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Upgrade quandary: MacBook Air? MacBook Pro? iPad? A combo?

Sections: iPad, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Originals

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And I had thought that deciding which MacBook to choose for my next anchor laptop would be relatively easy this time. Fat chance! That the decision has been complicated since I last upgraded my workhorse laptop in 2009 by the entry of the iPad into the dynamic.

On the one hand, buying an iPad 2 in 2011 enabled me to squeeze more than a year longer from my traditional three-year upgrade interval, which is good and has represented something of an economy, or at least a mitigation of its purchase cost, as well as the benefits of having an iPad in its own right.

However, the availability of Mac laptops offering iPad equivalent or better battery runtime between charges—and in a light and compact form factor—has me wondering if I would be able to substitute a MacBook Air for some (or even a lot of) what I do with the iPad these days, or if the clamshell form factor would still be an inhibiting factor to the seductive “computing anywhere” facility the iPad affords. In that context, an 11-inch MacBook Air would arguably be best suited, except that it delivers one third shorter life between charges than its larger and slightly more expensive 13-inch sibling, which also has a better, higher resolution display. That’s the sort of trade-off I don’t want to miscalculate, given that the machine I choose will be my main production tool for the next three or four years.

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I do much prefer working in OS X than the iOS, and there are some capabilities I need routinely that the iPad is poor at or even unable to supply at all. In that context, a Haswell MacBook Air — either the nominal 9-hour 11-incher or the 12-hour 13-inch model is intriguing. However, if I end up using the new Mac much as I am my present MacBook/iPad tag team, there’s a case to be made for going with a June 2012 13-inch Ivy Bridge MacBook Pro as a more economical—and in some respects more capable—solution.

HotHardware managed to squeeze a very respectable eight-plus hours runtime out of a 13-inch Ivy Bridge Air by employing a few power conservation settings, and it’s been reported that Mavericks will be even more parsimonious with power consumption. CNET got seven hours, forty-five minutes out of the Ivy Bridge Air in a video playback test, but the Haswell model delivered a fantastic 14.42 hours—nearly twice as long—running the same test (the 11-inch Haswell Air lasted 10.62 hours).

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The current, probably last of the Mohicans non-Retina 13-inch Pro model actually now sells new for $100 more than the base Haswell 13-inch MacBook Air, but it comes with a 500 GB HDD and the RAM is upgradable. I also wouldn’t find having an on-board optical drive and a FireWire port any hardship. However, the four-and-a-half-pound Pro is definitely not a candidate for iPad surrogacy. Interestingly, the latest tranche of Apple Certified Refurbished mid-2012 model 13-inch base spec. MacBook Pro and the mid-2012 13-inch MacBook Air with a 256 GB SSD are both currently listing for the same $1,019 price tag, which leads me to deduce that most buyers are finding the new mid-2013 Haswell models with their 12-hour battery life, Intel HD Graphics 5000 IGPUs, and significantly faster flash memory hard to resist, although the MacBook Pro refurbished unit remains a decent bargain.

coreitqMBPHowever, buying new, the after purchase non-upgradeability of the MacBook Air means that prudent future-proofing with 8 GB of RAM and at least a 256 GB SSD jacks the price to just shy of $1,400, plus sales tax (a whopping 15% where I live) to a grand total of $1,608.85. The MacBook Pro, albeit with 4GB of RAM but upgradable at a later date comes in at $1,378.85 with tax—a substantial up front difference.

The uber economy alternative might be a refurbished base spec. mid-2012 13-inch MacBook Air for $849 (976.39 for me, tax-in), plus another 500 bucks for an iPad 4 (total $1,349 or $1,550.20 tax-in), since I’ll probably end up upgrading my iPad anyway, if I could figure out how to live with just 128 GB of storage. Or if Apple follows suit with refurbished iPhone 4s once the fifth generation iPad is released (probably in the late summer or fall), 16 GB WiFi units should be available for $379 or so, which combined with a $849 128 GB last year’s MacBook Air would total $1,228 ($1,412.20 for me, with tax).

Incidentally, Apple must have a pretty healthy stock of refurbished iPad 4′s awaiting the version 5 unleashing, since no refurbsihed 4s have been offered yet as far as I’m aware.

There’s definitely more than one path to follow.

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