Which MacBook Should You Buy?

in 2020, Apple’s MacBooks entered a new era. The company announced it was moving away from the Intel chips it had been using since 2006, and it rolled out the first Macs with the Apple-designed M1. Cut to 2021 and the company has added two more chips to the lineup—M1 Pro and M1 Max—both of which power the latest MacBook Pro.

Just like Apple’s iPhones, the chips run on the ARM architecture and afford the company greater control over its hardware and software. They make its laptops both more powerful and more power-efficient, meaning greatly improved performance and battery life. Plus, you get other perks like the ability to run mobile apps originally made for iOS. But choosing a MacBook is now more difficult. Apple is no longer selling Intel-powered models, but you can still find one at a third-party retailer, and they’ll still be supported for a few more years. Is it worth buying one? Or should you go all-in on Apple silicon? Here’s what we think you should spend your hard-earned money on.

Updated October 2021: We’ve added the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro (2021), included information about Apple’s new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, and refreshed links.

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Macbook Air

The MacBook Air (9/10, WIRED Recommends) with the M1 chip from 2020 is one of the most powerful laptops you can get for the price, surpassing benchmark scores with top-end Intel-powered models. This is especially true when you use apps natively engineered for the new processor, like the Safari web browser.

You can still download and install apps made for Intel’s x86 chips (the ones in every PC you’ve likely ever owned). That’s because Apple has a transition tool called Rosetta 2 that will automatically ask to be downloaded alongside these apps. It’s what enables them to work well with the M1, often better than on Intel Macs. But over the past year, many apps—like Adobe Lightroom and Google Chrome—have made M1 versions available, so you shouldn’t have a problem. If you’re worried your favorite app might not work, do some research and scour forums to see if an M1 version is available, or if the x86 version runs just fine. 

The MacBook Air lasted me more than a full workday, with the battery hitting 22 percent after I ran it almost nonstop from 9 am to 7 pm using Safari and work apps like Slack. (I had to plug in the previous Intel model by 4 pm.) M1 machines also can instantly wake up from sleep whenever you tap the keyboard or trackpad or lift the screen, just like when you tap your iPhone or iPad to wake it up. That’s a stark difference from older MacBooks that took several seconds to light up. There’s also no fan in the MacBook Air, meaning it remains whisper-quiet even under the heaviest loads. There is a thermal heat spreader to dissipate heat, but it also never gets too warm.

It comes with 256 gigabytes of storage, but you can upgrade to another model with an extra graphics core and 512 gigs. Unless you need more storage, the extra core isn’t worth the jump in price. Instead, spend $200 more for 16 gigabytes of RAM, which will let you run a greater number of apps simultaneously without slowdowns. My biggest gripes with this machine? The 720p webcam isn’t great, and M1 Macs only natively support one external monitor. (There are some workarounds you can employ to connect it to multiple displays.)

Apple Macbook Pro

Apple didn’t play it safe with its newest MacBook Pro (2021). In addition to a 16-inch version, the company is also offering a 14-inch model for the first time ever. We haven’t tested them yet, but they’re the ones to buy if you’ve been waiting for the most powerful MacBook with Apple’s silicon.

Both screens are larger than their chassis—14.2 inches and 16.2 inches, partly because there’s a notch. Yep, you heard that right. The new and improved 1080p webcam sits in a notch at the top-center of the display, but there’s no Face ID here, just Touch ID baked into the keyboard. That said, the menu bar that flanks the notch doesn’t eat into your 14- or 16-inch screen space. Speaking of the screen, Apple is using the same Mini LED technology as seen on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, so you get much better contrast, deeper blacks, and punchier colors. It’ll all feel a great deal smoother too, because Apple added ProMotion, which enables a 120-Hz refresh rate. You can read more about it here. 

The best part of these two new MacBooks? Apple had erased the pesky Touch Bar for a row of physical function keys instead, and you finally get more ports. Both versions of the MacBook Pro come with an HDMI port, three USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 4, an SD card slot, and a high-impedance headphone jack. This is the first time a MacBook has had this many ports since 2015. 

