Everything You Need to Know to Decide Which MacBook is the Best MacBook for You

Everything You Need to Know to Decide Which MacBook is the Best MacBook for You
Image: Apple

The MacBook lineup has just expanded with brand new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros available to buy. But there’s also the existing MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, and they all run on custom-made Apple Silicon chips, all with various configurations available when you buy them direct from Apple. So which of these next-gen Apple laptops is the one for you?

The newest Pro laptops are, as expected, a substantial step up from the MacBook Air in power and in price (the Air is also a year older, of course). What you need to decide is whether the extra investment is worth it — and unless you’re working on seriously demanding tasks, it might not be. But keep in mind that the MacBook Air is likely to get a refresh at some point in 2022.

Here are the differences between each MacBook you can buy right now, and how to pick which one is the best one for you.

MacBook Air (2020)

Launched in November 2020, the current MacBook Air is the first of Apple’s MacBook lineup to come with one of Apple’s own processors inside — in this case, the M1. The M1’s 8-core CPU is up to 3.5x faster than the previous generation MacBook Air running on an Intel chip, according to Apple. It’s joined by a 7-core or 8-core GPU on the same M1 system-on-chip,depending on the configuration you go for, and a 16-core Neural Engine.

The Air is the slimmest, smallest MacBook Apple makes right now, with a 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1600 pixel display (227 pixels per inch) that offers a maximum brightness of 400 nits. The overall dimensions are 11.97 inches x 8.36 inches x 0.63 inches, and the laptop weighs in at 1 kg.

Image: Apple Image: Apple

With that size, there’s only room for one headphone jack and two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports — maybe one reason why the MacBook Air may not be the MacBook for you. The laptop can support one external display (up to a 6K resolution and 60Hz refresh rate). On the audio side, you’ve got two stereo speakers here with Dolby Atmos support.

Other specs to know about are the support for Wi-Fi 6 and the 720p integrated webcam built into the bezels around the display. Apple claims that you can get up to 18 hours of battery life from the MacBook Air, as long as you’re not pushing it too hard, and its lengthy battery life was confirmed by our review. In terms of colours, there’s the standard space grey and silver, but also a gold option that’s unique to the Air.

Image: Apple Image: Apple

There are two starting configurations to pick from: The cheapest A$1,499 option has the M1 chip with the 7-core GPU, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. You can go up to 16GB of RAM (add A$300), as well as increase the internal storage to 512GB (add A$300), 1TB (add A$600), or 2TB (add A$1,200). The most expensive configuration at this level will set you back A$2,999.

The other configuration starts at A$1,849, which gets you the M1 chip with the 8-core GPU, 8GB of RAM, and 512GB of internal storage. If you want to boost the specs, you can get 16GB of RAM for an extra A$300, and choose from a couple of storage upgrades: 1TB for an additional A$300 and 2TB for an additional A$900. Go for the 16GB and 2TB combination and you’re paying A$3,049, the most expensive MacBook Air option at the moment.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020)

The 13-inch MacBook Pro was launched alongside the latest MacBook Air in November 2020, although it now feels a little underpowered next to the next-gen 14-inch and 16-inch models. You get the top-end M1, with an 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, and 16-core Neural Engine, offering 2.8x the performance of the previous generation 13-inch MacBook Pro. It’s worth noting that unlike the MacBook Air, this laptop has active fan cooling, potentially enabling higher performance.

As with the MacBook Air, this MacBook Pro sports a 13.3-inch screen with a 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution (227 pixels per inch). The maximum brightness gets a boost to 500 nits though, while the dimensions are similar to the Air overall, just without the tapering: It measures 11.97 inches x 8.36 inches x 0.61 inches, and tips the scales at 1 kg.

Image: Apple Image: Apple

The ports match the MacBook Air, with a headphone jack and two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, and again one external display with up to a 6K resolution and 60Hz refresh rate can be powered. You get stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos support, and you also get the infamous Touch Bar above the keyboard. This is likely to be the last ever MacBook to sport the Touch Bar, so if you love that feature, this is probably the MacBook to buy.

As with the MacBook Air, there’s Wi-Fi 6 and the 720p integrated webcam with no notch. Apple says that 20 hours of battery life between charges is possible with the 13-inch MacBook Pro, assuming you’re not going to be doing too much with it besides watching videos, so it’s another impressive performer in the battery department. As with all the Pro models, you can pick from space grey and silver.

Image: Apple Image: Apple

You get two choices when you configure a 13-inch MacBook Pro through the Apple website: A$1,899 for the model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage, and A$2,199 for the model with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of internal storage. Both models are otherwise the same, and powered by the M1 chip with an 8-core GPU.

Click through on those configurations and you can up the RAM to 16GB for an additional A$300. Fitting the laptop with 512GB (on the 256GB model), 1TB, or 2TB of storage will cost an extra A$300, A$600, or A$1,200 respectively. Do the maths on all of that and the top-end configuration comes out at A$3,399, no matter which option you picked to begin with.

