Welcome to our best MacBook buying guide 2016.
If you're considering buying a new MacBook you'll have realised that the decision between Apple's laptops is not as easy as it first seems. Here, we help you decide which MacBook is best for you in our best MacBook 2016 buying guide.
There are three different models of MacBook laptops in Apple's line-up: MacBook Air, MacBook Pro (which is primarily advertised with am interactive Touch Bar, but is also available without), and the 12in Retina MacBook.
On 27 October Apple announced a big update to MacBook Pro line - both in specs, features and price. You can read more about that here: New MacBook Pro 2016 review.
Further complicating matters, each of those MacBooks is available in different sizes and configurations, with various build-to-order options. It's not surprising, then, that many people have difficulty deciding between them. In this article we're helping you make that decision by examining the options and providing expert advice about which MacBook is best for you.
First, let's take a look at what's on offer.
[You should also read our Best Mac buying guide, which covers both MacBooks and Apple's desktop Macs]
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: MacBook Air buying advice
There are two standard configurations of MacBook Air available. You can only now buy a 13in model directly from Apple and in either case you can either have 128GB or 256GB of flash storage. Apple discontinued the 11in MacBook Air in October 2016.
Both surviving models come with a 1.6GHz processor and 8GB of RAM.
(Apple had previously updated its MacBook lines - or part of them - in April 2016, but the sum total of the Air's upgrade was for the 8GB of RAM to be included in the base price for the 13in models.)
Here's what the models will cost you:
- MacBook Air 13in, 128GB: £949
- MacBook Air 13in, 256GB: £1,099
The MacBook Air used to be the most portable MacBook available, but 2015's 12-inch MacBook has now taken that position. However, the 13in MacBook Air model is still ideal for anyone who travels a lot, and if you can live with the physical design, which hasn't changed in years, it remains a strong and (by Apple's standards) just about affordable option. It offers far more bang for your buck than the costly and arguably underpowered 12-inch model.
And if you're open to the idea of Air-style laptops from other companies, check our roundup of the best alternatives to the MacBook Air.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Retina MacBook Pro buying advice
When it comes to the MacBook Pro, Apple issued a big update to the line in October 2016 which many thought was long overdue. It introduced a Touch Bar to replace the function keys, a display that changes depending on the task you are undertaking, and is fully customisable. Its only ports are 4 Thunderbolt USB-C and a headphone jack. You can get a 13in or 15in model of this high end MacBook Pro.
The Touch Bar also included Touch ID, bringing the technology to the Mac following the iPhone and iPad.
Apple also updated the base MacBook Pro, which is now a model with a Retina display and updated specs, but no Touch Bar and only 2 USB-C ports (and only available in a 13in model).
It also still sells the 2015 MacBook Pro both 13in and 15in, which are the best option if you want to save some money and also still have the full range of ports.
Thanks to its higher specs the MacBook Pro offers more power than the MacBook Air, and the display also offers a significantly higher resolution. Internally, each of the MacBook Pro with Retina display models differ, but we'll come to that later.
Here's what the various base specs of the MacBook Pro cost:
- MacBook Pro 2015 13in, 128GB: £1,249
- MacBook Pro 2016 13in (without Touch Bar), 256GB: £1,449
- MacBook Pro 2016 13in (with Touch Bar), 256GB: £1,749
- MacBook Pro 2016 13in (with Touch Bar), 512GB: £1,949
- MacBook Pro 2015 15in, 256GB: £1,899
- MacBook Pro 2016 15in (with Touch Bar), 256GB: £2,349
- MacBook Pro 2016 15in (with Touch Bar), 512GB: £2,699
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Non-Retina MacBook Pro buying advice
Apple no longer sells the non-Retina display MacBook Pro, the model first seen in 2012. This means the only non-Retina MacBook left on the market is the 13in MacBook Air.
However at the time of writing you can still get this MacBook Pro from retailers like Currys. At £899, it is the cheapest you will find a brand new MacBook anywhere. It has a full array of ports, and even a CD/DVD drive.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: 12-inch MacBook buying advice
The MacBook, introduced in April 2015 and given a substantive update in April 2016 - as opposed to the Air, which got the tiniest update imaginable and the Pro, which was ignored completely - is now available in gold, silver, Space Grey or Rose Gold, just like the iPhone SE.
