These days, those considering a MacBook might yearn for a simpler time, a time of clean Air (at least in terms of product line rationalization), a time uncorrupted by the allure of gold, a time where fewer things were in gray areas. Alas, with the introduction of the 12" MacBook, named to evoke the new mainstream of Apple's product line, the company has made choosing among its three MacBook lines--MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro--harder than ever, at least in the near term.

The challenges start with the naming of the MacBook Air. Before the introduction of the new MacBook, the Air represented the thinnest and lightest MacBooks on the market, but that's no longer the case. One might expect the 12" MacBook to be smaller than the 13" MacBook Air, but it's also smaller in some ways than the 11" MacBook. Yes, the new MacBook is lighter than Air.

And that's just the start of its advantages. Apple has added a high-resolution Retina display--likely the most requested feature for the MacBook Air line--to its slim frame. It's also made stability improvements to both the keyboard and trackpad, the former now offers great response for those who type forcefully. Apple has also finally banished the fan from the MacBook, making the sound of typing about the only one you'll hear when using the machine.

But, here's where it gets tricky, the MacBook Air also has advantages over the new MacBook, at least for some. While the new MacBook display is razor sharp, using Apple's "Retina" display, the 13" MacBook screen is larger. If you like the notion of your Apple logo being able to be spotted across the room, Apple has extinguished the light in the new MacBook. On the other hand, the new MacBook, unlike other models, come in a choice of iPhone-like colors: the line's traditional silver, a darker space gray, and a gold that stands out among competitive devices.

Perhaps most importantly, Apple has also gotten rid of the few ports that were on the MacBook Air (the waning SD card in an age of smartphone photography, video, high-speed Thunderbolt, and the classic USB connector), replacing it with a single new standard called USB-C that supports power, external video and hard drives or flash drives. Soon, there will be a lot of support for USB-C via all kinds of clever accessories but, in the short term, you may need to carry a couple of adapters.

MacBook Airs can accommodate Intel's powerful i7 processors. And of course, if you're looking for the least expensive MacBook available, it's the 11" MacBook Air. Even the 13" Air starts at $100 less than new MacBook.

If you need the ultimate in Mac performance and the largest display, nothing has really changed. The MacBook Pro is the only model that offers the option of a 15" screen and the only one with the option of a dedicated graphics co-processor. Muddying the waters somewhat, Apple still offers a non-Retina MacBook Pro at the attractive starting price of $1099; it's an option for those considering a MacBook Air but want some better performance at the price of some portability.

Beyond the stunning, minimalist design, the main decision criterion between the MacBook Air and new MacBook is how much you value the Retina display and if you're work really demands the fastest performance Mac laptops can muster. For everyday computing, the Retina display makes a noticeable difference in the use of the device, something that's usually not true of features such as SD card slots. This is how the new MacBook has been inspired by the iPad.

The new MacBook may be a reinvention of the notebook (or taking the design philosophy of the MacBook Air to the next level), but in some ways it still represents the middle of the MacBook road, taking the Retina display from the MacBook Pro and the thinness of the MacBook Air. When Apple introduced the latter, it portrayed it as the future of notebooks. That future has arrived.

Published on: Apr 19, 2015
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