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Retina Display MacBook Pro Q&A - Updated November 14, 2013

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What are the major differences between the 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro, the "regular" 13-Inch MacBook Pro, and the 13-Inch MacBook Air? Which is best for me?

There are many different 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro, regular "pre-Retina" 13-Inch MacBook Pro, and 13-Inch MacBook Air models. In fact, as diligently documented by EveryMac.com, there have been 32 distinct models released over several years.

Based on e-mail received, most readers who decide they want the smallest notebook possible gravitate toward an 11-Inch MacBook Air and those who want the biggest display and the most performance possible choose a 15-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro. These are fairly easy decisions. However, those who find value in a compromise in terms of size, performance, battery life, upgrades, or cost, often find themselves debating the assorted 13-Inch options available.

EveryMac.com provides many detailed technical comparisons -- between the current 11-Inch and 13-Inch MacBook Air and 13-Inch and 15-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro models, for example -- but this Q&A is for the purpose of general comparison to help one interested in a less technical answer find the best 13-Inch Apple notebook.


Photo Credit: Apple, Inc. (13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro)

External Differences

There are significant external and design differences between these models.

Regardless of release date, the 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro models use an effectively sealed (as well as difficult and sometimes impossible to upgrade), uniformly thin design -- around three quarters of an inch thick -- and weigh around 3.5 pounds.

The "regular" 13-Inch MacBook Pro models -- such as the still sold as new MacBook Pro "Core i5" 2.5 13-Inch Mid-2012 -- also use a "Unibody" design that looks similar, but it is easy to upgrade albeit thicker and heavier (a bit less than an inch thick and a relatively hefty 4.5 pounds).

There have been a long line of MacBook Air models, but they all have a tapered design that is thicker at the back and thinner at the front, which makes them look much thinner than the other models. Recent and current models are just 0.68 of an inch at the rear and a razor thin 0.11 of an inch at the front and weigh just under 3 pounds.

The 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro models have a 13.3" widescreen 2560x1600 (227 ppi) display that runs "pixel doubled" at 1280x800, but with four times the detail of a "traditional" display. The regular MacBook Pro has a 13.3" 1280x800 glossy display, and the MacBook Air has a display that is relatively high-resolution for its physical dimensions -- 13.3" 1440x900 -- but nowhere near the resolution of the Retina Display model.

All have a full-size "chiclet-style" backlit keyboard, glass "no button" trackpads with "inertial scrolling" support, integrated stereo speakers, at least one microphone, and an integrated 720p FaceTime HD webcam.

Finally, neither the Retina Display MacBook Pro nor the MacBook Air models have a built-in optical drive, but the regular MacBook Pro model does.


Photo Credit: Apple, Inc. (13-Inch MacBook Air)

Connectivity Differences

Connectivity on these models can be quite different, particularly from different years. However, they all include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB ports, and a headphone jack. Recent and current models all have an SDXC-capable SD card slot, too.

In general, though, the 13-Inch Retina Display models have more advanced connectivity, specifically two Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 ports and an HDMI port. The "regular" MacBook Pro has some useful "legacy" connectivity -- Gigabit Ethernet and Firewire "800" support -- in addition to a single Thunderbolt port on current and recent models. Recent and current MacBook Air models also have a single Thunderbolt port but none have Gigabit Ethernet or Firewire "800" capabilities.

Identification Differences

Just as the site has for many years, EveryMac.com has carefully hand documented unique identifiers for each of the dozens of different models -- such as the Model Number, EMC Number, Model Identifier, and more.

However, for the purpose of general identification for a less technical Q&A, it is suitable to note that the 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro models have no name on the display bezel (and instead are identified as "MacBook Pro" only on the bottom), the 13-Inch "regular" MacBook Pro models have "MacBook Pro" on the display bezel (and have an internal optical drive on the right hand side), and the 13-Inch MacBook Air models likewise all have "MacBook Air" on the display bezel.

