The 4 best Apple MacBook laptops in 2021 for work, general use, and students

Macbook Air

The best MacBook should offer the right level of performance, long battery life, and a comfortable keyboard and trackpad at a reasonable price.

For most Apple users, the M1-powered MacBook Air is the best at fulfilling this criteria (at least in the scope of Apple’s pricing). Apple’s new processor enables battery life that may very well be the longest we’ve ever seen in a laptop, as well as impressively fast performance.

Of course, the MacBook Air isn’t right for everyone, which is why we also recommend the (still Intel-powered) 16-inch MacBook Pro for those who need more screen space, storage, and higher-quality speakers. However, this is simply because we have not yet tested Apple’s very newest MacBook Pro models announced in October.

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Apple has announced brand-new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models with the company’s very-own (and also brand-new) M1 Pro and M1 Max processors inside. This eliminates the option for new Intel-based MacBooks and Mac computers from Apple, with only the M1 versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro available. We have yet to test these new MacBook Pro models, of course, but plan to do so soon for full review and consideration for this guide.

These new MacBook Pro models are available for pre-order now and will be released to stores on October 26, starting at $1,999.99 for the 14-inch model and $2,499.99 for the 16-inch model. The new models bring back the MagSafe power port while replacing the divisive Touch Bar with traditional function keys once again, and upgrade the webcam to 1080p resolution.

Apple’s new operating system, macOS Monterey, is compatible with both Intel and M1 Macs, helping users still using Intel Mac computers bridge the gap. It will bring deeper integration between Apple devices (especially Mac and iPad) and system-wide enhancements to Safari, FaceTime, Notes, and Maps. But only M1 Macs get to take advantage of certain new features. These include Live Text, a feature that detects text in photos so that it can be copy and pasted across apps, and Portrait Mode in FaceTime.

The new MacBook Pro models will ship with macOS Monterey pre-installed, but all users of MacBook models released within the last six years can upgrade for free starting on October 25. Mac desktop users, however, can use models dating as far back as 2013 for the Mac Pro, late 2014 for the Mac Mini, late 2015 for the iMac, and 2017 for the iMac Pro.

Our methodology

Each of these MacBook products has been tested according to the standards set by Insider Reviews for the Tech & Electronics section. This includes using the product as our main laptop for at least as long as it takes to write the review as well as battery life and general performance benchmarking for empirical comparison’s sake. We also test any newly touted features and weigh value heavily in our judgments, which includes projected longevity and hardware quality. Finally, we use the product in real-world scenarios, such as work and entertainment, to understand the products effectiveness in those situations.

Here are the best MacBooks you can buy

The best MacBook overall

The latest

MacBook Air

gains Apple’s M1 processor, bringing impressively fast performance and long battery life for under $1,000.

The MacBook Air has consistently been the go-to MacBook for most people and a solid entry-level computer. But the introduction of Apple’s M1 chip makes it even more powerful than its predecessor for the same price, solidifying its place as our top pick.

The M1-powered MacBook Air‘s battery life alone makes it a worthwhile choice. During my testing, I was able to get more than 12 hours of use out of the MacBook Air, far longer than the roughly seven hours of usage I experienced on the Intel-powered model from early 2020. 

The M1 chip’s eight-core processor also brings notable performance gains, making tasks like photo editing and exporting large files a breeze. During my tests, it was faster than the previous Intel-powered MacBook Pro at just about everything. It also uses Apple’s image signal processor for its webcam, meaning you can expect much clearer video quality on your next

Otherwise, it comes with the same sleek wedge-shaped design that’s been present on the MacBook Air line for years, as well as Apple’s much-improved Magic Keyboard. In terms of storage and memory, the MacBook Air goes up to 2TB of capacity and 16GB of RAM. It comes with two
ports on all configurations. 

Laptops like the MacBook Air that are powered by Apple’s own chip can also run iPhone apps, since this chip is based on the same basic architecture as the one in the company’s smartphones. While that’s a nice perk, it’s really the performance and battery life that make Apple’s M1 stand out.

The best high-performance MacBook

The 16-inch MacBook Pro‘s powerful performance, larger screen, and high-quality speakers make it a great choice for creative professionals. 

Pros: Larger display, great keyboard, lots of configuration options, excellent speakers

Cons: Hefty upgrade prices, only four I/O ports for the size

The end of 2019 brought us the first entirely new MacBook Pro size in years: a 16-inch version that replaces the long-standing 15.4-inch model. It was also the first laptop to get Apple’s superior new Magic Keyboard.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro has plenty to offer when it comes to performance and configuration options. Although it doesn’t run on Apple’s new M1 chip, Apple’s biggest laptop does come with up to an eight-core Intel processor, up to 64GB of memory, up to 8TB of storage, and up to 11 hours of battery life.

