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The best Mac laptop for most people is the 2018 MacBook Air. It’s fast enough for the things that most people use a computer for – web browsing, working on documents, even light photo editing – and it has an excellent high-resolution screen, a great trackpad and enough battery life to get most people through a day of work. Apple sells a lot of laptop models right now, but the Air offers the best combination of features, performance and price.
The 2018 MacBook Air has some shortcomings, but they’re almost all shared by other modern Apple laptops: the low-travel keyboard, a small number of homogenous ports (in this case, two Thunderbolt 3 ports) that may require the use of USB-C hubs or new cables and a high price relative to Windows laptops with similar performance and features (especially if you need more storage). But the Air’s light weight, solid construction and industry-leading support make it a good laptop, especially if you also own an iPhone or other Apple devices.
If you do lots of photo or video editing or develop apps but still need a smaller laptop, get the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. It includes a quad-core processor and much faster integrated graphics, both of which will make your work go significantly faster – 2018’s 13-inch Pro is almost as fast as 15-inch models from past years. It also has twice as many Thunderbolt 3 ports, two on each side and a slightly brighter screen capable of displaying more colours. The downsides are that the Pro costs significantly more than the Air with similar memory and storage options, it is a little heavier, its battery life is a bit worse and you still have to put up with the low-travel keyboard and USB-C and Thunderbolt dongles.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro is our top Mac pick in our guide to laptops for video and photo editing. You won’t notice a huge speed boost for everyday computing tasks, but its six-core Intel Core processor can give it a speed boost of around 30% over the 13-inch Pro when rendering video or compiling code, and its discrete AMD Radeon GPUs provide better performance when running 3D drafting programs or games. It’s also the only MacBook that can have up to 32 GB of memory, and the only MacBook that can run two 5K external displays instead of just one. Its 15-inch Retina display is the biggest and highest-resolution that you can get in a Mac laptop, and like the 13-inch model it has four full-speed Thunderbolt 3 ports. But it costs significantly more than the MacBook Air, and its battery life is relatively mediocre, so it’s worth considering only if you know you’ll use all that extra power.
Because you can’t upgrade Apple’s current laptops later – memory, storage, and processors are all built in –you need to make sure to buy the right configuration. We’ve listed our recommended configuration for each of our picks in the sections below.
If you aren’t wedded to macOS, we have a separate guide dedicated to helping you find the right laptop.
Who this is for, and when to buy
The best reason to buy a MacBook is if you need or prefer macOS instead of Windows. The operating system is stable and easy to use, but more important, it integrates well with iPhones and iPads – iMessages and SMS messages sent from your Mac also appear on your iPhone and vice versa, and features such as AirDrop and iCloud make it easy to share notes, pictures, videos, reminders, contacts, passwords, bookmarks and other data between your devices.
Macs are also a good choice if you want great support. Apple’s tech support is routinely rated above that of all other PC and phone makers. They aren’t a great choice, though, if you don’t want to spend too much on a laptop, if you want to get the most performance for your money or if you want to run high-end games. Windows ultrabooks provide as good or better performance, more kinds of ports and sharp IPS LCD screens at or below the price Apple charges for the MacBook Air. Budget Chrome OS and Windows laptops are a better choice if you are looking for a budget laptop. And Windows gaming notebooks, while larger and bulkier than any MacBook, usually have newer and faster dedicated graphics processors than Apple’s laptops do (and you can buy some of them for less than half of what a 15-inch MacBook Pro costs).
It’s best to buy Apple’s laptops soon after they’re introduced so you get the most for your money, but you shouldn’t wait around for a refresh if you need a computer right now – Apple’s laptop update cycles are much less consistent than those for iPhones and iPads, so it’s difficult to predict when or how often new models will be released. Once a Mac has been available for a few months, though, you can save a substantial amount by buying a refurbished one.
How we picked
As of this writing, Apple offers half a dozen laptops in the MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro lines. We considered the following criteria when deciding which ones to recommend:
- Performance: Dual-core Intel Core processors are fine for basic browsing and light photo editing – the things most people use their computers for – but a four- or six-core MacBook Pro is worth paying extra for if you do processor-intensive video editing or code compiling. All MacBooks include at least 8 GB of RAM, which is plenty for everyday tasks, but if you’re buying the 13- or 15-inch Pro, you should consider upgrading to 16 GB or 32 GB (respectively), especially if you edit a lot of large files or want to run Windows apps in a virtual machine.
- Display: All of Apple’s Retina displays are sharp and colour-accurate, and can display nearly 100% of the sRGB colour gamut. MacBook Pro models include screens that support the larger DCI-P3 colour gamut, which just means that they can display more shades of some colours than sRGB displays – this is nice to have but not necessary for most people.
