MacBooks are among the most universally useful laptops you can buy, but it’s not always easy to pick the right one. They go from $999 to $3,000 or more, even though they look and feel similar. I get a lot of reader questions about how to decide, especially when you’re torn between, for example, a slightly upgraded MacBook Air and a similarly priced 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Based on our years of reviewing and testing Apple laptops, here’s how to make sure you’re not buying too little MacBook, or too much.
There’s a concept we call line creep. It’s what happens when brands keep adding iterations and subdivisions of popular product lines, until no one can tell which one to buy. Apple has usually avoided this trap by sticking to a handful of choices in each category, but things can still get confusing when you shop for a MacBook.
For a few years, you could choose a 12-inch MacBook, 13-inch Macbook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar, 13-inch Pro with a Touch Bar or 15-inch Pro. And years before that, you had black and white versions of the 13-inch polycarbonate MacBook and even 11-inch and 13-inch versions of the Air.
Now it’s back to basics for Apple. There’s the 13-inch MacBook Air and both 13-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models. That’s it. Yes, this cuts out some potential just-right-for-you options, but it also makes it much easier to figure out which camp you fall into, especially since these three models are different enough that you’ll naturally gravitate towards one over the others.
MacBook 2020 starting configurations
|Model||MacBook Air||MacBook Pro (13-inch)||MacBook Pro (16-inch)|
|Starting price||$999, £999, AU$1,599||$1,299, £1,299, AU$1,999||$2,399, £2,399, AU$3,799|
|CPU||1.1GHz dual-core 10th-gen Intel Core i3 processor||1.4GHz quad-core eighth-gen Intel Core i5 processor||2.6GHz 6-core ninth-gen Intel Core i7 processor (plus AMD Radeon Pro 5300M)|
|RAM||8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X||8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3||16GB 2666MHz DDR4 memory|
|Storage||256GB SSD storage||256GB SSD storage||512GB SSD storage|
|Ports||Two Thunderbolt 3 ports||Two Thunderbolt 3 ports||Four Thunderbolt 3 ports|
For many years, this was everyone’s favorite laptop: Reasonably inexpensive. Thin and light. Built like a tank. It could last for years and take lots of fall and bumps. For any college student or coffee shop creative type, $999 would get you sorted.
Then time passed the Air by. Its low-res display and thick screen bezel fell behind even average Windows laptops. The components were rarely updated. Fortunately, the Air got a huge refresh a couple of years ago, and now looks and feel very much like a MacBook Pro.
Most importantly, it’s back down to that magic $999 starting price, but there’s a catch. That’s for an Intel Core i3 processor, so you’re going to want to spend an extra $100 and get the Core i5 version. That’s really my only real knock against the new Air, that there’s a secret $100 Core i5 tax. Even the $999 version starts with a 256GB SSD, which is nice.
There are three main things you’re missing by going with the Air over the Pro: Your CPU options aren’t as robust; you only get two USB-C ports, not four; and there’s no Touch Bar, which to most people isn’t really a big deal.
If you’re a college student, a would-be entrepreneur, a writer, or just looking for an all-around laptop on the high end of casual, it’s tough to go wrong with the MacBook Air. It’ll rightly be the default starting point for a lot of people.
13-inch MacBook Pro
The most recently updated MacBook is the 13-inch Pro. The 2020 version plays catch-up in a lot of ways, adding 10th-gen Intel CPU options, but only in the more expensive configurations. It also doubles the storage of the 2019 version and adds the new Magic Keyboard, making it the final MacBook to get the new keyboard design.
All Pros now have the Apple Touch Bar, which isn’t as useful as Apple would have you believe but not as useless as everyone else thinks. I use it all the time for screen brightness, volume control and a few other contextual buttons, like when using the calculator app.
Since they’re close in price, you might be tempted to get the less-expensive Air over the Pro — after all, they look and feel similar and share a lot of the same features. And for many people, that’s the right call. But if you’re working on more power-hungry apps such as Photoshop or Premiere, keep in mind that the Air uses lower-power Y-series Intel chips, while the Pro uses more mainstream U-series chips.
For websurfing, social media and movie streaming, you’re not going to notice the difference. For CPU-intensive tasks, you will. It’s especially noticeable because the Pro’s larger body is better designed for the heat generated by heavier workloads, so it’s less likely to throttle down.
My other caveat about the 13-inch Pro is that you need to step up to a more expensive configuration to get the newer 10th-gen CPUs and to get the four USB-C ports instead of two.
Here’s a closer look at two $1,299 MacBook configurations:
What does $1,299 get you in a MacBook?
|Model||MacBook Air||MacBook Pro (13-inch)|
|CPU||1.1GHz quad-core 10th-gen Intel Core i5 (Y-series) processor||1.4GHz quad-core eighth-gen Intel Core i5 (U-series) processor|
|RAM||8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X||8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3|
|Storage||512GB SSD storage||256GB SSD storage|
|Ports||Two Thunderbolt 3 ports||Two Thunderbolt 3 ports|
16-inch MacBook Pro
Laptops are often about cramming as much as possible into the thinnest, lightest, smallest package possible. But sometimes bigger is better. People still lament the late, great 17-inch MacBook Pro, which was.
Apple finally resurrected it, in a sense, with the new 16-inch MacBook Pro, at the same time killing the long-standing 15-inch version. It’s huge, at least compared to the 13-inch MacBooks, but still more portable than most of the 15-inch Windows laptops I’ve seen.
The main selling point is, of course, all that screen real estate, which is what you need if you’re a designer or even a number cruncher and need to keep a lot of things in front of you.
Like the old 15-inch Pro, the 16-inch MacBook is ridiculously expensive, starting at $2,399 and going up from there. But if that’s your all-day, every day, work-from-home screen, it could be worth it.
The other big selling point of the 16-inch Pro is that it includes discrete graphics, with a couple of AMD Radeon options. No, Macs are still not gaming machines, but if you’re editing 4K video or doing 3D modeling, having a GPU is important. The other Macs at least include Intel Iris graphics, which is at least a step up from standard off-the-shelf laptop graphics.
Which MacBook should I buy?
My TL;DR advice is as follows:
If you need a MacBook for everyday schoolwork, web surfing, movies and light creativity, go with the MacBook Air. Specifically the $1,099 Core i5 version. For most people, this is a good default starting point.
Need some more CPU muscle, or extra USB-C ports, or for some reason you really love the Touch Bar? Go with the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but keep in mind that 10th-gen CPUs and the extra USB-C ports are only in the higher-priced versions.
The 16-inch Pro is basically a desktop replacement. If you’re thinking of getting an iMac but want to carry it around sometimes, or if you definitely need a discrete GPU, then splurge on the 16-inch MacBook Pro. It’s painfully expensive, but it’s a real joy to use, and frankly it’s tough to go back to a 13-inch screen after using it for a while.