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Review: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro Retina - which Notebook is better for mobile workers?

Updated on October 27, 2014

The world is getting global and with the globalization comes more and more mobility into our lives. Less people are willing to drag a heavy and large laptop around with them.

I am one of these people. I like small portable Notebooks.

I prefer them clearly over more powerful, but always much larger & heavier Laptops. If brutal computing power is needed, one can always use a more powerful Desktop Computer. But if you are traveling, you want to enjoy the lightness and small footprint of a little Notebook.

There are two siblings in the Apple Stores, which come close to that definition of an ideal Notebook:

MacBook Air 13"
MacBook Pro Retina 13"

The 11" MacBook Air is not included in this comparison, as it is too small and too close to the iPad. The same goes for the MacBook Pro Retina 15", which is already to large.

This article will go into more details by comparing these two Notebooks in the following areas:

  • Size/Weight
  • Battery life
  • Display resolution
  • HD & Memory
  • Connections
  • Performance
  • Upgrade Options
  • Pricing

Comparison table

Early 2013
Late 2013
MacBook Air 13"
MacBook Pro Retina 13"
MacBook Pro Retina 13"
0.11-0.68 inch @ 2.96 pounds
0.75 inch @3.57 pounds
0.71 inch @3.46 pounds
Battery life
Display resolution
1440x900 @ 263 lux
2560x1600 @ 313 lux
2560x1600 @ 313 lux
Intel HD Graphics 5000
Intel HD Graphics 4000
Intel Iris Graphics
128GB (256GB)
128GB (256GB)
128GB / 256GB / 512GB
Wireless Connections
Bluetooth 4.0 + Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.0 + Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.0 + Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Wired Connections
2xUSB 3.0, Headphone, Thunderbolt, SDXC card
2xUSB 3.0, Headphone, 2xThunderbolt, SDXC card, HDMI
2xUSB 3.0, Headphone, 2xThunderbolt 2, SDXC card, HDMI
1.3GHz Dual-Core I5 with Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz with 3MB shared L3 cache
2.5GHz dual-core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache
2.6GHz dual-core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache
Upgrade options HD
256GB / 512GB
512GB / 768GB
512GB / 768GB / 1024GB
1.7GHz dual-core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz) with 4MB shared L3 cache
2.9GHz dual-core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz) with 4MB shared L3 cache (3.0GHz dual-core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.7GHz) with 4MB shared L3 cache)
2.8GHz dual-core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz) with 4MB shared L3 cache
$1099 / $1299
$1499 / $1699
$1299 / $1499 / $1799

Late 2013 Update

A lot has changed with the introduction of the updated MacBook Pro 13" in Late 2013:

  1. Apple lowered the price by $200.
  2. The CPU is upgraded to the newest Intel Chipset, which provides more power while using less energy at the same time.
  3. Apple uses now 60% faster flash memory. The new entry level MaBook Pro 13" has less of it now, but you can up now to 16GB
  4. It got even thinner then before, from 0.75 inch to 0.71 inch.
  5. The Pro also lost weight 0.17 pounds.
  6. And increased battery runtime by impressive 2 hours. It can be assumed that part of this comes from the new operating system OS X Mavericks.
  7. A new graphic card doubles computing power in this area as well.
  8. The two Thunderbolt connections carry now the version 2 (double bandwidth here as well)


The Macbook Air has the advantage in this section.

Even though it seems to be only 0.03 inch slimmer, it is much slimmer in real life as it narrows down in the front to a mere 0.11 inch. In your hands it almost appears to disappear.

The Macbook Retina Pro on the other hand is 0.71 inch thick from front to back. That makes it feels much thicker than the pure number can tell.

As we are looking here for the Notebook on the go, we have to give this point to the Macbook Air.

Battery life

With all the PC-Windows Notebooks I ever used before, I could call myself lucky, when it runs for 2 hours straight. I think there is no other manufacturer that can dare to claim such high runtime numbers as Apple does.

The Macbook Retina Pro runs 9h!

That is unbelievable, but tests show it can even go a bit longer. There is really nothing to complain here.

But as always is the better the enemy of the good.

The Macbook Air dwarfed the Pro by running 12h non-stop. How does Apple do this? This is truly magical.

Even being one of the best regarding runtime, the Macbook Retina Pro is still second to the Macbook Air's fabulous capabilities in this area.


Display resolution

The Macbook Air has an fairly standard resolution of 1440x900 @ 263 lux.

But it is pushed out of the waters by the sheer 2560x1600 @313 lux of the Macbook Retina Pro.

