Which Macbook?

I’m buying my first Mac in a couple of weeks for school. All I’ve ever used is Windows laptops, and after having two of them die on me within two years I’ve decided to finally give this a try. It’s going to be mostly for college, and obviously for my writing. I’m majoring in Political Science, so it’s just a lot of paper writing. A LOT of paper writing. No intensive graphics programs or anything. The only video game I ever play is Sims. I know nothing about Mac computers, so I thought I’d ask here. I’m looking at either the 13 inch Macbook Pro i7 or the entry 15 inch macbook pro. I’m leaning towards the 13 inch, but if the 15 inch is that much better I’ll go for that. I just want this computer to LAST. Thanks!

I can’t really speak for the new 13" model because it is a brand new design that just came out. Generally speaking, it’s usually a good idea to give a model a year or so rather than buy into the bleeding edge. On that score I’d say the non-Retina 15" is going to be the most solid laptop computer you can buy from Apple right now. The MacBook Airs have been around for a bit too, but they are very slim and you might find them limited as your only computer. The 15" is a model that has been around for many years now. I’ve got one that I’ve had since 2008 and it still runs like a champ. The bonuses of that model is that it has a removable battery so you can replace it when it gets old, or on long trips. It also has an optical drive. None of the newer laptops have either of those, so for longevity something that you can open up and replace the hard drive, RAM and battery on is going to last you longer. They also have more I/O ports and a Kensington lock latch (useful in a computer lab). The Retina models have that gorgeous display, but they are otherwise not quite so deserving of the “Pro” tag, in my opinion.

While I agree with most of what AmberV wrote, I don’t agree with the conclusion. It really does come down to what you do with it. If all you intend to do is write papers and occasionally play SIMS, then a MacBook Air will more than meet your needs. Although I own (& love!) an older 15" MacBook Pro, and would recommend it in a heartbeat, a few members of my family have made the switch to Apple via a MacBook Air and they love their machines even more. If you are going to college, then the extra portability of the MacBook Airs is very tempting. However, if the Pros are fine for you portability wise, you are unlikely to regret your purchase.

What I would advise—whatever Mac you buy—is to ensure you purchase AppleCare*, then buy the most memory you can afford, then a bigger hard disk. You’re better off with a smaller computer and a slower CPU but with more memory and a bigger hard-drive than the other way around. This is especially important if you buy one of the recent models where hard-drive and memory cannot be replaced later. Remember also, if you don’t already have one, to buy an external hard disk for backups (or, even better, an Apple Time Capsule).

*Given you want your next computer to last, then I think Applecare is essential. Even Macs occasionally go bad & AppleCare provides no nonsense, fix it right, security and it provides 3 years of phone support - especially helpful for a first-time Mac user. My previous Mac, a Powerbook, went “odd” after a couple of years and I took to Apple 2 years and 362 days(!) into the warranty period. When the issue recurred a few weeks later, Apple replaced the machine with a brand new MacBook Pro (my current machine). No questions, just a simple, “Sorry we were unable to fix it for you the first time, are you happy for us to replace it? Do you have a back up of your data? Here you are.”

My concern with the Air is that there is no cd drive if I have to install something for school that I can’t download. Do you think that would be a problem? I was planning to order online, but I may wind up going to the store to play with them before I decide.

You can get mac-compatible usb dvd/cd readers/burners, so that’s really not an issue; Apple sells some really slim models that are powered off of just the USB (no external power required), if you think you’ll have to carry it around a lot. Also, my Air has a solid state drive, which not only makes the thing zip through lots of operations, but it means there are no moving parts to break; My 2006 model macbook pro had 2 hard drive failures (I replaced the first myself, which failed a year later).

Having carried an older (2006) model macbook pro to and from work almost every day, I can tell you that the air is almost inconsequential weight-wise; a bag with just the air in it almost feels empty. I went with the 13 inch model for the battery that I can use for writing and web research off-and-on all day without worrying about finding a power outlet.

After having MBPs (15" and now 17") I’ve never really understood the force of this gravity based reasoning…

…until yesterday that is, when for the first time I decided to walk 3 miles to the Archive place with the MBP17" in my rucksack.

I might go again next week and that will be twice, which is more than enough to justify getting a new MB Air. Not even the harshest spousal unit could turn down such a business case, surely?

The silver Macbook Pro’s are workhorses. A professor dropped his into a river (not on), and it was relatively fine once it completely dried out. I’ve no idea how the current generation stack up, but they’re good. (That having been said, my best friend has had his work MBP die on him every 6 months. I’m not sure what he’s doing to them.)

Gah, I don’t know what to do, lol. Are the 13 inch Macbook Pro’s just not that great? The entry 15 inch is good, but it’s so much more expensive if I get the applecare protection plan as well. The 13 inch Macbook Air looks awesome, but again, if I upgrade it and get the protection plan it winds up being over two thousand dollars. That is just not feasible right now (student, as I said). My limit budget wise is about 1800 max. I just can’t pay 2,000 dollars right now.

