• Deciding between the MacBook Pro Retina and MacBook Air

    When the MacBook Air was released, the choice of Laptop was pretty simple. The MacBook Air had limited hard drive space and the ram maxed out at 4GB so if you were a serious OSX user, it wasn't an option. With the lines between the two slowly blurring, it's harder for users to decide between the two and the reality is that the 2012 MacBook Air is more powerful than a top of the range 2010 MacBook Pro. Add the use of a SATA 3 solid-state drives and the result is beyond the realms of 95% of user minimum requirements.

    If you're having a hard time deciding between the two, hopefully this article will help put things into perspective for you. There are a couple of questions you need to ask yourself to get the answer you're looking for. These are largely based around the individual differences between the two and the limitations of the products for specific requirements.

    Do you need 16GB of RAM?

    The first thing that differentiates the MacBook Pro from the Air is the RAM capability. The question is how much ram do you need? If you're planning on running a virtual machine, 8GB is more than enough. If you want to run two VM's, 8 is also still enough but it will slow down so if you do it on the odd occasion you can still get away with it. If you really need to run 2 or more VM's on a regular basis, throw away the MacBook Air and go straight for the Retina MacBook Pro along with maxed out RAM and the best processor your money can buy.

    Aperture is another ram hog but even with a 35000 picture library (larger if you consider the 35000 doesn't take into account both RAW and JPG), I've virtually never seen my 8GB maxed out other the initial processing (with facial recognition) after having recovered my entire machine using time machine so the additional ram would still fall into the "nice to have territory" rather than must have. This would be beyond the realms of most casual users. Realistically, the only time I get close to maxing out my RAM is when my Aperture, Photoshop and a couple of other RAM hogs are running. Most of the time I can shut one down. If it's one application that is creating problems, you may want to consider the alternatives. As an example, I've started trialing Lightroom and the results are impression in comparison to Aperture when it comes to high volumes of photos (20000+).

    Dual core vs. Quad Core?

    The second thing to consider is the quad core vs dual core. As a general rule, most people don't "need" a Quad core. When my 2010 Macbook Pro came out, I bought the 2.66 i7, it was top of the range and fast. I added a SSD and it was extremely fast and considered to be one of the top end Apple laptops for a variety of tasks like video processing, photo editing and anything else you needed. The MacBook Air is quicker than my Macbook Pro, the SSD is faster (SATA3 vs. SATA2) and the only thing better on my Pro is the graphics card. If my MacBook Pro could handle Pro level tasks 2 years ago, chances are the Air can handle the majority of those tasks today.

    The Quad Core will do everything faster and that's what it comes down to. If you're doing a lot of video processing of 1080P video or multiple VM's, the Retina Pro is always going to be better.


    Technically the Retina wins this hands down but Retina is not always what it seems. It's a virtual resolution that improves the quality of the page at what is really a lower resolution so if you're planning on running it at maximum resolution, it may not be what you expect. Running resolutions outside of the Apple recommended standard Retina resolutions can result in scrolling speed issues amongst others. The reality is Retina is not a real resolution and the graphics card in the Retina is not capable of maintaining the Retina at its highest possible resolution running real resolution. Apps have to be optimized for running Retina because contrary to what some people think, it's not the simple improvement of resolution you would find running a larger screen.

    Graphics card

    In simple terms, the MacBook Air has a small graphics card, the Retina has a bigger one. Obviously the Retina wins this hands down so if you're doing anything really graphics intensive, the Air isn't really a viable option but you really need to think hard about what you're doing and whether it really requires it. Most everyday tasks are not graphic intensive enough to warrant anything more than what the Air has. Obviously when you start moving into the realms of professional video editing, that changes but how many people here are really doing that, and if so, how many would of those users would realistically even consider the MacBook Air?


    Ports may seem like a minor issue, but let's consider a minor dilemma I had. The MacBook Air has 1 thunderbolt port, the MacBook Pro Retina has 2. Sure, you can daisy chain devices you may say, but you can't always. I have a normal VGA monitor and I have a Firewire external array. I can't put both on a single port or I'd have to upgrade my monitor ($1000) or buy a thunderbolt hub at a cost of about $400 (when they are finally available). My final solution was to remove my current drives from their Firewire enclosures and put them in a USB3 enclosure ($60) with a USB3 hub ($30). The short answer is it's not an ideal situation but port's also aren't a showstopper.


    This is one of the few areas that the MacBook Air wins and with business becoming mobile and the cost of external displays reducing, having a 13" screen isn't the dilemma it was previously. I started with a MacBook Black, shifted to a MacBook Pro 15", then to a 17" and then back to a 15" and now back to an Air. The difference between the 17" and 15" can be attributed to travel. The 17" was too large for regular travel and I travel a lot. The shift to the 13" was because I could have a 24" screen at the office and home and such a low cost it seemed impractical to buy a 15".


    While neither the Retina nor Air is upgradable (without impacting on your warranty), the MacBook Non-Retina does offer this and may still be a consideration. The one advantage the Retina offers over the Air is a higher level of future proofing due to the higher spec. If you have concerns about your long-term prospects of using a particular limitation of RAM or processor, this should be a consideration although obviously this comes at a price. 8GB may be fine for now but will it be okay in 3 years time if you intend keeping your laptop that long? I replace mine annually so upgradability is less of a concern but not everyone has this option available. That said, while you may not be able to upgrade RAM, third party manufacturers like OWC make compatible SSD's with both the Retina and Air and chances are you will be able to upgrade your drive size at some point in future. Whilst warranty may be an issue, in 3 years it won't because it's outside of AppleCare.


    While the lines between the two are blurred, there are distinct differences between them and these may be sufficient to offer a justification to go down either path. Obviously there are other considerations like price, but these tend to be more obvious choices. At the end of the day, there is not perfect choice for everyone, only a perfect choice for you and at some point, you may still be disappointed with you choice. Itís a little like ordering food in a restaurant. When the food arrives, you may still wish you ordered what someone else has.

    About the author

    Athol Hill is the Practice Lead for Stonebridge Systems, an SAP & OpenText implementation partner specialising in web and content management implementations and strategy.

    He is a certified SAP and Project Management Professional with a large number of implementations spanning the globe including Australasia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. When he isn't kitesurfing or spending time with his family, Athol writes part time for Mactalk on a range of subjects including iOS/OSX in the workplace, bleeding edge, product reviews and anything Mac. If you have something new and exciting to review, feel free to get in touch. He can be contacted via twitter on @themissionman or email on athol.hill@mactalk.com.au. Opinions noted here are Athol's own and aren't any official policy of position of his employer.
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