Apple’s laptops have long been held up as a gold standard for portable computers. MacBooks were the first to bring technologies like aluminum unibody construction, super-sharp IPS screens, backlit keyboards, and multitouch trackpads to the mainstream. The problem with Apple’s current lineup is that the company has a variety of models with different capabilities, making it difficult to find the one that’s best for you.
Which Mac portable should you spend your hard-earned money on? Given that you’ll likely pay more for a MacBook than a competing model from HP, Dell, or even Microsoft, it’s important to weigh your options.
Updated July 2019: Apple made some pricing and model changes, so we’ve updated our picks, pricing, and recommendations. Be sure to also check out our latest buying guides, especially our picks for Best iPhone, Best iPad, and Best Laptops.
The Best All-Arounder
The MacBook Air remains the Mac to get. Apple has upgraded the MacBook Air adding the company’s True Tone tech to the Retina display and dropping the price to $1,099.
The new Air is a lot like the new MacBook Pro models, with a sharp, 13-inch Retina display, a responsive trackpad, an improved butterfly keyboard (with a dust shield), surprisingly potent speakers, and two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports for charging and hooking up peripherals. It comes in gold, if that’s your jam.
On the inside is a 1.6 GHz dual-core eighth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, a 128-gigabyte solid state drive, along with up to 16 GB of RAM. Having only two USB-C ports can feel limiting. You’ll need to buy multi-port adapters like this one to plug stuff in and stay charged at the same time.
There are a few things you might miss from higher-end MacBook Pros. Those pricier machines get extra USB-C ports, and faster insides.
The Best For Power Users
The only high-end laptop Apple makes is the 15-inch MacBook Pro. There are two options here, the six-core, eighth-generation Intel Core i7 processor, with 16 GB RAM, and the even more powerful version with an eight-core, ninth-generation Intel Core i9 processor, up to 32 GB RAM, and AMD Radeon graphics. The latter option has the fastest internals and biggest, highest-resolution display of all the MacBooks, making it 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, too. 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 4 terabytes, if you can pony up the $2,700 upgrade fee.
All MacBook Pro’s also feature Apple’s Touch Bar. 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.
Smaller Screen: If 15 inches is too big, you can get a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar for $1,699 ($1,650 at Amazon). You can also deck it out with 16 GB RAM and an Intel Core i7 for $1,799+ (at Apple’s Store).
If the new MacBook Air isn’t powerful enough for your needs, but the 15 inch MacBook Pro is too much, consider the 13-inch MacBook Pro. It might be just right.
In July 2019, Apple canceled the 12-inch MacBook (one of our previous favorite) and effectively replaced it with the new MacBook Air. That leaves the 13-inch MacBook Pro straddling the power and weight divide between the new Air and 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Offering powerful quad-core processors and all-day battery life in a reasonably portable 3-pound package, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro will be the best of both worlds for many people. You get the Touch Bar and a faster chip than the Air, but avoid the extra weight and bulk of the 15-inch model.
The entry level model sports a 1.4 GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, with up to 16-gigabytes of RAM, and a 128 GB solid state drive (configurable to 2 terabytes).
Quirks and Issues to Be Aware of
Unlike previous generations of MacBook, there are eccentricities and problems with Apple’s laptops that you should know about before you buy.
Bland Touch Bar: When Apple debuted the Touch Bar in late 2016, it touted the thin touchscreen strip above the keyboard as the next-generation of user input. Unfortunately, this hasn’t panned out. There seems to be little interest from third-party software designers in doing anything innovative with the tiny display. Those Touch Bar-packing laptops have Touch ID, which lets you log in and access sensitive data with your fingerprint, but what’s been swapped out for that is something you’ll miss: a physical Esc key.
Palmy Trackpad: 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.
Keyboard Killer: The flat style of Apple’s 3rd-generation “butterfly switch” keyboards 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 her keyboard woes for The Outline. WIRED editor Jeffrey Van Camp also has had multiple issues with his 2017 Pro keyboard. Apple now replaces the keyboards for free and has added extra dust guards in the newer models. 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. Apple also recently extended its keyboard repair program to cover repairs on all Macs that have been purchased within the past four years, regardless of warranty status.
Parched for Ports: Then there’s the port situation. All of Apple’s current MacBooks feature one port type: USB-C. It’s a newer port 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
The Old MacBook Air: This slim laptop was groundbreaking when it debuted in 2010. Unfortunately, the MacBook Air didn’t change much until 2018. It sports a dowdy-looking non-Retina screen and weak Intel chips that are years old. It might not require the dongles that a newer MacBook might necessitate, but the newer laptops will undoubtedly feel faster for longer. Don’t let its price tag tempt you—there are way better laptops you can nab for that kind of cash. How to spot it: The older Air has a thick silver border (bezel) around its screen, instead of black glass like the new models.
The Old MacBook Pro: 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. How to spot it: It has standard USB ports and it’s much thicker. The new models only have a few USB-C ports.
12-Inch MacBook: This model was canceled in July 2019. If you find one of the final models and get a good bargain (well under $1,000), it may be worth a look, but we generally recommend you opt for a current model for longevity and better customer support.
Is It a Good Time to Buy?
Yes. Apple updated the processor option for its top of the line MacBook Pro in May 2019 and refreshed the Air and entry model MacBook Pro’s in July. Apple is unlikely to bump any of these again until later this year—possibly well into 2020.
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 coffee spill 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 minimum $99 service fee later and whatever you did to kill your shiny new Mac is undone and you’re back to hammering away on your keyboard.