Which MacBook Pro should you get?
13-inch vs. 15-inch, Touch Bar vs. non-Touch Bar, 2016 vs. 2015 — how do you choose the perfect MacBook Pro for you?
MacBook Pro may sound like one product but in reality there are several options to consider — do you want a 13-inch model or 15-inch? With a Touch Bar and Touch ID or without? This year’s model or last year’s? And then there’s processor speed, graphics card, memory, SSD storage size, and even color to consider! But there’s no need to suffer paralysis through analysis — I’m going to break it all down for you and make the complex simple again!
MacBook Pro lineup
Apple’s MacBook Pro lineup — and that’s not including the MacBook or MacBook Air — currently includes five separate models. There’s last year’s 13-inch and 15-inch versions, this year’s 13-inch sans Touch Bar and Touch ID, and this year’s 13-inch and 15-inch versions.
Screen size may look like the biggest differentiator but there’s also ports, performance, and even price points to take into account. Still, it’s useful to look at the baselines, above.
Note: I’ll be referring to last year’s models as MacBook Pro 2015 and the current generation as MacBook Pro 2016.
More display, more of the web and more of apps you can cram onto it, including interface and toolbars. Having a smaller display means having a smaller machine to lug around, but a larger display means seeing more of your documents, images, or videos — or more details on them.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a 2560×1600 16:10 display at 227 ppi. That’s “Retina”, or what Apple calls a display dense enough that you can no longer see pixels at a normal working distance.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro has a 2880×1800 16:10 display at 220 ppi.
Here’s how the pixel differences look side-by-side:
The 2016 version of the MacBook Pro also supports DCI-P3 wide color gamut and other advanced technologies that provide brighter reds, deeper greens, and blacker blacks. It’s like HDR for your display. It’s like taking a layer of haze off the screen and seeing the world closer to how it really is.
- If you want a DCI-P3 wide gamut display, you want the 2016 MacBook Pro.
- If you want the smallest possible display, you want the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
- If you want the largest possible display, you want the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
You can also drive external displays with the MacBook Pro. That way, you can make your desk look more like NASA.
MacBook Pro 2015 can support up to two 3840×2160 (4K) external displays over Thunderbolt. The highest end 15-inch MacBook Pro 2015 can also support up to a single 5120 x 2880 resolution display.
MacBook Pro 2016 can support up to one 5120×2880 (5K) display for the 13-inch model, and up to two 5120×2880 (5K) displays for the 15-inch model.
- If you want to drive a 5K display, you want a MacBook Pro 2016.
- If you want to drive two 5K external displays, you want a 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016.
The central processing unit (CPU) is what drives the MacBook Pro. In the old days they’d get astronomically more powerful every generation. Now, the big gains are in power efficiency.
MacBook Pro 2015 has the current-generation Skylake processor for the 13-inch and the previous generation Broadwell processor for the 15-inch. The 13-inch starts with a 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 3MB shared L3 cache but goes up to 3.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.4GHz) with 4MB shared L3 cache.The 15-inch starts with 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with 6MB shared L3 cache but goes up to 2.8GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with 6MB shared L3 cache.
MacBook Pro 2016 has current-generation Skylake processors for both the 13-inch and 15-inch models. The 13-inch model starts with a 2.0GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 or 2.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor for the version without the Touch Bar, and 2.9GHz or 3.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, or 3.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor for the version with Touch Bar. The 15-inch has options for a 2.6GHz, 2.7GHz, or 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor.
- If you want maximum performance for things like video editing, you want a quad-core 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016.
The graphics processing unit (GPU) handles rendering and pushing the pixels. That includes everything from the macOS interface to photo and video editors to video games. The more powerful the GPU, the more pixels it can render and push, and the smoother and better the animations, apps, and the more realistic 3D you’ll get.
MacBook Pro 2015 has Intel Iris Graphics 6100. As built-in graphics go, it’s better than previous generations, but it’s still built-in. The highest end model is the only one with the option for an extra graphics boost — AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB of GDDR5 memory.
MacBook Pro 2016 has Intel Iris Graphics 540 for the 13-inch version without Touch Bar and Intel Iris Graphics 550 for the 13-inch version with Touch Bar. The 15-inch version has both Intel HD Graphics 530 for low power and discreet graphics for high performance. There are options for Radeon Pro 450 with 2GB of GDDR5 or 460 with 4GB of GDDR5 on the 13-inch model, or Radeon Pro 455 with 2GB of GDDR5 or Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB of GDDR5 on the 15-inch model.
- If you want the biggest graphics boost you can get, you want the MacBook Pro 2016 in the 15-inch model.
It doesn’t matter how fast your laptop is if it runs out of juice when you need it most. So, both Intel and AMD on the chipset side and Apple on the macOS side have been working on making everything last longer.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2015 is rated for up to 10 hours of web browsing, 12 hours of iTunes movie playback, and 30 days on standby. The 15-inch MacBook Pro 2015 is rated for up to 9 of web browsing and iTunes movie playback, and 30 days on standby.
All versions of the MacBook Pro 2016 are rated for 10-hours of web browsing or iTunes movie playback and 30 days on standby.
(iTunes movie playback is hardware accelerated, so YouTube in Chrome will consume way more power, for example.)
- Battery life is pretty much the same on all models, so no big differentiator here!
The amount of random access memory (RAM) in your Mac determines how many apps you can keep live at a time, how big your photo or video editing projects can be without having to swap data out back and forth on the drive, and otherwise keeps everything super fast.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2015 starts at 8 GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory but can be configured with 16GB. The 15-inch MacBook Pro 2015 only comes with 16 GB of 1600MHz DDR3L memory.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 without Touch Bar starts with 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 memory and can go to 16GB. The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 with Touch Bar starts at 8GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory and can go to 16GB. The 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 only comes with 16GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory.
