Apple’s laptops have long been held up as a gold standard for portable computers. The first company to bring technologies like aluminum unibody construction, super-sharp IPS screens, backlit keyboards, and multitouch trackpads to the mainstream, Apple is still making laptops that push innovation forward. The problem with Apple’s current lineup is that the company has a variety of models with different capabilities—some of which are cutting-edge, some of which haven’t seen an update in years—so it can be difficult to decide which one is best for you.
Which Mac portable should you spend your hard-earned money on? Given that you’ll spend more on a MacBook than a competing model from HP, Dell, or even Microsoft in many cases, it’s important to weigh your options.
The Best All-Rounder
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, no Touch Bar), $1,499
The least expensive MacBook Pro forgoes the bells and whistles, but we think it’s the model most people should buy. This model offers solid performance and doesn’t mess with the typical Apple formula too much: it has a sharp, 13-inch Retina display, a responsive trackpad, surprisingly potent speakers, and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports for charging and hooking up peripherals. This model, like the rest of the Pro pack, is available in two colors: a clean silver and subtle space gray.
Inside the laptop, Apple’s relying on dual-core 7th generation Intel processors and blazing fast PCIe Solid State Drives, along with 8 GB of RAM no matter which version you pick.
The only thing some people might miss is Touch ID. Without this fingerprint sensor, you’ll be logging in with passwords, the old-fashioned way. Touch ID is only available on models that come with the Touch Bar, which cost hundreds of dollars more. One other quirk you might want to consider when looking at this model is that you’ll be limited to only two USB-C ports. While you can get adapters and docks to fix the problem, this machine can still be tricky to manage if you love pluggin’ stuff into your laptop.
Word to the wise: even though Apple sells a low-end $1,300 version of this MacBook Pro, skip it. It comes with a paltry 128-gigabyte SSD, and there’s no easy way to add more storage later if you need it. Spend the extra $200 to get twice the storage and you’ll have enough space to work with for years.
The Best For Power Users
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Touch Bar), $2,399
The only high-end laptop Apple makes is the 15-inch Pro. This big laptop has the fastest internals and biggest, highest-resolution display of any of the MacBooks. Inside, a standard quad-core 7th generation Intel processor and AMD Radeon graphics make the 15.6-incher well suited to everything from 4K video editing to massive Lightroom batch exports. Its big screen is also a major boon to productivity, making side-by-side document editing and web browsing a cinch.
Four Thunderbolt 3 ports mean you’ll have plenty of ports for all your devices. If you handle big files on the regular, you might need a larger SSD than the stock 256 GB configuration offers, but Apple will gladly upgrade this MacBook Pro all the way to 2 TB, if you can pony up the $1,200 upgrade fee.
You also get Apple’s Touch Bar and Touch ID with this model, which may or may not be useful to you. This small display above the keyboard is touch-sensitive and plays host to a row of customizable, interactive controls. It can be handy, at least in theory, but many apps have yet to truly take advantage of this skinny touch interface. Touch ID is one of the best features here, letting you log in with your fingerprint, but alas it’s not available without the Touch Bar. Like its 13-inch, Touch Bar-less little sister, the 15-inch MacBook Pro has two finishes to choose from: a stealthy space gray and a more traditional sparkling silver tone.
The Best For the Jet Set
Apple MacBook, $1,299
If you don’t need much power and prefer a traditional laptop over a tablet or a 2-in-1, Apple’s super skinny, 12-inch MacBook is made for you. This light, thin laptop is perfect for travel and it’s based on Intel’s power-sipping Y-series chips, which should translate into better battery life while you’re stuck on a plane or away from power outlets.
While you won’t be outputting massive video projects from Adobe Premiere with this minimalist notebook, it’s more than fast enough for web browsing, knocking out spreadsheets in Excel, and occasional Photoshop dabbling. Unlike the Pro models, the MacBook comes in your choice of four attractive finishes: Gold, Rose Gold, Silver, and Space Gray.
The Achilles’ Heel of this laptop is its single USB-C port, which is used for charging and hooking up devices. If you regularly plug in a bunch of peripherals while trying to charge, you’ll get annoyed. An adapter with a power pass-through port is a must-have for this laptop.
Caveats and Things to be Aware Of
Unlike previous generations of MacBook, the current lineup has more eccentricities than ever. Some will be willing to put up with the occasional quirk, but there are features and aspects of the 2018 Apple laptops that you should know about before you buy.
