Which MacBook Pro 13 should you buy?

With a number of models to choose from, which is worth your hard-earned cash?

The MacBook Pro 13 is the Apple machine of choice for professionals who want an extra-portable laptop that can still handle more demanding tasks. However, choosing the right Pro 13 isn’t always easy — Apple has a number of different models, each with its own customization options. So allow us to recommend the best model for you, and show you why we picked it.

Best overall: 1.4Ghz quad-core processor, 256GB storage ($1,499)

MacOS Catalina Hands-on | Macbook Pro
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The basic MacBook has 128GB SSD, which may be too small for long-term storage. You want a laptop that won’t fill up after a couple years and force new expenses. On the high-end, you can boost the storage to 512GB , but that ratchets up the price by $200, meaning things start to get expensive.

In the middle, not too hot and not too cold, is the 1.4GHz 256GB model. This MacBook is a good fit for most MacBook users and their budgets. It also comes with optional upgrades to both the processor, RAM and storage, allowing you to use a more powerful machine for more demanding tasks if necessary. All in all, it keeps to the minimalistic ideals of the MacBook while offering the right amount of power and storage.

All about storage

Stock photo of MacBook Pro

It’s vital to choose the right amount of storage when you buy a MacBook Pro, as you won’t be able to open up your laptop and swap it out later. Of the four base MacBook Pro 13 models, there are three default storage options: 128GB, 256GB and 512GB. However, these can be upgraded all the way up to 2TB if you need more space.

All storage options are PCIe-based SSDs. That means reading and writing many types of data will be significantly faster when compared to older SATA storage. Most smaller ultrabook-style laptops are moving to SSD storage because of these benefits, so it isn’t a huge surprise.

Do these storage-related decisions matter to you? To help, let’s break the question down into two different situations:

  • You don’t need much storage. Here, it’s smart to go with the 256GB or 512GB models. This way you get as much storage as you need, but avoid the risk of the 128GB model, which may fill up before you are ready to move on to another laptop. This range is ideal for work-focused MacBooks that don’t need to store large video or music files.
  • You need a lot of storage. In this case, you have two main choices: you can either bite the bullet and plump for a larger SSD from Apple, or go with a small SSD and buy an external hard drive (HDD) to complement it. There are a few things to note on this choice. Firstly, Apple’s PCIe SSDs will be significantly faster than an external HDD. That may not be a problem if you use the HDD to store files that you only occasionally access, but if you frequently use it you may feel the slowdown. Secondly, the MacBook Pro only has USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports these days, so if you buy an external HDD, make sure you buy one with the correct cable!

Additional hardware

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Aside from choosing the right amount of storage, you can customize your MacBook Pro’s memory and processor. On the processor front, you can pick between a 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 or 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor, which can be upgraded to a 1.7GHz Intel Core i7 or 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 respectively. All processor options are Intel’s 8th-generation quad-core chips.

If you have to run a lot of demanding software on your Mac for work or school, then it may be worthwhile to choose a more powerful chip. However, keep in mind that these upgrades will add $300 to your final cost. If you don’t care about processor speed or software, then don’t upgrade just because you can. Save the money.

The same rule applies to RAM. The base 8GB of RAM is probably all the memory the average laptop user needs. Upgrading to 16GB of RAM can help when running a lot of complex programs, but if you’re doing that, you probably wouldn’t be buying the 13-inch MacBook Pro over its 15-inch sibling. Don’t choose more RAM just because the number is bigger. It’s only good if you have a specific reason for getting it.

A quick word on Retina

MacOS Catalina Hands-on | Macbook Pro
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

A glance at these models will also show you they are all “Retina” MacBooks with a 2,560 x 1,600-pixel resolution. Apple Retina is a brand name for the newest generation of computer screens, but it doesn’t represent a fixed resolution or pixel count. So what is it?

Simply put, if a screen is labelled as Retina then it means the pixels are too small for you to be able to make out from a reasonable viewing distance. For the MacBook Pro 13, Apple says that means a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 at 227ppi. For other devices, that changes. The MacBook Pro 15, for example, has a resolution of 2,880 x 1,800 at 221ppi; on the iPhone 11 Pro Max, it’s 2,688 x 1,242 at 456ppi.

Generally speaking, Apple calculates this based on roughly how far away from the screen you will be in general usage. We tend to hold our phones a lot closer to our faces than our computers, hence why the MacBook Pro 13 has a lower pixels-per-inch (ppi) count than the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Don’t worry, though — that Retina label means it’ll still look beautifully sharp and crisp, something we noted in our review.

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