Try easing up on the SSD drive capacity; that can be replaced later with only a little effort and ordering the star-shaped mini screwdriver needed to open the bottom. Also, while it’s nice having the best CPU, you don’t have to add that; much of the performance gain with the Air and latest Pro is from the speed of SSD, and even the i5 is pretty speedy for most any non-power-user applicatoin. I recently broke my bank account on an almost maxed-out air (I stopped at the ~256 MB ssd). Also, you can get a small discount by telling them you’re a student. I think the website has a place to claim that and then all the relevant prices are reduced.

If you want to put off the apple care, you can wait until just before the 1-year hardware warranty is up before dropping the cash, if that helps.

Another vote for the 13" MacBook Air. It’s the best computer I’ve ever owned (in about 25 years of owning computers). A feature that isn’t obvious is that it is so slim that the keyboard sits very close to the desk. Any other laptop I’ve owned forced you to develop strange kinks in your wrists.

I don’t know where you are, but in the UK Apple’s discounts for students are quite handy, in particular AppleCare, which is reduced to such a level as to make it almost impossible for a student to forego it.


Okay, so you think the 256 GB Macbook Air would work fine for me without any upgrading for now? I’m probably going to go to the store tomorrow to look at them. I stream a lot on Netflix as well, I forgot to mention that, although I would assume most computers can handle that. My poor ancient desktop can handle it, though barely :confused:

In a word: yes.
If you had said you made movies, or were a pro-photographer, or a games developer, I’d say go for the Pro. If you all you intend is to write documents, stream video and play SIMS, the Air is plenty. Everybody I know that has bought one, loves it and would never go back (the last three all switched from Windows).

I recommend going into a store to have a look. It’s one thing to look online (“I don’t know, 13” seems pretty small") and another to see in real life (“that’s the 13”? I guess that screen size is OK after all, but what about… wow is it really that fast?" - at that point, you won’t even consider anything else in the same price range).

If you’re buying from Apple, definitely take proof of your student enrolment and ask about academic discounts - the savings would probably get you an external Apple CD/DVD drive (if you think you will need it). In Australia the student discount is about 10%.

Thank you guys for your help! That’s about all I plan to do on it. I mainly use my computers for writing anyway, I just want a good one this time. I’ve been using cheaper windows laptops, and they just crap out pretty quickly it seems like. Everything I’ve read has said that Macs typically last longer. I’m not sure if I’ll need the CD drive or not. I won’t for anything I’m going to do personally, so I’ll probably wait and see if any of my classes will need me to install something specific by CD.


13" MBA, late 2010 version here, with only 2GB Ram and a 1.86Ghz processor and 256GB SSID. For writing, including academic stuff with diagrams, using OmniGraffle Pro, editing recordings using Amadeus Pro … everything bar editing video or serious Pro-level photo editing, it is so great to use that my 17" MBP late 2011 with 8GB RAM and 512GB SSID doesn’t get used that much, except for video stuff and when I want the screen real-estate.

And external USB powered DVD reader-writers are pretty cheap. I saw a Samsung one being advertised here in the UK by MyMemory for under GBP20.

I’m with Martin too on useability … the most comfortable typing environment I’ve ever had.

And another tip … it has an SD card slot. If you need to beef up your disk capacity, for moving stuff out that you need to keep accessible but don’t want to take up space on the SSID … I bought a couple of 32GB Sandisk Extreme HD cards for GBP18.60 each, I think it was, from MyMemory. That’s 64GB of swappable persistent memory for under 40 quid … and by the time they were delivered, they had dropped the price to just under GBP15, dammit!

Light, slim, well fast enough even for minor video editing if you need … I’d go for that.

By the way, my wife has a 13" MBP late 2011 … she loves it, but give me my MBA any day!


The one upgrade you may be surprised that you can’t do with the airs is to upgrade the RAM. That drove me to order mine with 8GB, which took about a week and a half to get in from China (I live in the midwest USA, so that time will vary a bit if you go this route). They typically have Airs in stock at Apple stores with 4GB RAM and 256GB SSD (“hard drive”), but I decided to future proof mine, since my last mac laptop lasted 6 years, and maxed out at 2GB of ram, which was getting a little crowded for all the stuff I typically run.

So if you’re really concerned about upgradability, special order one with 8GB RAM, and worry about the hard drive space in two or three years. If you’re somewhat handy, you’ll be able to swap out your then-old SSD for something truly massive by today’s standards. Bookmark eshop.macsales.com/, which always has guides for finding the compatible upgrade items for your specific model, and videos or pictorial guides on how to install them.

I’m almost wondering if I should save money by going with the 128 gb model, and upgrade the ram to 8 gb. That is almost two hundred dollars cheaper, and if I use an external hard drive that should be enough for what I do, and I could replace it later, as you say. You know what, I’m just gonna go to the store and see what I come home with, lol. I have researched to the point where I am almost cross-eyed. :stuck_out_tongue: You guys have been very helpful, thank you!