However, if you are trying to buy one of these models on the used market, more specific identification details can be quite necessary.

EveryMac.com's Ultimate Mac Lookup feature -- as well as the EveryMac app -- can identify exact systems using the Model Number, EMC Number, and Model Identifier mentioned above as well as the Serial Number.

Internal Differences

Internally, there are major differences between these systems, particularly from year-to-year. However, in general, the 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro models are more powerful than the 13-Inch MacBook Air, but the MacBook Air models provide better battery life. As the 13-Inch "regular" MacBook Pro models are older, they use a less powerful architecture with shorter runtime than the latest MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.

However, the regular models have RAM that can be upgraded inexpensively after purchase -- up to 16 GB for recent and current models -- whereas the MacBook Air and Retina Display MacBook Pro models have RAM soldered in place and it cannot be upgraded after purchase at all.

The current 13-Inch MacBook Air models can be upgraded only to 8 GB of RAM, even at the time of purchase, and 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro models prior to the current series have this limitation as well. However, the current Retina Display MacBook Pro models can be upgraded to 16 GB of RAM at the time of purchase (but, again, not after the initial system purchase).

By default, the regular MacBook Pro has large capacity, but slow hard drives instead of small capacity, but fast removable SSD modules like the Retina Display and MacBook Air models. However, the regular models can be easily upgraded with fast and large capacity SSDs inexpensively after initial purchase and can remain competitive for many tasks particularly if upgraded with performance in mind (and even support aftermarket options to install a second hard drive or SSD in place of the optical drive, if desired).

The batteries are quite different as well. The battery in the regular models, although not nearly as high capacity as the battery in the Retina Display MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, is easy to replace. At least for now, the MacBook Air batteries also are straightforward to replace. The 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro models, however, have an internal battery design that is glued in place and essentially impossible to replace yourself.

Comparison Chart

The major differences between the 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro, 13-Inch "regular" MacBook Pro, and 13-Inch MacBook Air models are summarized below:

 
13" Retina

Regular 13" Pro

13" Air
Key Advantages: Display Resolution
Overall Speed
Easy & Fast Upgrades
Internal Optical Drive
Size & Weight
Battery Life
Key Disadvantages: Limited Upgrades
Battery Glued In
Size & Weight
Slower Architectures
Limited Upgrades
Relatively Slow
Approx. Weight: ~3.5 Pounds ~4.5 Pounds <3 Pounds
Design: Unibody Unibody (Upgradable) Tapered
Std. Resolution: 2560x1600 1280x800 1440x900
Std. Storage Type: SSD Hard Drive SSD
Storage Upgrades: Yes Yes Yes
Optical: None 8X DL None
Max RAM: 16 GB 16 GB 8 GB
RAM Upgrades: No Yes No
RAM Slots: None 2 None
Thunderbolt (1/2): 2 1 1
HDMI: 1 None None
USB (2.0/3.0): 2 2 2
FW 800: None 1 None
Ethernet: None Gigabit None
Battery Design: Glued Integrated Integrated
Current Price: US$1299-US$1799 US$1199 US$1099, US$1299


So, which is ideal for my needs?

Ultimately, if size, weight and battery life are most important to you, get a MacBook Air. If easy and inexpensive upgrades, legacy connectivity, and an optical drive are most important, get a regular MacBook Pro.

If a beautiful, high resolution display and performance are most important to you -- but not important enough to get a physically larger 15-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro with an even bigger display and massively better performance -- and you are not bothered by the effectively sealed design and glued in battery, the 13-Inch Retina Display MacBook Pro is your best choice.

Site sponsor PowerMax has new and used configurations of the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models available free of sales tax. MegaMacs has inexpensive used MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models, as well.

Please refer to EveryMac.com's Ultimate Mac Comparison feature to dynamically compare any MacBook Pro or MacBook Air model to any other Mac.


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