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- > Which Mac laptop is best for battery life?
- > Which Mac laptop is best for storage?
- > Which Mac laptop is fastest?
- > Best Mac laptop for work
- > Best Mac laptop for designers
- > Best Mac laptop for gaming
- > Best Mac laptop for students
If you're thinking about buying a new MacBook - MacBook Pro or MacBook Air - you've probably already realised that the decision between Apple's Mac laptop options is not as easy as it first seems. Our MacBook buying guide will help you decide which model is best for you.
Apple currently sells three different laptop options: MacBook Air, 13in MacBook Pro and 16in MacBook Pro. Read on for a full description and comparison of each Mac laptop, and our recommendation about which types of buyer each model is best for. We also discuss the various sizes and configurations of each MacBook, to help you make your final buying decision.
If you're not sure yet if you want a laptop or desktop, you should also read our Mac buying guide, which covers both MacBooks and Apple's desktop Macs.
The MacBook Air is a slim, lightweight laptop with a 13.3in screen. Apple updated the MacBook Air on 30 October 2018, and tweaked it again in July 2019 to add True Tone displays and remove some old models, but predominantly to reduce the price. If you want to buy one you can view the MacBook Air range from Apple here.
- 2018 MacBook Air, 13in, 1.6GHz, 128GB: £1,099/$1,099
- 2018 MacBook Air, 13in, 1.6GHz, 256GB: £1,299/$1,299
There is no option to upgrade the processor from 1.6GHz, but you can choose 16GB RAM as a build-to-order option. And you can up the storage further to 1TB for an extra £400/$400.
While the Air probably still isn't powerful enough for gamers or video editors, but for students, commuters, and casual users, it is a good option - and the cheapest too.
Connectivity is limited; it's a small and thin laptop so you sacrifice some ports. You get two Thunderbolt 3 (USB‑C) ports, which support DisplayPort monitors, Thunderbolt and USB C, as well as being a means to charge the laptop. There will be disappointment that MagSafe 2, the two USB 3.0 ports, and the SDXC card slot are long gone.
There was once an 11in model of the MacBook Air, but that was discontinued a long time ago, and is no longer available from Apple. It might still be available second-hand from sites like eBay and CEX, though.
The MacBook Pro range gives you the option of two different screen sizes. In November 2019 the larger of the two got a slight bump in size, so the options are now 13in and 16in. Read our MacBook Pro 16in review for more info on that.
All the MacBook Pro models currently available now feature a Touch Bar - a touchscreen portion of the keyboard that replaces the function keys. Its display changes depending on the task you are undertaking, and it is fully customisable too. It also features Touch ID, bringing fingerprint security to the Mac following its introduction to the iPhone and iPad. It's the closest to a touchscreen you can get on a Mac.
Here's what the various base specs of the MacBook Pro cost. All are available in silver or Space Grey.
- MacBook Pro 2019 13in, 8th-gen 1.4GHz quad-core Core i5, 128GB: £1,299/$1,299
- MacBook Pro 2019 13in, 8th-gen 1.4GHz quad-core Core i5, 256GB: £1,499/$1,499
- MacBook Pro 2019 13in, 8th-gen 2.4GHz quad-core Core i5, 256GB: £1,799/$1,799
- MacBook Pro 2019 13in, 8th-gen 2.4GHz quad-core Core i5, 512GB: £1,999/$1,999
- MacBook Pro 2019 16in, 9th-gen 2.6GHz 6-core Core i7, 512GB: £2,399/$2,399
- MacBook Pro 2019 16in, 9th-gen 2.3GHz 8-core Core i9, 1TB: £2,799/$2,799
Beyond the base configurations, you can upgrade the 13in models up to 16GB RAM and 2TB storage. The 16in models go up to an insane 8TB storage (an extra £1,980/$2,200), and you can also upgrade the processor, the RAM and the discrete graphics card.
Apple exclusively puts more powerful Radeon Pro discrete graphics cards in the 16in. The 13in models all have integrated Intel GPUs included so get the 16in model if you need to do intensive tasks such as video editing.
The MacBook Pro shares the MacBook's reliance on USB-C, but at least has a few additional options: the 1.4GHz 13in models have two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, while the rest have four. Every model comes with a headphone jack too, but that's it. All models now have True Tone displays and include the T2 chip first seen in the iMac Pro.
The 12in MacBook was the lightest and thinnest MacBook that Apple has sold, but since being discontinued in July 2019 it can now be bought second-hand only (we suggest the Refurbished Store or eBay). And even if you're prepared to buy an older unit, be aware that there are sacrifices to be made in terms of power, and the single USB-C port is also a downside, especially if you rely on peripherals when using your laptop on the go.
