I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Laptop size, weight, and power

The right laptop to get is the one that will be able to serve most of your needs, most of the time, with the fewest compromises on factors that matter to you.

One of the core tenets of happy computing is to have a holistic view of your overall intended usage that can help you distinguish between “needs” and simply “nice to haves”.

The iPod Classic still exists for people who “need” to bring their entire music collections with them everywhere. (Some people really need that, but most Classic buyers simply “need” it.) They can do that, but it comes with huge tradeoffs, most notably an outdated, limited design with an often-sluggish interface that misses out on the much more broad usefulness of the iPod Touch. And many Classic buyers would actually be much happier with a 32 GB Touch if they were willing to budge on their all-music-all-the-time “need”.

Many people have a similar issue identifying their true needs when choosing cars. They often choose based on remote “what-if” scenarios that they’ll almost never need — e.g. “I might need to haul furniture in here someday” — and get a big, unwieldy, expensive vehicle that grossly mismatches the way they actually use it the vast majority of the time. Or they go in the other direction and get an impractical, limited car like a two-seater — “I’ll just only ever have one person with me” — and then need to buy a second car because they so frequently exceed the limits of that one.1

Almost everyone can point to a handful of situations in which a given Apple laptop is impossible, impractical, or frustrating to use for a particular task. Some popular examples:

It’s important to distinguish which of these types of needs, for you, are really “needs” or are just “I might want to do that someday, although realistically I probably won’t want to do it regularly within the lifespan of this laptop.” For instance, my current laptop needs are mostly satisfied by an Air because I have a Mac Pro at home for anything computationally intensive, and I know that the Air is mostly for lightweight tasks like email, web browsing, and writing. (But I hate having multiple systems, because sync sucks.)

Most people put far too much consideration on size and weight. There are situations in which this matters, such as the tray-table example, but evaluate your own situation before deciding based on that: How often do you travel on planes, how much time during the flight would you realistically be working on your laptop, and how bad would it be if you couldn’t?

Consider how “portable” you really need your laptop to be. Are you going to be carrying it significant distances every day? Or is it going to be sitting on one or two desks most of the time?

The laptops have huge differences in footprints and thicknesses. If you truly have a size restriction, that’s generally pretty inflexible. But it’s also rare.

Weight is another matter, since most people don’t carry the bare laptop — they carry it in a bag with other items. Consider how you carry it: how heavy is the bag? (Pack the bag normally and weigh it. You’ll be surprised how heavy it is.2) I once found that my everyday backpack was about 15 pounds, so whether I chose the 13” Air (3.0 lbs.) or the 15” matte MacBook Pro (5.2 lbs.) didn’t really matter. And when I started carrying a lighter bag with almost nothing in it, I found that I couldn’t really tell the difference between the 15” and the Air, since the entire bag weighed very little compared to the old one regardless of which laptop was in it.

Carry weight can be reduced with a conscious effort. Do you really need to bring the power brick back and forth every day, or can you just buy a second power adapter and keep it at work? Do you really need to carry that large paper notebook all the time, or would a smaller one suit your needs?

Perceived weight reductions are also powerful. Do you currently use a messenger bag or briefcase? (That’s probably horrible for your back if it weighs more than a few pounds.) Are you willing to try a backpack? Nice ones do exist, and if you’re carrying your laptop in one, you almost definitely won’t notice small weight differences.

Realistic evaluation like this can lead you to conclude that you don’t need a big, fast laptop because you don’t need its power, and you’d be happier overall with an ultralight like the 11” Air. Or it can make you realize that the larger3 laptops like the 15” aren’t that much less portable in your life, and you need their advantages often enough that the smaller ones would frustrate you.

I’ve been able to evaluate my needs (and “needs”) over time and decide that my next computer setup probably shouldn’t be a Mac Pro and an Air. I’d be served better most of the time by a decked-out 15” MacBook Pro. (Alex Payne was right.) And if an airplane passenger reclines the seat in front of me far enough that I can’t open the laptop’s lid fully, I’ll just use my iPad.

  1. Sorry for the car analogy. For whatever it’s worth, I disagree with Ben’s classification, because I don’t think it’s possible to span a good car analogy across laptops and desktops. Sticking within the realm of laptops, I’d say the 11” Air is the Mazda Miata, the 13” Air is the Mini Cooper, the 13” Pro is the Audi A3, the 15” is the BMW 3-series, the 17” is the X5, and the 13” plastibook is the Nissan Cube.

    (Most of those being luxury or premium models isn’t an accident.) ↩︎

  2. Want to be even more sad about your bag’s total weight? Weigh it empty. Most bags, themselves, are much heavier than they need to be. ↩︎

  3. We Mac geeks often forget how well-off we are. Ask a PC user how thin and light their high-specced 15” laptop is. The 15” MacBook Pro is thin and light relative to most laptops in use today. ↩︎