The MacBook Buyer’s Guide

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I decided to buy a MacBook in 2017. I owned a 2016 MacBook Pro (non-touch bar) for several months before selling it and going all in on the iPad Pro.  I love iPads but it didn’t work out like I hoped it would. So I hit the MacBook market again and quickly found myself in an incredibly deep, confusing quagmire of options and indecision. No lie, I’ve deliberated over which MacBook to use for so long I’m embarrassed to put down a number. It wasn’t just months of contemplating either, I bought most of the available configurations (Best Buy has a really nice return policy) and gave each of them a fair shot before finally figuring out which one would work best for me.

A little backstory: when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he immediately began simplifying their product line. It was a bold move, especially at the time, especially for an interim CEO. But it was the first step in vaulting Apple to the most profitable company in the history of the world. Fast forward 20 years, Apple’s product offerings have remained fairly simple, though seemingly less so than in 2011 when Jobs left. It’s all a little more muddled than before. Here’s my problem: there are currently five different models of available Apple laptops, (MacBook Air, MacBook, MacBook Pro 13 non-touch bar, MacBook Pro 13 w/ touch bar, MacBook Pro 15) all with many different configuration options. There’s also the dilemma of where to buy one: Best Buy (I’m an executive member, yes I have a problem), Apple Store, Apple Refurbished Store, some online store? It’s enough to drive someone crazy!

Here’s what I came to:

 

MacBook Air

At first, I couldn’t figure out who should buy this laptop. I guess it’s sort of a budget option, and it has really good battery life, but that screen looks so antiquated that I can’t stand looking at it for any significant amount of time. I know two people who have bought a MacBook Air in the last year, my wife and one of my co-workers. They don’t have a lot in common, but they do share an apathy when it comes to technology. I think that’s probably the target market for the MacBook Air these days, people who don’t care about having the latest or greatest devices, just as long as they work. These MacBook Airs may not be cool anymore but they sure are trusty. That obviously isn’t going to do it for me.

 

MacBook

The MacBook is the trickiest one of the bunch. It’s incredibly svelte and beautiful and I’m constantly drawn to it. It’s also considered a little bit underpowered and a 12-inch screen is small for a full desktop operating system. Those aren’t deal killers but they do have to be considered. When I pair those compromises with the fact that a specced out version of the MacBook (16gb ram, 512 SSD, i5 processor which doesn’t have the same power as the i5 in the MacBook Pro) is only $100 cheaper than the same specced out version of the MacBook Pro non-touch bar ($1,799 vs $1,899), I want to lean towards the MacBook Pro. That $100 gets you a bigger screen, better speakers, more ports (okay, only one more, but still), better ports (both Thunderbolt 3) and probably most importantly, a more capable processor. However, there are some real-world scenarios where the MacBook still shines over the MacBook Pro. For any type of conference or meeting, the MacBook is a better option simply because of its size. The word that comes to mind is ‘unobtrusive.’ Also, for perusing the internet, watching your favorite show, getting miscellaneous things done, the MacBook is easier to use at home on the couch, or even in bed. Mostly because it’s so small and, yes, ‘unobtrusive.’ The MacBook is so beautifully petite that it competes with iPads in the coziness factor. That’s saying something.

One other note on the MacBook: at the office, many of us are using a monitor as a primary screen anyways, which negates the downside of the 12″ screen when working. The 2017 MacBook now supports its internal display as well as up to 4096×2304 at 60hz on an external display, which, for those keeping track, is 4k. One quick note on the external display though, it is super hard to find an adapter that supports 4k output at 60hz with the ability to simultaneously charge the MacBook. There are plenty of adapters that will connect at 30hz and charge, but who wants to stare at a monitor running at 30hz all day? You might have to shell out for a serious docking station to make it work right. For many, this probably isn’t a deal killer, but it sure is annoying if you’ve got a nice 4k monitor.

The fact remains that the MacBook is small and especially nice to use at home, and it can be connected to a nice display at the office. It’s the best of both worlds! I’m so tempted by this laptop!

 

MacBook Pro 13″ with touch bar

Here’s what I want in a laptop: great function (no freezing or stalling, consistent performance), great looks (yes, I’m shallow), and great battery life. The MacBook Pro with touch bar checks the first two boxes but it has a problem with the third. The touch bar model is considered an upgrade over the non-touch bar model for the obvious addition of the touch bar, and a slightly upgraded chip. But the trade-off is too steep. Not only does this laptop need more power to run the touch bar and the processor, it’s equipped with a smaller battery (49.2 compared to 54.5) than the non-touch bar model! The results are not quite catastrophic, but I couldn’t use it for more than a few days before returning it. This sucker needs to be on a charger early and often.

Touch bar commentary has been extensive, so I’ll briefly give my two cents: it’s mostly useless. I would actually list it as a con. It’s annoying to see that little strip always changing in my peripheral vision, it’s annoying that the buttons I want aren’t always there, and it’s annoying that I’m forced to use it because the function row is gone. I’m out on the touch bar. Maybe someday it will be good, but it’s not today.

 

MacBook Pro 15″ with touch bar

I’ll be honest, this is the one MacBook model that I’ve never purchased. There are two reasons I’ve passed up on this MacBook model: size and cost.

First, I like my mobile tech to be more mobile than a 15″ laptop can be. Not that the MacBook 15″ is a monster, it’s actually incredibly portable compared to what we were all toting around a few years ago, but compared to the other MacBook models, it’s big. It’s big enough that I would feel weird trying to use it in a meeting or at a conference, that I feel like my coffee wouldn’t fit next to it on the table at the coffee shop, that I feel like over time my back would be slowly compressed by the extra weight and I’d end up with a metal rod for a spine. These are definitely irrational, but I at least I said ‘feel’ right? For the real pro’s who need all the power and screen they can get while still being able to work somewhere other than their desk, this is the best option. I feel like most of us aren’t real pro’s.

These MacBooks are also pretty pricey. The cheapest option starts at $2k, and they increase drastically from there. All MacBook models are obviously pricey, but there’s something about that $2k line that keeps me away. I wouldn’t say these MacBooks aren’t worth the price, but for the majority of us who don’t technically ‘need’ one, $2k is a little steep for a laptop. Again, it’s a price point is for the real pro’s.

 

MacBook Pro 13″ sans touch bar

I’m a big proponent of leaving the best for last. So I will sort of reluctantly admit that this is probably the best option if you’re in the market for a new MacBook. I know, a glowing endorsement. Let me get into it for a minute.

The MacBook Pro 13″ sans touch bar is very functional, it’s pretty, and the battery life is great. It checks all of the boxes. Forget about the price, I prefer this model over the touch bar model full stop. Add in the fact the there’s a $300 surcharge for the touch bar model and it’s a no-brainer. This non-touch bar model is a runaway winner. Harking back to my commentary on the 12-inch MacBook, the Pro also has some real advantages over it’s smaller sibling, like a little extra power, screen real estate, and one more port.

So why so lukewarm? It’s because I love the 12″ MacBook!

 

Decision

I’ll admit, the MacBook Pro 13″ is the most practical option, and I really do appreciate it, I even used it for several months. But practicality is only part of the consideration when you’re looking for a premium tool that you’ll be using every day for however many years. I like using the MacBook 12″ better. I like the extra portability, I like that it’s wedge-shaped, I like that it feels unobtrusive in meetings and seminars, I just like using it. So that’s my final point, tech tools are just as personal as they are practical. The tool obviously needs to work, but here’s a pro-tip: get the one you like.

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