MacBook Air 2013 vs. 2013 Retina MacBook Pro: Which Should You Buy?

MacBook Air 2013 vs. 2013 Retina MacBook Pro: Which Should You Buy?

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With the launch of the 2013 version of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, which have Intel’s power-sipping 4th generation Core processor inside, many have asked us if they should purchase an MacBook Air 13-inch or the 2013 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The former laptop offers epic battery life in the same sleek design we’ve come to know and love from the Air, while the latter boasts one of the sharpest and richest screens ever to grace a notebook. We’ve broken it down to help you determine which MacBook is best for your needs.  

Design

macbookair

Weighing 3 pounds and measuring 12.8 x 9 x 0.11 – 0.68 inches, the Air is essentially unchanged in dimensions and design since last year. However, the Pro is slimming down. At 0.71 inches, it’s barely thicker, and has a smaller footprint than the Air (12.35 x 8.62 inches). At 3.46 pounds–0.29 pounds lighter than the 2012 version–the Pro weighs more than the Air but is still easy to carry. Both notebooks follow the familiar Apple aesthetic: a solid aluminum body with a black keyboard and excellent touchpad.

Winner: MacBook Air. The Air wins this round because it’s thinner and lighter. You barely notice it when this laptop is in your bag.

MORE: Best Laptops 2013

Display

MacBook-Pro-13-inch-2013_screen


No contest here: At 2560 x 1600 pixels, the Pro’s Retina display blows the Air’s 1440 x 900-pixel panel out of the water. Text looks a lot sharper on the Retina Pro, whether you’re looking at app icons or text on websites that have been optimized. Plus, there are more than 250 apps in the Mac App Store that take advantage of the Retina display, including Photoshop CS6, “Diablo III” and Google Chrome.

At 340 lux, the Pro’s display was also brighter than the Air’s, which measured 263 lux. 

Brightness

Winner: MacBook Pro. A sharper, brighter and richer screen helps the 2013 MacBook Pro win this round easily.

Ports and External Display Support

2013-Air_Pro_Profile

The Air has the same port spread as last year, with two USB 3.0 ports, one Thunderbolt port and an SDXC card slot. By comparison, the 13-inch Pro with Retina has two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, an HDMI port and an SDXC card slot.

Winner: MacBook Pro. Apple’s beefier 13-incher has a wider selection of ports, and can support up to two displays at 2560 x 1600 pixels.

Performance

The latest MacBook Air comes with a 1.3-GHz Intel Haswell ULT processor, 4GB of RAM and new flash storage (based on PCI Express). Although the clock speed is ostensibly slower versus its predecessor (1.8 GHz), Haswell can get more work done per clock cycle. Plus, the new Air offers 45 percent faster flash memory and 40 percent greater graphics performance via the new Intel HD 5000 GPU.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with a full-voltage, fourth-generation 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of PCIe flash storage, and Intel Iris graphics, which outperforms all other integrated GPUs.

Geekbench3

The Air’s score of 5,116 on Geekbench 3 topped the category average of 4,496, but was more than 1,000 points below the MacBook Pro (6,294). 

openoffice

Similarly, on our OpenOffice test, where we task a notebook with pairing 20,000 names and addresses, the MacBook Pro took 5 minutes and 2 seconds, which was about 40 seconds faster than the Air (5:45). When it came to duplicating 5GB of multimedia files, the Air’s PCIe flash storage also trailed the Pro, 242 MBps to 299 MBps.

But how does Intel’s HD Graphics 5000 GPU compare to its Iris Graphics chip? Yes, but not by as much as you might think. On the Cinebench OpenGL test, the Pro’s score of 20.98 edged out the Air’s score of 20.53.

Cinebench

In “World of Warcraft,” the Air averaged 27 fps at maximum settings, with resolution set at 1440 x 900. The Pro, with its display also set to 1440 x 900, also averaged 27 fps at these settings. However, when we turned the graphics down to Good, the Pro averaged 51 fps to the Air’s 43 fps.

WOW_AirPro

Winner: MacBook Pro. With Intel’s Haswell chip, this notebook  beats or ties the Air on every test.

Battery Life

One of the benefits of Intel’s Haswell 4th generation Core processors is that they offer greater battery life than the previous generation. Not only that, but OS X Mavericks also delivers some additional efficiencies, which adds about an hour of endurance as well. 

Coupled with a larger battery, the 13-inch Air lasted 12 hours and 50 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi). The Pro lasted 9 hours and 31 minutes, which is more than 3 hours longer than the category average, but 3 hours less than the Air.

battery life

Winner: MacBook Air. At nearly 13 hours, the Air blows past the Pro’s not-insignificant endurance level. 

Price and Value

The least expensive version of the 13-inch Air costs $1,099 and comes with a 1.3-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, Intel HD Graphics 5000, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of flash storage. The Pro with Retina display starts at $1,299 and includes a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of flash storage and Intel Iris graphics.

The more expensive version of the Air costs $1,299 and has the same processor and RAM as the starting version, but comes with 256GB of storage. The $1,799 model of the Pro has a 2.6-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of flash storage.

Winner: MacBook Air. Although the starting price of the Pro is now just $200 more than the Air–half that of last year–the Air is still a great value. 

Configurations and Upgrade Options

With both models of the Air, you can upgrade to a 1.4-GHz Intel Core i7 for $150 and 8GB of RAM for $100. On the $1,299 configuration, you can also upgrade to 512GB of storage for $300.

