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MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro: The battle of Apple’s 13-inch notebooks

By Kenny Yeo - 1 May 2015

Introduction

Broadwell Refresh

In early March, Apple updated its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display notebooks with Intel’s latest fifth generation “Broadwell” processors. Broadwell is the codename for Intel’s 14-nm shrink of its Haswell architecture and is claimed to bring about significant gains in performance and power.

The 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina display were refreshed with new Intel processors earlier this year.

13-inch notebooks seem to be the sweet spot for many people as it offers the best combination of performance, portability and display size, and Apple has two very popular 13-inch models - the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Despite their names and its legacy products bearing the same names, the two updated models are actually more similar than you may think. Now, opting for the MacBook Air does not necessarily mean sacrificing on performance as you may think; likewise, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is not as unwieldy as its name might lead you to believe. Today, we are going to take a close look at both 13-inch notebooks and find out which is the best 13-inch notebook in Apple’s lineup. Let’s begin with the MacBook Air.

 

13-inch MacBook Air

The MacBook Air design remains the same, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

If there was a notebook that could claim to be "iconic", it would definitely have to be the MacBook Air. Who can forget the instance where Steve Jobs pulled the MacBook Air out of the envelope all those years ago? Come to think of it, it has already been seven years since the MacBook Air was released and its design has not changed much. In 2010, Apple updated the design slightly to give it a sharper wedge-shaped case, but that was it. So if you have ever handled a MacBook Air in the past five years, you’ll know what to expect.

That said, the MacBook Air’s design is still fairly attractive, but it is no longer the thinnest nor lightest. At its thickest point, it measures 17mm, and this tapers down to an incredible 3mm. In terms of weight, it tips the scales at 1.35kg - not featherlight by modern standards, but still pretty decent for a notebook machined out of solid aluminum.

The MacBook Air's keyboard remains excellent and the glass trackpad is, in a word, faultless.

The keyboard and trackpad are still the same, which is to say they are good. The keyboard is pleasant to use for a machine of this thickness and Apple’s trackpads are still the best by far and it is no different with this latest MacBook Air. Accuracy and responsiveness is first-class and multi-finger gestures worked without a hitch.

The 13.3-inch display is sadly still the same TN panel that puts out a resolution of only 1440 x 900 pixels. This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the MacBook Air given that there are no shortage of comparable ultraportable notebooks from PC manufacturers sporting higher resolution displays. For example, the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro and Dell XPS 13 are both 13-inch notebooks that boast QHD+ displays of 3200 x 1800 pixels - more than four times the pixels of the MacBook Air. If its any consolation, the display is still pretty crisp and the viewing angles and colors are still good and amongst the best in the business.

The biggest changes are under the hood. Most importantly, the new MacBook Air is powered by Intel’s newest fifth generation “Broadwell” processors. All models in the MacBook Air line-up, both 11-inch and 13-inch, will get Intel’s new dual-core Core i5-5250U (3MB L3 cache) processor that runs at 1.6GHz. This particular processor features Intel’s new Intel HD Graphics 6000 integrated GPU, which has 48 execution units and is positioned towards the higher end of the spectrum in Intel’s integrated GPU hierarchy. It will be interesting to see how this new integrated GPU fares in our benchmarking section. Users who want more performance can choose to equip their MacBook Air the optional Core i7-5650 processor (2.2GHz, 3MB L3 cache), but that comes at a considerable price premium.

On the left side of the MacBook Air sits the MagSafe 2 port, a USB 3.0 port, 3.5mm audio jack and dual microphones.

On the right of the MacBook Air users will find the SDXC card slot, another USB 3.0 port and the Thunderbolt 2 port.

Unfortunately, the new models are still stuck with 4GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 memory as standard, though Apple will offer upgrades to 8GB but at a pretty hefty premium. On the bright side, the new MacBook Air gets upgraded PCIe-based SSDs that now use four PCIe lanes instead of two for even faster storage performance. Users can pick from models offering 128GB and 256GB storage, and for those who want more, an optional upgrade to 512GB is available. Our review unit came with 256GB of storage.

As before, the latest MacBook Air has two USB 3.0 ports, and the lone Thunderbolt port has been upgraded to the newer Thunderbolt 2.0 standard, which combines the two 10Gbps bi-directional channels of Thunderbolt 1.0 into a single 20Gbps bi-directional channel. The additional bandwidth is useful for professionals who want to stream 4K videos and write that same video to disk at the same time. The MacBook Air also has a SDXC card reader and a headphone jack. The MacBook Air has supported the wireless 802.11ac standard since 2013 and the latest model is no different. It offers data transfer rates of up to 867Mbps with a compatible 802.11ac router.

 

13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Like, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display still sports the same design and is starting to look a little chubby next to newer 13-inch notebooks from competitors.

