15″ Retina MacBook Pro vs. a 13″ MacBook Pro or MacBook Air with Thunderbolt Display

I recently wrote about how the Apple Thunderbolt Display is the worst Apple product I’ve ever owned (and I used to have an Apple Mouse). Now I want to write a comparison of all MacBooks.

I wanted to upgrade my setup, but keep costs down, and prepare for the inevitable future of displays and how I work. I wanted to know: could I do my work happily without the external display, and just use the larger MacBook Pro screen? After a few days of testing this setup: yes.

What I do

If it’s not obvious from this site, I do web development and design work. Here’s what I do:

  • Constantly use my machine for at least 8-10 hours a day.
  • Stream iTunes music for most of that time.
  • Run apps ranging from AirMail to Photoshop. Many apps, including AirMail, Twitter, iTunes, ReadKit, 1Password, and Reminders always run in the background. Plus Dropbox and Backblaze syncing.
  • Running Adobe Creative Suite applications. I’m running CS6 these days.
  • Occasionally rendering off a video or audio clip — I do this maybe once or twice a quarter.
  • I often play Civilization or SimCity 2013.

I’ve tested this setup recently with a 13″ MacBook Air built-to-order with a Core i7 processor. I’ve also run a 13″ Retina MacBook Pro with an i5 processor. The 15″ Retina MacBook Pro is an i7. All were running 8 GB of RAM.

Real World Scenario

Forgetting benchmarks and tests, I trusted what I felt using the machine. Sometimes things were obvious. The 13″ MacBook Pro felt slower on most everything. It crawled with SimCity. In fact, I had better luck running SimCity on the Air, but both required textures, lighting, and rendering to be on “Low”. With the 15″ MacBook Pro, I could bump this up to “Medium” on everything. The 15″ handles it perfectly and smoothly. Every machine’s processor was consumed on this task and the 15″ actually lost a little charge on the battery even while it was plugged in. Clearly the Turbo Boost on the i7 was kicking in and running for prolonged periods of time.

The Air felt just as fast as the 15″ Pro, as they should considering the processors was about the same. The Air had a 2.3 Ghz Processor, the 15″ a 2.0 Ghz, but with a larger cache size.

The Screens

The retina screens are very nice. I had the Air sitting to the left of my Thunderbolt Display. That setup worked well. The issue I had was knowing that the Air was likely to get a retina upgrade from Apple at some point soon, likely this year or next. When that happens the value of the existing non-retina screens will drop.

The Thunderbolt Display is due for an upgrade, too. But when you sit the retina screens next to the Thunderbolt Display, the blurriness and sizing of things is so off from one to the other it gave me a headache. I always wanted to keep as much on the laptop display and at some point you wonder why you bother with the Thunderbolt Display.

But the Air and the 13″ Pro have screen sizes that are just too small for what I do. I need to be able to arrange several screens at once. Even if you bump the resolution of the 13″ Pro up so it’s no longer retina-quality, but just with more pixel real estate, eventually things get small and hard to read.

Enter the 15″ MacBook Pro. The 15″ has just enough screen size and, at higher resolutions, enough pixel real estate to comfortably use it like a larger display. Once I received the 15″ Pro I haven’t plugged it into the Thunderbolt Display once and I can honestly say I don’t really miss it.

I run the 15″ Pro in retina resolution when I’m going to be using it casually for a bit, like surfing the web or doing email on the couch.

Audio Quality

The audio on the MacBook Air is pretty awful. Given it’s size the speakers lack any bass and the sound of things is tinny. It’s good enough when you’re out and about for a bit and need to get some audio feedback. But it’s not great for prolonged music listening or video. The 13″ Pro is a bit better, but not by much.

The 15″ Pro, however, has great audio. It’s not Thunderbolt Display quality, but with the extra room for speaker grills on either side, it produces sound that’s not painful to listen to all day. But I came up with a better solution: I use my Jawbone Jambox in Live Audio mode on my desk to stream music. It sounds better than the Thunderbolt Display did, it’s smaller, and very effective.

Size and Portability

Obviously the Air is the smallest and lightest, the 15″ Pro is the heaviest and largest. However, we’re talking about the difference between a couple pounds here. It’s not that big of a deal.

I carry my laptop around to the couch, my desk, Starbucks, the library, and to client meetings. But the weight of the 15″ Pro isn’t unwieldy. In real world use, I don’t notice it. Or if I do, I don’t care.

Go with the 15″ Pro

What I can’t figure out is why anyone would really want the 13″ MacBook Pro. It seems like the bastard middle child when you compare the full lineup from Airs to 15″ Pros.

