Best MacBook iMore 2021
Here at iMore, we've used many MacBooks (and even desktop Macs) throughout the years, so we definitely put them through the paces. But with so many different MacBook models available these days, how do you know which one to get? It depends entirely on who you are and what you need a MacBook for. Whether you're just a casual user who needs to browse the web and check email, or if you're a power user who requires a lot of horsepower, we know which MacBook suits your needs. For most people, the MacBook Air with M1 is the best MacBook because it's lightweight, powerful, has all-day battery life, and you can't beat the price.
Best overall: MacBook Air with M1
The MacBook Air with M1, which is not only our favorite Mac laptop, but also our favorite overall Mac, features Apple's M1 system-on-a-chip (SoC), which has the CPU, GPU, RAM, and T2 combined into a single processor chip. The base model MacBook Air features an 8-core M1 chip with four performance cores and four efficiency cores.
However, the base model starts with a 7-core GPU, while the higher-end version has an 8-core GPU. The M1 MacBook Air has outstanding battery life over its predecessors, with Apple promising at least 15 hours of web usage and 18 hours of video playback. Of course, your mileage will vary, but it's a big improvement over previous Intel-based MacBook Airs.
Speaking of performance, the new MacBook Air with M1 can actually outperform a 16-inch MacBook Pro from 2019. The M1 chip is nothing to sneeze at, that's for sure. And because it's so much more power-efficient, the MacBook Air doesn't even need fans — there are zero fans inside the machine, so it's going to be super quiet while being able to handle anything you throw at it. However, if things are too resource-intensive, the MacBook Air will begin to throttle since there are no fans to prevent overheating.
The base model MacBook Air features an 8-core M1 chip with four performance cores and four efficiency cores.
And even though the MacBook Air is the cheapest MacBook, you aren't missing out on any features. The MacBook Air with M1 still has a Retina display at 2560x1600 resolution at 227 pixels per inch (PPI), Touch ID (for unlocking your computer and using Apple Pay online), the much-improved scissor-switch keyboard, and it's still thin enough to fit inside a manila envelope.
Though you don't get the much-loved MagSafe (RIP) charging port, you do get two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports instead, along with the 3.5mm headphone jack. That means 40Gbps high-speed data transfer so you can move photos, videos, and huge documents between hard drives or other computers lickety-split. The base model of the MacBook Air now starts with a 256GB SSD, and you can configure it up to 2TB. The RAM on the M1 SoC starts at 8GB, but you can bump it up to 16GB if needed. Unfortunately, the M1 can not go beyond 16GB at this time, and you won't be able to add your own RAM later since the RAM is now on the M1 SoC.
- Most affordable MacBook
- Uses Apple's blazingly fast M1 SoC
- Long-lasting battery life
- Retina display with Touch ID
- Has scissor-switch keyboard
- Only two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports
- RAM caps out at 16GB
Best for portable power: 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1
The 13-inch MacBook Pro also received a major upgrade, alongside the MacBook Air. It now features Apple's M1 SoC as well, and it starts with the 8-core M1 chip, which means four cores are for performance, and the rest are for power efficiency.
And unlike the MacBook Air with M1, it starts with an 8-core GPU. With the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1, just like the 13-inch MacBook Air, you get 2560x1600 resolution Retina display and up to 16GB of RAM, and 2TB of storage.
The only real big difference between the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air is that the Pro has the Touch Bar with Touch ID, and battery life is around 20 hours (versus 18 hours with the Air). If you don't necessarily care for the Touch Bar or think that two hours of battery life makes that much of a difference, you can honestly save some money and get a MacBook Air with M1 instead. Keep in mind that the Pro also has fans to prevent overheating (the Air is fanless), which is helpful if you plan to do resource-intensive work.