Colour choices aside, there are two models of MacBook to choose from: either 1.1GHz with 256GB of flash storage (£1,249) or 1.2GHz and 512GB (£1,549).
- MacBook, 12in, 1.1GHz, 256GB: £1,249
- MacBook, 12in, 1.2GHz, 512GB: £1,549
These are the same clock speeds as we saw in 2015's 12-inch MacBooks, but they should be considerably faster in practice because this time they're Intel's sixth-generation 'Skylake' Core M chips. Apple claims they bring 25 percent faster graphics and 20 percent faster general processing; we'll test these theories out when Apple send us review samples. The RAM is faster, too: 1866MHz, up from 1600MHz.
The newer, more energy-efficient chips should also help with battery life. Apple reckons this year's 12-inch MacBooks are good for an hour more than their predecessors: 10 hours of web use, or 11 hours of movie watching.
While (as we said earlier) this is the lightest and perhaps prettiest Mac available, it's also one of the most expensive, and - while the new Skylake chips have closed the gap - they remain relatively low-powered to boot. While it is an utter joy to look at, and nice to use, we still feel it costs too much for too little.
Last year's first iteration of the 12-inch MacBook reminded us of the original MacBook Air (known as the Rev A). It also cost a premium, and had very little initial power. But over time it transformed into faster, and cheaper, workhorse. The MacBook is improving, and will continue to do so, but for now it's really not powerful enough to justify its price tag.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Which MacBook should I buy for portability?
The 12in MacBook is the lightest and thinnest MacBook available, with a height of 0.35-1.31cm and a weight of 0.92kg. However, there are sacrifices to be made in terms of power, this being Apple's lowest specced computer. It's also one of the most expensive Macs, so not one for the budget-conscious.
The only thing is you might find the 12in MacBook limiting due to its diminutive screen size. This isn't so much a problem anymore for the MacBook Air though, as the 11in version is now discontinued, but some people found the dimensions of that MacBook Air screen restrictive, because the display was shallower than any other Mac due to it being 16:9 rather than 16:10, which is a more normal laptop screen aspect ratio.
The 12in MacBook has a bigger screen than the MacBook Air, plus it offers a much better quality display - more on that later.
We think that the best Mac for portability is actually the 13in MacBook Air; sure, it's bigger and heavier than both of the Macs mentioned (its the same 0.3-1.7cm dimensions as the 11in model, but is wider at 32.5cm rather than 30cm). But at 1.35kg it is not a lot heavier than the old 11in model, and it is lighter than the 2015 13in MacBook Pro (1.58kg).
To help you decide between the current 13in MacBook models, you can read our which 13in Apple laptop article.
The price of the 13in MacBook Air is a lot better than that of the MacBook too, starting at £949 rather than £1,249. You get the best of both worlds: a light laptop with a decent screen size.
You can also find out more in our Which MacBook Air is best? article.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Which MacBook is best for battery life?
The battery life of the 13in MacBook Air is the highest of any MacBook available. Apple calls it an "all-day battery" but what that means is up to 12 hours, and a whopping 30 days of standby time.
Next up is the 13in Retina MacBook Pro which can manage 10 hours wireless web (and Apple claims 12 hours if you are just watching video in iTunes). It's also 10 hours for the 2015 MacBook Pro that it still sells.
Apple also claims 10 hours of web use - but just 11 hours of film watching - for 2016's updated version of the 12-inch MacBook.
The 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display offers 9 hours of battery life for wireless web (10 hours for iTunes on the Air, while the MacBook Pro offers 9 hours of iTunes).
Finally, the old MacBook Pro without the Retina display offers just 7 hours of wireless web browsing.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Which MacBook is best for storage?
One thing to consider if you work with large files, as many creative professionals do, is the capacity of the storage inside the Mac.
There are two types of storage available: flash (also known as SSD) or a traditional hard drive.
You will find SSD options of 256GB and 512GB for the Retina MacBook Pro.
You can upgrade the 15in Touch Bar model's hard drive to 512GB (£180), 1TB (£540) or 2TB (£1,260).