- Ports: Most of Apple’s laptops now use either USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports exclusively, for everything from data to video to charging. We recommend models with at least two of these ports, so you can charge the laptop and connect a second device at the same time. We have picks for both Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C docks, as well as for USB-C monitors, USB-C data cables and video cables, spare or replacement USB-C chargers, and other accessories that will help you connect all of your old stuff to these new ports.
- Keyboard, Touch Bar and Touch ID: All of Apple’s current laptops (aside from the old MacBook Air) use some version of the same low-travel butterfly-switch keyboard that Apple has been refining since its introduction in 2015 – it’s just something you’ll have to live with. We prioritised the most recent, third-generation revision, which is a bit quieter and is more resistant to dust and dirt (and theoretically more reliable) than older versions. We also preferred Macs with Touch ID to Macs without it – the presence or absence of the Touch Bar didn’t factor in one way or the other, since it’s a neat feature but still mostly superfluous.
- Size and weight: All of Apple’s laptops are relatively thin and light compared with similar laptops from other manufacturers, but the 13-inch models tend to offer the best combination of size, weight and performance.
- Price: Macs cost a lot, but most people don’t need to buy the most expensive ones. Our recommended configurations balance performance, storage and price – we especially recommend relying on cloud storage or external storage instead of buying a larger SSD if you can, since Apple’s expensive storage upgrades can as much as double the price of its laptops.
- Battery life: When performing basic computing tasks like browsing or emailing, all of Apple’s laptops should be able to get you through most of an eight-hour workday on a single charge. But Apple does note that the 13-inch Air should last longer than any of the Pros – for 12 hours of browsing instead of 10 – and that lines up with our experience.
The best all-around Mac laptop: Apple MacBook Air (2018)
The best Mac laptop for most people is the 2018 MacBook Air. It’s fast enough for the things that most people use a computer for – browsing, working on documents and light photo editing – and it has an excellent high-resolution screen, a great trackpad, enough battery life to last most people through an eight-hour workday and a (relatively) reasonable price. The Air’s main shortcomings are almost all shared by other modern Apple laptops: the low-travel keyboard, a small number of homogenous ports (in this case, two Thunderbolt 3 ports) that may require the use of USB-C hubs or new cables and a high price relative to Windows laptops with similar performance and features. But the Air’s light weight, solid construction, and industry-leading support still make it a good laptop, especially if you also own an iPhone or other Apple devices.
We recommend the entry-level model with 8 GB of memory and a 128 GB SSD for most people – you can upgrade the storage if you know you’ll need more room, but Apple’s high upgrade prices make cloud storage or external storage a more economical option.
The Air uses a dual-core eighth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, with no options for upgrading to a faster model. For everyday tasks that don’t require the processor to run at full speed for sustained periods of time, it’s around 20% faster than the previous Air and comparable to our upgrade pick. But for intensive tasks like encoding video, the 2018 Air is around half the speed of the quad-core MacBook Pro, and it was around the same speed as the 2017 Air in our testing. The integrated graphics processor in the 2018 Air is also around half the speed of the one in the 13-inch MacBook Pro – the Air is fast enough to drive an external 4K or 5K display, but you shouldn’t expect it to run high-end games.
The 2018 Air’s display is a 2560×1600 IPS screen, and it’s sharp and colourful – it’s the same size and resolution as the screen in the 13-inch Pro, so it can fit the same amount of information. Unlike the Pro, it doesn’t support the wider DCI-P3 colour gamut, so it can’t display as many shades of certain colours, and it doesn’t support the True Tone feature, which changes the tint of the display to match your ambient lighting. But neither feature is something most people need or even notice.
Our pick has just two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports for connectivity and charging, both on the left side of the laptop, so you need adapters or new cables to connect your other devices. Each port supports charging, 40-gigabits-per-second data transfers, external displays (up to 5120×2880 resolution, or 5K), and USB peripherals – but the Air has no other ports aside from a headphone jack. That’s better than the 12-inch MacBook, which has only a single USB-C port, but if you want more than two ports, you need to buy a MacBook Pro instead.
The 2018 Air uses Apple’s low-travel butterfly-switch keyboard, which we’ll discuss more , but it has some improvements that we like. The third-generation keyboard includes a rubber membrane that is marginally quieter than that of older models and better protects the keys from dirt and dust, which theoretically makes the keyboard more reliable. The Air’s keyboard also includes a fast, accurate Touch ID fingerprint sensor without the mostly superfluous Touch Bar – Touch ID lets you use your fingerprint to log in, authorise system-level tasks such as software installations, pay for online purchases using Apple Pay and even authenticate your identity in third-party apps such as 1Password. Compared with previous non-Touch Bar keyboards, Apple has made the row of dedicated function keys slightly taller in the 2018 Air to match the height of the fingerprint sensor.
