With the current line of MacBooks, it’s harder than ever to know which MacBook is right for you. In late 2016, we were introduced to the long-awaited MacBook Pro updates with the OLED Touch Bar, and improved hardware under the hood. It wasn’t the giant update a lot of users were looking for, but it certainly was controversial. Between the Touch Bar, the offering of ports, and the price, Apple’s line of laptops is a more contentious topic than ever before.
In mid-2018, the processors across all the higher-end MacBooks were brought up to 8th-generation Intel processors to stay competitive. Unfortunately, that’s left some of the lower-end models we preferred
Here are the five models of MacBook currently available, counting different display sizes as distinct models.
- MacBook Air
- MacBook Pro 13-inch
- MacBook Pro 13-inch (with Touch Bar)
- MacBook Pro 15-inch (with Touch Bar)
While that may not look like a vast selection compared to prolific brands like Dell or HP, it’s fairly swollen for Apple.
Don’t buy the MacBook Air — yet
One year ago, we would have automatically removed the MacBook Air from our list of eligible systems. It wasn’t bad, but it seemed dead in the water due to the fact that it hadn’t gotten an update in years. That’s why we were surprised when Apple announced a small update in June of 2017 that boosted the processor speed up to 1.8GHz.
While Apple is keeping this product alive, it’s not exactly the update it needs to keep the MacBook Air competitive in today’s market. With the “Air” brand being phased out of the iPad line, we’ve been assuming that it’s only a matter of time before the MacBook Air gets discontinued, too. New rumors imply that Apple is preparing a new lower-cost version of the MacBook Air, or at least a replacement of it that will bring it up to date. While we think it needs more than a mere price decrease to remain competitive, it appears that the machine isn’t dead quite yet.
In the meantime, the MacBook Air still suffers from a lackluster display resolution of 1440 x 900, and it doesn’t offer the quickest hardware. While it holds up the bottom end of the lineup as a budget option, it’s still hard to justify at the price. You can get a lot more mileage with $1,000 just about anywhere else. Comparable Windows laptops deliver 1080p resolution, more RAM, and faster processors, with the newest Dell XPS 13 being a prime candidate.
If you absolutely need a MacBook Air, or want a Mac on a tight budget, you can always buy a refurbished model at a discounted price. You may even want to consider something like the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, which starts at just over $800 with the Smart keyboard included. That won’t run MacOS applications, of course, but it’ll last you a lot longer than a MacBook Air that’s about to be
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 now three generations behind the most recent processors from Intel.
Apple attempted to fix the poor performance with a processor update in mid-2017. Moving it up to seventh-generation processors, the MacBook now offers three options: The $1,300 “Core m3,” the $1,600 “Core i5,” and the $1,750 “Core i7.” In our tests, the Core m3 showed itself to be impressive for a mobile processor, competing with the MateBook X’s Core i5-7200U in single-core performance, but it still lags behind the previous generation MacBook Pro.
While we haven’t tested it yet, it should be noted that the “Core i5 and i7” versions of the MacBook are not the same i5-7200U and i7-7500U processors you’ll find in something like the MacBook Pro or standard 2017 Windows laptops. Rather, they’re rebranded, seventh-generation i5-7Y54 and i7-7Y75 versions of the old low-powered Core chips — you can blame Intel for the confusion there. And given Intel’s latest eighth-generation CPUs that are now quad-core and even faster and more efficient, the MacBook’s performance falls even further behind.
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.
There is one argument in favor of the MacBook, and that’s portability. It’s the lightest and smallest laptop Apple has ever produced, weight just above 2 pounds. But even here there’s a tradeoff, because the MacBook’s battery life isn’t exceptional. It’s not bad — but, given it price, we expect more.
Alternatively, you could pick up a similarly priced Dell XPS 13. It’s solid, professional, and comes with a slick display (Full HD or 4K UHD) and impressive aluminum-and-carbon-fiber construction. It offers a similar form factor, high build quality, and much better performance. You’d even save some significant cash, $150 or more depending on your chosen configuration.
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 seventh-generation Intel Core 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, but this is definitely where you want to head if you run any kind of complex software.
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 $1,000 to the MacBook Pro 13’s $1,300, which is for the model without a Touch Bar and two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
The MacBook Pro 15 is in a better position, despite the higher price. Its most obvious competitor is the Surface Book 2, which starts at the same $2,300 price point. The Surface Book 2 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 unnecessary, 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…
Your best bet is either the 13-inch MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar or the 15-inch MacBook Pro. These two models present the most competitive value, despite the fact that the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro is stuck on 7th-gen processors. Even though the 13-inch model is much more affordable for the average buyer, it’s overpriced by at least a few hundred dollars, making it a tough sell.
It isn’t the flashiest option, but the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro 13 or the 15-inch MacBook Pro 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.