As ground-breaking Windows 10 Ultrabooks and Chromebooks keep popping up with growing frequency, particularly those with touchscreen enabled displays, Apple continues to face some fairly stiff competition in the notebook computer market. But the MacBook range still manages to stand out from the crowd thanks to their solid construction, energy efficiency, and a feature set that includes a high-resolution Retina display (MacBook and MacBook Pro), an innovative keyboard construction that enhances typing precision, and the intelligent OS X operating system developed to work seamlessly with all your other Apple devices.
All said, a MacBook is worthy of consideration if you are looking to get your work done on a chic yet nimble machine. This fully-loaded buyer’s guide to the latest MacBook series leaves no stone unturned in answering every question you ever wanted to ask about buying the right MacBook. First up is a brief summary of the history and development of the MacBook, before diving under the hood to discover just how powerful MacBooks really are. You can then read a comparison of the three MacBook models against Ultrabooks and Chromebooks of similar spec, with a list of pros and cons given for each, and then finally a glimpse into the available accessories and major retailers of the MacBook.
MacBook History and Development
Early 2006 saw the first edition MacBook Pro computer. It was considered unique at the time because Apple armed them with Intel processors, having previously shown a penchant for PowerPC branded processors. It also came with an iSight webcam integrated into the display and updated connectivity options to keep up with emerging technology. The first MacBook Pros came in both a 15-inch and 17-inch flavour, with the 17-inch model eventually giving way to a 13-inch model in 2008.
By the middle of 2006, Apple added the MacBook to its lineup. It quickly gained legendary status as a bestseller, thanks to significant performance improvements over Apple’s earlier PowerBook and iBook series of notebooks.
Apple launched the first-generation MacBook Air in January of 2008, offering it in either 11-inch or 13-inch display. By 2011, the MacBook Air had replaced the MacBook as Apple's top-selling notebook caused by Apple's decision to discontinue the MacBook, and because people wanted a formidable portable computer that could fit inside an envelope. Fast forward to today and you now have five display options to choose from (measured diagonally along the screen). They are: the 12-inch MacBook, the MacBook Air in 11.6 and 13.3-inch, and the MacBook Pro in 13.3 or 15.4-inch.
As far as looks go, Apple MacBooks are arguably the most handsomely-designed portable computers out there. The original MacBooks were made from a polycarbonate/fibreglass mix, before switching to the aluminium unibody in 2008, and then switching again to a polycarbonate unibody design in 2009. Now cut from a single piece of metal, the instantly-recognisable, luxurious unibody aluminium shell is shared across all new MacBook models since the MacBook Retina joined the series in 2015.
As you’ve probably gathered from this short history of the MacBook, not all models are created equal. Design and operating system aside, there are quite a few things that set each of the current models apart, giving you the opportunity to be selective when choosing between the MacBook Retina, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro. The next sections will delve into what these things are and why they matter.
The MacBook returned after a four-year absence with a top-of-the-line 12-inch Retina display and unibody aluminium shell. What's more, the shell can be finished in space grey, silver or gold depending on your personal taste. Performance-wise, the MacBook is impressive for its size and energy consumption. The 8GB 1600MHz LPDDR3 SDRAM, 1.1GHz dual core Intel Core M Broadwell CPU and Intel HD Graphics 5300 GPU combine well when calling the 12 inch 2304 x 1440 display into action.
Less appealing, however, is its limited connectivity. The MacBook Retina has just a single USB 3.0 port and single headphone audio jack, so you'll need to rely on Bluetooth technology if you want to connect and use other peripherals; unless you need to use an external optical drive or Ethernet cable that is. With these lowered expectations in mind, you'll still find the MacBook Retina the most portable member of the MacBook family.
The MacBook Air used to be known as Apple's thinnest and lightest notebook. That was until the MacBook Retina dropped at just 1.3cm thin and 0.92kg light. You'll get 128GB of SSD flash storage on the 11-inch version, doubled to 256GB if you pay a little extra for the 13 inch model. The displays also differ slightly in display resolution; the 11 inch at 1366 x 768 and the 13 inch at 1440 x 900 pixels. The lack of Retina display means you can get your first MacBook at a great price/performance ratio; a great unit if you’re a student.
The MacBook Air still competes well in the portability and battery life stakes, with the 11 inch giving you 9 hours of productivity and the 13 inch up to 12 hours. Where the MacBook Air outshines the MacBook is processing speed, owing its swift performance to the 1.6GHz dual core Intel Core i5 proc with 3MB of shared L3 cache; upgradeable to the 2.2GHz dual core Intel Core i7 with 4MB of shared L3 cache.