All of our picks include the same Force Touch trackpad, which remains the best trackpad we’ve used on a laptop because of its large size and its accuracy. It has no hinge, so it recognises presses anywhere on the surface, but it has haptic feedback that makes it feel and sound as if it’s clicking even though it doesn’t move.
The 2018 MacBook Air has the exact same footprint – 11.97 inches wide and 8.36 inches deep – as the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but its tapered design makes it just a bit thinner. It’s also 0.25 pound lighter, at 2.75 pounds. That puts it in between the 3-pound 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 2-pound 12-inch MacBook, but carrying it feels very similar to carrying the Pro.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As mentioned above, current MacBook models use USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 for all connectivity, including power. This means that if you have any hard drives, scanners, printers, thumb drives or card readers that use USB Type-A ports, you need a hub or adapter – similarly, if you want to use an external display or projector, you need the right video adapter. It also means you don’t get Apple’s great MagSafe magnetic power connection, now found only on the old non-Retina MacBook Air. The only other port is a 3.5 mm headphone/mic jack.
Apple’s mediocre, low-profile laptop keyboard is another major sticking point. The keys are still full size, but they have very shallow travel (the distance you must depress a key to establish a keystroke), and they bottom out (stop moving because you’ve pressed them as far as possible) after a very short distance. Although you can get used to typing on the keyboard, “you can get used to it” is a long way from Apple’s excellent earlier keyboards. We’d gladly give up a couple of millimetres of laptop thinness for better keys.
A faster laptop: 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (2018)
If you do lots of photo or video editing or app developing, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar includes a quad-core processor and much faster integrated graphics, both of which will make your work go significantly faster – 2018’s 13-inch Pro is almost as fast as 15-inch models from past years. It also has twice as many Thunderbolt 3 ports, two on each side, and a slightly brighter screen capable of displaying more colours. The downsides are that the base-model Pro costs a lot more than the cheapest Air, it’s a little heavier, its battery life is a bit worse and you still have to put up with the low-travel keyboard and USB-C and Thunderbolt dongles.
Our recommended configuration comes with a quad-core eighth-generation Core i5 processor, a 256 GB SSD, and 16 GB of memory. You can save a little bit by buying it with 8 GB of memory instead, but if you’re doing the kind of work that can benefit from a quad-core processor, you’re also doing the kind of work that can benefit from more memory.
Using the 13-inch MacBook Pro feels almost identical to using the 2018 Air, so we’ll focus on the differences. The Pro’s screen has the same resolution as the Air’s, but it uses the wider DCI-P3 colour gamut instead of sRGB, so it can display more shades of certain colours. It also supports True Tone, which subtly changes the screen’s colour temperature to match the ambient lighting in the room. Both produce nice-looking results, but the features aren’t necessary or noticeable for most people.
In addition to a headphone jack, the Pro has four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two on each side. These are convenient if you want to plug in a bunch of things without using a hub or dock, but even if you don’t, it’s handy to be able to plug the laptop’s charging cable in from either side.
The Pro’s third-generation butterfly-switch keyboard also includes Apple’s Touch Bar along with Touch ID, instead of a dedicated function row. The Touch Bar is a high-resolution touchscreen that dynamically changes to display controls specifically for the current app (if the app has been updated for that). It’s intermittently useful, depending on how you work and what you use it for, but many Wirecutter staffers prefer a row of function keys instead. Unfortunately, as of this writing there’s no way to get the 13-inch Pro’s performance without also getting the Touch Bar, since Apple hasn’t updated the non-Touch Bar model in over a year, and it has only a dual-core processor, like the Air, rather than the 2018 model’s quad-core CPU.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro weighs 3 pounds, just 0.25 pound more than the 2018 Air, and has the same 11.97-by-8.36-inch footprint. It’s just slightly thicker, since it’s the same thickness throughout instead of tapered like the Air. It’s comfortable enough to carry around, and it’s one of the fastest laptops you can buy without getting something bigger. Just make sure you need the extra performance – the price is a lot to spend on a laptop, no matter how quick it is.