Those are the highest configuration options for memory and storage across Apple’s laptop lineup. Compared to the other laptops Apple sells, the 16-inch Pro also has the most selection when it comes to graphics, with the option to configure it with a variety of AMD Radeon Pro GPUs. 

But it’s not just the broader configuration options and larger size that makes this the best choice for pros. The 16-inch MacBook Pro comes with a three-microphone array and is the only Apple laptop with a six-speaker audio system, making it a better choice for media professionals that may need high-quality audio playback. The speakers can also come in handy if you’re on a lot of Zoom calls throughout the day and need a system that’s a bit louder and clearer. 

All told, the 16-inch MacBook Pro‘s bigger size, variety of configuration options, and high quality speakers are ideal for those shopping for something that isn’t quite as large and powerful as a desktop, but is closer to the desktop experience than any of Apple’s other laptops.

The best middle of the road MacBook

For anyone that needs as much power as Apple is willing to cram within a 13-inch laptop, the MacBook Pro with M1 is worth a look. 

The MacBook Air is powerful enough for everyday tasks. But the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 is better-suited for those who need more power in a laptop that’s not as big as the 16-inch. It shares many similarities with the MacBook Air; they both come in nearly identical configuration options, include the same number of ports, and have very similar screens. 

But since the MacBook Pro has a fan-powered cooling system unlike the Air, it’s probably better at maintaining high performance for longer periods of time. So if you frequently run heavy workloads that involve crunching a lot of data, for example, the Pro is probably a better bet. Another added benefit: it has slightly longer battery life than the M1-powered Air.

Those are the biggest differences between the M1-powered Pro and Air, but the former’s processor also has an extra core in its GPU at the base level compared to the Air. Its screen is also slightly brighter, and the Pro’s speakers support high dynamic range unlike the Air’s.

Like the Air, the Pro has two USB-C ports, a 720 camera that uses Apple’s image signal processor, Touch ID, and the Magic Keyboard.  

The 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro falls into a strange place in Apple’s lineup. It doesn’t have the perks that make the 16-inch Pro stand out, like a six-speaker audio system and flexible configuration options. But it also doesn’t have much that distinguishes it from the Air to justify the $300 starting price difference. 

Still, that’s exactly what makes it the right choice for buyers who find themselves in the middle. It’s a great option for those who want a bit more than what the Air has to offer along with the benefits of Apple’s M1 chip.

The best college MacBook

The best MacBook for college packs powerful performance into a compact, 13-inch laptop, but expands the connectivity options to four USB-C ports instead of two.

Pros: More storage and RAM, two extra USB-C ports for connectivity, great keyboard

Apple’s Intel-powered versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro fill in the gaps when it comes to storage, memory, and connectivity compared to the M1 model. 

Unlike the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1, the Intel version offers up to 32GB of memory, up to 4TB of storage, and four USB-C ports. The M1 model, by comparison, tops out at 16GB of memory, 2TB of storage, and two USB-C ports. It’s great for those who need more connectivity and storage than the M1-powered MacBook Pro allows for, but don’t want a laptop that’s as large and expensive as the 16-inch model. 

Those extra ports alone could make this model worth it for college students, who may need to charge their laptop, plug in their iPhone, and connect a hard drive containing large video projects for class all at the same time. Plus, the Intel-powered MacBook Pro may be a safer option if you rely on specific software for classwork since Apple’s M1 architecture is still new and app makers are still updating their programs for it.

The Intel-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro comes in models that run on a Core i5 or Core i7 chip, which should be more than capable of managing hefty workloads. It has the same Retina display as Apple’s M1 laptops, and also has Apple’s Magic Keyboard. Like its M1-powered sibling, the Intel-based 13-inch Pro also has speakers with high dynamic range.

Although the Intel-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro offers the right balance of performance, portability, and flexible choices that make it ideal for the college experience, there are reasons students should consider Apple’s M1 laptops, too. 

The M1 MacBook Air may be a better fit if you need a laptop for little more than writing papers and prioritize long battery life and portability over additional configuration options.

How to buy a MacBook

These are the top factors to consider when purchasing a new MacBook.


To decide which MacBook is right for you, it’s important to understand what you intend to use it for. If you need a powerful machine for processing images, editing video, or handling complex data, the MacBook Pro is a better choice. 

Apple’s MacBook Pro models, particularly the 13-inch Intel-powered one with four ports and the 16-inch MacBook Pro, are upgradeable to 32GB of memory, while the less expensive M1 MacBook Pro, Intel-powered MacBook Pro with two ports, and M1-powered MacBook Air only come with up to 16GB of memory.

Even if you don’t need that much memory, a MacBook Pro model is still the best pick if performance is your top priority. For example, although the M1 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are very similar, the MacBook Pro has a slight edge when it comes to performance since it has a fan-powered cooling system and an extra graphics core in its processor at the base level.