Connectivity options are passable on the MacBook Air, with two USB 3.0 ports divided between the left and right side, a Thunderbolt 2 slot, a MagSafe 2 power connector, a headphone audio jack, and the addition of an SDXC card slot on the 13 inch model. The integrated HD 720p camera is another win over the MacBook, giving you extra clarity while using FaceTime.
New MacBook vs. MacBook Air
MacBook Pro Retina
The MacBook Pro Retina represents a whopper of a machine, easily delivering striking results in even the most resource-intense settings of reviewer’s benchmark tests. It manages to outpace its peers as a result of its 2.7GHz dual core Intel Core i5 (13-inch) or 2.2GHz quad core Intel Core i7 (15-inch) processor and Intel Iris graphics card. For this reason, the MacBook Pro is the best portable Apple system for demanding game play and laborious multimedia creation.
The MacBook Pro Retina sports the best display resolutions of the MacBook bunch at 2560 x 1600 (13-inch) and 2800 x 1800 pixels (15-inch); perfect for image/video editing and serious gaming. Abundant port selection on the MacBook Pro means you can connect two USB 3.0 devices, two Thunderbolt devices, an HDMI connection, and an SDXC card.
OS X & Software Features
Apple's native operating system, OS X, was developed to make full use of the processing and graphical power of the Mac's next-generation internal components. OS X versions have a codename to add a touch of personal branding; from the big cat series including Cheetah (OS X 10.0), Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, Lion, and Mountain Lion to the Californian place names Mavericks, Yosemite, and El Capitan (OS X 10.11).
The first things you'll notice about OS X are its eye-catching appearance, minimalist interface, and intuitive navigation. Menu options are found along the top of the screen above the desktop image and, like iOS devices, commonly used apps are locked in place at the bottom for easy access.
Compared to Windows, OS X users list the reduced maintenance of the operating system as a plus, due in part to its better handling of virus attacks, and fast file searches as its main advantages. The disadvantage of OS X is that it doesn't have as many compatible software options as Windows, although the Mac will deliver excellent functionality on the software it does support.
Speaking of software, OS X ships with a ton of useful preloaded applications such as Safari, FaceTime, Pages, Numbers, Photos and iMovie, and can run popular applications like Photoshop and advanced 3D games. Any new apps can be downloaded from the App Store.
How to Determine Your MacBook Version
If you have a MacBook and are not sure about which model you have, there are a number of ways you can find out. Of course, the quickest and easiest way is by looking at the original packaging, and in some cases, the purchase receipt. If you have neither of these things, you can still discover your MacBook model by following these steps:
Find the serial number on your computer using one of these options before moving on the next step:
In OS X, open the “About This Mac” window from the Apple menu in the top left corner of your screen and note the serial number.
Turn your MacBook over and note the number next to Serial or Serial No. Some older MacBook models display the serial number within the battery compartment.
So if you can’t see the serial number on the bottom case, remove the battery and look inside the battery bay.
Enter the serial number into one of the two pages:
Although this is a tad more tedious, you can also find which MacBook you have using the model number as follows:
Open the “About This Mac“ window from the Apple menu and click “System Report“.
Under “Hardware Overview“, note the model identifier.
Go to the official MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro Support page and match the model number with the model configuration in the tables listed on those pages.
MacBook Air vs Ultrabook
Ultrabooks are a unique kind of notebook that must feature a specific set of cutting-edge attributes in order to be included within this category. Many tech fans credit the MacBook Air with the evolution of the Windows notebook towards its lightweight yet powerful Ultrabook cousin. Both machines are kitted out with Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, both can run on at least 8GB of RAM, both take advantage of the speed and durability traits of SSDs, and both delight professionals and students working on the move with impressive battery life.
Due to their numerous parallels in spec, it's more fitting to give you a rundown of the pros and cons of the MacBook Air versus the Ultrabook than comparing Ultrabooks to other models in the MacBook family. Similarly, the list will feature the average specs of Ultrabooks rather than go into an exhaustive list of all the available ultrabook models developed by computer manufacturers, although some unique aspects are considered.
Performance – As stated above, both computers can handle 8GB of RAM. Not stated is the fact that 8GB is all you're going to get on the MacBook Air. Meanwhile, some Ultrabooks come armed with 12 or even 16GB of RAM inside. This discrepancy may be negligible when you factor in things like SSD performance and graphics processing power but you may notice that extra memory boost if you’re into video-editing or intense gaming.
