The best MacBook for you and your needs is a tricky thing to figure out, especially now that Apple is rolling out new MacBook Pro models with entirely new processors and a different design. With Apple M1 chip now joined by the M1 Pro and M1 Max, MacBooks as we know are changing.
But once you take a closer look at the best MacBooks you can see that one size doesn't fit all. There are specific reasons why many should pay more for the M1-based MacBook Pro, and on the newer 14- and 16-inch systems, you have a choice between the M1 Pro and M1 Max.
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Apple's M1-equipped MacBook Air 2020 is our top recommendation for the best MacBook overall. The 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.
We haven't yet reviewed the just-announced 14-inch MacBook Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro. (Expect reviews shortly.) But we do know the new models ditch the Touch Bar, bring back MagSafe and the SD memory reader and add a notch to the front display for thinner bezels overall. And yes, there's the performance boost from the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips to take into account as well.
Beyond that, there's the talk of the MacBook Air 2021, which looks to 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. It's so good it won recommendations for best laptop and longest-lasting laptop in our Tom's Guide Awards 2021.
Read our full MacBook Air with M1 review.
The new 14-inch MacBook Pro is the Mac to get if you have 1) the budget and 2) the need for more ports. That's simply because its new Liquid Retina XDR display with a 120Hz refresh rate is gorgeous. Your favorite movies, and everything else, will simply look better. Oh, and the new M1 Pro (and pricier M1 Max) chips deliver even more speed than ever before, while still enabling all-day battery life.
On top of that, Apple's brought MagSafe charging, HDMI-out and a SD memory reader back to the MacBook Pro. This means you won't need to bring a USB-C dongle to connect to a display or use external memory. That said, there's still no USB-A, which is something we're starting to realize Apple has no plans of bringing back. Other notable changes include the death of the Touch Bar (which never proved its worth), which has been swapped out for physical F1-F12 keys. Apple's also bumped up the internal webcam to 1080p, from 720p. The MacBook Pro 2021 definitely feels like a Pro-level laptop again.
Read our full MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch) review.
Want it all? Then you may be looking for the beastly 16-inch MacBook Pro, which sports either M1 Pro or M1 Max chips, that deliver shocking amounts of performance. An upgrade over the previous intel-based model, this model features thinner bezels to give more space to the gorgeous mini-LED Liquid Retina XDR displays. Once you get over the notch, you'll be wowed by its contrast and smoothness, especially with its 120Hz refresh rate.
On top of that, you get the return of the ports that pros demand. That's not just the safety-focused MagSafe 3 charging port, but HDMI-out for connecting to displays and an SD memory reader for connecting memory cards for real-deal cameras. Oh, and don't think MagSafe will take USB-C charging out of the picture: the MacBook Pro's trio of Thunderbolt 4/USB4 ports also draw power. On top of that, you've got a 1080p webcam, a trio of improved microphones and a stellar six-point speaker system.
Read our full MacBook Pro (16-inch) 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 2560x1600-pixel Retina display and iOS and iPadOS app support. And don't forget the Magic Keyboard, which is an actual joy to type on. We like the M1 Pro so much we awarded it longest-lasting laptop in our Tom's Guide Awards 2021.
Even with Apple adding M1 Pro- and M1 Max-powered 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros to its lineup, this 13-inch model remains available.
Read our full MacBook Pro with M1 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.