14-inch MacBook Pro (2021)

The brand new MacBook Pros complicate your decision a bit. These are serious laptops with serious price tags attached. Apart from the size, these two laptops are actually very similar in terms of their specs. The smaller 14-inch MacBook Pro can be had with either the M1 Pro chip (up to 10-core CPU, 16-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine) or the M1 Max chip (10-core CPU, up to 32-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine).

Apple says CPU performance is around 3.7x faster than the equivalent 13-inch Intel-based version that came before: Check out a stack of benchmarking stats here. The 14.2-inch, 3024 x 1964 screen runs at 254 pixels per inch and is capable of up to 1,600 nits peak brightness. When it comes to dimensions, the 14-inch model measures 12.31 inches x 8.71 inches x 0.61 inches and weighs 2 kg.

Image: Apple Image: Apple

The extra ports are a good reason to pick the 14-inch over the 13-inch Pro. Besides the headphone jack you get an HDMI port, an SDXC card slot, a MagSafe port for charging and three Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports. The M1 Pro can power two external displays (up to 6K/60Hz) while the M1 Max can run three external displays (up to 6K/60Hz) plus another 4K/60Hz screen too. There are six speakers with Dolby Atmos support this time around.

Space grey and silver are again the colour options, and there’s support for the latest Wi-Fi 6. What’s more, the Touch Bar has been ditched, and the webcam — sitting inside the new notch — gets upgraded to 1080p. According to Apple, you can get 17 hours of battery life from the 14-inch MacBook Pro, as long as you’re just watching video, though in our testing of a 14-inch Pro with M1 Max chip, the battery life was closer to 9 hours.

Image: Apple Image: Apple

The various configurations can get a little confusing, but there are two starting options. The first gives you the 8-core CPU and 14-core GPU version of the M1 Pro, plus 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage for A$2,999. Dig into the system builder, and you have four other M1 Pro/M1 Max configurations to choose from, adding as much as A$1,050. You can also go up to 32GB of RAM (add A$600) and pick from 1TB (add A$300), 2TB (add A$900)), 4TB (add A$1,800), or 8TB (add A$3,600) of storage.

The other starting option is for a more powerful M1 Pro chip with a 10-core CPU and a 16-core GPU, together with 16GB of RAM and 1TB of internal storage — that’s yours for A$3,749. There are fewer upgrade options here, but they top out at a 10-core CPU and 32-core GPU M1 Max (add A$600), 64GB of RAM (add A$1,200), and 8TB of storage (add A$3,300). The best 14-inch MacBook Pro will set you back a tidy A$8,249).

16-inch MacBook Pro (2021)

And so to the biggest and most popular MacBook Pro on the planet at the moment. As with the 14-inch model, you can get the 16-inch version with various M1 Pro chip configurations, topping out at a 10-core CPU, 16-core GPU and 16-core Neural Engine variant. You can also opt for the M1 Max chip instead, which goes up to a 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU, and 16-core Neural Engine in terms of specs.

Apple’s stats show the 16-inch MacBook Pro offering 2.1x better CPU performance over its Intel predecessor, but that’s just one number out of many that is listed. When it comes to the display we’re looking at a 16.2-inch, 3456 x 2234 pixel resolution panel (254 pixels per inch) and 1,600 nits of peak brightness (plus, of course, that notch). That bigger screen means dimensions of 14.01 inches x 9.77 inches x 0.66 inches and a weight of up to 4.8 pounds.

Image: Apple Image: Apple

The ports are exactly the same as the 14-inch model: a headphone jack, an HDMI port, an SDXC card slot, a MagSafe port for charging the laptop, and three Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports. The 16-inch MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro inside can power two external displays (up to 6K/60Hz); with the M1 Max it can stretch to three external displays (up to 6K/60Hz) plus another 4K/60Hz screen too. There are six speakers with Dolby Atmos support, and the colour options are silver and space grey.

Like the 14-inch version, the display’s notch has a 1080p webcam inside it (a welcome upgrade from 720p). The support for Wi-Fi 6 is the same, too. Apple promises up to 21 hours of battery life between charges out of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which means it leads the field in that particular metric.

Image: Apple Image: Apple

Configuring a 16-inch MacBook Pro has three possible starting points. The first two are very similar: a10-core CPU, 16-core GPU M1 Pro system with 16GB of RAM and either 512GB A$3,749) or 1TB A$4,049) of storage. Click through to the configuration options and you can upgrade the CPU (up to the best M1 Max for an extra A$600), the memory (up to 64GB for an extra A$1,200), and the storage (up to 8TB for a substantial A$3,600).

For those with the deepest pockets, you can start off with a top-end 10-core CPU, 32-core CPU M1 Max model, with 32GB of RAM and 1TB of storage, for A$5,249. You get a similar set of upgrade options: 64GB of RAM is another A$600, while you can also get 2TB (A$600 more), 4TB (A$1,500 more) or 8TB (A$3,300 more) of storage. The most powerful, most expensive 16-inch MacBook Pro will set you back A$9,149.

Check out our reviews of the MacBook Air, 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro, and 14-inch M1 Max MacBook Pro to get a better idea of which laptop best suits your needs. The names are the biggest giveaways, of course: The MacBook Air is the most lightweight, both in terms of size and performance, and the M1 Max 16-inch MacBook Pro is for those who need a lot out of their machines.