Mac Air vs. Pro 13"?
April 20, 2014 4:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for a new personal laptop and have decided to switch to OSX after a lifetime spent on Windows. Trying to pick between the Mac Air and Pro w/ Retina, both 13"?

These are my primary use cases:

1) Backend software development in vim and IntelliJ. I'll also have a work laptop, probably a MBP, and I can only run the IDE there if needed--for take-home coding, I'm more than happy to stick with vim.

2) The basics: word processing, internet browsing, occasional LaTeX. I also use Evernote's desktop client quite heavily with lots of rich text/image-heavy notes.

3) Be able to run Minecraft with nice graphics and decent fps, but no mods or anything fancy. I don't plan on any other gaming.

Right now I use a 13" Toshiba laptop that weighs 3.4 pounds, and I absolutely don't want anything heavier. The Mac Air is seducing me with the promise of nearly a half-pound reduction in weight--a not insignificant difference when being carried on one shoulder in a Longchamp tote--but maybe I really need the better specs in the Retina MBP.

I can save $100+ by purchasing from a third party vendor rather than Apple, so I'd prefer to choose between the following two standard models:

A) 13" Mac Air, 4GB memory, 256GB storage, 1.3GHz i5 processor, Intel HD Graphics 5000, 2.96 lbs.

B) 13" MacBook Pro with Retina, 8GB memory, 256GB storage, 2.4GHz i5 processor, Intel Iris Graphics, 3.46 lbs.

tl;dr: I want the lightest possible 13" Mac notebook that won't frustrate me when running ssh/occasional VM, Evernote, and Minecraft. But I don't really understand what kind of memory, processor, and/or graphics are necessary for those tasks. Do you?
posted by serelliya to Technology (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you're choosing between those two precise models, get the MBP every day of the week and twice on Sunday. The Retina screen is far better than the Air's display, which makes a big difference when looking at lots of lines of code for hours, but the most important difference is the 8GB of RAM. The last time 4GB of RAM was acceptable to buy in a new computer was maybe two years ago. I'm typing this on that exact MBP model, and it's pretty clearly the best overall computer I've ever used. And, my use case is really similar to yours: VIM, IDE (I use Eclipse), word processing, web browsing, LaTeX, and Evernote. Seriously. For me, the half pound difference was easily acceptable for the better machine; I carry it with me every day and I don't think I'd notice dropping half a pound from my bag.
posted by The Michael The at 5:02 PM on April 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would make the opposite choice as The Michael The - for the use cases outlined, 4 vs 8 is really not going to make a big difference, but that extra pound really is noticeable (speaking as someone with an 11" air).

Alternatively, if you can possibly wait a few months...
posted by dmd at 5:29 PM on April 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can save $100+ by purchasing from a third party vendor rather than Apple

You could do the same by getting a certified refurb from Apple. Retina MBP over Air right now, especially with the extra RAM, but with the suspicion of new Airs due out around WWDC in June, that might become a closer call.
posted by holgate at 5:30 PM on April 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd second the previous advice: having just made this choice myself, get the MBP over the air. Much more memory, much better display, and hey, it's just not that much thicker.
posted by kaszeta at 5:32 PM on April 20, 2014

I faced precisely the same choice a couple of months ago, and I got the MBP. The dimensions are nearly identical, it's only a few ounces heavier, and it's a much beefier machine. No regrets.
posted by waldo at 5:52 PM on April 20, 2014

4 vs 8 is a question of "how long do you plan to keep this laptop? I don't believe either of those models has upgradable memory, so if this is a 5 year laptop, 4 will likely be pretty small in the future.

One problem I had with the air I got from work was that it only had one T-Bolt port: I couldn't run both an external monitor and an ethernet connection at the same time. If you don't have this use case, then this isn't a problem.

I used both the 2012 Air and my personal 2008 MBP for some long-running apps for a class (the kind where you try to see how long database operations take with different indices by running 10,000,000 inserts and timing them). The Air finished the project about 2-3x faster than the 5 year old MBP. I was pretty happy with the performance. It's not the slouch of a machine I was expecting it to be.

So, no easy answers, but the coding isn't a problem in itself.
posted by Mad_Carew at 5:56 PM on April 20, 2014

MBP, and it's not even close. I routinely sit at around 14GB used at any given time.

You will be amazed at how quickly you can gobble through 4GB of ram. Let me give you a sample from my machine:

Virtual Machine: 1GB
Web Browser: 1GB
kernel_task: 1.9GB
Sublime Text: 400 MB
Terminal: 100MB
A collection of other system-level services: 500MB

...granted, I suspect kernel_task would use less than 1.9GB if there was only 4GB total, but do you really want the kernel starved for memory?

