13" MBA or 15" MBP for developer


macrumors newbie
Original poster
Mar 23, 2012
Hello everyone. This is my first post on here, so I hate it to be me asking for something, but it is what it is.

I'm currently a Windows-only user, and have been for the past two years, but I want to purchase my first mac. I worked on them at a job I held in college for a couple years, but haven't touched them since. Both my brother and friend have recently purchased 15" MBPs, and one of them also got a TB display. My friend uses his as his only machine outside of work, so I understand the possible need for a beefier system, but my brother has a gaming rig which he uses primarily for that task and storing data.

I come in closer to my brother; I have a gaming rig that I don't think I would be willing to let go of unless I gave up gaming altogether, and it also houses about 15TB of media that I'm not willing to let go of either. If I was to make a clean break I would jump on the MBP, but seeing as I will be using this laptop primarily for development (Java, Python, Ruby, MySQL, iOS, JavaScript, HTML5/CSS, etc) and all other non-gaming tasks, I'm not sure if it's overkill to invest in the MBP. I've already decided that if I go with the MBP that I would have to get the higher res screen, and install a 256GB SSD & 8GB of RAM myself, so that adds at least $500onto the price. For the tasks I have, is the lacking RAM and lack of a dedicated GPU going to affect me? I would like to think that I will take this macbook everywhere whether it be to collaborate or just get out of the house, but at the same time I already lug around a decently heavy 15" Dell laptop to and from work every day, and honestly I don't find it to be a that cumbersome.

Two side notes:
1. I'm use to developing on 3 1080p monitors at work and two at home, so I'm concerned developing on a macbook will take some getting use to. Some of the features in OSX help with this though. I may end up doing as my brother and getting a TB screen down the road, but I don't plan on doing that initially.
2. I plan on selling the laptop when a new model comes out to upgrade. For someone who does major upgrades on their PC every 5 years, and minor ones every year or two, I like to have a system that is sharp, but there isn't much of a market for used PC parts. From personal experience does this seem to be a reasonable thing to do? The idea being that I put say $1700 dollars down initially, and then lose $300 or so a year each time I sell and upgrade over time will typically match the total buy-in price of selling a 3-5 year old macbook to finally upgrade. I'm really curious about people's experience with this, even though it isn't completely related to the question at hand.

Sorry for going on a bit of a tangent, but now I want people's opinions of what I should get. If you're a developer, I would love to hear what you would recommend and what you currently use.

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macrumors 6502
Mar 12, 2010
Either machine will be fast enough for development. If you're going to be using it as a laptop then the 15" with the high res screen will be much easier to live with. If you're mostly going to be plugging it into an external monitor then either machine will be fine.

Either way check out the macrumors buyers guide. Supposedly there are new mbp's coming out soon. If the rumors are right and a new, lighter 15" mbp is coming out in April it would make sense to wait a few weeks. It might even have a better screen. Who knows.

As a reference point, I develop on a linux box with multiple screens at work. At home I use a c2d 13" mbp with a 24" monitor. On linux having multiple screens is nice, on the mac I prefer having only one large screen. Mostly it has to do with how far the mouse pointer has to travel to get things done on the respective systems. Just saying you might find developing on multiple screens on a mac is not the same as what you're used to.

My mbp came with 4gig and no dedicated gpu. It was and is fine. The only reason I put another 4 gig into it is that I often run multiple vm's. 4gig with no gpu for development(depending on what kind of development you do) is fine. 8 gig can't hurt, but might not be necessary.


macrumors newbie
Original poster
Mar 23, 2012
Thanks for the response willieva. I haven't been keeping up with the rumors as of late, but I wasn't expecting any new laptops until fall. I'll stick it out and wait for now then. I don't plan on using any VM's, at most just mobile virtualization and possibly something along the lines of a Glassfish server and a local MySQL server just for testing.

I agree with you on the multiple monitors; I didn't do a ton of coding on MBP's while in college, but I found a single monitor to be sufficient.


macrumors 68020
Jun 20, 2009
Lincoln, UK
As you are used to multiple large monitors, you may find a laptop screen to be too limited for development. Have you thought about getting a Mac Mini, then adding a KVM switch so that you can share the monitors with the gaming rig?


macrumors newbie
Mar 30, 2012
Registered just to tell you my take on this. I am in the same boat.

I have used PCs my whole life, my first being a 33 MHz 486DX. I've owned a number of Dell and Lenovo laptops and am generally very comfortable with any version of Windows or Linux. I started a new job that highly encourages Macs so I decided to give it a try.

The 13" MBA is a beautiful machine and is plenty fast. It runs a dual-core i5 that turbos up to a pretty hefty clock (2.7, I think? Not sure on this). What's great about the i5 is that it's some sort of Apple special - the i5 has Hyperthreading, unlike pretty much every other i5 in every other machine. This means that it is simply an i7 with a slightly lower (<10%) clock speed.

I got a refurb with the 128GB SSD for $1100. Comes with a 1 yr warranty, which is plenty - I plan to sell and buy another when the new ones with Ivy Bridge and the retina displays come out.

So what's it like to use it? A lot of fun so far. The build quality is far and away better than any Windows laptop I've ever owned. The MBA is surprisingly light and thin, and for that form factor is also surprisingly functional. The battery life is great and the performance is honestly a lot better than I thought. The "i7" i5 is quite beefy and the SSD appears to be no slouch either.

I code Node / ExtJS in Sublime Text 2, which isn't very resource intensive, so the CPU is plenty. I fired up Eclipse yesterday and played around with it and it was fine. AFAIK the MBPs are only about 15% faster than the MBAs, so is it worth it? Considering you lose the awesome form factor and have to pay more for it, I would say no.

2 USB ports is not a lot, but I hardly ever use either of them, opting instead for shared folders with my desktop if I need something. The lack of a wired NIC is jarring but come to think of it, I haven't used one in years.

It's funny to realize how few things I really need on a laptop - Wifi and two USB ports is enough. I never use a DVD drive, never use a wired NIC, etc. And with a MBP you still need the adapter for an external monitor, so it's all the same there.

AFAIK MBAs don't lose their value very quickly at all (I see C2D MBAs going for around $850, which is mind boggling). This makes a potential upgrade very attractive.

TL;DR Wait for Ivy Bridge if you can, then go for the MBA. You get 85% of the machine at 50% of the weight for 80% of the price. The mobility is worth it.


Nov 3, 2011
You will most likely lose more than $300 every year you upgrade - unless you are getting a significant discount on original purchase. Obviously this depends on which model you purchase and what upgrades you make/sell with it. There are also other illegal ways to increase value so you don't lose as much (I don't support those).


macrumors newbie
Original poster
Mar 23, 2012
@Moonjumper - A laptop is the only real answer to me, as I can't justify throwing another desktop in my house. Also, I work collaboratively with others, so its important to be able to take my work with me, even if it is just to the dining room. Thanks for the idea though, I have considered it.

@Sottilde - Thanks so much for the info and your experiences. I'm sold; I'll go with the 13" MBA. I'll hold out until the new ones come out and just program on my work laptop for the time being.

@Spink10 - Thanks for the resell info. I can handle losing $300 every year if it means I can have the latest tech at all times.

Thanks everyone for the help, I appreciate you sharing your experiences and opinions. As stated above, I've decided to go with the 13" MBA as my personal development machine. I'll try my best to hold out for the Ivy Bridge.