Deciding exactly when to buy a new laptop can prove tricky. With cash in your pocket, you can make an impulsive decision to buy now or hang on in the hope that a newer, higher-speced, slimmer, lighter, more feature-packed model will become available in the not too distant future. Despite the constant rumours and occasional leaks, with Apple it’s always a guessing game as to when its new, shiny MacBooks are let loose in the wild. However, with the company updating the range in October 2012 with the introduction of the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, now is as good a time as any to think about investing in a new computer. Here, then, are a few questions to answer and factors you need to consider before parting with your hard-earned cash.
Apple’s MacBook range currently offers just two options – the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. That may not sound like much of a choice, but each comes in a range of sizes and configurations to suit all requirements; from casual users simply browsing the internet to creative professionals and business-focused road warriors. Apple touts the MacBook Air as the everyday notebook thanks to its portability; the 11in entry-level model isn’t much bigger than an iPad and is ideal for anyone who travels a lot. The MacBook Pro, as its name suggests, is for those seeking to get more out of their Mac, including the option to select a slimmer model with a beautiful high-resolution MacBook Pro with Retina display.
Read our Best Mac buyers guide
To determine which MacBook will best suit your needs, you must assess what’s most important to you. Do you need a lot of storage, or is speed the most important factor? What will you be using the Mac for? Answer these questions and you are on your way to finding your perfect Mac.
Does Mac screen size matter?
Apple currently offers the MacBook in three sizes – 11.6in and 13.3in for the Air, and 13.3in and 15.4in for the MacBook Pro; all measured diagonally. Apple quietly dropped the 17in MacBook Pro earlier this year.
Size does matter here, but it comes down to personal preferences and having some hands-on experience will help make that choice a good one. If you can happily work on a smaller screen, and many iPad users do, the entry-level Air is a good and cheaper option. Equally, the larger MacBook Pro is a fine, though premium, choice for anyone who needs room to work and create.
Screen size also has an impact on both weight and bulk. The 11.6in Air, for instance, weighs 1.08kg compared with 2kg for the 15.4in MacBook Pro. If your laptop rarely leaves home or is seemingly superglued to your desktop, weight and size will be low on your list of priorities. If, however, you plan to take your MacBook everywhere along with any accessories, you may have to road test the larger models.
Alternatively, for your main work area, you can hook any MacBook up to an external screen, or projector and keyboard while the internal display is closed without much fuss.
Which Mac? Storage options
Like screen size, storage is another area that depends on your needs. Do you have a lot of software, photos, music and videos you need to cram onto your Mac? Or would you opt for less storage if it might speed things up? Some MacBooks come with faster solid-state drives (flash storage). This offers significant speed and performance improvements over traditional hard drives, which are also more likely to fail. MacBooks offer anywhere between 64GB and 768GB flash storage. However, even for an infrequent user, 64GB isn’t much. While a power-user can filled up 768GB quickly with creative work such as photo and video editing and music making. Plus, at £640 more than the 128GB option, 768GB is certainly a pricy choice.
Alternatively, opt for a MacBook Pro without the Retina display and you can get a old-fashioned 1TB hard drive as a build-to-order option.
Another option would be to get an external hard drive and extend your storage that way. Also worthy of note, you may find that many of the documents you create can be saved to the cloud. Either way, external storage should be part of any MacBook budget you might have.
In the future there may be the additional option of a Fusion Drive to consider. The Fusion Drive, which is currently available as an option for the new iMac and both Mac mini models, is a hybrid drive that merges a 128GB flash drive with a hard drive - all into a single volume.
Power and purpose
Earlier this year when refreshing the MacBook range, Apple highlighted the latest Intel Core i7 quad-core processors as a key feature of the MacBook Pro with Retina display. Both the regular MacBook Pro and the Air also benefit from Intel Core i5 and i7, dual- and quad-core processors. You can add extra memory (RAM), which increases performance and enables your computer to run more programs at the same time, although the smaller Air has limited upgradeability, 8GB from 4GB, which must be selected at time of purchase.
We strongly recommend that you select the option for extra storage as it will future-proof your Mac as applications become more and more memory heavy. You’ll notice the difference when whizzing through your iPhoto library.
Spreading the cost
As you might expect, pricing varies considerably, the cheapest MacBook Air is available for £849, which the most costly off-the-shelf MacBook Pro is a sizable £1,799. For some, particularly those switching from a Windows-based computer, even the cheapest option can seem excessive. For Mac newbies, Apple offers a persuasive guide and 'Frequently Answered Questions' explaining why the move from PC is a good and value for money one.
While you can happily shop around, MacBook bargains are relatively thin on the ground, with retailers maintaining prices consistent with those being offered by Apple. Extra value deals can still be found though – a two-year guarantee included as standard by John Lewis for instance – while others will bundle or discount accessories such as Microsoft Office or laptop bags.
Apple’s online store maintains an Apple Certified Refurbished section where you can browse a selection of discounted Macs, iPads and iPods. Discounts of up to 30 per cent, are listed alongside each model, as well as the date they were originally released. All include a one-year warranty and in our experience have been delivered in good health and fine condition.
Amazon and eBay are also worth considering, although where possible opt for new, discounted MacBooks rather than those listed as used. It’s worth remembering that if you are a student, teacher, lecturer, administrator or other staff member in education, you qualify for special discounted pricing on Macs, software and some third-party products.
Apple and other retailers will allow you to spread the cost of buying a MacBook with financing deals. The company offers customers payment plans over several years, typically 24, 36 or 48 monthly payments; currently at 14.9 per cent APR. As of writing, the 13.3in entry-level MacBook Pro at £999 would set you back around £1,151. Like all financing deals read the small print carefully. Apple provides a 'Terms and conditions' PDF online, and offers a freephone number – 0800 048 0408 – to put your mind to rest.
Build your own MacBook
If you are still undecided, want a bit more speed, power and storage, or hope to future-proof your investment further, then consider opting for a customised ‘built-to-order’ MacBook. You can upgrade the memory, hard drive, processor speed and pre-installed software, but choice is limited compared to desktop Macs due to the compact design of the laptops. When ordering you will be faced with various options.
If you are still not sure about which MacBook might be best for you, any good retailer should offer sound advice and talk you through the options currently available. Staff at Apple Stores across the UK, Apple Premium Resellers and Apple Solution Experts will be on hand to help. Plus, the company’s retail outlets promise you can ‘test-drive any Apple product,’ a claim well worth pursuing, although it’s a good idea planning ahead with an idea of any questions you might want answered.
If you’re unlucky enough not to live anywhere near any of the above, high street retailers, and the likes of PC World (which has its own dedicated Mac area), while possibly not the best place for Apple advice will at least be able to demonstrate MacBooks in the flesh to compare screen sizes, and more.
Which Mac is fastest?
To test the overall performance of each Mac, Macworld Lab uses the Speedmark 7 benchmark tool. Speedmark uses real-world applications and tasks that everyone from a high-end user to a new user performs every day. Macworld Lab follows a detailed script to perform 17 tasks. Each Mac performs each task three times. We compare the results to those of a Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. We then take the geometric mean of the normalised scores to arrive at our final Speedmark score. Higher Speedmark scores are better.