Additional perks include microphones that are decent enough for recording a podcast, a six-speaker sound system, and the return of the MagSafe charging port, which lets you magnetically connect the charger to the MacBook Pro. (You can still charge it via USB-C.) You can feel safe in knowing that the MacBook won’t fly off your desk when you trip over the wire. 

Both the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro come with 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB for the base model. You have the option to outfit them with either the M1 Pro or the M1 Max processors, which we go into in detail below. We’ll update this section soon, once we’ve put these chips to the test. 

apple macbook pro with M1

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 sits in an awkward spot. It isn’t dramatically speedier than the MacBook Air. It has a fan that lets the processor get a little warmer and eke out more power over a longer period of time. So if you’re working on pro-level tasks like video editing but can’t spend the premium Apple charges for its bigger Pro models, then this is a great laptop. 

Other perks include improved speakers and microphones, a slightly brighter 13-inch screen, longer battery life, and a Touch Bar at the top of the keyboard (if you consider that a perk). It’s the only MacBook that Apple now sells with the Touch Bar. The whole thing is slightly heavier than the MacBook Air (3 pounds versus 2.8 pounds), but it matches its size and is still very slim.

Just like the MacBook Air with M1, you can run mobile apps on the MacBook Pro. Search for an app in the Mac App Store and you’ll see a new tab for “iPhone and iPad apps.” Not all mobile apps are available—developers have to opt in—and ones that are available might look and feel clunky, as they’re clearly designed for interfaces that use a touchscreen, a hardware attribute this machine does not have. Still, as soon as these apps are better optimized for the MacBook, you may be able to pick up right where you left off when switching from your iPhone to Mac (or vice versa).

If you’re on your laptop a lot and are cranking out work in apps like Adobe Premiere Pro, but you want to keep your budget to a minimum, then it makes sense to go for this middle MacBook option. You can always hook up a multiport adapter to get more connectivity. The downside is it only starts with 8 GB of RAM. That’s likely enough, as Apple’s memory management with M1 processors is significantly better than ever, but for video editing, you might want 16 GB for extra headroom.  

Now that Apple offers not one but three in-house chipsets, choosing the right one might feel a bit overwhelming. It all depends on what you plan on using the MacBook for. 

M1: This is the base-level chip of the lineup. It has an 8-core CPU and up to an 8-core GPU with support for up to 16 GB of unified memory (RAM) at an extra cost. It’s much faster than any previous Intel-powered MacBook Pro, and it is the practical choice for most people. It packs more than enough processing power to get you through common day-to-day tasks, even light gaming, and it can also handle more intense jobs like photo and video editing.

M1 Pro: The next step up from the M1 is the M1 Pro. It has up to 10 cores in the CPU and up to a 16-core GPU (with up to 32 GB of unified memory). Apple says performance and graphics are both twice as fast as the M1. We still need to put it through the wringer, but this is for anyone that works heavily on MacBooks for music production, photo and video editing, and 3D model rendering. 

M1 Max: This is the most powerful M1 of them all. Like the M1 Pro, the M1 Max has a 10-core CPU but a heftier 32-core GPU (with support for up to 64 GB of unified memory). Apple says it’s four times faster than the M1 in terms of graphics. We haven’t tested it yet, but if you want the best of the best, this is it. It’s the option for editing multiple streams of 8K or 4K video footage, gaming, or developing apps and running demos. You probably already know if you need this much power.

Image may contain Electronics Computer Hardware Hardware Computer Keyboard Computer Keyboard and Cassette

There are eccentricities and problems with Apple’s laptops you should know about before you buy.

Bland Touch Bar: When Apple debuted the Touch Bar in late 2016, it touted the thin touchscreen strip above the keyboard as the next generation of user input. This shift didn’t pan out. There was little interest from third-party software designers in doing anything innovative with the tiny display. Apple’s newest MacBooks do not have the Touch Bar anymore, a clear indicator that Apple is moving away from it. It only sells one MacBook with it now. 

