13″ MacBook Air vs. 13″ Retina MacBook Pro…Fight!

MacBook Air vs. Retina

I have to admit, I have been pretty spoiled when it comes to computers over the past several years. I have not bought a computer for myself since 2007. I have been incredibly fortunate to have employers give me top-of-the-line hardware for both company and personal use.

My new job is decidedly more corporate, which means it came time for me to once again separate work and personal computer use.

Now, which computer to get?

In the past six years, I have gone from a 15″ MacBook Pro, to a 17″ MacBook Pro, to a 15″ Retina MacBook Pro. I sadly had to return the latter when I resigned. I also knew I would be getting another 15″ MacBook Pro at my new gig, though not a retina one. So with my more demanding development environment on my work machine, it seemed a bit overkill to also have a 15″ MacBook Pro of some flavor as a personal machine too.

This brought the battle down to the 13″ beauties… The MacBook Air vs. the Retina MacBook Pro.


Nearly all of my close friends all sport a MacBook Air. They swear by the machine as the ultimate combination of portability and power. I had some reservations about the power (again, I have been spoiled) and the screen, but they all convinced me that everything would be ok.

I had also heard a rumor that the 13″ Retina MacBook Pro was graphically underpowered trying to serve up all that sweet, sweet retina, which gave me pause as well.

The good news is, Apple also allows you to return a computer, no questions asked, within 14 days. WIth that safety net in place, I decided to purchase the Air first as the most svelte and affordable option.

13″ MacBook Air

By far, the most appealing aspect of the Air is its form factor. The thing is ridiculously light and thin. I mean, I have been to the Apple Store and seen one, but you do not fully appreciate its agility until you own one and actually use it and lug it around. It is the most ridiculous computer I have ever owned.

There were no performance issues, since I am not running an enterprise app environment. Yes, I am maxing out my RAM usage more often, but nothing to the point where I saw performance hits.

But the screen… It is very, very sad.

Display Manufacturers

The first thing you need to know is that there are two different manufactures of the MacBook Air displays, LG and Samsung. It is a complete toss-up as to which one you will get. Most agree that the Samsung display is far superior to the LG display. Mine was an LG and all the ones at my local Apple Store were Samsung. Side-by-side, the different was astounding. The LG is incredibly dull and washed out compared to the vibrant and rich Samsung.

To determine what display your MacBook Air has, you can launch Terminal and enter this command.

The command will spit out a string of letters and numbers. If the output starts with LP, then you know you have an LG display. Anything else should be a Samsung display.

Color Profiles

MacBook Air Calibrated vs. Uncalibrated Display
Image by OS X Daily.

One way to overcome the LG issues is to calibrate your display. To calibrate your Mac, you can go to System Preferences > Displays > Color. You can walk through the process yourself (do the advanced mode) or you can scour the internet for ICC color profiles to install on your machine.

I had mixed results doing the process myself, so I spent hours looking for the best color profile to install. I searched endless forums threads until I came up with the best I could find. I saved you some time and attached what I considered the best three I found.

Download MacBook Air Color Profiles

To install color profiles Macs:

  1. In Finder, navigate to /Library/ColorSync/Profiles/Displays/ and drop in the .icc files.
  2. Go to System Preferences > Displays > Color and select which color profile to use.

In the end, I simply could not look past the screen. It bothered me every single time I sat down at my laptop. There was no way I could keep it.

13″ Retina MacBook Pro

So I went back to the Apple Store and traded in the MacBook AIr with zero hassles and walked out with a retina MacBook Pro. In a word… Stunning.

Like I said, I had used a retina MacBook Pro for 8 months. My iPhone is also retina. My eyes are not only drawn to the sharpness, but they had become accustomed to it. I could go on and on about the screen, but Brian Gardner, who was a diehard MacBook Air fan, sums up everything I could try to articulate in why he sold his 13″ Air for a retina MacBook Pro.

Aside from the screen’s incredible sharpness, it gives you a higher screen resolution compared to the Air, also due to the retina goodness. Developer and designers alike will love those extra pixels. The performance is better than the Air due to beefier hardware. I have never experienced the rumored sluggishness others had mentioned due to the lower end graphics card and the retina.

Apple even came out with a hardware refresh and price reduction on the retina MacBooks last week making this decision an absolute no brainer.

One Month Review

It has now been one month since I settled in on my decision to keep the 13″ Retina MacBook Pro.

I have zero regrets. This is the best machine I have ever owned. The perfect combination of power and portability, just like the MacBook Air, but a screen I never tire of staring at all day. A far cry from loathing every morning when I sat down with the MacBook Air wondering if I would ever get used to the dull screen.

Do yourself a favor and just get this machine. You will not regret it. You have my word.

14 thoughts on “13″ MacBook Air vs. 13″ Retina MacBook Pro…Fight!”

  1. If only they have come out with the 13 retina last summer when they refreshed the air, I would have. But I needed a computer last summer and got the air.

    Happy as long as I don’t look at the retina too often :)

    1. I’m in that terrible, wonderful place of having been on a Retina 15″ MacBook Pro since August… I’ll never, ever be able to go back. I sometimes pull up my wife’s 2010-era 13″ MacBook and it’s painful. For that matter, my 23″ LG HD monitor is painful to use for a second monitor; the transition is just awful. Yes, yes, #FirstWorldProblems and all that, but as Gruber put it in his review of the 15″ back when it came out, “Now, only the retina MacBook Pro feels real to me, and all my other Macs feel ersatz. Low-resolution approximations of the ideal that now sits before my eyes.” That pretty much sums it up.