First off is the Touch Bar. When Apple debuted this feature in late 2016, it touted the Bar as the next-generation of user input. Unfortunately, this hasn’t quite panned out yet. The Touch Bar is on a limited number of Apple systems, and there seems to be little interest from third-party software designers in doing anything innovative with the tiny, touch-sensitive display mounted right above the keyboard in some models. Those Touch Bar-packing laptops have Touch ID, which lets you log in and sensitive data with your fingerprint but what you don’t get is a physical Esc key.
Apple’s trackpads are among the best in the computer business, but with the newest MacBooks, these input devices have been blown up to unbelievable proportions and crammed right up against the bottom of the keyboard, right where you rest your palms while typing. Although there’s supposed to be intelligent palm rejection software at work, the trackpads are susceptible to accidental input. Your mileage may vary.
Anecdotally, we’ve heard complaints from Apple users about the reliability of the new butterfly switch keyboards. The flat style and super-short keystrokes might not be to everyone’s liking, but widespread stories of non-responsive keys are worrying. Perhaps the most famous screed on the subject is Casey Johnston’s post detailing the saga of her own keyboard woes for The Outline, which is worth reading. Since the keyboard is part of the aluminum top case, repairs reportedly cost as much as $700, even if only a single key exhibits symptoms—all the more reason to invest in AppleCare+ at the time of purchase. Apple has detailed instructions on how to clean the keyboard if yours gets flaky, which is a decent first line of defense against busted keys.
Then there’s the port situation. All of Apple’s current MacBooks feature one port type: USB-C. On the 12-inch MacBook, it’s normal USB while on the Pro models you get Thunderbolt 3. Thunderbolt is a bit more versatile, but either way you’re stuck with a bunch of ports that might not work with the devices you own. You’ll want to invest in a few adapters (like this Aukey adapter) if you plan on hooking your computer up to a projector, or want to use things like USB keys or SD cards. Plan to buy some dongles.
MacBooks to Avoid
Apple MacBook Air
This slim laptop was groundbreaking when it debuted in 2010. Unfortunately, the MacBook Air hasn’t changed much since then. It sports a dowdy-looking non-Retina screen and weak Intel chips from three years ago. Sure, it might not require the dongles that a newer MacBook might necessitate, the newer laptops will undoubtedly feel faster for longer. Don’t let the $999 price tag tempt you—there are way better laptops you can nab for that kind of dough.
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, previous model)
This time-tested design seems like it’d be a great buy … until you see the $2,000 price tag. It’s still rocking an impossibly old, 2014-era Intel chip inside, and despite its appealing array of USB and Thunderbolt 2 ports, this 15-inch model is a poor value for money.
Reasons to Wait
Since it’s a new year, there are new Intel processors that’ll be available to Apple soon. Some of these new chips are faster, and pack in more cores than before, but they’ll only be a bit faster on average. If you need a computer now, the MacBooks available today (aside from the crusty, older models Apple’s kept on sale) are capable and should last you years. But, if you hate having the feeling that something better is around the corner, you’re right but we don’t know exactly when new MacBooks will make their appearance in 2018. When they do, we’ll update this guide accordingly.
Perhaps the biggest gains could be had in the 15-inch model, since Intel has new 8th-generation chips with powerful AMD Radeon graphics on the way that we’ve seen announced in a few other computers. If you need a powerful, portable workstation for thinks like CAD or 4K video editing, it might behoove you to hold on just a bit longer to see what Apple has coming.
Save Money by Buying Refurbished
Apple doesn’t give out discounts willy-nilly, so it can be hard to find a truly great deal on a MacBook. The most reliable way to save money is to shop from Apple’s refurbished store online. Just like new products, these refurbs are covered under a full one-year warranty, and in our experience the quality is identical to that of new machines. The only snag is that if you’re looking for a specific or custom configuration, you might be waiting a while—stock rotates quickly, so check back often and pounce as soon as your dream MacBook goes live.
Shop Apple’s Refurbished Store
None of Apple’s MacBooks are cheap, and replacement parts are nightmarishly expensive. Since the entire computer is fully integrated into Apple’s tightly-designed aluminum chassis, you’re one spilled cup of coffee away from a shockingly large repair bill. This is why Apple’s AppleCare+ is worth it—starting at $249, AppleCare extends your factory warranty to three years, gives you matching telephone support, and throws in two accidental damage repairs as well. A flat $99 service fee later and whatever you did to kill your shiny new Mac is undone and you’re back to hammering away happily on your keyboard.
Shop for AppleCare+
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