Laptops, laptops in the store. Which one is the best replacement for my laptop from before?

May 5, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 5, 2015

Last month, I paid about $150 last month to replace my laptop computer’s hard drive. As I wrote the other day, repairing the machine was cheaper than replacing it, which would almost certainly have cost upwards of $1,000, factoring in the kind of computer I’d like as well as the cost of taxes and a warranty. (I’m not sure it’s worth purchasing coverage for a desktop computer, but I definitely recommend it for any laptop that’s going to be traveling farther than the distance from your couch to your desk.)

The case for repair vs. replace wasn’t quite as clear-cut as that, however. My 13-inch MacBook Pro is relatively old, in computer terms. I got it in August 2009; while it was pretty much a top-of-the-line computer at the time, that’s no longer the case. Any new machine will almost certainly be both faster and less prone to breaking down (at least in the short term).

So those are reasons in favor of replacement. But part of why I was reluctant to buy a new computer was that I wasn’t sure exactly which model I wanted.

When I went to the Apple Store (the first time, out of my three visits), I spent a little time playing around with the floor models. Apple’s newest laptop is a 12-inch machine known simply as the MacBook (no Pro, no Air, no “with Retina display”). This computer looks great in terms of its case, its screen and its specifications — 1.1 gigahertz processor, 8 gigabytes of internal memory.

What’s not so appealing about the MacBook, however, is its price, which starts at $1,300. The AppleCare extended warranty costs another $250, which kicks the cost up significantly. And then there’s the matter of adapters.

The new MacBook has a single USB-C port, which means that I’d need to buy a $19 accessory to plug in a hard drive. Normally, when I’m at home, I have my laptop attached to its charger and a hard drive; often, I also have a scanner plugged in. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to attach two of these things to the MacBook at the same time, let alone all three at once.

I’ve read a few reviews of the MacBook, which came out in April. While writers praise the new computer, they say that the brand-new USB-C technology is a drawback because very few manufacturers offer compatible devices and cables.

So between the cost and the adapter issue, the MacBook is out. That leaves three options: a MacBook Pro, either with or without a high-resolution Retina display; or a MacBook Air.

Unfortunately, the first of those options, a MacBook Pro with a regular screen, is rather…underwhelming. Starting at $1,100, I can get a machine that’d be faster than my current computer, newer than my current computer, capable of running far longer than my current computer (for about seven hours, compared to two or so), equipped with faster USB ports than computer.

But otherwise — well, otherwise, it’d be pretty much the same as what I have now. The MacBook Pro sans Retina is 13 inches, like my current machine; its base model comes with the same memory and storage capacities as my 2009 laptop (4 gigabytes and 500 GB, respectively); and it comes with an internal CD/DVD drive. (It is now, in fact, the only computer that Apple makes with an optical disc drive.)

Crucially, the MacBook Pro (full stop) has a 13.3-inch display with 1,280 by 800 pixels — exactly like my 2009 machine. However, after sampling the high-resolution Retina displays at the Apple store, I just don’t find standard resolution that impressive any more.

What of the MacBook Pro with Retina display?

Well, the 15-inch model starts at $2,000 — too expensive.

The 13-inch model, on the other hand, is quite appealing. It comes with a 2,560 by 1,600 pixel display, 8 GB of memory, a pair of USB 3 ports and a pair of Thunderbolt ports, and a battery rated to run 10 hours between charges. All of these specifications put the 13-inch MacBook Pro/retina ahead of its older MacBook Pro (full stop) counterpart.

In fact, I think that the MBP/retina lags MBP/full stop in just three two ways. One is that the MBP/r lacks an internal CD/DVD drive, which the MBP/fs has. But you know what? No big deal. If I really really really need to access optical discs, I can purchase an external drive for $80 plus tax.

The second drawback is more serious. The bask MBP/r comes with just a 128 GB hard drive. That seems kind of small to me.

Alas, the third other drawback is a deal-breaker: The 13-inch MBP/r starts at $1,300 — exactly the same price point as Apple’s newly released MacBook (no modifiers). Here again, the extended warranty would cost another $250. That adds up to a lot of scratch.

In practical terms, the MBP/r is slightly cheaper than the MacBook (no modifiers). Because USB 3 ports are backwards-compatible with older USB hardware and cables, if I bought an MBP/r, I wouldn’t need to pay for any adapters, which the MBP (no modifiers) requires. Still, I think the MBP/r is a bit on the pricey side.

Then we come to our last option, the MacBook Air. I’ll take a look at that computer in a future post.

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