Also, Minecraft on that Air is probably not going to be an enjoyable experience if you want graphics on high and high FPS.

4GB isn't appropriate for a new laptop today, let alone one you want to keep for any length of time.
posted by toomuchpete at 6:02 PM on April 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

N'thing the MBP for all of your proposed uses, with at least 8GB. The price and weight differential are not that significant for people who use a computer for work.
posted by spitbull at 6:15 PM on April 20, 2014

Joining the stampede to recommend the machine with more memory in this case..

Not too long ago (18 - 24 months?) 4GB wouldn't have been a deal-breaker but these days (a) it's really on the low end of acceptable, and (b) there is no reasonable way to upgrade the memory in an Apple laptop after purchase.

(That latter bit, combined with the ludicrous price markup Apple charge for additional memory and storage, is going to make me seriously think twice when selecting my next laptop. Apple still puts together a very nice machine, but not being able to swap out the DIMMs is a problem for me.)
posted by Nerd of the North at 6:23 PM on April 20, 2014

Everyone is saying MBP. Let me give you my experience as a (primarily Windows) developer using an Air. Mine is an i7 with 8GB, so not apples to apples, but I think a useful data point.

If you are not using an external monitor most of the time, get the MBP for Retina. Otherwise, I consider the .5lb weight differential and form factor differences significant. There is something magical about the size and weight of the Air. When I hold a MBP instead, it feels more like something I lug around than the way the Air just slips into any available pocket and is a delight to carry. But that is highly subjective.

In terms of performance, the Air shines. I run a Windows VM all day on it (Parallels) and it runs Visual Studio *very* smoothly. Compilation time is great. I never really notice I am in a VM except for the awkwardness of mapping key commands.

I also run Logic Pro X on it regularly, and it works beautifully, handling buckets of tracks and plugins without blinking. I have never maxed it out in that regard.

I don't think i7 over i5 is that big of a difference. I also ran the same workload above on an Air with an i5 and perceived performance was the same. The 8GB is important though.

So, consider getting an Air and then upgrading the memory later to 8GB yourself. I can't speak to gaming, though, I have not done any on Macs.
posted by SNACKeR at 6:42 PM on April 20, 2014

then upgrading the memory later to 8GB yourself

Isn't the RAM in the Air not user-serviceable? I thought it was soldered on (so you couldn't change it after purchase), and that trying to service the memory would at the very least void your warranty.
posted by andrewesque at 6:43 PM on April 20, 2014

Or just get the Air model with 8GB?

My Air has been great for similar tasks as #1 and #2 on your list. (Though, my model does have 8GB).

No clue how Minecraft would run on here, however.
posted by ChrisManley at 6:46 PM on April 20, 2014

I don't know what prices you are looking at, but I would suggest a refurbed air with 8GB like this one.

The weight and memory are the big differentiators you need to look at. As others have said 4GB is too small, but you don't need the PRO to get 8GB. and .5 lbs is too much to lug around just for more memory.

An 8GB air will do everything you want.
posted by nightwood at 7:08 PM on April 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a software dev and I use all the stuff you're using, running on the latest Macbook Air and very happy with it, performance is never an issue unless you're unplugged and down to the last 5% of the battery, and not a second before that. I love the portability, and the screen is pretty awesome even though it's not retina. That said, Apple will announce a new 12" Macbook Air, quite possibly in June at WWDC, and it is expected to have one or more of the following: retina, thinner, fanless. So if you want the latest and greatest you might want to wait a bit, or if you want to save some extra bucks you might also still want to wait a bit. But you won't be disappointed with the current model.
posted by furtive at 7:28 PM on April 20, 2014

My work machine is a pro with 16GB, and that is not always enough. I run 4GB on the mini I use at home, and it's fine for browsing and tax software and stuff, but running IntelliJ on a big code base + the server stack + a browser uses up 8GB real quick.
posted by mr vino at 7:32 PM on April 20, 2014

You can't get an 8GB Air? Based on Apple's site, an Air with 8GB RAM comes in cheaper than a Retina Pro.

