Apple’s recent introduction of a 16-inch MacBook Pro got me thinking about the future of the Mac line. The latest rumors suggest that the 13-inch MacBook Pro is getting a redesigned keyboard in early 2020. That’s a good first step. But the increase in screen real estate on the 16-inch model makes me wonder if the 13-inch MacBook Pro might be not long for this world at all. Could a 14-inch be around the corner?
I say this as someone who used to sell these things: Apple needs a better way to differentiate the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. Because it’s confusing to the average customer. Maybe making the MacBook Pro a 14-inch model would help.
MacBook Pro vs. MacBook Air
For years, the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 13-inch (now, only) MacBook Air were easy to distinguish. The 13-inch MacBook Pro was way faster, came with a Retina display and all the latest features you’d expect from Apple’s pro laptop line.
But that didn’t stop customers from walking in, looking at the price tag of the two laptops, pursing their lips and asking, “What’s the difference between the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro?”
I’d explain the difference in performance. Although it was lightweight and sported an all-day battery, the MacBook Air had a slower processor and graphics, fewer configurable options, and less features. I’d show off the gorgeous Retina display and talk about some of the more advanced features of the device, like the Touch Bar.
My customers would play around with the floor models, and then make their decision based on their own unique needs. I learned that the MacBook Air was fantastically popular with families picking them up for students, and business folks who were looking for a lightweight, low-cost Mac laptop. Many others were attracted to the low price of the device, its slim design, and, for a while, its support of legacy ports, like regular USB connections and an HDMI port for external monitor support, features excised from the forward-designed MacBook Pro.
The Pro generally appeals to more demanding performance-oriented users. People looking for faster clock speed, more screen real estate, or features they can only find on the 13-inch MacBook Pro models. Some even liked the nice colors you could get the Pro in, compared to the more generic aluminum of the MacBook Air.
The case for the 14-inch MacBook Pro
All that changed in October of 2018. That’s when Apple offered the redesigned 13.3-inch MacBook Air, complete with Retina display, Touch ID, Thunderbolt 3, and designer colors. Apple’s since refreshed the MacBook Air with True Tone support and lowered the price.
Apple improved the value of the MacBook Air dramatically overnight. But they also blurred the lines between the MacBook Air and the base model, two Thunderbolt 3 port-equipped MacBook Pro. All of a sudden the machines have damn near the same performance and operational characteristics right out of the box.
Sure, the MacBook Pro has features the MacBook Air doesn’t – like the Touch Bar, and higher-performance, higher-capacity configure to order options, but at this point they offer similar enough displays and close enough base model performance to really confuse the hell out of people who don’t spend all day researching what makes one Mac better than the other.
A 14-inch would give the model line just a little bit of an edge, even if it was a little bit like Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap talking about how his amps went to 11, instead. But it would be a differentiator.
The downside, if we’ve learned anything about the 16-inch MacBook Pro, is that a 14-inch MacBook Pro would likely be a bit bigger and a bit thicker, and probably weigh a bit more (because of increased battery capacity to power so many more pixels, if nothing else). It might also not be as battery-efficient, depending on what Apple put inside for graphics processing.
But anything that distances the two models is a net positive, as far as I’m concerned – and not just for the sake of being different. The MacBook Pro should be a platform for Apple to continue to innovate, with some aspirational attributes that give customers a hard reason to consider it over the MacBook Air.
Rumors about what Apple has planned for the Mac lineup in 2020 are starting to leak out, and there’s some indication that a 14-inch MacBook Pro might be on the horizon. Even though I don’t sell these things anymore, I hope that the rumors are true. Because it’ll make it easier for Apple customers to understand the difference, and Apple doesn’t need to confuse and blur the lines in its Mac line more than it already does.