Alongside the MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (hereby referred to simply as the MacBook Pro) also retained the same design and chassis but received numerous hardware upgrades. Like the MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro should feel familiar to anyone who has ever handled one since 2012 - the year when they launched the 'slim' 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Though its design is getting stale, there can be no faulting the MacBook Pro’s impeccable build quality. It feels super solid and remains to be the yardstick by which all other 13-inch notebooks are judged, plus it is also relatively compact and portable considering the hardware it packs. It is only 18mm thick and weighs just under 1.6kg.

If we were to compare only the thickest points of both the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, the latter is thinner by a mere millimeter.

The Retina display continues to output a resolution of 2560 x 1600 pixels, giving the MacBook Pro a pixel density count of 227 pixels per inch. Though this means it is outclassed by newer models with QHD+ displays - such as Dell's new XPS 13 - the fact is with pixel count approaching such high numbers, most people will be hard pressed to tell the difference, unless your face is pressed up next to the screen. Colors are brilliant and viewing angles, both horizontal and vertical, are very good.

The keyboard is the same, which is to say that they are nice to use. But the trackpad is the all new Force Touch trackpad. On first impressions, the new Force Touch trackpad looks just like any other Apple trackpad that came before it, it even feels the same since its made out of glass. But then you push and you realize that it doesn’t click. The trackpad stays resolutely still and only budges slightly after the firmest of push. You power up the MacBook Pro up and suddenly, the trackpad clicks just like you expect it to, which leaves you wondering, "what the heck just happened?"

It looks like Apple's ordinary glass trackpad, but touch it when the system is not powered and you'll find that it doesn't actually move.

The Force Touch trackpad actually features sensors which detect your inputs and triggers electromagnets underneath the trackpad to vibrate the sheet of glass that is the trackpad. This vibration generates a haptic feedback that leads you into thinking that it is a click. Apple calls this its "Taptic Engine", which you might have heard of from the Apple Watch. Ah, haptic feedback, you might have experienced before on numerous other devices such as phones, but let us tell you, the haptic feedback from the Force Touch trackpad is unlike any you have experienced. It feels like an actual click and it even makes an audible "click" sound when you use on it.

This special trackpad was actually specially designed for the new super-thin MacBook. The MacBook’s slim chassis necessitated a design that did not take up much space as it would have added to its thickness. But more importantly for MacBook Pro users, the Force Touch trackpad opens up new ways to interact with their device. To activate a Force Click, simply give it a firm click and you can use it to quickly do contextual tasks. For example, force clicking on a word can quickly show the definition of it. When browsing, one could force click on a link to preview them. And during video playback, force clicking on the progress bar can speed up playback depending on the amount of pressure exerted. It is nifty that’s for sure, but it is dependent on app support, and right now, not many apps outside of Apple’s own support it.

As for other hardware upgrades, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro models are now powered by Intel’s new Broadwell processors. As usual, Apple is offering three off-the-shelf variants of the MacBook Pro and these will use either the Core i5-5257U processor (2.7GHz, 3MB L3 cache) or the Core i5-5287U processor (2.9GHz, 3MB L3 cache), which are both dual-core parts. Apple also offers users the choice of equipping their unit with the top-of-the-line dual-core Core i7-5557U processor (3.1GHz, 4MB L3 cache), but again at a premium.

Our review unit came with the dual-core Intel Core i5-5257U processor (3MB L3 cache) that runs at a pretty high clock speed of 2.7GHz. It is also one of the few new dual-core Broadwell processors to feature the new Intel Iris Graphics 6100 integrated GPU. Like the Intel HD Graphics 6000 integrated GPU powering the MacBook Air, this particular model also has 48 execution units, but because of the Core i5-5257U’s higher TDP (27W vs. 15W), the Intel Iris Graphics 6100 integrated GPU can offer better graphics performance by achieving a higher maximum clock speed of 1.1GHz - the Intel HD Graphics 6000 tops out at 1GHz.

On the left side of the MacBook Pro users will find the MagSafe 2 port, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, a USB 3.0 port, 3.5mm audio jack and dual microphones.

On the right side, there's the SDXC card reader, HDMI port and second USB 3.0 port.

Claimed battery life is up one hour to an impressive 10 hours and most of this can be attributed to the new Broadwell processor, even if the new model does have a marginally larger capacity battery. Battery capacity is now up to 74.9Wh from 71.8Wh, which is staggering for a notebook of its size.

Apple has offered 8GB of memory as standard on all 13-inch MacBook Pros since last year and this practice has been carried forward. However, the latest MacBook Pros are outfitted with faster and more energy efficient 1866MHz LPDDR3 memory. And like the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro’s PCIe-based SSDs have also been improved and use four PCIe lanes instead of two for faster transfer speeds. Users can choose from off-the-shelf models with 128GB, 256GB and 512GB of storage, with a 1TB option also available for users with capacious storage needs. Our review unit has 256GB of storage.

Connectivity remains unchanged so the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro still gets two USB 3.0 ports and two Thunderbolt 2 ports as well as a single HDMI port and an SDXC card reader. 802.11ac of up to three spatial streams is supported so a maximum speed of 1300Mbps is possible if you have the right router.

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