If you can afford it, get the 15″ Pro. It’s the better machine all around. If you can’t afford it, get the 13″ MacBook Air custom built with an i7 Processor. Even without the retina display, the Air with an i7 is more forward-looking than the current base model 13″ MacBook Pro.

I suppose you could get an i7 in the 13″ Pro, but at that point, you might as well spring an extra couple hundred for the 15″ and get all the other better specs.

Avoid the i5 series on any machine. Always get at least 8 GB of RAM. I don’t even know why Apple ships the base models of the Air and Pro with 4 GB. That’s almost an embarrassment in 2014.

If you want to do any games more advanced than Solitaire, get the 15″ Pro. If you want one machine for everything, get the 15″ Pro. If you want to save some money or don’t need to do advanced games, get the 13″ MacBook Air with an i7 processor. Get an external display if your budget allows later when they’re upgraded and not so buggy.

About the author

Justin Harter

11 Comments

  • interesting article. When comparing the 15 inch pro, were you using the one with the Intel Iris Pro graphics, or the one with the dedicated Nvidia GPU? (the “low end” 15 inch vs the “high end” 15 inch)?

    • Good question and one I totally overlooked. I’m using the “low end” 15″ Pro with Iris graphics.

    • I’d like to know the exact same question. I was debating between the 13″ and 15″ strictly for the size difference, but we’ll now go with the 15″ as my needs/use are almost identical to yours. My only remaining question is whether or not I can get away with the integrated Iris Graphics or not? This will be my first Mac and I don’t know if I’m willing to spend the extra cash for the graphics card as I’m already going to be spending considerably more than I want to (or than I would with a Windows based laptop). Thanks in advance for your input. -Adam

      • Adam, there’s definitely a jump in the size between the 13″ and the 15″. The 15 is considerably larger — something I always hold with two hands.

        As for the Iris Graphics, mine has the Iris graphics. Maybe if I played serious high-end games I’d enjoy dedicated graphics, but I’m not much of a gamer. I play the new version of SimCity a lot, which is no walk in the park for a graphics card, but the Iris handles textures, shadows, and other effects all set to “medium” quality well enough. Bumping up into “high” settings and things start falling apart.

        • @Justin
          Thanks! I ended up getting the 13″ MBP with Retina display. I REALLY wanted the power in the 15″ MBP, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger because of the size. I’ve had a 17″ HP “Desktop Replacement” since 2009 and while it has served me well, I am quite tired of all the maintenance that comes along with owning a Windows computer. Additionally, I absolutely despise the route Microsoft is taking with it’s Windows operating system. I’ve been a SYS Admin / NET Admin for around 15 years now and have only had my MBP for a week. I am truly amazed at how well designed everything is and how everything “just works”. I’m still getting it setup, but I’ve already installed all the basics (Office 2K11, the Adobe CS6 suite, VMware, and some other “power user” programs). I’ve also fine a considerable amount of tweaking to it as well. It is just an absolute delight to use and work with. I owe a big thanks to all the contributions from anyone affiliated with this site. All of you played a part in my decision.

          Just as a side note for anyone reading, I haven’t encountered any lack of computing power from running any of the CS6 software or anything else. I just installed the VM lay night and haven’t had a chance to set it up, but I’m sure it will be fine.

          -Adam

  • Thanks for the great summary Justin. Could you please discuss the performance for Adobe CS6 applications more? I have to decide between the 13″ Pro and 15″ Pro, with the price difference being around $700 for me, and Adobe performance is the biggest issue for me to figure out between the two. Thanks!

    • I can, as I’ve used them in a wide gamut of scenarios. Everything from running photoshop with huge graphic files to rendering movie files. I can honestly say I can’t imagine using the 13” or anything less than an i7 processor with any pro app. I. An easily run my 15” hard for up to three months without a single need to restart. I leave files open constantly. The other day I was rendering video with Final Cut Pro X, had three website mockups up in photoshop, and had a dozen or more tabs open in safari, chrome, and Firefox, all without a single hiccup.

      • Thanks for the quick response. I’d love to get your advice a bit more. I currently have a 13″ rMBP base model 2.4 dual core i5, 128GB SSD etc, but upped to 16GB RAM. It can be returned and exchanged for the 15″ so that’s why I’m researching and asking people. It was pricey as it is, and I’d like the machine to last atleast 4-5 years if treated properly. My only issue is whether I’ll regret not having the Quad-Core processor, as the 13″ only has the Dual-Core. My use is heavy with chrome, photoshop, illustrator, indesign…and maybe more Adobe apps in the future.

