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When Apple refreshed its laptop line in June 2012, the entry-level price of the 13-inch MacBook Air came down by $100, to just $1,199. Surprise, that’s also the price of the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro. We can’t remember Apple having two entry-level machines like this--in the days of the white plastic MacBook, that was always the rock-bottom-priced option, and until this revision, the MacBook Air was always slightly more expensive than the MacBook Pro, since the Air’s fancy, shrunken innards cost a premium. So now the question becomes how to choose.
We took the entry-level $1,199 mid-2012 2.5GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro for a spin, and compared it against a $1,499 1.8GHz Core i5 MacBook Air just purchased by a staffer. (The specs on our $1,499 Air are nearly identical to the entry-level $1,199 13-inch MacBook Air, though--the $1,499 machine has 256GB of flash storage compared to the $1,199 Air’s 128GB, but that’s it.) Our conclusion: It’s a great time to be a Mac user, because both these machines deliver outstanding performance for your dollar.
The MacBook Pro’s main benefit is its completeness. Just about everything you need is here. That starts with plenty of storage thanks to the 5400RPM, 500GB hard drive. For $100 you can upgrade to a 750GB hard drive, or you can opt for a solid-state drive, at premiums of $200 for 128GB, $500 for 256GB, or $1,000 for 512GB--or open the case and drop in an aftermarket SSD yourself. The MacBook Air has speedy flash-based storage, just not as much of it: as mentioned, you get 128GB in the $1,199 MacBook Air (which isn’t upgradeable from Apple), or 256GB in the $1,499 model (which you can upgrade to 512GB for $500). It’s possible to upgrade the storage in your MacBook Air on your own, but it’s trickier than on the MacBook Pro, because Apple uses flash memory “sticks” in the Air models, instead of a regular 2.5-inch SSD, which are more abundant on the market.
Which Mac are you?
MacBook Pro wins the ports race too. Both machines have two USB 3.0 ports, one Thunderbolt, a headphone port, and an SDXC card slot, but the MacBook Pro adds Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, and that handy LED battery-life indicator. And it’s got an optical drive--in fact, the 13-inch and 15-inch (non-Retina) MacBook Pros are Apple’s only portable machines left that have one. We don’t burn a lot of discs, but if you’re a frequent ripper, having a built-in drive might be important to you.
Graphics are the same. Each has an Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip, and can support the built-in display’s native resolution plus a 2560x1800 external display. But the native resolutions don’t match. The thinner MacBook Air has a higher-res display: 1440x900 to the MacBook Pro’s 1280x800. That’s not a huge difference unless you’re stepping down from a 15-inch laptop--the 13-inch MacBook Air has the same number of pixels as the 15-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro.
Both machines pack dual-core Intel Core i5 processors, with the Pro’s 2.5GHz Core i5 besting the Air’s 1.8GHz Core i5 in Geekbench, 7,478 to 6,809. But the Air’s flash storage lets it start up faster, in just 20.9 seconds, while the Pro took 32.5. Obviously, the Air has much faster read and write speeds (296MBps read, 261MBps write) than the Pro (93MBps read, 87MBps write), but you might be willing to sacrifice that speed for more storage space, depending on your needs. The final piece of the puzzle is battery life. The Pro has room for a much bigger battery, a 63.5 watt-hour battery rated for 7 hours of wireless productivity. We got just over 5 hours of normal usage, and 4 hours, 21 minutes of continuously looping a MP4 video in QuickTime. The diminutive Air’s 35-watt hour battery is rated for 5 hours of wireless productivity, and we got very close to that: 4 hours, 9 minutes of regular use.
The bottom line. We heartily recommend both--if you’re a road warrior, the 2.96-pound MacBook Air seems to disappear in a laptop bag without sacrificing screen size. But if you need a lot of storage, FireWire, or an optical drive, you’ll be glad to pack the 4.5-pound 13-inch MacBook Pro, which lasts longer on a charge too. Since we mostly deal with small files and love flash storage, we’ll give the edge to the MacBook Air. But your mileage may vary.
13-Inch 2.5GHZ Core i5 Macbook Pro
Specs: MB L3 cache, 4GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, 13.3-inch 1280x800 glossy display, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive, MagSafe port, Thunderbolt port, two USB 3 ports, FireWire 800 port, headphone port, SDXC card slot, 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0, 720p FaceTime camera, backlit keyboard, stereo speakers with subwoofer, omnidirectional microphone
Pros: User-serviceable RAM and hard drive. USB 3. MacBook Pro is Apple’s only remaining laptop with built-in FireWire 800 and optical drive.
Cons: Hard drive slow compared to SSD-based Mac laptops. Lower display resolution than 13-inch MacBook Air.
13-Inch 1.8GHZ Core i5 Macbook Air
Specs: 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with 3MB shared L3 cache, 4GB 1600MHz DDR3-L RAM, 13.3-inch 1440x900 glossy display, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 256GB flash storage, MagSafe 2 port, Thunderbolt port, two USB 3 ports, headphone port, SDXC card slot, 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0, 720p FaceTime camera, backlit keyboard, stereo speakers, omnidirectional microphone
Pros: Higher resolution than 13-inch MacBook Pro. Same prices (starting at $1,199) as 13-inch MacBook Pro. USB 3. Flash storage.
Cons: MagSafe 2 port needs a $9.99 adapter to work with Thunderbolt Display or old MagSafe adapters.