The best MacBook is a tricky thing to decide, and it’s just gotten a bit more complicated. The move from Intel processors to Apple silicon, starting with the Apple M1 chip will change the MacBook as we know it, as our MacBook Air with M1 review shows.
But one size does not fit all once you take a closer look at the best MacBooks. There are specific reasons why many should pay more for the M1-based MacBook Pro. Plus, there’s still an audience for those who may prefer Intel-based MacBook Pros, and the 16-inch model only comes with Intel for now.
The new MacBook Air 2020 is our top recommendation for the best MacBook overall. Apple’s new Apple M1 chip makes it faster than we ever expected the Air to get, and its power efficiency enables much longer battery life, lasting over 14 hours on a charge.
But if you need more than 16GB of RAM, or want 4 Thunderbolt USB-C ports (and not 2), this conversation gets more complicated, and you’re going to want to look at the Intel-based MacBooks as well.
Oh, and rumor has it that the 2021 MacBook Air will be a higher-end version of the M1 model released last year. We’re to expect smaller bezels and MagSafe charging, at the least.
The MacBook Air was always the best MacBook for most people, but now it’s better for even more people than ever before. Apple’s decision to replace its Intel processors with its own Apple Silicon, starting with the M1 chip in the MacBook Air, is reaping serious rewards. This laptop’s 14 hours and 41 minutes of battery life n the Tom’s Guide battery test is the best for a MacBook Air ever. Plus, the M1 delivers crazy-fast performance, so much so that it can run serious games smoothly.
The MacBook Air’s webcam has also been upgraded, as the M1 chip provides signal processing tricks to improve clarity and color accuracy. And, of course, the Magic Keyboard is still here, which provides a comfy typing experience. Dolby Atmos audio support means that some movies and TV shows will sound even better than before. The MacBook Air is now not just the best MacBook for your average Apple user, but it’s closer to the title of the king of the laptops than it’s been in years.
Read our full MacBook Air with M1 review.
The MacBook Pro with M1 takes everything we like about the M1-based MacBook Air, and then kicks it up a notch or two. For example, it lasted a whopping 16 hours and 32 minutes on the Tom’s Guide battery test, beating the M1 Air (14:41) by nearly 2 whole hours.
On top of that, the MacBook Pro’s 434.8-nit display is brighter than the Air’s 365.8-nit panel. And on the Handbrake video transcoding test, it converted a 4K movie to 1080p in 7 minutes and 44 seconds, beating the already speedy MacBook Air’s 9:15.
Other perks include Dolby Atmos sound, improved webcam video quality (thanks to the M1’s new signal-processing chip), the sharp 2560×1600-pixel Retina display and iOS and iPadOS app support. And don’t forget the Magic Keyboard, which is an actual joy to type on.
The biggest MacBook — the 16-inch MacBook Pro — has yet to be converted to Apple’s M1 chip yet, and for many a video editor and streamer, there’s good reason to wait. While Apple’s Final Cut Pro has been updated for Apple silicon, that’s not the only video editing application in the game. Adobe Premiere Pro, arguably the dominant choice in the industry, is still an Intel-based application, which would be running through Rosetta 2, the technology that Apple’s using to enable backwards compatibility.
This is why we recommend the Intel-based 16-inch MacBook Pro for those creators who need rock-solid reliable performance, which its Intel Core i9 processor delivers in spades. Not only is this the best MacBook for demanding professionals for its speed, but its 16-inch panel is perfect for reviewing your projects, with its 429-nit screen delivering a bright and colorful picture. Add nearly 11 hours of battery life on top of that, and you’re good to go get work done anywhere you need to be.
Read our full MacBook Pro (16-inch) review.
Right now, the remaining Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro is the hardest MacBook to recommend — but some folks will still pick it. Maybe you’re using demanding apps (such as video editing suites) and you’re not sure if it’s time to jump to M1-based hardware yet, and you want to make sure your applications are running without error. While those applications will likely get Universal versions at some point, not all are here yet.
Have a lot of peripherals? if you want four Thunderbolt 3 ports (and not the two you get with M1 MacBooks) you can only go Intel right now. Plus, the 13-inch Intel MacBook Pro is the only version that can be customized with 32GB of memory or 4TB of storage, and that 16GB RAM limit for the 13-inch M1 MacBook Air may be a cause for complaint for those using higher-end applications.
Just don’t expect the fastest raw performance. The Intel MacBook Pro’s Geekbench 5 score of 4,399 falls down trying to catch up with the newer MacBook Pro’s 5,882 score. And while the Intel-based MacBook Pro transcoded a 4K video in 12 minutes and 43 seconds, he M1-based Pro (7:44) finished almost 5 minutes earlier.
Read our full MacBook Pro 13-inch (Intel, 2020) review.
How to choose the best MacBook for you
Performance: If you know you don’t push your laptops to their limits, get the MacBook Air and get the entry-level model. Its 8-core M1 chip and 8GB of RAM are going to surprise you with their speed. Upgrade that RAM to 16GB if you keep a lot of applications open at once. Those who work with more demanding applications will either want to get the M1 MacBook Pro (check with your favorite applications to see if they’re updated for Apple silicon) with 16GB of RAM, or consider getting an Intel-based MacBook with 32GB of RAM. Storage is fast up and down the lineup.
Graphics and gaming: For M1-based MacBooks, you either get a 7-core or 8-core integrated GPU, and we’ve seen amazing results on the 8-core version — so upgrade if you want to game on your Mac. Yes, you can play serious video games on the Mac now. It’s impressive.
Size and weight: The 13-inch MacBook Air and Pro are only distinguished by the Air’s wedge shape and slightly lighter weight. The MacBook Pro (3.0 pounds for M1, 3.1 pounds for Intel) is 0.2 – 0.3 pounds heavier than the 2.8-pound MacBook Air. Unsurprisingly, the 16-inch MacBook Pro — which is a heavier 4.3 pounds — is best for those who either don’t mind the heft in their bag or don’t move around as often.
Battery life: The M1 MacBook Pro is the longest lasting MacBook there is, posting a Tom’s Guide battery test time of 16:32. This beats the M1 Air (14:41), Intel-based 13-inch Pro (10:21) and the 16-inch Pro (10:55).
How we test the best MacBooks
To find the best MacBook, we run each through our gauntlet of benchmarks and real-world tests, and then use them as our main computer for as well. Only then are we comfortable recommending them (or not) for your purchase.
We use a Klein K-10A colorimeter to test each MacBook’s screen to find its average brightness and color quality (so we don’t just assume Apple’s ratings are correct). When it comes to general performance, we use the Geekbench 5 (CPU performance) benchmark, and time how long the Macs will take to transcode a 4K video to 1080p.
We also run the BlackMagic storage speeds test to see how fast these MacBooks’ SSDs are (spoiler alert: they’re all pretty fast). Then, we run our custom battery test to see how long each MacBook (at 150 nits of brightness) can last browsing the web over Wi-Fi until it runs out of juice.
We’ve tested various computer games on MacBooks, with Civilization VI being one of our current favorites to run.