If you're set on buying one of Apple's current laptops, the best choice for portability is the MacBook Air, which isn't much bigger or heavier than the MacBook was.
Which Mac laptop is best for battery life?
The battery life of the 13in MacBook Air was always the highest of any MacBook available. Apple calls it an "all-day battery". The company still makes the same claim, but whereas before Apple claimed 12 hours of wireless web usage, now it only claims 10 hours. It can still manage 12 hours of non-stop iTunes video watching, though.
The MacBook Pro 13in is rated at 10 hours for both wireless web and video. (For comparison, the discontinued MacBook was rated at 10 hours of the former but 12 hours of the latter.) The 16in model is rated at 11 hours. Every model can last 30 days on standby.
It's worth noting that all of these are based on Apple's battery tests, and not our own - but either way, there's not a huge amount between the various MacBooks when it comes to battery.
Which Mac laptop is best for storage?
If you have serious storage needs, the 16in MacBook Pro is the only way to go, giving you storage options all the way up to 8TB - but the price will reflect this.
The 13in MacBook Pro goes up to 2TB, while the 2018 MacBook Air has a build-to-order 1TB option.
Every MacBook comes with SSD (flash) storage as standard; you can no longer buy one with a old-fashioned mechanical hard drive.
You might find that you don't need to opt for lots of built-in storage. Buying a separate external hard drive and plugging it in when necessary (or using network attached storage) is a much cheaper solution, or you can just opt for cloud storage services to take the strain off your local storage.
Which Mac laptop is fastest?
The 16in MacBook Pro is comfortably the fastest laptop in the lineup, going all the way up to a build-to-order 2.4GHz i9 eight-core option, which when paired with the standard 16GB of RAM - or 64GB RAM for the ultimate machine - will breeze through most things you throw at it. The 9th-gen six-core processor in the cheaper 16in MacBook Pro still has substantially more processor power than the other MacBooks.
The 13in MacBook Pro gained quad-core processors in the 2018 models, then a speed bump in 2019, while the 2018 MacBook Air uses dual-core processors. This is likely to make a real difference in processor-intensive work.
Find out the difference between i9, i7 and i5 processors.
Best Mac laptop 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).
If you expect to be working directly off the laptop extensively, you might want to opt for the 16in MacBook Pro purely for the extra screen real estate, but if you'll be hooking the laptop up to an external monitor on your desk then screen size doesn't matter anyway.
You'll then probably want to opt for the 13in Pro, for both the improved power and the larger number of ports (even if they are all USB-C/Thunderbolt 3), although the MacBook Air could also be a good option.
Best Mac laptop for designers
If you want to use your MacBook for more powerful tasks such as running creative applications, then the MacBook Air would 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 the 16in MacBook Pro models are still a good choice.
They're the only MacBooks that don't use integrated graphics, instead giving you a choice between a Radeon Pro 5300M or 5500M. They also have 9th-gen processors, ideal for more intensive image and video processing.
The 13in MacBook Pro models might seem like an appealing way to save money, but be warned: because they're limited to integrated graphics, they're not in the same performance class as their bigger siblings.
Read more here: Best Mac for designers.
Best Mac laptop for gaming
The Mac game library is growing, especially since the launch of the Mac App Store and the announcement of SteamVR support at WWDC 2017. 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) 16in MacBook Pro. It's got an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M or 5500M graphics card with 4GB VRAM (upgradable to 8GB), which should enable it to provide the best performance out of all of the MacBooks available, even beating some Mac desktops.
However, even the Intel graphics in the 13in MacBook Pro models could be sufficient for your gaming needs. The Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655 in the 2018/2019 13in models should be plenty fast enough for many of today's games, though don't expect to use the highest quality settings. You also have the option of an external eGPU - that could cost you around $699/£599, and you can buy one from Apple here. (Read about how to use an eGPU with your Mac.)
Realistically, the MacBook Air just isn't powerful enough for most modern games - although it could be enough if you only want to play older titles or less intensive indie games.
Read more here: Best Mac for gaming.
Best Mac laptop 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 probably suggest the MacBook Air. Take a look back at the advice we gave on portability for more information. You can find out more in our guide to buying a Mac for students, and you might also want to check out how to get an Apple education discount.
Cheapest Mac laptop
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 £1,099/$1,099.
However, we'd also recommend that you take a look on Apple's refurbished store, which often has Mac laptops 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 (plus you still get the standard year's guarantee on your purchase) - here's how to decide if a refurbished Mac is a good idea for you. We also have a separate article about the best Mac laptop deals.