New MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro Retina?

For the past six months I’ve been holding out on getting a new laptop, planning to get whatever new 13-inch MacBook Air Apple released this summer. So right after the WWDC announcements, before I’d even looked at much info, I ordered the new 13-inch MacBook Air. Then I started hearing about the amazing display on the new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. In an impulsive moment I ordered one of those too! I got my orders in quickly so both machines arrived a few weeks ago. Last week I got to the end of Apple’s 14-day return window, and had to choose which one to keep. Here what I did.

First some context. I’ve been using 13″ laptops forever. I travel a lot and prize the balance of small size and screen real estate. I’ve had my 13″ MacBook Pro for 3-years now (on my second hard drive upgrade and third battery). I generally assumed that I would keep the Air because I was so comfortable with the 13″ size.

So over two weeks I alternated between the Air and the Pro as my primary machine. I used each at my desk at home, at my local Starbucks, on the couch, in bed. I even stress-tested the roadworthiness by bringing both along on a Southwest flight where I had a middle seat with my kids on either side of me. (I tried as always to live by the principles of good A/B testing.)

As a first-time Air user, my first reaction is wow this is fast. Really fast. Some of that is the faster processor than my old dinosaur, most of that is the solid state drive. It seemed insanely small, compact, and lightweight — so light that at first I had to consciously remember it was in my hand so I didn’t forget it was there. But, it was so light that it lacked heft. For example, when it was on my desk and I tried to open it with one hand the whole thing slipped away from me across the table (Note to Jony Ive: find some crazy new material and use it to invent grippier footpads). But typing long emails in coach on Southwest sure was easy.

The first time I opened the 15″ Macbook Pro i was sure it wasn’t right for me. After so many years at 13″, it felt really large, like typing on one side of an opened Monopoly game board. Squeezing into the tray on a Southwest middle seat was doable but not particular natural. But it was just as fast as the Air thanks to its SSD. It was noticeably thinner than my old 13″ MacBook Pro. And the display. Oh the Retina display. It’s a totally different level of clarity, like reading a nicely typeset page. The blacks are blacker. And the glare is much much better than the Air. Overall, it just felt better on the eyes. Even after using for an hour or two, every other display suddenly felt lame in comparison, like my glasses had fogged up.

I found myself reaching again and again for the retina display. I didn’t love the 15″ size, but I just preferred the Retina display no matter what. I told myself I could really make it work in an economy middle seat. And told myself that hey look it fits into the pocket of my 13″ laptop bag it’s not that big, and hey it’s really a lot lighter than my 13″ pro (.04 pounds lighter, but who’s counting). Once I started rationalizing, I knew I was hooked.

So, last week I returned the MacBook Air to Apple and am now happily typing on my Retina display. I love it.

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