Palmy trackpad: Apple’s trackpads are among the best in the computer business, but with the newest MacBooks these input devices have been blown up to unbelievable proportions and crammed up against the bottom edge of the keyboard, right where you rest your palms while typing. Although there’s supposed to be intelligent palm rejection software at work, the trackpads are susceptible to accidental input.

Parched for ports: Then there’s the port situation. Aside from the new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros, the rest of Apple’s MacBooks feature one port type: USB-C (usually only two). It might not work with some of the devices you own. You’ll want to invest in a few adapters (like this Hyper adapter) if you plan on hooking your computer up to a projector, or want to use things like USB drives or SD cards. 

2017 macbook air

Older MacBooks with butterfly keyboards (2015–2019): Apple’s now-notorious first- to third-generation “butterfly switch” keyboards are gone from the entire new MacBook lineup. And good riddance. WIRED editor Jeffrey Van Camp and senior writer Lauren Goode both had multiple issues with the 2017 Pro keyboard. If you’re buying an older model MacBook, Apple does replace the keyboards for free and did add extra dust guards to the late-2018 and early-2019 models. Apple has detailed instructions on how to clean the old keyboard if yours gets flaky, which is a decent first line of defense against busted keys. Apple also extended its keyboard repair program to cover repairs on all Macs that have been purchased within the past four years, regardless of warranty status. Still, unless you’re getting it really cheap, we suggest sticking with the newer models that feature the much-better Magic Keyboard—and the newer, more advanced processor.

The old MacBook Air models (with a silver bezel): Apple’s slim laptop was groundbreaking when it debuted in 2008. Unfortunately, the MacBook Air didn’t undergo many changes until 2018. These older Airs rock a dowdy-looking, non-Retina screen and weak Intel chips that are years old. The old laptops might not require the dongles that a newer MacBook might, but the newer laptops will undoubtedly feel faster for longer. Don’t let their lower price tag tempt you—there are way better laptops you can nab for that kind of cash. How to spot it: The older Air has a thick silver border (bezel) around its screen, instead of the black glass of the new models.

The old 16-inch MacBook Pro: This is a fine laptop that’s not too old, but its price makes no sense when compared to the new 16-inch MacBook Pro. You’re much better off sticking with the M1 Pro or M1 Max-powered 16 incher. How to spot it: The product name should usually include “Intel.” 

2020 Intel-powered

MacBook Air

and

MacBook Pro

: These models have been completely eclipsed by the late 2020 models with the Apple M1 chip, from performance to battery life. They’re only worth buying if you can snag them for well under $700. Anything close to $900 and you should just pay similar money for the base MacBook Air with M1. It really is superior.

Yes. Regardless of whether you’re a casual MacBook user or a professional content creator, the MacBook lineup now covers all the bases. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with M1 are excellent machines for almost everyone. Meanwhile, those who need more power for the most demanding tasks should opt for the souped-up MacBook Pro (14-inch or 16-inch) with the M1 Pro or M1 Max chip.

None of Apple’s MacBooks are cheap, and replacement parts are nightmarishly expensive. Since the entire computer is fully integrated into Apple’s tightly designed aluminum chassis, you’re one coffee spill away from a shockingly large repair bill. This is why Apple’s AppleCare+ is worth it—starting at $249, AppleCare extends your factory warranty to three years, gives you matching telephone support, and throws in two accidental damage repairs as well. After paying a minimum $99 service fee, whatever you did to zap your shiny new Mac will be undone and you’ll be back to hammering away on your keyboard.

Apple always offers small discounts on hardware for students and teachers. All you need to do is purchase something through Apple’s Education Store, choose the product you want (you should see the discounted pricing), and go through the motions to place the order like normal. You don’t need to show any proof that you’re a student at the time of purchase, but you should be honest, as Apple can email you at a later date and ask for verification.