- Has Apple M1 SoC
- Touch Bar with Touch ID
- 20-hour battery life
- Retina display
- Scissor-switch keyboard
- Not much different from MacBook Air with M1
- Maxes out at 16GB RAM
- Only has two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports
Best for pros: 16-inch MacBook Pro
For the pro on the go, there's the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which packs in a bigger screen with fewer bezels in the familiar chassis of the previous 15-inch. This laptop workhorse can support up to 8-cores of Intel's latest Coffee Lake refresh processor chip with turbo boosts of up to 4.8GHz and SSD read speeds of up to 3.2Gbps. It has four Thunderbolt 3 ports (the most in the entire Mac laptop line) and can be spec'd out to as much as 64GB of memory and an 8TB SSD hard drive with Radeon Pro 5300M or 5500M graphics with up to 8GB of GDDR6 memory. It's fast. It's powerful. It'll sing for you while it renders your videos (not literally).
Just keep in mind that the 16-inch MacBook Pro is a little dated at this point since it does not have Apple's M1 SoC inside, which has been proven to outclass Intel processors. But you still get the biggest screen on a MacBook, compatibility with software that doesn't run on M1 Macs, and the most Thunderbolt 3 ports.
However, if you can wait just a little longer, we expect a refresh on the 16-inch MacBook Pro with an updated M1X chip at the 'Unleashed' event on Oct. 18, 2021.
- Latest Intel processor (9th-gen) with up to 8-cores and advanced GPUs
- Return to scissor-switch keyboard
- Starts at 512GB SSD, configurable to 8TB
- Starts at 16GB RAM, configurable to 64GB
- Touch ID, Touch Bar, and Retina Display with True Tone
- Most expensive model
- Heaviest (4 lbs)
- No M1
Best for versatility: 13-inch MacBook Pro (4 Thunderbolt 3 ports)
The four Thunderbolt 3 port 13-inch MacBook Pro starts about $500 higher than the base M1 model with two ports, but those extra ports may be the most important thing you'll need. It has the highest-quality Retina display with 3DPI wide-color gamut, four high-speed Thunderbolt 3 ports for 40Gbps data transfer, and an ultra-fast processor chip with Intel's 10th-generation i5 with quad cores.
It starts with a 512GB SSD and 16GB of RAM and configurable up to 4TB SSD of storage and 32GB of RAM. And you also get the updated backlit Magic Keyboard that uses the scissor-switch mechanism instead of the butterfly, so you won't find a better typing experience.
If you're going to be plugging in more than two peripherals that need Thunderbolt 3's fast data transfer capabilities, you're going to want to spend the extra money on those extra ports on the higher-end 13-inch MacBook Pro. Just be aware that these models do not have an M1 variant and are only available with Intel processors.
- Ultra-fast storage
- High-speed data transfer
- Retina Display
- Updated backlit Magic Keyboard
- More expensive
- No M1 version
The best for most is the MacBook Air with M1
The MacBook Air with M1 is the best overall MacBook for most people. Thanks to Apple's M1 SoC, you are getting the blazing fast performance of Apple silicon, which can even outperform the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro. And since the eight cores in the M1 chip are optimized for performance and efficiency, Apple even took out the fan, so you're getting nothing but pure silence with the MacBook Air.
Add in the fact that you get 18 hours of battery life and a sharp Retina display with Touch ID, the new MacBook Air can certainly go a very long way, and it's the most affordable MacBook right now. It's also incredibly thin (so it can fit pretty much any of the best cases or great sleeves out there, making it the perfect travel companion!
Just keep in mind that a limitation of Apple's new M1 chips means that you won't be able to upgrade beyond 16GB of memory right now. And Apple MacBooks haven't been self-upgradeable for years, so there is no way to get past that 16GB RAM limitation. The MacBook Air also doesn't have a Touch Bar, so if you're itching for that, then you should consider the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 instead.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Christine Romero-Chan has been using Macs for over a decade and has a pretty good idea of how computers work. While she doesn't have every MacBook there is, she has quite a few of them and knows how to maximize every one.
Lory Gil is iMore's former managing editor and has extensive knowledge of the MacBook lineup. Though she doesn't own every single MacBook ever, she's got a pretty decent-sized pile building up.
Rene Ritchie is iMore's resident Apple analyst and has studied every aspect of every MacBook. He puts his MacBooks through their paces and knows exactly what each one's limits are.
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