        Could you address the value of the Quad-Core vs. Dual-Core in terms of those applications more please? Especially with my need to keep it performing fluidly for atleast 4-5 years, and being a college student who would only spend the extra $700 if necessary.

        Is the performance difference really that big or is it only like 20-40% better?
        Or will it be overkill, and I will have extra power sitting around not being used? The 16GB RAM I already got to make the machine last longer, as right now it doesn’t necessarily need all 16 yet.

        But the dual-core i5 could it become a bottleneck that hinders the machine? Or can it last and perform well especially with the 16GB RAM?

        Any and all advice is appreciated, or if you have other resources you could direct me to. Thanks!

        • In my experience the Quad Core really makes Photoshop hum along when processing effects, filters, and loading large layered files. The dual-core machine was noticeably slower at these relatively common Photoshop tasks. Likewise in Illustrator. Another point of load stress is when launching the apps and having them file through all the fonts to load into the font library. The quad core made much quicker work of this, almost by twice the speed, and thus got the programs opened and ready faster. One assumes that if you spend a lot of time in either of those applications, or rendering video or playing graphically intense games like Sim City or others with a lot of detail, the quad core is the way to go. Plus, in 4 years time, it’ll be worth more as it will have retained more value.

          My current 15″ Pro has 8 GB of RAM and I rarely notice an issue with that. For me it was all about the processor. It used to be that with standard hard disks, when you ran out of memory the hard drive was the fall back. But with slow read and write speeds, that really bogged things down. This is why so many recommended future-proofing yourself by getting more RAM. But with SSD hard drives, they function almost as fast as the RAM does. So when your RAM is full, it defaults to the hard drive for virtual memory and it can read and write just as fast. It’s almost like all of your free disk space is RAM supplement. With Mavericks, memory allocation is so much better in the software, too, that I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Oh shoot, I’m out of memory.”

          To elaborate on my earlier example, the other day I was rendering a 15 minute video in Final Cut Pro X, I had four large PSD files open, two Illustrator documents, Word, Safari with at least a dozen tabs, Chrome was open with a few tabs, and Firefox was open with a few tabs (I prefer Firebug in FF over the Inspector in Chrome or Safari). Plus a slew of other smaller apps like 1Password, Reminders, iCal, Messages, ReadKit, iTunes was surely playing, Transmit, Numbers, Soulver, and Mail. Those apps are almost always running on my machine. My Pro with 8GB of RAM and an i7 didn’t skip a beat. It was so remarkable that I actually remarked, “This is amazing it can do this and not even stutter.”

          I have as of this writing, Reminder, Mail, Twitter, Messages, ReadKit, Safari (10 tabs, with javascript and such running), Chrome (2 tabs), Firefox (3 tabs), Write, TextWrangler, Numbers, Transmit, Photoshop (3 documents), Illustrator (the same two documents from last week. I’m a bad person.), Soulver, Stickies, and TextEdit all open. iStat Pro in Dashboard reports 1.4GB of RAM wired, 1.5GB active, 1.5GB inactive (meaning it can be cleared as needed), and 12MB free. That sounds horrifying, but OS X is managing the RAM perfectly and digging into that inactive cache as needed. I don’t notice any problems, slowness, or hiccups.

          If it were me, now that we have SSDs, I’d always prioritize the processor over the RAM if I had a couple hundred dollars to invest.

  • Hi Justin,
    Thanks a lot for such a detailed review. I am very glad to have found ur blog as I am also confused as to which Macbook Pro to buy.
    Currently I am using MacMini i7 Quad-core with 10GB RAM with 128GB SSD + 1TB HDD.
    I use a lot of Photoshop CS6, Adobe premiere, FCP and Unity3d along with extreme browser usability and have found my MacMini to be extremely fast. Its amazing. I have more powerful Windows Machine too (i7, 32GB RAM , SSD+HDD) and I have to say that my Macmini is more stable than windows. I have recently thought of switching over to Laptop and no doubt Apple is the only option I would consider.
    This review of yours was extremely helpful and I as of now my decision is to get the Macbook Pro 15″. Even though I feel it would be little bigger in size and ofcourse 13″ is highly portable but performance is not something which i want to sacrifice. However I think I will wait for 1-2 months and see if Apple comes with a new model update (As its time already I guess) But then again, unless Apple really comes up with a i7 quad-core processor in 13″, its no point to think about it.
    Regards and cheers 😀

  • Hmm…MBA is $1k…rMBP 13″ is $1.3k, and rMBP 15″ is $2k. Exactly how is the 13″ the bastard child? There’s literally no reason to go with a MBA in 2015. If anything the MBA Is the bastard.