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Best MacBook in 2021: Find the best MacBook for you

Best MacBook: Pro vs Air
(Image credit: Future)

The best MacBook for you and your specific needs is a tricky thing to figure out, and we get asked for help all the time; not just by readers, but friends and family too. Factoring in the latest MacBooks (which moved from Intel processors to Apple silicon) makes it an even harder decision, because the Apple M1 chip is changing the MacBook as we know it — just read our MacBook Air with M1 review and our MacBook Pro with M1 review to see why. 

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, plus there's still an audience for those who may prefer Intel-based MacBook Pros — and the 16-inch model only comes with an Intel CPU for now. 

Apple's M1-equipped MacBook Air 2020 is our top recommendation for the best MacBook overall. The 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. 

Those who can wait will be rewarded, it seems. Rumors say the MacBook Pro 2021 will get rid of the Touch Bar, bring back MagSafe and the SD memory reader. It could even herald the return of HDMI. There's also talk of the MacBook Pro getting a mini-LED display, which reportedly won't come to the MacBook Air until 2022.

And then 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. 

Best MacBook for going back to school

Back to school season has arrived, and that means you may be on the hunt for a new laptop that's well-suited for the demands of a full day of classes. As more and more schools open up in-person classes again, it's important to invest in a competent laptop that's light enough to carry all day and efficient enough to last through a full day at school on a single charge.

Based on those criteria, the MacBook Air with M1 is still our top recommendation for the best MacBook to take back to school. With its incredible 14+ hour battery life and 2.8-pound weight it should stand up to a full day on campus, and it's more than powerful enough to handle just about any school project you throw at it.

However, if you need a laptop well-suited for studying computationally intensive disciplines like video editing or game development, we recommend the 16-inch MacBook Pro. It hasn't yet been updated with Apple silicon, but it does have a killer speaker setup and, more importantly, a powerful Intel Core i9 CPU and a discrete Radeon GPU that will come in handy on your projects. The 11-hour battery life isn't half bad, either.

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Best MacBooks - MacBook Air with M1

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Best MacBooks - MacBook Air with M1 - Design

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Best MacBooks - MacBook Air with M1 - ports

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Best MacBooks - MacBook Air with M1 - headphone jack

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1. MacBook Air with M1

The best MacBook for most people

Specifications
Display: 13.3 inches; 2,560 x 1,600
CPU: Apple M1
GPU: Integrated 8-core GPU
RAM: 8GB-16GB
Storage: 256GB-2TB SSD
Weight: 2.8 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Super-fast performance+Incredibly long battery life+Comfortable keyboard
Reasons to avoid
-Still has thick bezels-Light on ports

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

Best MacBook: MacBook Pro with M1

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2. 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1

Best MacBook for long battery life

Specifications
Display: 13.3 inches, 2560 x 1600-pixel
CPU: Apple M1 8-core CPU
GPU: Apple M1 8-core GPU
RAM: 8GB to 16GB
Storage: 256GB to 2TB SSD
Weight: 3.0 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Stellar overall and gaming performance+Excellent battery life+Lightning-fast SSD
Reasons to avoid
-Not enough ports-Thick bezels
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Best MacBooks - 16 inch MacBook Pro

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Best MacBooks - 16 inch MacBook Pro design

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Best MacBooks - 16 inch MacBook Pro keyboard

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Best MacBooks - 16 inch MacBook Pro ports

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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.

Read our full MacBook Pro with M1 review.

3. 16-inch MacBook Pro

Best MacBook for editing video

Specifications
Display: 16 inches, 3072 x 1920 pixels
CPU: Intel Core i7 or i9
GPU: AMD Radeon 5300M or 5500M
RAM: 8GB - 32GB
Storage: 512GB - 2TB SSD
Weight: 4.3 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Magic Keyboard feels great+Best sound ever in a laptop+Epic battery life of nearly 11 hours
Reasons to avoid
-Display not 4K-Heavier than 15-inch MacBook Pro
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Best MacBooks - 13 Inch Intel MacBook Pro

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Best MacBooks - 13 Inch Intel MacBook Pro - magic keyboard

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Best MacBooks - 13 Inch Intel MacBook Pro rear shot

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Best MacBooks - 13 Inch Intel MacBook Pro Thunderbolt ports

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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. Plus, the speakers are so good we awarded it best-sounding laptop in our Tom's Guide Awards 2021.

Read our full MacBook Pro (16-inch) review.

4. 13-inch MacBook Pro (Intel, 2020)

Best MacBook for native applications

Specifications
Display: 13 inch Retina Display (2560 x 1600)
CPU: 1.4GHz quad core 8th gen to 2.3GHz 10th gen Core i7
GPU: Intel Iris Plus 645, Intel Iris Plus
RAM: 8GB to 32GB
Storage: 256GB to 4TB SSD
Weight: 3.1 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Great performance+Fantastic Magic Keyboard+Long battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Bezels too thick-Pricey to get 10th gen power

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, as 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. 

Alex Wawro

Alex Wawro is a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice. Got a hot tip? Get in touch via alex.wawro@futurenet.com.