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What’s the best MacBook for your money? Hint — you can forget the Touch Bar

Apple’s October 27 “Hello Again” event introduced us to the long-awaited MacBook Pro updates with the OLED Touch Bar and improved hardware under the hood. It wasn’t the gigantic update a lot of users were looking for, but it did bring the CPUs up to a more modern 6th-generation offering.

After spending some time with the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, we’re not convinced it’s actually all that revolutionary. In a lot of cases, it’s a solution searching for a problem, and its constantly-shifting nature requires more attention that classic function keys.

There’s now a huge number of Mac configurations across five different laptop models, although all of the changes only affect the MacBook Pro, so the MacBook and MacBook Air are still jockeying for a spot in Apple’s modern computing line. The MacBook is thinner than the Air, but the Air is more powerful, so choosing the right system isn’t an easy call.

Instant elimination

Here are the five models of MacBook currently available, counting different display sizes as distinct models.

While that may not look like a vast selection compared to prolific brands like Dell or HP, it’s fairly swollen as far as the MacOS world is concerned.

Right away, we can remove the MacBook Air from our list of eligible systems. It’s not bad, but it hasn’t aged particularly well. It has a lackluster resolution of 1440 x 900, and is still stuck on the 5th Generation Intel platform. While it holds up the bottom end of the lineup as a budget option, it’s hard to justify at the price. You can simply get a lot more mileage about of $1,000 elsewhere. If you absolutely need a MacBook Air though, you can always buy a refurbished model at a discounted price.

But if what you want is the thinnest 13-inch laptop available? Look no further than the Acer Swift 7. It’s currently the thinnest laptop in the world — about half as thick as a MacBook Air — and it’s got a black-and-gold style that’s sure to turn heads. Oh, and it’s actually on par in terms of performance, with a Core i5 and a 1080p display.

Why not the 12-inch MacBook?

With the MacBook Air out of the running, the real battle begins. Let’s start with the slim and shiny MacBook.

You might expect the MacBook to easily walk over its older siblings. It’s slimmer, lighter, and more portable. Fanless and wafer-thin, the MacBook looks like a laptop from the future. But it has some glaring flaws.

The first problem is the processor. Intel’s Core M is pretty advanced for a mobile processor, but it’s also meant for extremely slim systems that are often passively cooled. That means it can’t be as quick as its siblings, or it’ll melt itself into a puddle of goo. In our initial review of the MacBook, we found it offers roughly three-quarters the performance of a standard fifth-generation Core, which is two generations behind the most recent processors from Intel.

Then there’s the port problem. The MacBook offers two: a single USB-C for all peripherals and for charging, and a headphone jack. Because of this, using a MacBook with any third-party peripherals will prove far more difficult than with its siblings.

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There is one argument in favor of the MacBook, and that’s portability. It’s the lightest and smallest laptop Apple has ever produced. But even here there’s a tradeoff, because the MacBook is quoted at 10 hours of battery life, while the Air can last up to 12 hours and the 13-inch Pro can also hit 10. It’s easier to pack the MacBook, but it doesn’t last longer on a charge.

Alternatively, you could pick up a similarly priced Dell XPS 13. It’s solid, professional, and comes with a slick display and impressive aluminum-and-carbon-fiber construction. It offers a similar form factor, high build quality, and much better performance. You’d even save about $150.

What if you’re thinking of going Pro?

Now that the two less powerful options have been dispatched, only the freshly redesigned MacBook Pro remains. The high-end machine packs in 6th Generation Intel processors, PCIe SSDs standard, and a Retina display in all models.

In that sense, the MacBook Pro sets itself apart from the low-power options further down the ladder. Whether it competes with other systems in its price range is another story.

The 13-inch version competes most directly with the Dell XPS 13. The slim PC is one of our favorite laptops, and unfortunately undercuts the MacBook Pro 13’s price fairly seriously in terms of base model, starting at $799 to the MacBook Pro 13’s $1,500, which is the model without a Touch Bar and only two Thunderbolt 3 ports.

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The MacBook Pro 15 is in a better position, despite the higher price. Its most obvious competitor is the Surface Book Pro with Performance Base, which starts at the same $2,300 price point. The Surface Book with Performance Base beats out the MacBook Pro 15 in terms of graphical and processor performance, screen resolution, and of course is a 2-in-1 with a touch screen and stylus.

Other issues came to light once we actually had the system in our hands. The Touch Bar wasn’t the revolution in computing Apple hyped it up to be. Features like suggestive text and tab previews work well on smartphones, but their presence is often unneccesary, and many users may find themselves setting the Touch Bar to operate as brightness and volume control, instead of custom app controls.

The keyboard has a frustratingly short throw, which makes typing for long periods uncomfortable. Finally, battery life is seriously lacking, and that was one of the major selling points of previous models.

However, the MacBook Pro models fight back with a large touchpad, excellent hard drive performance, and forward-looking ports. Like previous MacBook Pro models, it’s also sleek and attractive, but you’ll have to decide how much that’s worth to you. It’s a very expensive system, and arguably not a great value. But then again, Macs have never been the budget option.

And the winner is…

There was just an update to the MacBook Pro line, so if you really want something that runs MacOS, that’s the only system to consider. Your best bet is likely the 13-inch MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar. It presents the most competitive value, albeit without the standout feature, which again, we’re not that fond of.

There’s still serious hardware under the hood. The Retina display offers roughly twice the number the pixels as the Air, the processor’s base clock is 1.1GHz quicker, and RAM is doubled from four to eight gigabytes. The latest Pro also comes with the same Force-click touchpad found in the MacBook, and a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports.

It isn’t the most glamorous machine, but the MacBook Pro 13 is the best choice for anyone looking to pick up a MacOS laptop. If you don’t have that much to spend, you’re probably better off reaching for a Windows PC, or purchasing a refurbished Mac.