If you ever have a chance to see a Macbook with a Retina display, you know it will be hard to ever go back to a normal screen. The number of apps, which are optimized for that high resolution passed already 250. And developer are continuing to create more specialist apps for this high resolution. This is not a feature that only makes geeks salved. Normal people will enjoy more and more of these great apps at high resolutions. This is clearly the future, today.

For the gamers among you, you may want to keep in mind that the Macbook Air has the better Graphics cards built-in (Intel Iris Graphics, instead of Intel HD Graphics 4000).

I guess the resolution battle goes to the Macbook Retina Pro anyway.



The wireless connections are almost identical between these two Notebooks..
Both Notebooks offer Bluetooth 4.0 and the newest Wi-Fi 802.11ac.

You will find three difference In the wired section in favor for the Macbook Retina Pro: One more Thunderbolt, Thunderbolt Version 2 and a direct HDMI connector.

If you are a Professional, then you might value this options, for the average man it might be not so important, as Thunderbolt devices are still quite expensive and most people will buy an USB 3.0 device instead.

I tend to call it even, with a very slight advantage to the Macbook Retina Pro.


This section is very short, as the Macbook Retina Pro runs circles around the Macbook Air at almost double the speed.

Clearly this point goes to the Macbook Retina Pro.

Upgrade Options

Depending on the model you get, you can upgrade the Macbook Air's Flash disc to 256GB or 512GB. The CPU can be bumped by 0.2GHz if you feel the need to do so.

The very small memory can - and should - be upgraded to a more reasonable size of 8GB.

Everything is bigger here in the Macbook Retina Pro corner: Speed bumps for the CPU by 0.4 or 0.5GHz for the ones that are in need of every last bit of performance and the Flash drive can be sized up to 1TB.

Technically the Macbook Retina Pro is better off in this section.


Obviously this chapter is in favor for the Macbook Air again as the Macbook Retina Pro - well, is considered for Pros - is more expensive.

But with the Late 2013 Update not as much as it used to be.


So, who is the winner now?

One way to come to an answer is by counting the intermediate results:

Size/Weight: Macbook Air (still)
Battery life: Macbook Air (still)
Display resolution: Macbook Retina Pro
Connections: Macbook Retina Pro
Performance: Macbook Retina Pro
Upgrade Options: Macbook Retina Pro
Pricing: Macbook Air (still)

That makes the Macbook Retina Pro the winner. But only if you value each section the same.

But then who does?

For me is the high resolution of the Macbook Retina Pro the most compelling feature. I do not need the CPU power or Upgrade options, though. The Macbook Air's lightness and incredible battery life on the other hand are the most exciting features and that is what I always wanted in a Laptop.

What about a MacBook Air Retina 13"?

Well, that's actually the question that's on my mind.

Because this would be the perfect Notebook for my purposes!

As I said before, once you have seen a Retina Display you can't (don't want to) go back anymore. An Air Retina 13" would combine the best of both worlds.

I am sure Apple knows that, but there are reasons for the non-existence of such a Notebook.

A Retina Display consumes much more power. That means the extraordinary runtime of the Macbook Air would be reduced evidently or the size and weight has to rise in order to integrate a larger battery. But these are just the best features of the Macbook Air, they do not want to abandon.

Final thought

At the end of the day everybody has to make up their mind on their own.

What is more important to you: Resolution or Weight/Runtime?

If you can't decide, you could wait for the evolution of technology, where Retina Displays do not need so much power anymore and/or batteries can carry more energy per cm2.

The Late 2013 Update of the MacBook Pro 13" brought us quit a step closer to the optimal notebook.

I for one am not so sure anymore whether the MacBook Air 13" is still my favorite. The Pro increased battery runtime, lost weight and thickness, and increased computing power at the same time.

Go a get the MacBook Pro 13" Retina or do you fancy the MacBook Air 13 more?

Protect your MacBook from Thives
Protect your MacBook from Thives | Source

Update: Made up my mind...

(May 2014)

I made up my mind now and picked the Retina MacBook Pro 13"!

Now I need to protect my precious MacBook and the data on it's drive. Read how to do it here.

Read also...

If you are interested in Apple products, you may also like to read this review about the newest iPads Air and iPad Mini Retina.

The perfect Notebook

What's your Definition of a perfect Notebook?

See results

© 2013 TheAndy


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I have a MacBook Pro 15. When I bought it, the 13 was still not on the market otherwise I would have chosen this one. But I also love the Air! Really tough choice!


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