The MacBook Buyer’s Screen Size Dilemma

As my three-year-old 15″ MacBook Pro starts to show its age, I’m starting to think that I’ll soon be in the market for a new Apple notebook. It’s been a fantastic machine to own, but after three years of lugging a 15″ portable around, I’ve decided that a laptop this big isn’t particularly… portable.

Last year, Apple released a series of new MacBook Air machines that have received rave reviews – both in the major press, and from those equally in the know. The big dilemma here is whether an 11″ or 13″ screen makes the greatest sense. And are either of these really adequate to replace a 15″ display?

What Are the Options?

Before coming to any decisions or making a recommendation, let’s take a look at the full range of options available:

  • 11″ – The smallest Apple notebook available, but still surprisingly capable and complete with a full-size keyboard. Available only in the MacBook Air.
  • 13″ – The de-facto laptop size, widely accepted as the most common form factor. Available in the MacBook, Air, and Pro.
  • 15″ – A slightly larger alternative that gives you more desktop space, but becomes more or less unusable on an airplane. Available on the MacBook Pro only, and it’s also worth noting the $100 option to raise the resolution to 1680×1050.
  • 17″ – Something of an unusual outlier that isn’t particularly portable at all. Again, this is only a MacBook Pro option.

The Super-Fine Advantage

Both MacBook Airs offer unusually high resolution displays for their size. These go a long way towards compensating for the small form factor, meaning that a 13″ Air is equivalent to a 15″ MacBook’s standard configuration resolution, and the 11″ Air is equivalent to a 13″ MacBook resolution.

The High-Res MacBook Airs

The High-Res MacBook Airs

Immediately, this removes some of the worry about buying a super-tiny 11″ model – you’ll still have plenty of desktop space to fill with clutter. That said, the 11″ model may still feel a little vertically cramped, particularly if you are accustomed to a 15″ display.

The downside of this super-fine resolution is that everything on the display becomes very small. There are ways to combat this – such as increasing the font size in your apps – but I’d prefer a fine resolution over a larger display any day.

This jump forward in technology means that both MacBook Airs are eminently usable, providing you’re happy for the smaller details on your display to be tiny!

The Performance Consideration

Of course, the decision you make as a notebook buyer isn’t entirely about screen size. With a larger screen comes faster performance, and (usually) more connectivity.

In the MacBook Air lineup, for instance, if you opt for a 13″ model you’ll also receive an SD card slot, a 0.46GHz jump in processor speed, and improved battery life. It’s a similar story for the MacBook Pro, adding bigger hard drives, faster processors, and more connectivity as you move up in size.

This means that your decision on size has a major impact in the speed of your machine as well.

Is 17″ Really a Portable at All?

You may be wondering why I haven’t yet gone into detail on the 17″ MacBook Pro. Well, this isn’t really a notebook – not in any useful sense of the word. It’s a desktop computer with an in-built battery, that would be a burden to carry around anywhere. Apple continue to make these because it’s possible to include connectivity and technology that wouldn’t fit into the smaller models (such as a ExpressCard/34 slot).

This model is billed as “the ultimate mobile studio”, and that’s exactly what it is. Designed for people who need a desktop level of performance, but still like to have the option of taking their machine home with them. Perfect for some, but overkill for the majority.

Help Me Out…

If you’re a notebook user, I’d be interested to hear what your preference would be – or which you have chosen in the past – and hear a few opinions on the matter. My immediate thought would be that 11″ is simply too small for day-to-day use when not connected to an external monitor.

Which MacBook fits the bill for you, and what sacrifices are you happy to make for a smaller, more portable machine? Is a pocket-sized laptop your main consideration, or would you find yourself craving a faster processor?