If you're thinking about buying a new MacBook, 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 has four different laptop options: MacBook, MacBook Air, 13in MacBook Pro and 15in MacBook Pro. Some of the Pro models were updated in July 2018, but the entry-level 13in MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar) and 12in MacBook were not. Apple did however update the MacBook Air.
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. And if you're on a budget, turn here: Best cheap Macs.
Let's start with the MacBook - not Air or Pro, just plain MacBook. The 12in MacBook, first introduced in April 2015 and refreshed most recently in June 2017, is Apple's smallest and lightest Mac laptop.
It's available in Gold, Silver, or Space Grey (Apple removed the Rose Gold version from the line up on 30 October 2018). Colour choices aside, there are two base models to choose from:
- MacBook, 12in, 1.2GHz, 256GB: £1,249
- MacBook, 12in, 1.3GHz, 512GB: £1,549
If you want you can upgrade the processor to 1.4GHz, while you can also choose between either 8GB or 16GB of RAM.
While the clock speeds are only slightly higher than those featured in 2016's 12in MacBooks, they should be faster in practice thanks to more modern Kaby Lake processor architecture. The RAM is faster, too: 1866MHz, up from 1600MHz in 2015.
The energy-efficient chips also help with battery life, adding up to an hour more than their predecessors: 10 hours of web use, or 12 hours of movie watching, with 30 days of standby - at least according to Apple.
While this is the lightest and perhaps prettiest MacBook available, it's also expensive, and - while the new processors have closed the gap - they remain relatively low-powered for the price.
The other major downside is that it includes just a single USB-C port for both charging and data transfer. USB-C is the new standard of USB that will soon be widespread, but for now there's an awkward transition phase during which you'll need adapters (and they don't come cheap) in order to use some accessories and peripherals.
While it is an utter joy to look at, and nice to use, we still feel it costs too much for too little, although for the average user the specs are more than sufficient.
The MacBook Air is a slim, lightweight laptop with a 13.3in screen. Apple announced that it was updating the MacBook Air on 30 October, with units going on sale on 7 November 2018. If you want to buy one you can view the MacBook Air range from Apple here.
- 2018 MacBook Air, 13in, 1.8GHz, 128GB: £1,199
- 2018 MacBook Air, 13in, 1.8GHz, 256GB: £1,399
Prices are higher than they were previously, but Apple is still selling the 2015 MacBook Air for £949.
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 1.5TB for an extra £1,000.
It's worth noting that the 2015 MacBook Air (reviewed here, sometimes referred to as the 2017 model) that is still on sale is using the 2014-2015 Broadwell processor, which means that while that model has a 1.8GHz processor, the clock speeds are not in anyway faster than the newer models.
While the Air probably still isn't powerful enough for gamers or video editors, but for students, commuters, and casual users, it should be 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, Thunderbold 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. USB A at least remains on the older 2015 MacBook Air that is still on sale, for now...
There's quite a lot of choice in the MacBook Pro range, with two different screen sizes available as well as the option to forgo the Touch Bar in order to reduce the price of the 13in model. However, it should be noted that these non-touch bar models haven't changed since they launched in 2017, while the other models were updated with 8th-generation Coffee Lake processors in July 2018.
The Touch Bar is a touchscreen portion of the keyboard of the MacBook Pro 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 touch-screen you can get on a Mac.
Here's what the various base specs of the MacBook Pro cost, all of which are available in Silver or Space Grey.
- MacBook Pro 2017 13in (without Touch Bar), 7th-gen 2.3GHz dual-core, 128GB: £1,249/£1,299
- MacBook Pro 2017 13in (without Touch Bar), 7th-gen 2.3GHz dual-core, 256GB: £1,449$1,499
- MacBook Pro 2018 13in (with Touch Bar), 8th-gen 2.3GHz quad-core, 256GB: £1,749/$1,799
- MacBook Pro 2018 13in (with Touch Bar), 8th-gen 2.3GHz quad-core, 512GB: £1,949/$1,999
- MacBook Pro 2018 15in (with Touch Bar), 8th-gen 2.2GHz 6-core, 256GB: £2,349/$2,399
- MacBook Pro 2018 15in (with Touch Bar), 8th-gen 2.6GHz 6-core, 512GB: £2,699/$2,799
The non-Touch Bar 13in Pros have dual-core Kaby Lake processors, while the newer models now have quad-core Coffee Lake processors. The 15in versions now feature a six-core Coffee Lake processor (pervious generations maxed out at four cores). All the Touch Bar models now have True Tone displays and include the T2 chip first seen in the iMac Pro.
