Which MacBook Pro 13 should you buy?

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 configuration isn’t always easy.

Apple currently provides four starting points, each with its own customization options. These four are essentially split down the middle: Two cheaper starting points with Apple’s new ARM-based M1 chip and two pricier starting points with 10th-generation Intel CPUs.

However, you can’t simply configure any component. With the M1-based MacBooks, you can only configure the memory and storage. The Intel-based models offer configurable memory and storage options as well but also allow you to choose between a 10th-generation Core i5 or i7 processor.

That said, allow us to recommend the best configuration and why we picked it.

Best overall: Apple M1 processor, 256GB storage ($ 1,299)

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

The $ 1,299 baseline 13-inch MacBook Pro has a 256GB SSD. This should be great for general professional use but perhaps not ideal for long-term storage, like hoarding music and movies. 256GB is a good chunk of storage for the price, but if you expect to keep masses amount of data on your Mac, shifting up to a higher capacity may be in order.

For this starting point, storage configuration options include 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB; the memory starts at 8GB and is configurable to 16GB. Apple reserves the 4TB SSD for the two Intel-based tiers along with 32GB of memory. That skyrockets your overall cost though. The 4TB is an additional $ 1,200 while 32GB of memory is $ 400.

The next price tier is the $ 1,499 configuration. It starts with 512GB of storage, which may be more ideal for owners who intend to store media for the long term. This starting point essentially ditches the 256GB storage option while offering the same configurations as the $ 1,299 baseline model.

All in all, the $ 1,299 version keeps to the minimalistic ideals of the MacBook while offering the right amount of power and storage for most owners.

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 manually upgrade the SSD later.

All four starting points have two shared storage configuration options: 1TB and 2TB. The 256GB SSD is only available on the $ 1,299 model while the 512GB SSD is available on all but the $ 1,999 model. The 4TB capacity is only offered on the Intel models.

All storage options are PCIe-based SSDs. That means reading and writing 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 in two different situations:

You don’t need much storage

As seen with our top pick, go with the 256GB option if you’re not storing lots of files. You get the capacity you need to install apps and store files like photos and documents.

Generally, MacOS uses around 22GB. The big storage eaters tend to derive from installed applications, any media sent through Messages, and whatever you download into the Documents folder. Again, if you’re a lightweight Mac owner, 256GB should be sufficient.

If you want to play it safe, the 512GB capacity may be a better fit. This gives you a bit more breathing room to install apps and desktop software without having to worry about maxing out the SSD. Let’s not forget all the fun stuff you want to store locally, like photos from your iPhone and iPad backups.

Still, both may be suitable 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 invest in a larger, more expensive SSD while configuring your Mac or go with a smaller capacity and buy a secondary external drive.

There are a few things to note about this choice, however.

First, Apple’s PCIe SSDs will be significantly faster than any external drive. That may not be a problem if you use the drive to store files you rarely access, but if you frequently use it, you may feel the slowdown.

Second, the MacBook Pro only supports USB-C connections. Technically they’re Thunderbolt 3 or 4, depending on the processor, but you’ll need an adapter if your external drive only supports the older USB-A port. The best scenario is to purchase an external drive that supports Thunderbolt’s 40Gbps speed.

Additional hardware

Aside from choosing the right amount of storage, Apple provides the means to customize your MacBook Pro’s memory and processor before purchase.

As previously stated, Apple divides the four starting points in half: The bottom two rely on Apple’s new M1 chip while the other two use 10th-generation Intel CPUs.

Here’s where you need to make a major executive decision. Apple’s M1 chip derives from the ARM architecture, meaning it’s more in line with Apple’s iPhone and iPad products. They speak a different “language,” thus any desktop software designed for Intel processors needs “translating.”

MacOS Big Sur includes Rosetta 2, an emulator that allows Intel-based programs to run on Apple’s ARM-based chip. This emulator will be required to run your favorite programs until developers release versions specific to Apple’s M1 chip. Until then, your favorite desktop software may not feel “native” in performance.

However, don’t let the Rosetta 2 aspect be a deterrent. Apple’s M1 chip outperforms the two Intel chips provided in the higher tiers by a huge margin. Here are averages pulled from Geekbench (higher is better):

Single-Core Score Multi-Core Score
Apple M1 1693 7305
Core i7-1068NG7 1239 4512
Core i5-1038NG7 1145 4235

Remember, the two lower MacBook Pro 13 tiers only offer the Apple M1 chip — there are no additional CPU configurations. If you’re not ready to jump the Intel ship, the two higher price points start with the Core i5-1038NG7 and are configurable with the Core i7-1068NG7. Note that the M1 models support Thunderbolt 4 while the Intel models support Thunderbolt 3.

Finally, on the memory front, 8GB is probably all the memory the average laptop user needs. Configuring the MacBook with 16GB can help when running a lot of complex programs, like AutoCAD, but if you’re doing that, you probably wouldn’t be buying the 13-inch MacBook Pro over its 16-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. Keep in mind that the two Intel configurations start with 16GB — configuring them with 32GB is mostly overkill.

A quick word on Retina

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

A glance at these four starting points will show they are all “Retina” MacBooks with a 2,560 x 1,600-pixel resolution. “Retina” is Apple’s branding for its newest generation of IPS displays, but it doesn’t represent a fixed resolution or pixel count.

So what is it?

Basically, “Retina” indicates that the pixels are too small for you to see from the average viewing distance. Apple says that means a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 at 227 pixels per inch (ppi) for the MacBook Pro 13.

Those numbers are different for other devices, though. The MacBook Pro 16, for example, has a resolution of 3072 x 1920 at 226ppi, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a Super Retina XDR display at 2778 x 1284 and 458ppi.

For the most part, Apple calculates this based on roughly how far away from the screen most users will be during normal usage. We tend to view our phones from a much smaller distance than our computers, which is why the MacBook Pro 13 has fewer pixels than the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

That Retina label promises you beautifully sharp, crisp resolution – and it doesn’t disappoint, as we noted in our review.

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