Last night John Gruber posted on Daring Fireball that he feels the MacBook Airs place in the Mac lineup is as a second computer for the 13” and a sort of iPad Pro for the 11” model. It is an interesting perspective and I was glad to read it, but I completely disagree with him.1 I don’t think that Apple sees the MacBook Air as a “secondary Mac” at all. In fact in light of the reviews and benchmarks coming out about the MacBook Air I would suggest – actually I am gambling on – the fact that a MacBook Air can and will be more than ample as an everyday, only Mac, machine.
Here’s the way I see it: the Air is a secondary Mac; MacBook Pros are for use as a primary computer. I.e., if you want your MacBook to be your one and only Mac, you should get a MacBook Pro. You’ll need the additional storage, and you’ll be thankful for the additional RAM and expansion ports. If you’ve got a desktop Mac (or perhaps even a big MacBook Pro) as your primary Mac, but want a small lightweight MacBook for use away from your desk, the MacBook Air is your best option. The biggest weakness of the Air is its relatively small amount of storage space — that’s not nearly as much of an issue for a secondary Mac.
I completely see where he is coming from, but I think he may be projecting his usage too much onto the machine. My wife for instance has an original MacBook Pro with a 100GB hard drive – all of her media is on the computer, nothing on external drives – and she still has 19GB free. The biggest HD I have ever had was 300GB in my laptop, I switched that a few months back for a 240GB SSD. Right now I have 97.6GB free, but I keep all of my photo archives and music/videos on an external drive at home.
My sisters keep all their media on one machine and have room to spare, ditto my Mother and step-mother. Ditto a co-worker that has an older Macbook. I don’t think storage space is at the premium that Gruber thinks it really is. There is certainly a large contingent of Mac users that have an overwhelming amount of data storage needs, but if you fall in that group than I doubt that even a 500GB2 hard drive will suffice for you. So let’s go ahead and just throw out the ‘needing more storage space’ arguments against the MacBook Air, most people can and will figure out how to deal with that if it is even an issue for them, even then I don’t think it is an issue for the average user.
That leaves the last two points that Gruber brought up: extra RAM, and expansion ports. Here is how Apple deals with the RAM in its computer line: MacBook Pros, Mac minis all support 8GB of maximum RAM, the iMac supports 16GB max, the Macbook and MacBook Air supports just 4GB of RAM max, and the large-and-in-charge Mac Pro supports 32GB of RAM max. So really to get more RAM you must buy at least a MacBook Pro if you want a laptop with more than 4GB of RAM, but that is going to add $400 to the price3 of your MacBook Pro.
How many people out there are really going to pay to upgrade to 8GB of RAM? I would guess not many, and I would further guess that not many are going to pay to upgrade the MacBook Airs 2GB of RAM to the 4GB. So we are really comparing a 2GB RAM machine with a 4GB RAM machine – and in that case the MacBook Pro looks a lot better. There is a huge usability difference between 2 and 4GBs of RAM, so much so that I would recommend 4GB as a base starting point for all Mac users.
That brings us to expansion ports, here is what that looks like:
Essentially then we can leave out the 17” as I bet Apple will sell more Airs than they do those and a 17” notebook is bordering on being a desktop only machine to begin with. So that leaves the rest of the lineup. With a Macbook you get less expansion than the Air, and with the MacBook Pros you get firewire and only in the 15” do you get the audio in mini-jack.
What your choice then boils down to is a MacBook Air or a 13/15” MacBook Pro. We can eliminate the storage space needs by virtue of my above argument that anybody who needs more than the 128GB you can get in the Airs is probably going to need more than the 500GBs you get in the Pros. We can further eliminate the ‘more RAM’ issue by saying that most people will see a $100 upgrade on the Air as trivial (well most people that read this article). That just leaves the expansion port issue, and unless you do a lot of audio recording, or use firewire at all there really is no net gain to getting a MacBook Pro. I would further guess that most people would take 3 USB ports over 2 USB ports and 1 firewire – most people (read non-geeks) don’t use firewire. Also these same people that don’t use Firewire don’t use that extra audio port either.4
So really the choice is down to price and size, if all my above assumption are correct.5 Base 13” MacBook Pro $1199, base 13” MacBook Air $1299, but as I said it is really $1399 because you need to pay for that extra RAM. So for $200 less you get a slightly faster computer with more storage and more expansion ports – except that it is not faster than the Air. Macworld showed us yesterday that due to the Flash hard drives in the Airs it is two points better on their benchmark system that the MacBook Pro 13″ – even with half the RAM in the Air.
That means that to get ‘better’6 performance from a MacBook Pro than a MacBook Air you need a MacBook Pro with an SSD drive. If you configure it that way here is how the pricing breaks down: 13” MacBook Pro w/ 128GB7 SSD $1549 versus a 13” MacBook Air w/ 4GB RAM for $1399. Now for $150 less you get the same machine with one less expansion port and a lot less fat to the device.
Realistically then I think it is safe to call the price difference between a 13” MacBook Pro and a 13” MacBook Air a wash (if they are similarly configured). Given that your choice is between a computer that you can change out the RAM and hard drive on yourself and a computer that you can’t, but that is much lighter and thinner. The best way to think about that decision is two-fold:
- Have you ever upgraded your computer yourself?
- Do you plan on carrying your computer?
If you answered ‘yes’ to #1, then you really need to think about if you are OK with not upgrading any components of the Air, if you are not OK with that don’t get it. If you answered ‘yes’ to #2 then are you OK with carrying an extra 1.6 pounds with you? Like the saying goes: ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’ – so it goes for computers: ‘the best computer is the one that you have with you not the one sitting on your desk back home’.
I think it is reasonable to assume that the majority of Mac users will never use their Mac to the degree that they need the added processing power of the MacBook Pro. I would also guess that most Mac users carry their Macs places than they bother to desire to crack the case open. So for most Mac users wouldn’t the Air make more sense than the 13″ MacBook Pro?
All of this to say: the 13” MacBook Air is no secondary computer any more than the 13” MacBook Pro is.8
For a change. ↩
Which is the current maximum hard drive you can get on a MacBook Pro ↩
Unless you buy 3rd party and install for your self. ↩
I use firewire and never have used that audio port, have you? ↩
And I do realize I have given no hard facts, just used my life experiences thus far. ↩
Again it is not better across the board, but given the way most people use their machines and stock Air will feel and perform much faster than a stock Pro due to the flash drive speed ↩
There are larger SSD options, but the prices increases significantly and I am trying for an apples to apples comparison. If you subscribe to the thinking that storage is needed then go ahead and waste a ton of money on the 512GB option. ↩
I will address the iPad Pro / 11” MacBook Air thoughts later. ↩