Yeah, this. 9 times out of 10, RAM is cheaper elsewhere. I’d recommend these people, if you’re in the US: datamemorysystems.com/ I swear the RAM is at my door right after hitting “submit” on the order, but we do live within 20 minutes of the border to New Hampshire. :wink:

IT boils down to this.

SSD = more expensive, less storage, but better performance and faster boot up. If you are constantly running from class to class or place to place putting your laptop to sleep and waking it back up etc, the SSD drive will save you a lot of time. Since you will be writing papers mainly and not dealing with heavy audio/video or games the drive size limitation would have little impact on your.

Macbook air = Lightest weight. Easy to carry around, thin so little footprint. Drawbacks are it is a little light in the power department and lacks an optical drive. If you are a “digital person” where you and everyone you know mainly deals with thumb drives and digitally sending stuff via email, etc then the optic drive will probably not be missed. Since you are mainly doing papers the less powerful CPU will not be noticed. So the main things would be
(a) Screen Real estate
(b) Weight
© Foot print (space it takes up in a bag or on a desk)

Macbook 13 - Good power, the 13 Retina version has a beautiful display but honestly for a person who is mainly going to be writing it is a waste of money. Better to get the better performing 13 non-retina versus the lower performing retina.

Compact size, good power, but the big drawback is screen realestate. For many the smaller size is the deciding factor. Small foot print, light weight. Easy to carry around and travel with and yet still plenty of power. If you have bad eyesight or if you are doing a lot of writing (yes) the 13 screen may be a little straining on the eyes. So the toss up would be smaller size and footprint versus Screen Real Estate.

Macbook 15 - This is the workhorse of the laptop line.

It has excellent cpu power/computer performance decent footprint and weight and good screen real estate.

Since this the most common size of laptops (15") you have the biggest and easiest selection of accessories.

Good screen real estate great performance, but a little bulkier and heavier than the air or 13 MBP.

If you are sitting down a lot and working long periods of time on a machine this one (IMO) is the one to go with. If you are having to move around a lot then the bulkiness and weight may become a burden.

In closing it really comes down to your preferences and needs. All of them are great performers and you will be very happy with any of them.

I think you need to decide what is most important to you.

Screen real estate versus footprint/weight.

Since writing is your main function the power differences (cpu) will almost be unnoticeable between the 3. The biggest performance feature you would notice for your use would be whether you are using a standard HD or a SSD / or Fusion drive.

The two biggest complaints would be either Screen size or weight/footprint

Compare the prices and see what would best fit your situation.

PS The retina display models would not benefit you that much (IMO) if you are mainly writing. They would benefit users who are more into photography/Graphics or look at a lot of visual things. Looking at text most of the time may appear a little sharper but I think you would hardly notice the difference and the price you pay you could throw in extra features (like SSD or more ram or accessories) on a non retina model and get more bang for your buck. Also like AmberV stated. On new models using new tech its usually best to wait a little bit (6mons-year) to let the new model line settle in and get the kinks worked out.

I would buy a copy of Windows 7 and bootcamp it. That gives you the most flexibility software/file wise for compatibility. If you are going to be around a lot of different people and scenarios for usage (like on a campus) having both OSes running on 1 hardware really can be helpful if any compatibility issue arrives.

On that point I would disagree. I’d say Retina is great for writing because the quality of the text is superb. Much of what we attribute to eye strain when reading digital text is down to how fuzzy it is. Having text that is nearly as crisp as in a book is huge.

Graphics, on the other hand, are next to horrible on a Retina screen right now. I’d say there are two reasons for that. The first is that most of the big names in graphics are not even remotely optimised for Retina. Photoshop, from its interface down to its display of the graphics itself, is a mess. It’s really hard to see what you are doing with an image. The second reason is that it operates in a weird twilight period of computing that software hasn’t caught up with. The notion of pixels as a unit of measurement and as a system for display is abstracted. 600 pixels on a Retina screen is about the same width across as 600 pixels on non-Retina screen, which means it is actually 1,200 pixels across. This makes working in pixel dependent areas of design, like the Web, much more complicated.

I think in time pixels will become like dot pitch is for most people. Not something we work in directly. A technical detail of how things are displayed, but we’ll be using some other unit for literal measurement in design. Perhaps we’ll just go back to standard units like metric. But right now at this point in history, pixels are still an integral form of measurement on everything but Retina screens.

I can’t afford the Retina version right now anyway. Ultimately for what I’m going to be using it for, and since I’ll be carrying it around a lot, I’m probably going to go with an Air. Maybe one day I’ll get a more powerful model, but for right now I don’t really need it anyway. I can’t wait to get my Air, though! I’ll let you guys know what I wind up with and how it works for me. I imagine it’ll take a little adjustment since I’ve never used a Mac before.