As we mentioned last month, Apple has released their new MacBook Pro models, meaning all their laptop models (MacBook Air and MacBook Pro) have transitioned to the new Apple silicon processors. (The iMac, Mac Mini, and Mac Pro desktop computers still have some configurations with Intel processors, which will likely be gone in 12-18 months’ time.)
So, how do you choose a Mac laptop? You’ve got a lot of decisions to make.
Well, let’s start by saying that for everyday computing — and even demanding computing — the MacBook Air will more than get the job done. Despite it being the cheapest model, it sets a very high bar, and is still the portable computer I recommend to most people. On the other end of the spectrum, the new MacBook Pro 14″ and 16″ models are Apple’s very best performers. (In between is the MacBook Pro 13″, which is similar to the MacBook Air in most ways.)
Let’s get into the details.
M1 processor. 2.75 lbs. Notable features: no fan, small power brick. Possible negative: only two ports, one of which is used for power when not on battery. Configuration options are:
- memory: 8 GB or 16 GB
- storage: 256GB, 512 GB, 1 TB, or 2 TB
If you want something small and light, the MacBook Air is the right choice. For web browsing and word processing for the next 3-5 years, even the minimum $999 configuration is fine (and it’s sometimes as cheap as $849 from other vendors like Amazon).
Beyond that, for better performance now, and longevity for future operating system and software demands, I always recommend 16 GB of memory, which is a customization option when ordering from Apple.
How much storage you need depends on how you use it (you can get an idea on your current computer by going to Apple Menu > About This Mac > Storage). A large photo or music library probably warrants 512 GB, or higher; I usually suggest 1 TB as a “more than enough for most people” general recommendation. Keep in mind that as your disk becomes full, your computer can slow down, so you’ll want to get enough storage so that you can keep 20% or more free space.
The external design and appearance of the MacBook Air has not changed in a few years; it is rumored to be getting a full revamp in 2022, so if you’re not in a hurry, then you could hold out for that. If you need it now, I wouldn’t hesitate to get the current model.
MacBook Pro (13″ screen):
M1 processor. 3 lbs. Notable feature: longest life battery of all Apple laptops. Possible negative: only two ports, one of which is used for power when not on battery. Configuration options are:
- memory: 8 GB or 16 GB
- storage: 256GB, 512 GB, 1 TB, or 2 TB
I don’t think there’s a compelling reason to get the 13″ MacBook Pro over the Air, unless maximum battery life is important to you; if that’s the case, the above guidance regarding the Air’s options (which are identical) also apply to this model. The 13″ MacBook Pro is very nearly the same computer as the Air, distinguished mainly by the being-phased-out Touch Bar (which many people dislike), slightly longer-life battery, slightly brighter screen, better speakers and microphones, and presence of fan (to ensure maximum performance under heavy load). It’s a nice computer, to be sure, so if you like it better than the Air for its $300 premium, have at it. It starts at $1,299, and standard configurations are sometimes discounted at vendors like Amazon.
It seems likely that this model will be redesigned or completely dropped in the future.
MacBook Pro (14″ or 16″ screen):
M1 Pro or M1 Max processor. 3.5 lbs (14″ model) or 4.7 lbs (16″ model). Notable features: dedicated ports for HDMI, SD Card, and MagSafe power (in addition to three USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports); more computing power than 13″ models; richer, brighter, larger “Liquid Retina XDR” screen. Configuration options are:
- M1 Pro 8-core CPU/14-core GPU (14″ model only)
- M1 Pro 10-core CPU/14-core GPU (14″ model only)
- M1 Pro 10-core CPU/16-core GPU
- M1 Max 10-core CPU/24-core GPU
- M1 Max 10-core CPU/32-core GPU
- memory: 16 GB (M1 Pro processor only), 32 GB, or 64 GB (M1 Max processor only)
- storage: 512 GB, 1 TB, 2 TB, 4 TB, or 8 TB
- power adapter: a less expensive and smaller power brick, which does not support fast charging, is the default option if you elect for a 14″ 8-core model; you can instead choose the larger brick (which comes standard with 10-core processor models) that supports fast charging
These are the bigger guns, but I want to say again that, for most people doing most things, the less expensive, lighter MacBook Air (and 13″ Pro) are plenty of computer. However, it certainly never hurts to have more horsepower, and it also provides insurance against the future, since newer operating systems and software tend to be more demanding.
And, even if you don’t actually need the extra capability, these models offer other benefits: larger, better screens, and ports that don’t require adapters (though unfortunately USB-A is not among them). You pay for these niceties and added computing capability in the form of size, weight, money, and perhaps battery life (which is still excellent, just not as good as the 13″ models).
The 14″ model starts at $1,999, and the 16″ model starts at $2,499. There are lots of options, so let’s review them, from simplest to most complex:
For the power adapter, which will only be an option if you get an 14″ 8-core model, I think it’s worth spending $20 on the 96W adapter that supports fast charging.
For storage, I think 1 TB is a “good for most people” amount. If you know (from looking at Apple Menu > About This Mac > Storage on your current Mac) that you need more or less, then adjust accordingly, and remember that you’d ideally want to keep 20% unused for maximum performance. If you have a very large Photos or Lightroom library, or do video work, or just want to be able to store a ton of downloaded movies on your computer, then you can consider 2 TB, or splurge for more.
For memory, I recommend 32 GB. 16 GB is certainly enough for now and the immediate future if you’re not doing graphics-intensive work. But at the same time, I feel like if you’re spending this kind of money on a computer, then it’s in for a penny, in for a pound; there’s no changing your mind later, and 32 GB will all but ensure that your computer will perform at its maximum capability for its entire lifespan. If you do serious graphics or video work, then you can consider 64 GB; if you don’t, you’re unlikely to feel the difference.
Finally, the processor. This one is tough, because you’re being asked to choose from a range that essentially represents Audi to Lamborghini (note: I am not a car person, so if you are, please forgive my crude approximation). No matter what you choose, you’re going to get a superb computer. Even the cheapest 8-core processor is a ridiculously fast performer, based on the reviews I’ve read. With that said, if cost is no object, then the top M1 Max is what you want; if you want better than the baseline but at a lower premium, then I’d suggest the 10-core CPU/16-core GPU M1 Pro. (This processor actually is the baseline on the 16″ models; you can’t elect for a less expensive option.)
If it’s convenient for you, I think it’s worth going to a store and looking at the different models to see which size, weight, screen appearance, and overall feel you like the most. These factors are just as important as any of the tech details above.
If you have any questions about purchasing a new Mac laptop, let us know!