      I’ve told all my friends: if you want a Mac and you can afford it, buy a 13″ Retina. It’s well worth the extra. Well worth.

      1. Chris Krycho : :

        I completely agree! I have friends who are still buying Airs just because they are cheaper. If that makes them happy, then by all means.

        But that crispness, that sharpness… Worth every extra $1, in my opinion!

    2. Adam Shields : :

      Yeah, I hear you. There is never a “good” time to buy a computer. It is nearly outdated the minute you buy it.

      I mean, the hardware bump and price cut came out last week just 60 days after I bought mine. Yes, it sucks, but I needed a computer two months ago, not last week.

      You just have to know stuff like that is going to happen. It’s technology. You just need to buy when you need it and learn not to feel bad about that.

    1. That would be very interesting to see.

      The difference betten a retina 15″ and a standard 15″ are astounding. The sheer size and weight contrasts are really impressive. It is hard to imagine it getting even better than that, but I am sure Apple is all over it.

  2. The Retina is a wonderful machine. I’ve been comparing the Air and Pro for a while but Retina does solve most of the dilemmas between the two. The only thing I still love with the Air is the thinness. Good thing you traded yours in soon enough before you were made addicted to it like I am.

    1. Haha, yes. I didn’t get attached to my Air before I returned it. All my friends make simular comments about their Air’s.

      The slimmer profile is the only part I miss about the Air from the brief time I had it, but I can live without it compared to all I gain from the retina. That and I came from having a 17″ and 15″ MacBook Pro previously, so the retina still feels thin and light enough for me.

      Hopefully Apple brings the best from both worlds soon with a retina Air.

      1. I’ve a friend who’s in the market for a new computer, and this has been exactly his dilemma. I told him that the Retina would be worth the bump in price—I can’t imagine not having the screen anymore. And it doesn’t weigh that much more than the Air…

  3. I wonder if you can help me with a dilemma.

    I have been using a macbook pro 15″ since around 2006/2007 and aside from a water spilling incident where I had to have it replaced, it’s held up well . But my job has become demanding and I’m needing to do some upgrades (I’m still on 10.6.8 lion). I was going to upgrade to the latest OSX system but I see some of the new apps on it are possibly not going to work on my older pro. Is it worth the $$ to just bite the bullet and get a new macbook pro 15″? (I was looking at Air but I think it’s not going to do the job for me even though I appreciate the lighter weight since I carry this around with me everywhere). Or am I okay to just upgrade the system and software and stick with my trusted old buddy?

    Thanks for any input!

    1. Sandy G : :

      Some questions for you first before I could give you my best recommendation.

      1. What do you do for your job? How is that demanding on your computer?

      2. What apps are you afraid will no longer work if you upgrade?

      1. Thank you Michael. Trying to make a long story short…
        I’m a video/TV producer so I deal with budgets, contacts, research and tons of paperwork as well as watching videos on my computer. A few years ago the Geniuses did me a favor when water fried my Pro and instead of just fixing the keyboard they replaced it with a newer computer that upgraded me to 10.6.8 (I think it’s Lion? I can never keep the cats straight). However, by doing this I soon realized I couldn’t continue to get software updates for any of my microsoft programs like excel or word because after Lion they weren’t compatible. My schedule has been too busy to deal with it over the years – I didn’t want to lose everything in the upgrade. Now I have a week off and am focusing entirely on my mac, as weird of a week off as that may be. I was going to upgrade to Mountain Lion or Jaguar or whatever the latest is, buy MS office and try to do it at the Genius bar so that I don’t lose my life in the process. But last week my mac was dinged on production and now it’s sporting a minor dent. Plus, it weighs a ton and I’m suffering. So I was going to find a better backpack (suggestions welcome) but am starting to wonder if I should just buy a lighter system. I’d rather not spend the money if I don’t need to though. I did buy an ipad mini to help cut down on schlepping the Pro everywhere if I can just have the mini handy.
        So that’s my story. I need excel (although I plan to also use Numbers) and Word (pages), I also use a very old Filemaker Pro for my crew contacts but haven’t figured out if I will continue with that or not. I use imovie for small personal needs and every once in a while I still burn a DVD for work needs although mostly I use that for personal projects. I use ical but am probably going to find a stronger calendar program this week as well. Then there is Spotify, Chrome and all sorts of other apps I lean on…

        Thanks for your thoughts!

        1. Sandy G : :

          Upgrade or Not?

          Based on what you use your computer for, I’d say you should be fine with keeping your old or getting a new one. Either way, upgrade to OS X 10.9 (aka. Mavericks), which you will need in order to use the latest versions of Numbers and Pages released last month.

          Now, I say that with a disclaimer…

          If your computer was bought in 2010 or earlier, you’re probably going to be hitting the limits of what the computer is capable of. For instance, my wife’s 2007 MacBook Pro has a difficult enough time simply running Facebook in a browser tab. That alone will make the fans kick in and continually spin. That probably says more about the quality (or lack their of) of Facebook’s code, but even so, it’s a really different landscape from even 3 years ago.

          You’ll be doing yourself a ton of favors if you get a machine with:

          • An i5 or i7 processor
          • An SSD drive
          • At least 8GB of RAM

          It will make anything you do with your machine feel effortless.


          I really like my Swiss Army backpack, which can be found at most Best Buy’s or Office Max’s. It’s bulkier than most, but I carry a lot of junk and two computers.

          Otherwise, I would also recommend / suggest Incase or Booq based on my past experiences with them.

          Good luck with your decisions! :)

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