The MacBook Air also has either 128GB or 256GB depending on your preference.
The 12-inch MacBook is available with 256GB or 512GB.
The build-to-order options for the new MacBook Pro line include an additional £90 for a 3.1GHz processor or an additional £270 for 3.3GHz and an Intel Core i7 processor. There's also the option to boost to 16GB RAM from the standard 8 by adding £180.
We think that buying a separate hard drive and plugging it in when necessary (or using network attached storage) is a better, and cheaper, solution.
The only Mac laptop to offer a hard drive is the older non-Retina MacBook Pro - this model comes with a 500GB hard drive. The hard drive in this Mac is far slower than the flash drives in the other MacBooks. We would advise anyone buying a Mac to look at a flash drive option.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Which MacBook is fastest?
As Apple's fastest Mac laptop, the 2.6GHz quad-core MacBook Pro may be a good choice for you if you are looking for the fastest Mac. There's even a build to order option of a 2.9GHz quad-core. The quad-core processor in the 15in MacBook Pro means it has double the processor power of the other dual-core Macs. This is likely to make a real difference to processor intensive work.
It's the priciest option, though. We recommend that if you think you want the most speed you can get for your money, find the build-to-order option within your budget that offers the fastest processor.
Find out the difference between i7 and i5 processors here.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Best MacBook for work
You'll get iWork for free when you buy any new Mac laptop, which means you'll be able to use Apple's Pages, Numbers and Keynote applications (the rivals to Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint).
There has been some research that suggests that the bigger the screen the more productive you will be (Monitor Size and Aspect Ration Productivity Research), so it might be best to opt for a 15in MacBook Pro to maximise the effect of the extra screen space.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Best MacBook for designers
If you want to use your MacBook for more powerful tasks like running creative applications, then the MacBook Air and MacBook might not be the best option.
If you're a graphic designer, video editor or photographer, then the likelihood is you'll benefit from a bigger display and a more powerful Mac. There's no longer a 17in MacBook Pro option, but there are 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display models available.
The first MacBook Pro 15-inch has a 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor and costs £2,349. It has 16GB 2133MHz memory and 256GB flash storage.
The second MacBook Pro has a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor and 16GB 2133MHz memory. It has 512GB of flash storage and costs £2,699.
The 2.6GHz model also has a discrete graphics card - the AMD Radeon Pro 450, whereas the 2.7GHz processor with 512GB has the Radeon Pro 455.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Best MacBook for gaming
The Mac is growing in popularity as a gaming machine, especially since the launch of the Mac App Store. Plus, the ability to install Windows via Boot Camp on a Mac means Mac gamers can run Windows games too.
If you want to buy a MacBook for gaming, then we'd recommend the (unfortunately most expensive) high-end MacBook Pro with Retina display. It's got AMD Radeon R9 M370X graphics card, which should enable it to provide the best performance out of all of the MacBooks available, and some Mac desktops.
However, even the Intel graphics in the 13in MacBook Pro models could be sufficient for your gaming needs. The Intel HD Graphics 6100 in the 13in model, and Intel Iris Pro Graphics in the 15in model are plenty fast enough for many of today's games.
Read next: Best Mac games
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Best MacBook for students
We'd suggest that students will have similar needs to business users. They'll want to be able to carry their MacBook to and from lectures, and probably won't need them to be hugely powerful (unless they're on a graphic design or video editing course…).
In that case, we'd suggest the MacBook Air again. Take a look back at the advice we gave at the beginning of this article when discussing portability for more information.
Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Cheapest MacBook
If money is the deciding factor when it comes to buying a MacBook, then the cheapest model available is the 128GB 13in MacBook Air, which costs £949. At £300 more, you can get the 12in MacBook, and add another £200 to that and you can buy the Retina MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.
It's also worth taking a look on Apple's refurbished store, which often has MacBooks available to buy at reduced prices. Apple puts the products in the refurbished store through vigorous testing, so you'll hardly know the difference between a refurbished Mac and a brand new one.
The cheapest MacBook we can see on the Apple refurbished store at time of writing is a March 2015 11in MacBook Air with 128GB flash storage, which has a saving of £130, making it £719.