, short-term and expensive?

Actually, I think spinning hard disk drives are pretty amazing technology in their own right. They offer excellent near-to-medium-term data stability, are rugged and reliable provided they’re treated with reasonable care and not subjected to shock damage, and extremely economical in terms of cost/capacity. They’re not as fast as SSDs, but with hybrid SSD caches grafted on, can close the real-world gap substantially for substantially less money and with no compromise in storage capacity. And all of the three and a half remaining hard disk drive manufacturers have recently released ultra-thin single-platter hard drives suitable for use in likewise ultra-thin laptops with decent capacity for a much lower price than half as capacious SSDs.

Consequently, for me, the regular 13 inch MacBook Pro would be my slam-dunk first choice if it weren’t for the pedestrian 1280 x 800 display. I can live quite happily without a Retina panel, and dual core CPU power is plenty enough for my needs, but I wish the MacBook Air’s 1440 x 900 screen was offered in the 13-inch Pro. I’ve been using the sort of Retina antithesis 1280 x 800 panel in my old MacBook for the past 42 months, and it’s not impossible to live with, but I could definitely use a bit more resolution.

Other than that, the late 2008 form factor MacBook Pro is better than ever with its latest revision last June, at the same price points as before, which reinforces its status as the bestvalue Apple laptop overall IMHO. It’s currently available with a 2.5 GHz Ivy Bridge dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, Intel’s latest HD 4000 IGPU which Apple claims is 60 percent faster than the HD Graphics 3000 unit it replaced, 4 GB of memory, and a 500GB hard drive for $1,199, or with a 2.9 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory and 750GB hard drive at $1,499, and the practical functionality is there for folks like me who don’t require a lot of display real estate and the highand videocrunching capability of a discrete graphics processor with dedicated video RAM.

The MacBook Air’s svelte form factor is of course attractive, and Apple pumped up the value at the June refresh, knocking $100 (between 6% and 8%) off the prices of three of the Air’s four standard models (the base 11-inch model with its puny 64 GB SDD is still $999). There’s now a 13-inch Air model that matches the 13-inch Pro in price at $1,199, although with a slower 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and far less storage capacity at 128GB for its SSD, and of course no internal SuperDrive. Doubling the SSD capacity to a still very modest 256 GB will set you back another $300, and the cost of taking it to the maximum supported 512 GB is $500. On the upside, you get the aforementioned higher-resolution 1440 x 900 panel.

The mid-2012 Air also got an Ivy Bridge/Intel HD 4000 IGPU speedbump, plus a doubling of standard and optional RAM capacities to 4 GB and 8GB respectively with the memory spec. upgraded from 1333MHz to 1600MHz. The initial factory RAM spec. is of course especially critical with the Air, so the RAM enhancements are a huge value booster for the MacBook Air as with the rMBP, it doesn’t support memory upgrades after manufacture, and the Air’s foregoing 2 GB base RAM spec. was a bit ludicrous in today’s context for any but very light duty users.

The mid-2012 MacBook Air refresh also included USB 3 and support for SATA III SSDs that can reach 500 MB/s, and according to Primate Labs’ Geekbench scores, both 2.0GHz MacBook Airs outperformed previous generation models by nearly 20 percent. However the Air’s RAM inflexibility and the constrained capacity/high price of SSD storage remain inhibitors for me in choosing it over the 13″ MacBook Pro.

Happily, I’m in no big rush as yet. I’ll be fascinated to see how Apple prices the three species of 13-inch MacBooks comparatively. In the end I’ll probably opt for an Apple Certified Refurbished unit anyway.

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