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Unibody MacBook Pro Q&A - Updated May 20, 2010

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What are the differences between the "Mid-2010" 13-Inch MacBook Pro and the also 13-Inch "Mid-2010" White MacBook and "Mid-2009" MacBook Air models? Which is best for me?

Please note that all models mentioned in this Q&A have been discontinued.

Externally, the "Mid-2010" 13-Inch MacBook Pro models -- the MacBook Pro "Core 2 Duo" 2.4 13-Inch and "Core 2 Duo" 2.66 13-Inch -- the "Mid-2010" MacBook -- the MacBook "Core 2 Duo" 2.4 13-Inch -- and the "Mid-2009" MacBook Air models -- the MacBook Air "Core 2 Duo" 1.86 13-Inch and "Core 2 Duo" 2.13 13-Inch -- are easy to differentiate from one another.

The MacBook Pro models have relatively thick aluminum cases with a black frame around the display (just about everything is relatively thick compared to the MacBook Air), the White MacBook has a white polycarbonate case, and the MacBook Air models use a razor thin silver-colored aluminum case.

Photo Credit: Apple, Inc. (Clockwise from Top - MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, MacBook)

In general, it is safe to say that if price is one's highest priority, the least expensive White MacBook "Core 2 Duo" 2.4 13-Inch (or a used MacBook) is the best choice. If size and weight are paramount, then a MacBook Air is likely the best choice, and if relative performance and connectivity are tops, then a 13-Inch MacBook Pro is ideal.

Those who want the simplest answer can stop reading now, but those who appreciate an in-depth comparison to fully understand all of the differences also will find the following useful.

Apple refers to all of these systems as using a "Unibody" case design. Given the material differences, however, the MacBook is molded as a single piece of white polycarbonate -- with a removable aluminum bottom panel coated in a "non-skid" rubber surface -- and the aluminum 13-Inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro systems each are milled from a single piece of aluminum that provides greater strength.

The white MacBook weighs 4.7 pounds, the MacBook Pro weighs 4.5 pounds, and the MacBook Air weighs a mere 3 pounds. The MacBook and MacBook Pro models are roughly an inch thick whereas the MacBook Air is a tiny .16 of an inch at its thinnest point and .76 of an inch at its thickest. One way the MacBook Air shaves weight, however, is that it has an external optical drive rather than an internal one like the MacBook and MacBook Pro.

All models have 13.3" widescreen, LED-backlit displays with a 1280x800 native resolution. Apple notes that the MacBook has the same "wide angle viewing technology" as the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models, but the MacBook reportedly does not have the same color gamut.

All of these models also essentially have the same "flush against the bed" keyboard design (although the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro have backlit keyboards and the MacBook does not), integrated "iSight" video camera, "catchless" magnetic latch, and similar "MagSafe" power connector technology.

However, the "Mid-2009" MacBook Air has a comparatively simple "one button, three finger" trackpad, whereas the MacBook and MacBook Pro models all have a glass no button "multi-touch" trackpad that supports a variety of "four finger" gestures and "inertial" scrolling. The MacBook Pro also supports a remote, whereas the other two models do not.

The battery design for all of these models basically is the same as well but batteries are not interchangeable. Each battery is integrated with its respective system and it is not designed to be "swapped" -- or even replaced -- by end users. Apple estimates 5 hours of runtime using a 40 W/Hr battery for the MacBook Air and 10 hours of runtime using a 63.5 W/Hr battery for the MacBook and MacBook Pro while performing "wireless productivity" tasks.

Connectivity is a major point of product differentiation. All models have AirPort Extreme (802.11a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR. All three also have a Mini DisplayPort that supports an external display at 2560x1600, but the Mini DisplayPort on the MacBook and MacBook Pro additionally pass an audio signal. Using the MacBook or MacBook Pro, it is possible to use a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter without the need for a second USB adapter for audio when connected to a device that supports audio via HDMI (like an HDTV).

Otherwise, the connectivity between models differs substantially. The MacBook Air has a single USB 2.0 port and the MacBook and MacBook Pro have two. The MacBook Air includes an external 10/100Base-T Ethernet adapter but does not support Gigabit Ethernet, whereas the MacBook and MacBook Pro both have Gigabit Ethernet ports. The MacBook Air has an analog audio output/headphone minijack whereas the MacBook and MacBook Pro both have the same "combined optical digital output/headphone out (user-selectable analog audio line in)" port used by the iPhone. The MacBook Pro models also have a Firewire "800" port and an SD card slot whereas the MacBook and MacBook Air do not.

