Apple’s M1 chip in the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13 is the biggest improvement to the MacBook range in years. This system-on-a-chip (SoC) features an eight-core CPU and either a seven- or eight-core GPU (depending on the model). It increases the power and performance of Apple’s laptops in incredibly impressive ways and gives them an enormous battery boost to boot.
If you are in the market for a new MacBook, that means you have a lot to think about. Do you go for an M1 model or a laptop using an Intel processor? And if you do go for an M1 MacBook, 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
There are three main MacBook models currently available from Apple:
MacBook Air — $999
MacBook Pro 13 — $1,299
MacBook Pro 16 — $2,399
Each model has its own benefits and drawbacks. Let’s look at them in detail.
The MacBook Air is a superb choice
Mark Coppock/Digital TrendsApple’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.
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 the second-highest Geekbench 5 result we have ever seen, behind only the M1 Mac Mini.
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 the Air completely 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.
Mark Coppock/Digital TrendsElsewhere, 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 full 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 AdobeRGB — 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.
Finally, you will get 256GB of storage in the $999 entry-level MacBook Air. This can be increased to 512GB for $1,199, 1TB for $1,399, or 2TB for $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.
Do you need to go Pro?
The phenomenal upgrade the M1 chip has brought to the MacBook Air puts the MacBook Pro in something of an awkward spot. The difference between the two is no longer so pronounced — in many ways, it is razor thin — but there are still some instances where the Pro is the better option.
Weirdly, performance is not one of those areas. As we mentioned in the MacBook Air section, the Pro’s performance lead has evaporated thanks to both laptops using the same chip. It did still pull ahead in some areas during our testing, such as the multi-core test in Cinebench R23, where it held a sizeable lead of 7,547 to 6,680 over the MacBook Air. It was also faster at exporting videos in HandBrake. In some scenarios, the extra GPU core over the entry-level Air will help in terms of performance.
If performance was not a clear win for the MacBook Pro 13, its Retina display and speakers are. Its screen is rated for 500 nits of brightness, which we found to be 485 nits in our testing. It also beats out the Air for contrast (1470:1) and AdobeRGB compliance (91%), making it much better for creative users. Its speakers are also a joy to listen to — rare for a laptop. While those on the Air are by no means bad, they are not on the same level as the Pro’s audio setup.
Unlike the Air, the Pro comes with a fan. While there is no guarantee it will operate silently, we never heard it spin up once during our review, not even when it was being pushed to the limit. The M1 chip’s ability to stay cool under pressure also means it can massively extend the Pro’s battery life, even beyond that of the Air. We recorded a huge 21 hours for video playback and 16 hours for light web browsing.
The MacBook Pro also comes with Apple’s Touch Bar instead of the row of function keys. This touch-sensitive strip features app-specific shortcuts and buttons, although it may be on the way out. There is also a Touch ID button on the right.
The Pro’s starting price is $1,299, which gets you 256GB of speedy storage. For $1,499. you get 512GB, $1,699 gets you 1TB, and the 2TB model is $2,099. The higher price means you need to think carefully about whether the outlay is worth it. Yes, you get a better display and speakers, but the MacBook Air can do everything else just as well for $300 less. Unless you are a creative professional, the Pro is quite a hard sell.
What about the MacBook Pro 16?
When the MacBook Pro 16 came out in 2019, we said it was “the best Mac in years.” It’s funny how quickly things change, because at the moment, its lack of an M1 chip makes it the least attractive MacBook on offer.
The MacBook Pro 16 is not slow, but it cannot keep up with the M1. Its single-core score of 1193 in Geekbench 5 is way behind the M1 MacBook Pro’s 1707, and that’s on the Intel Core i9 model of the MacBook Pro 16, which costs a cool $2,799. Things were closer in the multi-core test, but the M1 Pro still came out on top and costs less than half the price.
Like the MacBook Pro 13, the 16-inch model has an excellent, color-accurate Retina display and superb speakers. Combined with the large screen, that makes it an excellent content-consumption machine. In fact, those extra few inches on the display are perfect if you need the extra screen space but is one of the few reasons you would pick it over either M1 MacBook.
You will pay $2,399 for the entry-level MacBook Pro 16, and this comes with 512GB of storage and 16GB of memory. You can go all the way up to 8TB of SSD storage and 64GB of memory, although this will cost you $5,599. If you need a serious amount of storage and RAM, that might be tempting (providing you can stomach the price), but we would still advise against buying it.
That is because Apple is widely expected to update the MacBook Pro 16 in the fall to give it an M1 chip. That will once again make it an attractive option if you need a larger display, more memory, or a capacious SSD, but for now it is best to stick to either the MacBook Air or the MacBook Pro 13.
Which MacBook should you buy?
Mark Coppock/Digital TrendsIt may seem strange, but right now, the MacBook Air is the best MacBook for most people. It comes with an above-average display, silent operation, and performance that blows everything else away, all for a fair price. For almost everyone looking to buy a MacBook right now, it has everything you could want.
The MacBook Pro 13 has some niche appeal, especially if you need a very color-accurate display. It does not offer enough performance to justify the increased price over the Air, though. In addition, industry rumors point to Apple phasing it out later in the year and replacing it with a 14-inch MacBook Pro with thinner bezels and more screen space. That might be a good time to move on the MacBook Pro if you feel it meets your needs.
It is best to avoid the MacBook Pro 16 entirely right now. Its price is too high and its performance too low to justify purchasing it. Wait until the fall for Apple to update it.
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