Beyond the base configurations, you can upgrade the 13in models up to 16GB RAM and 2TB storage, while potential processor speeds depend on whether you opt for a Touch Bar model or not. In the 2018 line up, the 15in models go up to an insane 4TB storage (for an even more insane extra £2,880 at point of purchase), and you can also upgrade both the processor and the discrete graphics card. The 13in has a i7 processor build-to-order option while the 15in now has a Core i9 processor option.
Apple exclusively puts more powerful Radeon Pro discrete graphics cards in the 15in. The 13in models all have integrated Intel GPUs included. New graphics card options will be available from late November 2018. Apple has promised that the Radeon Pro Vega 16 with 4GB of HBM2 memory and Radeon Pro Vega 20 with 4GB of HBM2 memory are on their way.
The MacBook Pro shares the MacBook's reliance on USB-C, but at least has a few additional options: the non-Touch Bar models have two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, while the models with Touch Bar have four. Every model comes with a headphone jack too, but that's it.
In July 2018 Apple also finally stopped selling the £1,899 2015 MacBook Pro, bringing the range entirely into the USB-C era - no MacBook Pro Apple now sells has a USB-A port.
The 12in MacBook is the lightest and thinnest MacBook available. However, there are sacrifices to be made in terms of power, as you'd expect given the form factor. The single USB-C port is also a downside, especially if you rely on peripherals when using your laptop on-the-go. It's also one of the most expensive Macs, so not one for the budget-conscious.
The name might suggest the MacBook Air would trump on portability, but thanks to the smaller 12in screen and compact chassis, the MacBook is actually smaller and lighter by some way - it's just 0.92kg to the Air's 1.25kg (down from 1.35kg in the 2015 model).
While the 12in screen is slightly smaller than the Air's, at least now that the Air has a Retina display, the quality is better matched. The MacBook has a 2304x1440 resolution display at 226 pixels per inch while the 2018 MacBook Air has 2560x1600 native resolution at 227 pixels per inch. The old Air maxed out at 1440x900.
If you're on a budget, the 2018 MacBook Air is slightly cheaper than the MacBook, starting at £1,199 rather than £1,249, and is still perfectly portable. The old MacBook Air is even cheaper at £949, bit it's old tech. You can compare the two in more detail in our MacBook vs MacBook Air comparison review.
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 where 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 is second-best, with 10 hours of wireless web but 12 hours of video, while the MacBook Pro manages 10 hours of each. 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 15in MacBook Pro is the only way to go, giving you storage options all the way up to 4TB - though you'll be paying for it.
The 13in MacBook Pro goes up to 2TB, the 2018 MacBook Air has a build-to-order 1.5TB option, while both the MacBook caps out at 512GB.
Every MacBook now comes with SSD (flash) storage as standard, and you can no longer buy one with a traditional mechanical hard drive.
You might even 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 15in MacBook Pro is comfortably the fastest laptop in the lineup, going all the way up to a 2.9GHz i9 six-core option, which when paired with the 16GB of RAM will breeze through most things you throw at it.
The six-core processor in the 15in MacBook Pro means it has substantially more processor power than the other MacsBooks. The 13in MacBook Pro gained quad-core processors in the 2018 models, but the older MacBook Pros without Touch Bar, the 2018 MacBook Air and the MacBook use dual-core processors. This is likely to make a real difference to processor intensive work.
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.
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 15in 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, now it's been updated could be a good option. Of course it depends if you expect to work while travelling a lot, and would then favour the MacBook for its portability.
Best Mac laptop for designers
If you want to use your MacBook for more powerful tasks like running creative applications, then the MacBook Air and MacBook would not be the best options.
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 15in 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 555 or 560. They also have i7 quad-core 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. However, we did test one with an eGPU and were impressed by the boost received, so if that would suit you, then don't rule out the 13in model.
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) 15in MacBook Pro. It's got AMD Radeon Pro 555X or 560X graphics card with 4GB VRAM, 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 - if you ignore the non-Touch Bar models. The Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655 in the 2018 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, you can buy one from Apple here. (Read about how to use an eGPU with your Mac here.)
Realistically, the MacBook and MacBook Air just aren't powerful enough for most modern games - though could be enough if you only want to play older titles or less intensive indie games.
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 2018 MacBook Air, or the MacBook, although student budgets might favour the cheaper non-Retina version of the Air - but note that that Air has not been updated since 2015. 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 £949 - but remember that is using aging components so it's not very future proofed. You could spend another £250, or another £50 to get the 12in MacBook or the cheapest MacBook Pro, and add another £200 to that for the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.
However, we'd recommend that rather than buy that older £949 MacBook Air you take 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 (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.