Internally, there are some similarities between the MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro -- all use Core 2 Duo processors of differing speeds and with differing L2 caches, have the same 1066 MHz frontside bus, and have integrated graphics that share 256 MB of RAM with the system. However, the MacBook Air has NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics and the MacBook and MacBook Pro have faster GeForce 320M graphics.

Beyond graphics, perhaps the most notable internal difference is that the MacBook Air has 2 GB of non-upgradable memory and the MacBook and MacBook Pro have upgradable 1066 MHz PC3-8500 DDR3 SDRAM. Official memory capacity is different -- with a 4 GB maximum for the MacBook and 8 GB for the 13-Inch MacBook Pro models -- but site sponsor OWC has discovered that the MacBook actually supports 8 GB too.

These differences, as well as configuration differences, are summarized below:

 
MacBook
Mid-2010

MacBook Air
Mid-2009

MacBook Pro
Mid-2010
Processor: P8600 SL9400, SL9600 P8600, P8800
Speed: 2.4 GHz 1.86, 2.13 GHz 2.4, 2.66 GHz
System Bus: 1066 MHz 1066 MHz 1066 MHz
L2 Cache: 3 MB 6 MB 3 MB
Std. RAM: 2 GB 2 GB 4 GB
Max. RAM: 8 GB* 2 GB 8 GB
RAM Type: PC3-8500 DDR3 Soldered PC3-8500 DDR3
Int. Graphics: GeForce 320M GeForce 9400M GeForce 320M
VRAM: 256 MB** 256 MB** 256 MB**
Display Size: 13.3" 13.3"† 13.3"†
Resolution: 1280x800 1280x800 1280x800
Ext. Display: 2560x1600 2560x1600 2560x1600
Hard Drive: 250 GB 120, 128 GB§ 250, 320 GB
Optical Drive: 8X DL None 8X DL
USB 2.0: 2 1 2
Firewire 800: No No 1
Ethernet: Gigabit 10/100Base-T Gigabit
Audio In: Analog USB Only Analog
Audio Out: Optical/Digital Analog Optical/Digital
Display Port: Mini DisplayPort†† Mini DisplayPort Mini DisplayPort††
SD Card Slot: No No Yes
Backlit KB: No Yes Yes
Trackpad: 4-Finger Inertial 3-Finger 4-Finger Inertial
Remote: No No Yes
Battery Life: 10 Hours§§ 5 Hours§§ 10 Hours§§
Battery W/Hr: 63.5 W/Hr 40 W/Hr 63.5 W/Hr
Dimensions: 1.08 x 13.00 x 9.12 .16-.76 x 12.8 x 8.94 0.95 x 12.78 x 8.94
Weight: 4.7 lbs (2.13 kg) 3.0 lbs (1.36 kg) 4.5 lbs (2.04 kg)
Order No: MC516LL/A MC233LL/A
MC234LL/A
MC374LL/A
MC375LL/A
Original Price: US$999 US$1499, US$1799 US$1199, US$1499


* Officially, the White "Mid-2010" MacBook model supports 4 GB of RAM, but third-parties have confirmed that it actually is capable of supporting 8 GB.

** All of these systems have a graphics processor that shares 256 MB of DDR3 SDRAM with main memory.

† The display in the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models is higher-quality.

†† The MiniDisplay Port in the MacBook and MacBook Pro also passes an audio signal.

§ MacBook Air "Core 2 Duo" 2.13 13-Inch has a 128 GB SSD rather than a hard drive.

§§ Battery life as estimated by Apple in a "wireless productivity" test.

Ultimately, when comparing the White MacBook and the MacBook Pro most users will have to decide if the superior aluminum case material, modestly enhanced performance and configuration, additional connectivity, and officially supported higher memory capacity are worth the price premium of the MacBook Pro. To some, the US$200 minimum difference is money well spent, whereas others on a tight budget may find that the white polycarbonate MacBook model is quite adequate for their needs.

When comparing the MacBook or MacBook Pro to the MacBook Air, one will have to decide if the Air's pound and a half advantage in weight is worth the disadvantages in price, performance, connectivity, expansion, and battery life. For those who travel frequently, and find the battery life sufficient, the MacBook Air is worth consideration. Others likely would prefer the much less expensive MacBook or the decidedly "premium enough" MacBook Pro.

Site sponsor PowerMax has new and used configurations of the MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro models available for sale free of sales tax. OWC sells MacBook and MacBook Pro memory upgrades at affordable prices.

Please refer to the Ultimate Mac Comparison feature to dynamically compare any MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro model to any other G3 or later Mac.


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