Battery life

If battery life matters the most, go for the M1 MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. Apple’s custom chip brings unprecedented battery life to its laptops, with the MacBook Air lasting for up to 18 hours according to Apple’s estimates, and the MacBook Pro lasting for 20 hours. Apple’s Intel-powered laptops, by comparison, are only estimated to get between 10-12 hours of battery life.


Storage is also critical when it comes to picking out a new laptop. If you need the most space you can possibly get in a MacBook, you’ll want to consider Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro, which is configurable up to 8TB. The 13-inch Intel-powered MacBook Pro with four ports is a close second, since you can order it with up to 4TB of storage.

Apple’s other current laptops, including the M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, are only configurable up to 2TB of storage.


Looking for a larger-sized laptop for getting work done? The 16-inch MacBook Pro is your best bet. It’s the only Apple laptop that comes in a size bigger than 13 inches, making it the right pick if you want a laptop that’s more ideal for a desktop-like setup rather than portability. 

If you want the most compact Apple laptop, check out the MacBook Air. Like most of Apple’s MacBook Pro laptops, the Air has a 13-inch screen. But it’s slightly lighter at 2.8 pounds, while the MacBook Pros weigh 3 pounds or more.

When will Apple release new MacBooks?

It’s probably best to hold off on upgrading your MacBook laptop unless you urgently need a new computer. That’s because Apple is expected to release new laptops this year, with new MacBook Pros launching first, according to Bloomberg.

Apple has already announced macOS Monterey, which is expected to launch this fall. The software update will bring enhancements to Safari, the ability to control both an iPad and a Mac with your Mac’s keyboard and mouse, and the inclusion of the Shortcuts automation application among other new features.  

Here’s what we know so far about the new MacBook laptops that we’re expecting to see later this year.

MacBook Pro (14-inch and 16-inch): Apple was though to launch redesigned versions of the MacBook Pro as early as this summer, reported Bloomberg, but now a fall release ir more likely. These devices would come in 14-inch and 16-inch sizes, making it the first time Apple has released its more compact MacBook Pro in that size option. Other expected improvements include a MagSafe charging system, more ports like an HDMI connector and SD card slot, and new Apple processors that are more powerful than the current M1 processor.

The new processors in the upcoming MacBook Pros are said to have a new 10-core design and 16 or 32 graphics cores, compared to today’s M1 which consists of an 8-core central processing unit and 8-core graphics processing unit. That difference would better distinguish the MacBook Pro from the Air in the future.

MacBook Air: The MacBook Air will be next for an upgrade and could debut toward the end of 2021, according to Bloomberg. This new model will reportedly come with a refreshed design and a new M-series processor that’s meant to be a direct successor to the current M1 with more graphics cores but the same number of computing cores.  

MacBook Pro (13-inch): Apple is also planning to release a new version of the low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro that would run on the same processor as the new MacBook Air, Bloomberg says. The report did not mention when this new MacBook Pro would launch. It’s also unclear where this new 13-inch MacBook Pro would fit in Apple’s lineup, since it sounds like there won’t be much that distinguishes it from the next MacBook Air.

Should I buy a MacBook Air or iPad Pro?

If you’re looking to get real work done, the MacBook Air is still the best choice for most people, especially students. The iPad Pro comes with a lot of extra functionality, but the MacBook Air still excels at all of the elements that are most important in a work machine. It offers software that’s much better-suited for productivity than iPadOS, a typing experience that’s superior to keyboard cases, and longer battery life. 

The iPad Pro is Apple’s most powerful tablet yet, but it will always be a tablet first and foremost. It has powerful cameras that the MacBook Air lacks, a sharp edge-to-edge screen, and Face ID.

However, the iPad’s software isn’t as ideal for multitasking and will likely come with a steep learning curve for those who are accustomed to working on a laptop. You also have to spend a lot to turn the iPad Pro into a laptop replacement. The base MacBook Air starts at $999, while the 12.9-inch  iPad Pro  starts at $1,099 without a keyboard case.

Check out our full comparison for more details about how the iPad Pro compares to the MacBook Air.

The best deals on Macbooks from this guide

Apple sets the bar high for modern, fully functional computers, though with a hefty price tag. But, good news — Apple products go on sale regularly. Every year, we see all-time lows for our picks during
, and Amazon; last year, for instance, the 16-inch Macbook Pro was discounted by $150 for these events.

From MacBook Airs to Pros, you can find nearly everything from Amazon at a discount if you know where to look. Here are the best discounts we found. 

Read more about how the Insider Reviews team evaluates deals and why you should trust us


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Disclosure: Written and researched by the Insider Reviews team. We highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our partners. We may receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising team. We welcome your feedback. Email us at [email protected].

The best laptops you can buy