- All MacBooks Pro currently max out at 16 GB, though the higher-end 2016 models have the latest chips.
Storage used to consist of big, noisy hard drive platters that spun around and didn’t take well to bumps or power problems. Now they’re solid state — Flash chips with no moving parts. They don’t hold as much as old-style hard drives and are still more expensive, but they’re ultra-fast and far more resilient.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2015 comes with 128GB of PCIe Flash storage but can be upgraded to 256 GB or 512 GB on the highest end model. The 15-inch MacBook Pro 2015 comes with 256 GB of PCIe Flash but can be upgraded to 512 GB or 1 TB on the highest end model.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 comes with 256GB PCIe Flash storage but can go up to 1 TB. The 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 starts with 256GB PCI Flash storage on the low-end model, 512GB PCIe Flash storage on the high-end model, and both can go to 2 TB.
- If you want the fastest storage possible, you want the MacBook Pro 2016.
- If you want the largest amount of storage possible — 2 TB — you want the 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016.
Wired connections like USB, Thunderbolt, and HDMI let you connect to high-performance accessories like external displays, drives, networks, and more.
The MacBook Pro 2015 has 2x USB 3 ports, 2x Thunderbolt 2 ports, an HDMI port, an SDXC card slot, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 without the Touch Bar has 2x Thunderbolt 3 ports (USB-C), both the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 with the Touch Bar have 4x Thunderbolt 3 ports (USB-C), though the two right ports on the 13-inch aren’t full speed.
- If you want all the legacy ports, you want the MacBook Pro 2015.
- If you want all the latest, high speed ports, you want the MacBook Pro 2016
Force Touch trackpad
Apple now has Force Touch trackpads in all the MacBooks Pro. They use a Taptic Engine to simulate the click feeling of a traditional trackpad, but over the entire surface, and without the actual mechanical switch. Some people don’t like the feeling, but it adds pressure sensitivity, is less prone to breakdown, and can be used in ways far beyond a regular trackpad.
The MacBooks Pro for 2016 have a much larger Force Touch trackpad than the previous 2015 models.
- If you want a larger Force Touch trackpad, you want the MacBook Pro 2016.
Apple changed up their notebook keyboards last year, and this year that change is reflected in the MacBook Pro as well.
MacBook Pro 2015 use Apple’s older scissor switch system that’s a bit looser but also has much better travel.
MacBook Pro 2016 uses a second generation version of the new, flatter keyboard with domes and butterfly switches for a larger, more stable surface for your typing.
- If you want a traditional MacBook Pro typing experience, you want the 2015 model.
- If you like the new style keyboard, you want the 2016 model.
Touch Bar and Touch ID
The higher-end 13-inch and every 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 includes the new Touch Bar. OLED with a matte finish that matches the feel of the keyboard keys, it can display Esc and function keys and system and media controls, just like the old function row. But it can also display curated, contextual shortcuts for whatever app you’re working in at the time. That includes volume sliders, content scrubbers, color selectors, and anything else a developer can dream up.
To the right of the new Touch Bar is Touch ID. Once exclusive to iPhone and iPad, now you can have it on the Mac. It works off an Apple T1 chip, which is like a tiny, integrated iOS device embedded right in the MacBook Pro. It handles the secure enclave and secure presentation of Apple Pay information, but that fusion is hidden away.
All you see is the sensor. Place your registered finger on it and you’re authenticated! You can even use it for fast account switching.
- If you want a traditional function key row, Apple has a lower-end 13-inch MacBook Pro 2016 or any MacBook Pro 2015 for you.
- If you want the new Touch Bar or Touch ID, you want a higher-end MacBook Pro 2016.
For a long time Apple only made laptops with silver, bead-blasted aluminum finishes. The bead-blasted aluminum part is still true, but recently Apple has started adding some colors to the Mac lineup… but only on the 2016 model.
- If you really want a color other than silver, MacBook Pro 2016 gives you the option for space gray as well.
Who should get a MacBook Pro 2015?
Last year’s MacBook Pro still packs plenty of punch, at a lower price point, and with all the legacy ports you can throw a cable at. It’s for professionals who need the most power, memory, and storage possible, bigger screen options, and for whom weight and price aren’t issues.
If you want Retina but don’t care about wide gamut, if the Touch Bar and Touch ID hold no appeal, and Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are a future you can’t see yet amid USB Type A, HDMI, and Thunderbolt 2 accessories galore, save some cash and consider the 2015 MacBook Pro.
Who should get the MacBook Pro 2016?
The newly updated MacBook Pro is cutting edge but also cuts some things out. Gone are the legacy ports and in their place the fastest I/O possible, inside and out. It’s for those who want the bleeding edge and don’t care what it costs.
If you want a DCI-P3 wide gamut display and the best screen tech in the business, a larger Force Touch trackpad, a lighter and denser chassis, Skylake on the 13-inch, AMD Polaris graphics on all 15-inch models, and Touch Bar and Touch ID on the higher end 13-inch and all 15-inch versions, you want the 2016 MacBook Pro.
Who should get the MacBook Pro 2016 without Touch Bar and Touch ID?
Meant for people who’ve always wanted a Retina MacBook Air, Apple snuck a lower-end, and lower-cost MacBook Pro into the 2016 lineup as well. The specs aren’t as high, there are only 2x Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports, and there’s no Touch Bar and no Touch ID, but there is a P3 Retina Display and the fast SSD.
If you’ve always wanted a Retina MacBook Air, or you want one of the new MacBooks Pro but don’t need the Touch Bar or Touch ID, you should consider the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro.
If you’re still having trouble choosing which MacBook Pro is for you, make sure to pay our Apple notebooks discussion forums a visit, and ask all the questions you need answered!