In 2020, Apple’s M1 chip in the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13 became the biggest improvement to the MacBook range in years, making them top laptops for 2021. Now, Apple has topped the M1 with its brand-new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, which can be found inside the MacBook Pro 14 and MacBook Pro 16 that were launched at Apple’s Unleashed event in October. These chips are some of the most powerful on the market, but there’s no doubting they’re very expensive.
If you are in the market for a new MacBook, that means you have a lot to think about. Are the new MacBook Pro models worth the cost? Should you consider the older models, like the M1-equipped MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13? And if you do go for a MacBook, what are the features and benefits, and which is the best choice? That is what our guide will explain. We have examined all of Apple’s current Mac laptops to find the best MacBook for your money.
Your MacBook options
How much does a MacBook cost? That depends on the model, and there are four main ones currently available from Apple:
- — $999
- — $1,199
- — $1,999
- — $2,499
The MacBook Pro 14 offers massive raw power
Rumors had swirled for months that Apple was working on a 14-inch MacBook Pro, but when the laptop finally launched at Apple’s Unleashed event in October, we were still blown away by the power and performance it offers. That’s thanks to its two new chip options: The M1 Pro and the M1 Max. The M1 Pro, on the one hand, doubles the GPU cores of the M1, while the M1 Max comes with four times the graphics cores. Both chips have double the high-performance CPU cores of the M1, support more memory and Thunderbolt ports, and pack in many times more transistors. In other words, they’re orders of magnitude better than the M1, which itself is already a superb Mac chip.
Buying a MacBook is about more than just the chip powering it, though. The good news here is that the MacBook Pro 14 offers a lot more than just blistering performance. Its external chassis is a little thicker than the MacBook Pro 13, but that allows it to fit a chunky HDMI port into the side of the machine. You’ll also find an SD card slot and an old favorite in the form of MagSafe, in addition to three Thunderbolt 4 ports. That port variety is great news for anyone who is sick of the dongle nightmare that USB-C MacBooks have faced in the past.
At the top of the keyboard, the Touch Bar has been replaced by a row of full-height function keys. The Touch Bar was divisive during its five-year tenure, and while it always seemed to have a lot of potential, it never turned into the killer feature that Apple imagined it would be. Now, the MacBook Pro 13 is the only Mac laptop that contains it.
The display has also had an upgrade, and now boasts a mini-LED panel (dubbed Liquid Retina XDR by Apple) that brings 1,000 nits of sustained brightness (and a frankly ridiculous 1,600 nits of peak brightness) better HDR performance with deeper blacks and more vivid colors, and improved contrast. It also includes ProMotion, which dynamically adjusts the screen refresh rate up to 120Hz, depending on what you’re doing.
Around the display, the bezels have been massively shrunk down, giving a much more immersive view of your work on-screen. Interestingly, the webcam cutout still exists, meaning the MacBook Pro 14 has a notch like the latest iPhone 13. On a large screen like this, it probably won’t be as noticeable for you as it might be on an iPhone, but it’s something to consider. The webcam itself has been upgraded to 1080p, too.
Not everything is great, though. For one thing, the MacBook Pro 14 is a pricey machine. It starts at $1,999 and scales all the way up to $5,899 if you max out every option (in case you’re curious, that will get you a 10-core M1 Max chip with a 32-core GPU, 64GB of RAM, and a super-fast 8TB SSD). You get a laptop that will absolutely steamroll almost any task in return, but this device is expensive.
The other drawback is the battery life — sort of. The M1 completely revolutionized the MacBook Pro’s battery performance because it was so efficient, and the M1 Pro and M1 Max still hold a lot of water here. But you’ll actually get slightly less juice out of the MacBook Pro 14 than the MacBook Pro 13. While the latter offers 17 hours of web browsing and 20 hours of video playback (or 16 hours and 21 hours in our review), Apple says the MacBook Pro 14 can “only” manage 11 hours of web browsing and 17 hours of video watching. That’s still good, but it’s a shame that the battery can’t keep up with the extra performance of the new chips.
The MacBook Air is a superb choice
Apple’s MacBook Air has always been the laptop to go for if you want a lightweight, portable machine. That used to mean you had to sacrifice performance for portability, but the M1 chip has changed all that in a huge way.
Who is the MacBook Air right for? Interestingly, the M1 chip means many of the same people who want a MacBook Pro will love the MacBook Air. That’s because when we reviewed the M1 MacBook Air, we found its performance was on par with the MacBook Pro 13 (also outfitted with the M1). In HandBrake, it was 12 seconds behind the Pro, while still posting a very speedy score in its own right. It finished slightly behind the Pro in the Cinebench R23 benchmark but beat it in our Geekbench 5 test — in fact, the MacBook Air’s single-core score was one of the highest Geekbench 5 results we have ever seen, with only the M1 Mac Mini and the 24-inch iMac pushing ahead.
What is even more remarkable is that the MacBook Air does all this without a fan. The M1 chip is so power-efficient that Apple has been able to cool this Mac entirely passively, while still enabling it to post some truly beefy performance numbers. If you love your laptops to be absolutely silent, this is a major draw. All that extra power efficiency means the Air lasted 18.5 hours in our video-playback test and 15.5 hours with light web usage. That is incredible longevity.
Elsewhere, you get classic Apple design with the MacBook Air, including a rock-solid aluminum body and top-notch build quality. The keyboard is Apple’s Magic Keyboard, which boasts improved travel and reliability over the butterfly keyboard. There is no Touch Bar — you instead get a row of function keys and a Touch ID button on the right-hand side for logging in and confirming purchases.