The biggest, fastest MacBook: 15-inch MacBook Pro (2018)
The 15-inch MacBook Pro is our top Mac pick in our guide to laptops for video and photo editing. You won’t notice a huge speed boost for everyday computing tasks, but its six-core Intel Core processors can give it a speed boost of about 30% over the 13-inch Pro when rendering video or compiling code, and its discrete AMD Radeon GPUs provide better performance when running 3D drafting programmes or games. It’s also the only MacBook that can use up to 32 GB of memory, and the only one that can use two 5K external displays instead of just one. Its 15-inch Retina display is the biggest and highest-resolution that you can get in a Mac laptop, and like the 13-inch model it has four full-speed Thunderbolt 3 ports. But it costs significantly more than the MacBook Air, it’s a pound heavier than the 13-inch Pro and its battery life is relatively mediocre, so it is worth considering only if you know you’ll use all that extra power.
We recommend the 15-inch Pro which includes a six-core Core i7 processor, 256 GB of storage, 16 GB of memory, and the AMD Radeon Pro 560X graphics processor (the fastest available as of this writing). Although 16 GB of memory is plenty, even for most pros, you can add 32 GB of memory for extra. You can also add as much as 4 TB of internal storage, but Apple’s storage prices are so high that cloud storage or external storage is a more economical option.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro’s screen includes DCI-P3 colour gamut support and the True Tone feature, just as the 13-inch Pro does, but its higher, 2880×1800 resolution allows it to fit more stuff on screen at once. It’s also physically larger, of course.
But other than the performance, the larger screen and the bigger size and weight, the 15-inch MacBook Pro is a lot like the 13-inch version. It still has four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two on each side, and a headphone jack. It also has the exact same low-travel butterfly-switch keyboard, Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor and aside from being even larger, using its Force Touch trackpad feels exactly the same as on the Air and the 13-inch Pro.
Although the 15-inch MacBook Pro is considerably larger and heavier than any of Apple’s 13-inch laptops – it’s 13.75 inches wide and 9.48 inches deep, and it weighs four pounds – it is small and light next to other 15-inch laptops we’ve tested with similar specs. It’s also more expensive than those laptops, though: Dell’s XPS 15, for example, offers comparable processors and as-good-or-better GPUs, 16 GB of memory, and 512 GB of storage for less than the price of the Pro, and that’s typical of larger, more powerful laptops aimed at creative professionals. That’s not helpful if you need or prefer to use macOS, but it does put Apple’s pricing in perspective.
What to look forward to
In November 2018, Apple announced it would be adding new GPU options for the 15-inch MacBook Pros based on AMD’s Vega GPU architecture. Apple says they’ll be “up to 50% faster” than the current offerings. We’ll test the new GPUs when we can, and we’ll update our recommended configurations accordingly.
The 12-inch MacBook is Apple’s smallest and lightest laptop – it weighs just two pounds, 0.75 pound less than the 2018 Air and a full pound less than the 13-inch Pro. But the MacBook achieves its small size in part by using a low-power processor without a fan – the MacBook is similar in performance to the 2018 Air in everyday tasks, but its lack of a fan means that the processor can’t run as fast for as long when you’re gaming, editing photos or video, or doing any other task that maxes out the processor for extended periods of time. Because it has only a single USB-C port, if you want to both charge and connect a peripheral or connect more than one peripheral at once, you’ll need an adapter, or a hub or dock. And it hasn’t been updated in over a year, which means it’s using the less-reliable second-generation version of Apple’s low-travel butterfly keyboard. Consider the MacBook only if size and weight are more important to you than anything else – most people should get the Air.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar is more expensive and just a little faster than the 2018 MacBook Air, and its screen supports the DCI-P3 colour gamut. But because Apple hasn’t updated this model in over a year, it’s using a last-generation dual-core processor rather than a current quad-core version, and it has the less reliable second-generation low-travel butterfly-switch keyboard. It’s also missing a Touch ID sensor. People looking for a cheap but good Apple laptop are better served by the 2018 MacBook Air, and people who need something faster than the Air should step up to the more up-to-date Touch Bar MacBook Pro.
Apple’s 2017 non-Retina MacBook Air has some features we like, including USB-A ports, an SD card reader and the MagSafe power connector. It’s also Apple’s last laptop with the old keyboard design, which isn’t as firm as the butterfly-switch keyboard in newer Airs and Pros but has better, more-satisfying key travel. But in every other way, the old Air feels like a huge step down from the new one – its sub-1080p 1440×900 TN screen looks faded and blurry next to the screens of the newer Air and modern Windows laptops, its 2010-era design is a little heavier and noticeably larger and its fifth-generation dual-core Intel processor and integrated GPU are slower than those in anything else Apple sells. The old Air might be worth considering if you can find it for a substantial discount, and you want the old keyboard and old ports more than you want a great screen. But you spend so much time looking at your laptop’s screen that it’s hard to recommend buying a 2017 Air at full price these days.