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The best MacBook for 2020

At the end of 2019, Apple finally released the MacBook Pro 16 after months of speculation, essentially phasing out the MacBook Pro 15 in the process. But with the MacBook Pro 13 getting a 2020 update and the redesigned MacBook Air now on store shelves, it’s becoming more difficult to differentiate between each of Apple’s premium laptops. Thankfully, this guide should help you sift through the sea of models to find which is right for you and your needs.

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Your choices

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

  • MacBook Air 13-inch — $1,000 from Best Buy
  • MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar — $1,299 from Apple
  • MacBook Pro 16-inch with Touch Bar — $2,140 from Amazon

That’s a pretty succinct selection compared to prolific brands like Dell or HP. Let’s run them down one by one.

The MacBook Air

Wondering about the 12-inch MacBook? You’re out of luck, as Apple killed it off in 2019. While it was super portable, it seems Apple felt it was just too similar to the redesigned MacBook Air, which now takes its place as Apple’s most mobile laptop. While there are rumors Apple may resurrect the 12-inch MacBook, there is no solid information yet.

Apple refreshed the MacBook Air lineup in 2020 by bringing the Magic Keyboard to the 13-inch laptop, which we now consider a strong candidate for a first-time Mac buyer. At 2.8 pounds and 0.16 to 0.63 inches in thickness, the latest MacBook Air comes in a familiar thin and light design outfitted with gold, silver, and space gray colors. It also picks up the same Magic Keyboard, Thunderbolt 3 ports, and larger trackpad as the MacBook Pro 13.

Gone are the thick, silver borders from the old MacBook Air, replaced by an edge-to-edge Retina display, which modernizes it a bit. It’s still not as thin and light as the former 12-inch MacBook, but it’s a bit slimmer than the MacBook Pro. The onboard Retina display also keeps the same resolution as the MacBook Pro, at 2,560 x 1,600, but in our testing, it only goes up to 389 nits of brightness — more than the 291 of the 2018 MacBook Air, but less than the MacBook Pro’s 500 nits. The Air’s display might not be very bright, but it still produces accurate colors, which makes it a good choice for photographers and graphic designers.

On the inside, the new 2020 MacBook Air receives a slight upgrade from the 2018 overhaul. That includes a jump to tenth-generation Intel processors, which isn’t quite the leap as seen with 2018’s move from 5th-gen to 8th-gen. Still, the latest refresh sees the introduction of quad-core chips to the MacBook Air line: The Core i5-1030G4 and the Core i7-1060G7. The entry-level model features Intel’s dual-core i3-1000G4 chip.

The MacBook Air 2020 also sees double the entry-level storage at 256GB versus the original 128GB. It has a new entry-level price too at $999 (or $899 for students), down from $1,099 in 2019 and $1,199 in 2018. The latest model ditches Apple’s butterfly keyboard switches as well, opting for the more traditional scissor-based design. After several generations, Apple simply couldn’t resolve its butterfly issues.

What if you’re thinking of going Pro?

The MacBook Pro is your best bet if you need serious power. In 2019, Apple updated the 13-inch MacBook Pro, giving every model a Touch Bar and an eighth-generation Intel processor. Then in May 2020, the MacBook Pro 13 was updated to 10th-generation Intel processors and faster RAM, while the base storage was doubled in every model. The newer chips and faster memory were only given to the more expensive models, however, meaning the entry-level MacBook Pro 13 versions are still stuck on 8th-generation Intel processors. If you are willing to spend more money, though, you can go all the way up to an Intel i9 processor and 64GB of RAM (in the MacBook Pro 16).

So, which MacBook Pro model should you choose? There are two main choices: 13-inch and 16-inch. Let’s start with the entry-level 13-inch Touch Bar model, which received a notable upgrade that was, in some ways, pretty disappointing.

Intel has struggled to meet Apple’s deadlines for the MacBook Pro, resulting in previous MacBooks being stuck on old processors when newer ones were available. The MacBook Pro 13 has been left behind on 8th-generation chips for some time while its rivals had upgraded to 10th-generation parts, but that was finally remedied in early May 2020. Yet as we alluded to earlier, you only get that upgrade if you spend at least $1,799. That is an awful lot of money to spend just to get new parts.

It also makes it very hard to justify spending $1,299 on the entry-level MacBook Pro 13 when you know you are going to get old, 8th-generation components. As we said in our MacBook Pro 13 buying guide, if you can afford it, get the $1,799 model. Not only will you get a newer processor, but you will get 16GB of 3,733MHz RAM and a 512GB SSD, which should be plenty for most people.

In our testing, we found the MacBook Pro 13 encoded a 4K video in Handbrake to H.265 in just over 3 minutes. That makes it the fastest 13-inch laptop we have seen in this particular test. Elsewhere, it performed well in the Cinebench R20 and Geekbench 5 benchmarking suites, scoring higher than all rivals except the Dell XPS 13. The problem, though, is that you have to pay at least $1,799 to get that kind of performance.

If you spend that much money, you are starting to approach MacBook Pro 16 territory, especially considering its price is now hovering around $2,000. What’s on offer if you decide to go for the larger MacBook Pro? There are two options here, and both come with the Touch Bar, four Thunderbolt 3 ports and 16GB of memory as standard.

The main differences lie in the processors, storage and graphics chips. While the entry-level 16-inch MacBook Pro comes with a 2.6GHz 6-core 9th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, a 512GB SSD and an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M GPU, the high-end model has a 2.3GHz 8-core 9th-generation Intel Core i9 processor, a 1TB SSD, and an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU with 4GB of video RAM.

The 16-inch also comes with a few design changes, including a more conventional keyboard, smaller bezels, and a new thermal system. Before purchasing, you can configure both models with up to a 2.4GHz 8-core 9th-generation Intel Core i9 processor, 64GB of memory, a whopping 8TB SSD, and an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU with 8GB of video RAM.

Starting at $2,399 and $2,799 respectively, there’s no doubting these MacBook Pro models are expensive, but they’re the ones to go for if you need true power.

And the winner is…

If you’re looking at the lower end of the spectrum, ironically enough the high-end 13-inch MacBook Air is very attractive. It costs the same as the entry-level MacBook Pro ($1,299), yet has a much more recent processor and faster RAM. You do not get the Touch Bar, but you do get a Touch ID button for fast, secure logging in and purchase verification. We think it’s the best option for most people.

For more professional Mac fans, we recommend the 16-inch MacBook Pro. It’s the only option that has enough power to handle more intense applications and heavier workloads. Unless there’s a very specific feature that catches your eye, stay away from the others.

If one of these MacBooks stole your heart but you feel like they’re too expensive, you can always wait for Black Friday so that you can leverage its MacBook deals and eventually save up.

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