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.
Read on for a full description and comparison of each MacBook, 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 in June 2017, is Apple’s core Mac laptop.
It’s available in Gold, Silver, Space Grey or Rose Gold. 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
View them online from Apple here.
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 one of the most 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.
Read our review of the 2017 12in MacBook or, if you’d like to compare it to the previous model, our review of 2016’s 12in MacBook.
The MacBook Air is a slim, lightweight laptop with a 13in screen. There are two base configurations available, and both are only available in silver:
- MacBook Air, 13in, 1.8GHz, 128GB: £949
- MacBook Air, 13in, 1.8GHz, 256GB: £1,099
View them online from Apple here.
From there, you can upgrade the processor to 2.2GHz, or up the storage further to 512GB. No matter what, it comes with 8GB RAM.
It’s worth noting that the Air is still using the 2015 model’s Broadwell processor, which means those clock speeds can be misleading – the processors in the Air aren’t as much faster than than the MacBook’s as they look.
The Air probably isn’t powerful enough for most gamers or video editors, but for students, commuters, and casual users, this is a good option – and the cheapest too.
Connectivity is either an upgrade or a downgrade from the MacBook, depending on your perspective. You get more ports to use – MagSafe 2, two USB 3.0 ports, Thunderbolt 2, and an SDXC card slot – but no USB-C, meaning the Air is a bit less future-proof.
There was once an 11in model of the MacBook Air, but that has been discontinued and is no longer available from Apple. It might still be available second-hand from sites like eBay and CEX, though.
And if you’re open to the idea of Air-style laptops from other companies, check our roundup of the best alternatives to the MacBook Air.
Find out more in our review of the latest MacBook Air model.
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 its price (though only on the smaller model).
The Touch Bar is a touchscreen portion of the base 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.
Here’s what the various base specs of the MacBook Pro cost, all of which are available in Silver or Space Grey, except the final one which is just in Silver:
- MacBook Pro 2017 13in (without Touch Bar), 2.3GHz dual-core, 128GB: £1,249
- MacBook Pro 2017 13in (without Touch Bar), 2.3GHz dual-core, 256GB: £1,449
- MacBook Pro 2017 13in (with Touch Bar), 3.1GHz dual-core, 256GB: £1,749
- MacBook Pro 2017 13in (with Touch Bar), 3.1GHz dual-core, 512GB: £1,949
- MacBook Pro 2017 15in (with Touch Bar), 2.8GHz quad-core, 256GB: £2,349
- MacBook Pro 2017 15in (with Touch Bar), 2.9GHz quad-core, 512GB: £2,699
- MacBook Pro 2015 15in (without Touch Bar), 2.2GHz quad-core, 256GB: £1,899
View them all online from Apple here.
Beyond the base configurations, you can upgrade the 13in models up to 16GB RAM and 1TB storage, while potential processor speeds depend on whether you opt for a Touch Bar model or not – the ones with the new feature can get faster chips. The 15in models go up to 2TB storage, and you can also upgrade both the processor and the discrete graphics card.
Those options highlight one of the most important aspects of the current MacBook Pro line: the stark gap between the new 13in and 15in models. Not only do the latter enjoy a larger screen, they also get exclusive quad-core processors and separate Radeon graphics cards. With integrated graphics and dual-core processors, it’s easy to wonder whether the 13in MacBook Pros deserve the ‘Pro’ name at all.
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 ports, while the models with Touch Bar have four. Every model comes with a headphone jack too, but that’s it.
There’s one anomaly here worth mentioning: the 2015 15in model, which hasn’t been updated this year. It’s a cheaper way to get a 15in model, but it’s running on older processor architecture. It can go up to a 2.8GHz processor, 16GB RAM, and a 1TB hard drive, and has an older selection of ports: two Thunderbolt 2, two USB 3.0, HDMI, and SDXC card – but no USB-C.
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 re-designed chassis, the MacBook is actually smaller and lighter by some way – it’s just 0.92kg to the Air’s 1.35kg.
While the 12in screen is slightly smaller than the Air’s, it’s actually higher quality, with a 2304×1440 resolution, while the Air caps out at 1440×900.
If you’re on a budget, the MacBook Air is cheaper, starting at £949 rather than £1,249, and is still perfectly portable, but driven by older tech. You can compare the two in more detail in our MacBook vs MacBook Air comparison review.
Which is best for battery life?
The battery life of the 13in MacBook Air is the highest of any MacBook available. Apple calls it an “all-day battery” but what that means is up to 12 hours of wireless web usage, or 12 hours of non-stop iTunes video watching.
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 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 2TB – though you’ll be paying for it.
The 13in models do almost as well, going up to 1TB (as does the 2015 15in model), while both the MacBook and the MacBook Air cap 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 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 is fastest?
The 15in MacBook Pro is comfortably the fastest laptop in the lineup, going all the way up to a 3.1GHz i7 quad-core option, which when paired with the 16GB of RAM will breeze through most things you throw at it.
The quad-core processor in the 15in MacBook Pro means it has substantially more processor power than the other Macs, which all use dual-core i5 or m3 processors. This is likely to make a real difference to processor intensive work.
It’s the priciest option, though. 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 here.
Best 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), though of course it depends on if you expect to work while travelling a lot, and would then favour the MacBook for its portability.
Best for designers
If you want to use your MacBook for more powerful tasks like running creative applications, then the MacBook Air and MacBook might 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 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 dual-core and limited to integrated graphics, they’re not in the same performance class as their bigger siblings.
Best 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 560 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. The Intel HD Graphics 640 in the 13in model should be plenty fast enough for many of today’s games, though don’t expect to use the highest quality settings.
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 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 suggest the MacBook again, although student budgets might favour the cheaper Air. Take a look back at the advice we gave on portability for more information. You can find out more in our complete guide to buying a Mac for students, and you might also want to check out how to get an Apple education discount.
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. You have to add £300 more to get the 12in MacBook or the cheapest MacBook Pro, and add another £200 to that for the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.
It’s also worth taking 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 – here’s how to decide if a refurbished Mac is a good idea for you.
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