Hey, Chief Heathen! Which Mac Laptop Should I Buy?

I get this question rather a lot. Please note these recs are really only useful from now until Apple revs the product lines again, so check the date; I’m writing this on January 25, 2012.

Your main choice at this point is between a Macbook Air (which has replaced the old “just Macbook”) and a MacBook Pro. There are no white plastic Macbooks anymore.

Macbook Air Options

The Air is insanely slim and portable, and boasts absurd battery life. It’s also really, really zippy. The battery life and zippiness are in part because ALL Macbook Airs use the new SSD type drives, which have no moving parts (unlike traditional hard drives, which contain spinning platters). SSDs are more expensive per gigabyte than regular hard drives, though.

If you haven’t actually seen and touched one of these, please make a point of doing so before you buy something. It’s difficult to explain just how game-changing the size and weight on these things is. They feel as much like something from the future as an iPad, if not moreso. They’re whisperquiet, too.

Dimensions will help you picture it, but definitely go to the store and SEE them. Airs come in 2 sizes: 11″ and 13″. The 11″ is less than 2.4 pounds; the 13″ is just under 3. At their thickest point (they have a wedge-like cross section), both are about 0.68 inches.

The 11″ models are very small, but that cuts both ways. More portable, but less screen real estate.

The “baby” model ($999) also has only 64GB of storage, which is insanely tiny in 2012, and also only 2 GB of RAM. I would not buy this one.

The nicer 11″ model ($1,199) doubles both RAM and storage, and is probably a viable computer IF you don’t plan on:

  • Keeping a media library of any consequence (movies, tv shows, music)
  • Accumulating lots of digital photos (I have 100+ GB of just photos on my computer)
  • Running a Windows virtual machine (which would take probably 20 to 40GB all on its own).

The “lesser” 13″ model ($1,299) has the same storage and RAM as the nicer 11″, but is slightly faster and (obviously) has a bigger screen, so it has the same limitations.

The nicer 13″ model doubles the storage space again to 256GB, but keeps the RAM at 4GB. This is absolutely a reasonable computer for nearly any purpose except very serious photography or very serious virtualization. You even have room for a modest media library. However, it’s $1,599, or significantly more than a larger (but still way sleeker than Dell or HP or IBM) Pro model that would have more storage. If I were buying an Air, this is the model I would buy, but my needs are probably not your needs.

Macbook Pro Options

If you switch over to the more traditional MacBook Pros, you get a bigger computer, but also more net computing power for your money. Let’s qualify “bigger,” though — my 15″ Pro is still lighter and thinner than nearly all mainstream PC laptops. It only looks clunky next to an Air.

Pros come in 3 sizes. I’m going to assume you don’t need a 17″ monster, so really we’re talking about 13″ (same screen size as the bigger Air, but 4.5 pounds instead of 2.4) and 15″ (the size I’ve used forever; these are 5.6 pounds). There are 2 configurations each for the 2 sizes.

These computers come with significantly faster processors, but they won’t seem much if any faster than the Airs because they run traditional hard drives, which are MUCH MUCH slower than SSD.

Both sizes come in a “4GB RAM, 500GB drive” model ($1,199 at 13″ and $1,799 at 15″) as well as a “4GB, 750GB” configuration ($1,499 and $2,199). The 15″ computers are a little bit faster in terms of raw horsepower, but also include significantly nicer graphics chips (for gaming or video work).

Wouldn’t Those Big Professional Computers Run Circles Around The Tiny Air?

You’d think, but apparently not. The current Air is actually faster (when measured by CPU performance) than my Macbook Pro. Adding the speed boost due to the SSD makes the Air models seem absurdly, ridiculously fast when compared to almost anything using a traditional hard drive.

The chips in use in the Pro line are more powerful and faster, but for most users that extra power is wasted unless you’re doing photo or video work, or Windows virtualization, or gaming, etc.

Basically, it’s not an issue here.

Other Differences You May or May Not Care About

Only Pro models have the backlit keyboard.

Pro models also have more ports. The Air models have ONLY USB ports (2) and the new Thunderbolt port, which can support both superfast hard drives and external monitors. Note that this means Airs don’t even have a normal Ethernet port; it’s wireless only, unless you buy a USB adapter. Airs also lack a “Kensington Lock” slot, for laptop cable locks.

Pros include all the ports from the Air plus Ethernet, a FireWire 800 port (2x as fast as USB), and the Kensington slot. It’s possible none of this matters to you — I only use FireWire on my laptop, for example, for large bulk data moves. I use it on my Mac Mini that serves as our media repository, but that’s not a role I’d see a hypothetical Lindsey Air serving. Likewise Ethernet; outside of occasional weird hotels with hardwire-only net access, I never use that port.

Finally, the all Pro models have built-in optical drives. The optical drive for an Air is available as an external USB drive at $79.

What Does Chet Buy?

Well, that’s of little relation to your needs, but I generally buy the fastest 15″ model they make. I’ve done that several times, and it’s usually a hair under three grand when all is said and done. But I have needs you don’t have.

What Does Chet Tell His Mother To Buy?

A much more interesting question, since she’s sort of in the market right now; it turns out her nearly 6-year-old Macbook isn’t talking so well to her new $10,000 sewing machine.

(If your first thought there was “HOLY CHRIST FARMER I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW THEY MADE TEN THOUSAND DOLLAR SEWING MACHINES,” well, I’m right there with you.)

Anyway: I think the lesser 13″ Pro ($1,199) is the best deal in raw terms, but I’m a little on the fence, since the nicer 13″ Air ($1,599) is so sexy, light, and portable, and I still perceive nice laptops south of two grand as pretty good deals even though the Air is 1/3 more.

You’d definitely be paying a premium for portability (and, let’s note, stability — no moving parts in the HD makes it more robust) in both dollar and storage space terms. But I’m not certain I wouldn’t do it anyway just because of the sleek size and portability, especially if I were going to schlep it all the time.

Extra Notes

Apple remains the only vendor from whom I always buy an extended warranty. Add $250 depending on model, but that covers everything for 3 years (2 extra years over the basic warranty).

None of these devices have a “normal” (which is to say, VGA) monitor port. If you ever need to plug one into a projector to give a presentation, you’ll need an adapter. That’s extra.

Apple more or less ALWAYS has a no-interest deal going, and I always take advantage. It’s essentially free money.

You will of course want an external drive (USB is fine) of at least 2x the size of your internal drive to configure as your Time Machine backup. Trust me. I know things.

What About Software?

Depends on what you want to do with it. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation, but I’ll add that Microsoft Office ’11 (the Mac version) is pretty nice and, shockingly, isn’t very expensive ($149 for Home/Student, which omits Outlook, or $199 for Home/Biz which includes it). Use true-blue Office if you’re planning on swapping files with work. Use something else if you don’t need to bother with that. Some people will tell you that OpenOffice or Pages or Some Other Thing will swap files with Windows Office fine, but those people are liars. Trust me. I know things.

Comments are closed.