Apple lets you customize the Pro a bit more. If you select the starting or the mid-tier model, you can upgrade to a dual-core 2.8-GHz Intel Core i7 processor for $300 and boost the RAM to 8GB ($100) or 16GB ($300).  If you purchase the most expensive configuration, you can upgrade the CPU to a 2.8-GHz Core i7 processor ($200) the RAM to 16GB ($200), and the storage to 1TB ($500).

AirPro configs

Winner: MacBook Pro. While pricey, more options make the MacBook Pro a laptop you can better customize to suit your needs.

Bottom Line

pro vs air scorecard

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display wins four rounds to the Air’s three,making it the better overall choice. The Pro has a sharper and richer display, better performance,and you can use it with two external monitors at once (compared to just one for the Air). Plus, you get an extra Thunderbolt port, HDMI and a greater number of configuration options.

The Air has plenty of things going for it, including a thinner and lighter chassis, and 3 hours of extra battery life. Overall, the new MacBook Air is a great choice—especially for frequent travelers–but if you’re willing to pay $200 more, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is the better overall notebook. 

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  1. Matt Says:

    What about speakers/sound quality between the two?

  2. Michael A. Prospero, LAPTOP Reviews Editor Says:

    @Matt – We weren’t able to do a side-by-side test, but from what I recall, the two were pretty evenly matched, with the Retina a bit louder.

  3. Pan Says:

    I waited for the announcement… then bought the 13″ Retina! Here’s why…
    I bought the 13″ Retina with 256GB SSD and 8GB Ram – RECONDITIONED from Apple for $1,359.
    The similar spec Air (upping it to 8GB ram) is $1,399.

    So for Less money I got the Retina screen and extra ports. Size is a wash and only weights .5 lb more – hardly noticeable.
    The only real-life downside is battery life.

    Ps. You got the weight wrong for the Retina – it’s 3.57lbs not 3.75)

  4. Pan Pan Says:

    Macbook Air wins Retina Pro this time and you know you regreted it.

  5. Jake Says:

    There’s a few error’s in this:

    “The Air can support up to one additional monitor”

    On the Apple Website, both the 2012 and 2013 Air’s can support 2 monitor’s. The Pro should still win as to connect up an Air requires the Thunderbolt Display and it’s daisychain feature, whereas the Pro can be connected to regular monitors with use of the HDMI socket, and Mini Display Port to VGA Adaptors (plus of course Thunderbolt displays).

    “The Air’s score of 6,769 on Geekbench nearly equaled that of the Pro (6,760).”

    Nearly equalled – This suggests the Pro had a higher score. It should read something along the lines of ‘Was just ahead’.

  6. Duke Says:

    Edit for Configurations and Upgrade Options-

    With both models of the Air, you can upgrade to a 1.4-GHz Intel Core i7 for $150

    Should read…

    With both models of the Air, you can upgrade to a 1.7-GHz Intel Core i7 for $150

  7. Jay Says:

    I went to Best Buy yesterday and compared the audio between the MacBook Air 13″ and the MacBook Pro 15″ and while the audio was very good on the MacBook Air the audio was outstanding on the MacBook Air 15″ due to the dual speakers built into the top plate of the laptop left and right of the keyboard. The MacBook Air 13″ didn’t have this feature since there isn’t enough width on the 13″ models to accommodate dual speakers left and right of the key board.

  8. Mark P Says:

    This is not really a fair comparison, considering that the MBPro Retina (both 13″ and 15″) are due for a Haswell upgrade soon – I’m waiting on this. This will mean the Performance section should swap, improvements in battery life (although still won’t beat the Air of course), and the Value For Money factor will go to the Pros. I fully expect there to be Iris graphics (those higher level inbuilt Intel HD series) on the Pros, they’d be perfect for them. So maybe re-do this comparison when Haswell rMBP appears?

  9. Steve Says:

    Nice to see the actual breakdown of the part and how they perform against each other. It really looks like Apple is pushing itself to produce better versions each time. I’d really like to see how the new MacBook Pro will perform considering the power improvement they’ve put into the Air this time.

  10. Robbo Says:

    Forget the Mac Pro man I just got a 13 inch Mac Air yesterday and its just too awesome yo!..

  11. Aekero Says:

    Loved the article, was looking for a side by side. My only question is if I’m looking into the 13″ air, is it necessary or worthwhile to upgrade the processor/ram?

  12. Matt F Says:

    @Jake – The pro should still win, but It’s a little bit closer than you made it out to be. With Mavericks, both the macbook air 2012 and 2013 can support two additional monitors without daisy chaining. You merely need a (relatively inexpensive) display link compatible usb 3.0 to dvi/vga adapter. As long as you have no more than one wired accessory, it’s not a problem.

  13. 50417S Says:

    I am a College Student studying Computer Engingeering

    i just wanted to know if there is much difference with Iris and HD 5000 graphics…

    The Two models That i am stuck between buying is

    1)MacBook Pro(retina) 13″
    2.4GHz Dual-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz
    8GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM
    256GB PCIe-based Flash Storage
    Apple USB SuperDrive
    Backlit Keyboard (English) & User’s Guide
    Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter
    Priced $1607

    2)MacBook Air 13″
    1.7GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz
    8GB 1600MHz LPDDR3 SDRAM
    256GB Flash Storage
    Apple USB SuperDrive
    Backlit Keyboard (English) & User’s Guide
    Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter
    Priced $1657

    Which one is better choice… Btw i live in Nepal where there are a lot of powercuts…
    Thanks

  14. Vabi Says:

    I compared the two side by side. For 13 inch model, considering top i7 processor and 8GB RAM with 256GB hard drive. Pro is brighter, screen is better and pro is 20% faster than air. Air is $200 cheaper than pro. Air has 3 hr more on battery and air weighs .5lb less(trust me this is a huge difference in handling).

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