Keyboard – Apple make a big song and dance about how special their keyboard is. It's hard to disagree with their own appraisal since the textile feel and delicate curvature of the keys makes it more responsive and comfortable to type than ever before, while the LED lights shining through each individual key make typing in dimly-lit rooms a breeze.
Trackpad – The Force Touch trackpad on the MacBook takes computer navigation to a whole new level. It delivers a uniform click on any area of the pad, it can sense the amount of pressure you apply and give you additional options based on the force exerted, it feeds back tactile information from what's on the screen into your fingertips, and it's engineered to translate those same finger gestures you use on touchscreen devices to perform actions.
Display – Sadly, Apple have not yet given the MacBook Air the same Retina treatment it gave to the latest MacBook and MacBook Pro displays. And with Ultrabook makers improving on display qualities all the time, this may be a deal breaker if you care about flawless graphics.
Versatility – The MacBook Air's unibody aluminium shell contains a base with all its computing power and a display screen. Ultrabooks, on the other hand, are offered in the same two-part build but also come in a handy 2-in-1 design, giving you the flexibility to release the screen from the base and use it as a tablet. Ultrabooks also come in a wide variety of display sizes compared to the 13 inch or 11 inch versions of the MacBook Air.
Price – When Apple discontinued the MacBook, the MacBook Air became its entry-level model. However, they still retained their expensive price tag that talked the average user out of getting one. For a similar outlay, you could get an Ultrabook of similar spec yet better display properties and increased connectivity options.
MacBook vs Chromebook
The compact size and enhanced display of the 2015 MacBook Retina brings it within striking distance of the Chromebook series of portable computers aimed at online gaming hobbyists and people seeking media consumption. You'll get space for an extra USB device, an SD card, and a SIM card on a Chromebook, not to mention more processing power and instant-on capabilities.
Where the Chromebook lets itself down, though, is its onboard storage and multimedia application support. Chromebook put less capacity in the machine and ask users to send everything to the cloud. The MacBook, in contrast, makes 256GB of flash storage space available in its PCIe SSD; upgradeable to 512GB if you need more space for your precious files. What's more, OS X is capable of giving you so much more resources than the Chrome OS to get your work done between game sessions and YouTube breaks.
Overall though, the MacBook is a great choice if you like to take a minimalistic approach to your work and genuinely don’t have a need for the increased connectivity options taking up valuable space on a Chromebook.
Accessories for the MacBook
The selection of available accessories for the MacBook is on par with that of iOS devices. From personalised case covers to external connectivity gizmos, you'll be spoiled for choice. Here is just a brief overview of some of the available MacBook accessories you can buy.
If you worry about dust, dirt, hair, and other contaminants getting into the open ports of your MacBook and causing problems, you can buy an anti-dust plug cover set to sit in the ports when you’re not using your computer. They're made of silicone and come in an array of vibrant colours. You can take it one step further with a colourful silicone keyboard protector that sits on your keyboard to block spills and prevent dust from building up under the keys.
The Beats Solo2 wireless on-ear headphones give you the ultimate cable free music experience when working outside your home or office. Priced at the highest scale for good reason, the Solo2 produces crisp clear sound and is equipped with a built-in mic for chatting online, and a long lasting, 12-hour rechargeable battery, all in a compact yet durable folding design to take up less space in your bag. They even come in space grey, silver, gold, and rose gold finishes to harmonise with the style of your MacBook.
There's no doubt the attraction of the MacBook Air is its extreme portability. The downside to this design means compromising on useful features that you may not miss until the time comes when you absolutely need them. For instance, if the wireless on your home router suddenly stops working, a USB to Ethernet adapter means you can avoid the panic that might ensue from being unplugged from your friends for more than five minutes.
Considerations When Buying a MacBook
At the end of the day, the MacBook is more than just a system for completing everyday computing tasks and consuming media. Apart from ardent Apple enthusiasts who live and die by the brand, buying one just for these purposes would be overkill. Rather, you'll want to invest in a MacBook because of their capacity to deliver equal doses of content creation performance and satisfying design.
MacBooks rarely drop in price but don't let that put you off. There are times throughout the year when you might be able to get a great offer such as when Apple launches their next generation model. Search online for release dates if you're interested in buying a MacBook and don't care that it’s not the latest version. At other times of the year, you can grab cheaper computers and gadgets, including Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Christmas, when major retailers like Amazon and Laptops Direct run promotional coupon codes and other special offers.
You can also get refurbished models direct from the Apple web store, as well as third-party online retailers. Refurbished models offer as new performance like those coming from the factory at a heavily discounted price. Just remember to check the warranty information in case the refurbishing process hasn't dealt the previous faults.
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