As for the Air’s Retina display, Apple rates it for 400 nits (although our testing set it slightly lower, at 389 nits). It has strong ratings for both color accuracy and contrast (1.39 and 1130:1, respectively, both of which are better than average). It hits 100% of the sRGB gamut and 79% of Adobe RGB — that is a little higher than most Windows laptops, but below the MacBook Pro’s rating. If you need a laptop for color-sensitive work, you should consider the Pro over the Air.
What about storage? And how much does the MacBook Air cost? Well, you will get 256GB of SSD storage in the $999 entry-level MacBook Air. The 512GB model is $1,199, the 1TB version costs $1,399, and the model with 2TB of SSD storage is $1,799. You can choose between 8GB or 16GB of memory, although this uses a unified memory architecture (UMA), which makes it much more efficient than standard laptops at using its onboard RAM. In almost all consumer use cases, 8GB of UMA memory will be plenty.
Now that the MacBook Pro 14 is out, the MacBook Air can’t hope to top the Mac performance charts. But its M1 chip is still brilliant for all but the most heavy-duty work, and for most people, it’s more than enough.
What about the MacBook Pro 16?
The Apple MacBook Pro 16 got the same treatment as the MacBook Pro 14 at Apple’s Unleashed show, meaning it saw a big overhaul inside and out. Like its smaller Mac sibling, you’ll get a redesigned chassis with HDMI, SD card, and MagSafe ports. There’s no Touch Bar, but you do get slimline bezels (complete with notch), and an expansive 16-inch Liquid Retina XDR display that will be one of the best on the market.
The MacBook Pro 16 never got the Apple M1 chip and instead has the same chip options as the MacBook Pro 14: The M1 Pro and the M1 Max. There’s no distinction in the number of cores on offer in either machine. We haven’t yet reviewed them yet, but we suspect you will actually get better performance from the MacBook Pro 16 than from the MacBook Pro 14. That’s because the larger chassis allows for a greater cooling system, which might do a better job of keeping the incredibly performant chips under control and running at peak performance. We’ll update this guide once our reviews are in.
There are other reasons to consider the MacBook Pro 16. While the MacBook Pro 14’s battery performance decreased slightly compared to the MacBook Pro 13, the MacBook Pro 16’s battery life has actually seen a huge increase. When we reviewed the 2019 model, its battery lasted for five and a half hours of normal usage, which included web browsing, Spotify, and Slack. That’s not great, and far from the 11 hours Apple said you should get (for both web browsing and video playback). The 2021 MacBook Pro 16, on the other hand, will give you 14 hours of web browsing and 21 hours of video watching, according to Apple. That’s much more than the previous generation, and more still than the MacBook Pro 14, thanks to the larger chassis holding larger batteries.
The problem with the MacBook Pro 16 is the cost. It starts at $2,499, which is $100 more than the 2019 model began at. It’s also $500 more than the MacBook Pro 14, yet probably the most noticeable difference is just the size. You’ll get comparable performance in the MacBook Pro 14 because you can equip it with exactly the same chip, memory configuration, SSD storage, and more. That makes the MacBook Pro 16 quite a niche machine, and definitely more than what most consumers need.
Where does this leave the MacBook Pro 13?
Last year, the phenomenal upgrade the M1 chip brought to the MacBook Air put the MacBook Pro in something of an awkward spot, as the difference between the two was no longer so pronounced. Now, the new MacBook Pro 14 makes the MacBook Pro 13 an even tougher sell for Apple.
Compared to the M1 MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro 13’s performance lead is non-existent thanks to both laptops using the same chip. It still pulled ahead in some areas during our testing, but it’s not a clear lead, and it’s a long way behind the M1 Pro and M1 Max you can get in the new MacBook Pro 14.
Still, it’s now the only Apple laptop that comes with the Touch Bar. That’s not a huge selling point, but plenty of people like it. If you want it, the MacBook Pro 13 is your only choice. Compared to the MacBook Air, it also has a better, brighter display, improved speakers, and an extra GPU core as part of its M1 chip.
Other than that, though, there’s not much reason to get the MacBook Pro 13 over the MacBook Air. Keep an eye open for deals and you might be able to justify it if you find a really good discount.
Which MacBook should you buy?
This one is a real toss-up between two well-matched competitors. Theoffers incredible power, an all-new design full of great features, and even the return of some old favorites like MagSafe and the HDMI port. It’s an absolutely brilliant machine if you need huge amounts of power in a compact form. It is very expensive, though.
The, on the other hand, still comes out swinging in 2021. Its M1 chip might be a year old and doesn’t hold a candle to the M1 Pro or M1 Max, but for most people, it brings more than enough power. You also get the benefit of a super-lightweight laptop that stays whisper quiet in all circumstances thanks to its fanless design. For most people, it’s the right choice.
The MacBook Pro 16 is undoubtedly an absolutely top-end machine and will be ideal if you need something that can perform your most demanding workloads wherever you end up being. It prices itself out of contention for most people, though.
Finally, the MacBook Pro 13 is probably the last MacBook you should consider. There’s nothing objectively wrong with it — in fact, it’s still a really good device — it’s just that it’s difficult to find a place for it in Apple’s MacBook lineup. For most people, the MacBook Air will be the better choice due to having almost identical performance for $300 less. If you need more performance, you’ll find that in spades with the MacBook Pro 14 and MacBook Pro 16. The main time you should consider the MacBook Pro 13 is if you can find some hefty savings.
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