I'm typing this from a 2012 Air with the 8GB option and it runs Civ 5 fine, not sure how much of a benchmark that is. Best laptop I've ever owned.
posted by Urtylug at 7:43 PM on April 20, 2014

I have an Air for work, and even at 4GB it is amazingly performant with the latest OSX version. I can simultaneously run IntelliJ plus another IDE, two browsers, and an Ubuntu VM without any noticeable slowness. So I would say unless you need to do serious graphics work, an Air would be fine. The thing with the Airs, though, is that you can't upgrade the memory, so make sure to max out your RAM when you buy the machine.
posted by deathpanels at 8:01 PM on April 20, 2014

I also run a 2012 MBA with 8gb. It had been available at my local reseller in limited quantities at the time. The great thing about it is having the elbow room to develop inside a couple VMs (virtual box). All the machines today are plenty fast.
posted by mce at 8:02 PM on April 20, 2014

Just as an aside, whatever you decide, I'd suggest getting 8gb of RAM either way. I recently upgraded from 4GB to 8GB and the difference was enormous.
posted by !Jim at 8:32 PM on April 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, newer Macbooks don't let you add RAM later, so that's another reason to get at least 8GB.
posted by !Jim at 8:34 PM on April 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a software developer and scientist, and I run a 2011 i5 MBA with 4 GB. I mostly live in UNIX land, running emacs in Terminal to fire off compilation with gcc or clang, or run scripts with R, bash, Python etc. Occasionally, I'll run X11-windowed apps.

Outside of that, I run Adobe Illustrator for editing my vector-based figures for publication, and Adobe Photoshop for web-ready graphics. My nearly three-year old MBA handles all of this with aplomb, even with only 4 GB.

I don't really game much any longer. I used to run Steam games through Windows Boot Camp, but rebooting got tiring and I didn't like wasting precious SSD space on an obsolete platform, just to waste time. I use OS X to get the work done.

I had occasion to use a 2013 i7 MBA with 8 GB of memory a few weeks ago and didn't notice much of an improvement in performance for the work I was doing.

If I was in your shoes and looking to upgrade, I'd go with the Air, but I would wait for the Retina display announcement later in the year and get it with at least 8 GB. My husband has a Retina MBP and the difference in resolution is fairly stunning. Other laptops simply do not compete.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:58 PM on April 20, 2014

Response by poster: Will I be able to get a 13" Retina Air later this year? Not sure how I feel about a 12" screen. Even if the resolution is great, tiny text is still tiny text.

That said, y'all have convinced me that 8GB RAM is the only way to go. What about processor? Here are some more options with exact pricing, although all dependent on purchasing before June:

Mac Air 1.3 i5 8GB $1340
Mac Air 1.7 i7 8GB $1480 (+$140)
MB Pro 2.4 i5 8GB $1360

I know the MBP also has a better graphics card, but is it worth the extra half pound of weight? Is the Air's 1.7ghz i7 processor better or worse than the Pro's 2.4ghz i5?
posted by serelliya at 11:08 PM on April 20, 2014

If you're developing on the machine itself, and not using a VM on some sever, I'd go with the MBP maxed out on RAM and not caring about the CPU.

If you're using the laptop as mostly a very smart terminal, sshing onto a VM to do your development, then it's a tossup. I've used both Airs (11", 13") and loaded MBPs (15"), and the 13" Air is IMO the sweet spot in terms of battery life and weight.

One thing the Pro does well that the Air does not: dual external 27"+ monitors. On the air, you have to drive the second large monitor via a USB hardware thingamajig. It works, but it's not great.
posted by zippy at 12:32 AM on April 21, 2014

MBP also has a better graphics card, but is it worth the extra half pound of weight?

From your question above, I'd say the only part of your requirements that impacts here is your gaming. So the question might be more appropriately phrased: are you willing to lug around half a pound so that you can play Minecraft?

I've not heard any complaints about MBA's being unable to drive external monitors well without the improved graphics card, but if a 4K monitor is in your future, that'd be some research you ought to do. If you're happy with a thunderbolt or other monitor with "normal" resolution, I think the MBA w/ 8GB should be fine for you.
posted by toomuchpete at 9:40 AM on April 21, 2014

I had this exact same quandary recently, and I went with the 13" MBPro w/ Retina and 16GB of RAM. I'd recommend that model to anyone in your shoes. The screens are night and day in favor of the retina, the Pro will have the horsepower to stay quick and responsive to use for many more years than the meager specs of the Air, and the size/weight difference is almost nil in practical usage.
posted by 1024x768 at 11:18 AM on April 21, 2014

I'm driving a 2560 x 1440 monitor with my Macbook Air. You definitely want to max out the RAM when you get it because there's no upgrading afterwards.

BTW, it looks like MacBook Airs might get a slight speedbump next week although it also appears the 12" completely new MBA won't arrive until fall 2014.
posted by furtive at 9:22 AM on April 24, 2014

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