The ultimate MacBook hierarchy: M3 vs M2 vs M1 tested and ranked

MacBook Pro 14-inch M3 holding in air open
(Image credit: Future)

Which MacBook is right for you? It’s a question you’d think comes with the simple answer of “the latest one,” but it can be a whole lot more complicated when you really start to mull over the best MacBook for your needs.

Because while the newest MacBook Pro M3 will of course be more performant and receive software support for a longer period of time, there are opportunities to save yourself some serious money and still get what you want out of the machine. That is what we’re hoping to decipher here with a quick hierarchical breakdown of every Apple Silicon MacBook you can buy today.

We’ll explain how we rank each MacBook Air and MacBook Pro in the tables below, and break them down by how much performance they offer for their respective prices. With all of this data and insight, you can make the best decision for yourself and your needs on which model to buy. And be sure to check out our MacBook Air vs Pro comparison for more info. 

MacBook hierarchy: specs

We’ve reviewed MacBooks for many, many years now — spanning all specs and price points from base models to fully maxed out. For transparency of the below benchmarks, I’ve highlighted the internals of every model we reviewed.

P.S. It should come as no surprise that we’re not going to be adding any Intel-based MacBooks in this hierarchy. That would be a little bit silly given how old these chips are, so with that said, let’s dive in.

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LaptopChipset (core count)Unified memory (RAM)Storage
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M3 Max)M3 Max (16-core CPU / 40-core GPU)128GB8TB
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3 Pro)M3 Pro (11-core CPU / 14-core GPU)18GB512GB
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3)M3 (8-core CPU / 10-core GPU)16GB1TB
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M2 Max)M2 Max (12-core CPU / 38-core GPU)96GB4TB
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M2 Pro)M2 Pro (10-core CPU / 16-core GPU)16GB512GB
MacBook Pro (M2)M2 (8-core CPU / 10-core GPU)16GB1TB
MacBook Air 15-inch (M2)M2 (8-core CPU / 10-core GPU)16GB512GB
MacBook Air 13-inch (M2)M2 (8-core CPU / 10-core GPU)16GB1TB
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M1 Max)M1 Max (10-core CPU / 32-core GPU)64GB2TB
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M1 Pro)M1 Pro (10-core CPU / 16-core GPU)32GB1TB
MacBook Pro (M1)M1 (8-core CPU / 8-core GPU)16GB1TB
MacBook Air (M1)M1 (8-core CPU / 8-core GPU)16GB1TB

MacBook hierarchy: Pricing matrix

While finding the brand new MacBooks at their best prices is a cinch (spoiler alert: Amazon or B&H), the older models are a little harder to find. To take the stress out of this, we’ve done the hard work and found the ultimate best prices available right now on every model of MacBook we talk about.

Apple are currently still producing and selling the M3 MacBook Pro, M3 Pro, and M3 Max, alongside the M2 MacBook Air 13- and 15-inch, and even the M1 MacBook Air.

The remainder have been discontinued, with some new models still available and refurbished pricing on the table. However, that does mean they are cheaper than they would usually be.

MacBook hierarchy: Dimensions and design

The main thing that jumped out at me personally when running this hierarchy is how Apple’s design language has changed. Don’t get me wrong, they are all formed of aluminum unibodies — promoting a sense of confidence in its durability, but those shells can be a fingerprint magnet. Yes, even the so-called anti-fingerprint coating on the recent M3 Pro/Max MacBook Pros.

But I’m talking more about the aesthetic, which moved from a subtly curved shell to a far more utilitarian presence on the desk. From the much maligned Touch Bar to a set of full height function keys. From merely using Thunderbolt ports to a wider selection, including the grand return of MagSafe. 

Every move shows a company going through an odd dichotomy between thinking it knows what the consumer wants, then listening and adjusting when they get it wrong — a key example is the discontinuing of the 13-inch MacBook Pro

Does it come with a price bump? Sure, from $1,299 to $1,599, but in return, you’re getting something that is actually pro, including that 14-inch Liquid Retina XDR display, a better selection of ports and the function keys for quicker navigation around macOS. 

But whatever MacBook you buy, you’re getting a seriously premium construction with great portability, as you can see from the dimensions.

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LaptopDimensionsWeight
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M3 Max)14 x 9.8 x 0.7 inches4.8 pounds
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3 Pro)12.3 x 8.7 x 0.6 inches3.5 pounds
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3)12.3 x 8.7 x 0.6 inches3.4 pounds
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M2 Max)14 x 9.8 x 0.7 inches4.8 pounds
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M2 Pro)12.3 x 8.7 x 0.6 inches3.4 pounds
MacBook Pro (M2)12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches3 pounds
MacBook Air 15-inch (M2)13.4 x 9.4 x 0.5 inches3.3 pounds
MacBook Air 13-inch (M2)12 x 8.5 x 0.4 inches2.7 pounds
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M1 Max)14 x 9.8 x 0.7 inches4.8 pounds
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M1 Pro)12.3 x 8.7 x 0.6 inches3.5 pounds
MacBook Pro (M1)12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches3 pounds
MacBook Air (M1)12 x 8.4 x 0.2-0.6 inches2.8 pounds

MacBook hierarchy: Display

Display technology has moved along at an impressive pace in some areas, and rather glacially in others. Apple hasn’t adopted OLED in any of its MacBooks (yet), but you’ve essentially got three choices here.

  • Retina: Present in the M1 MacBook Air and both 13-inch MacBook Pros, this is your standard IPS panel with a 13.3-inch diagonal and 1500p resolution.
  • Liquid Retina: In both M2 MacBook Airs, the color reproduction and brightness got an improvement with a Liquid Retina screen.
  • Liquid Retina XDR: A move from standard LED to Mini LED drives one of my favorite displays in a laptop. Exclusive to the MacBook Pros, they sport impressively vivid color, a 120Hz refresh rate, and deep HDR that shines off the screen with big, bright imagery. It’s also worth noting that the M3 MacBook Pros have 20% brighter displays than previous generation models.

The results speak for themselves here. Numbers vary from great to good, so it depends on how important screen quality is to you and your time with a MacBook.

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LaptopDisplay average brightness (nits)sRGB color gamut (%)Delta-E color accuracy (smaller number is better)
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M3 Max)563.4116.70%0.11
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3 Pro)559.8111.60%0.29
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3)555.8114.50%0.11
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M2 Max)446.8118.20%0.21
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M2 Pro)441118.50%0.2
MacBook Pro (M2)474.6109.40%0.31
MacBook Air 15-inch (M2)473111.40%0.17
MacBook Air 13-inch (M2)489.4107.20%0.2
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M1 Max)500.6109.30%0.21
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M1 Pro)487.8109.60%0.19
MacBook Pro (M1)434.8110.60%0.21
MacBook Air (M1)342.6110.60%0.21

MacBook hierarchy: General performance

When it comes to how powerful these machines are, you can spot the incremental gains between generations. However, it does become easy to see through Apple’s reality distortion field — especially on the M2 generation backwards, as the improvements are rather small.

But with the move to the 3nm process of M3, there seems to have been a bigger leap in single-core performance in particular. Let’s get to the numbers.

Also, as a quick heads up, there are some laptops in this list that released before Geekbench 6 even released, so the tests we did were solely on Geekbench 5.4 To work around this issue, I drew up an average of results from the latest Geekbench version of each respective laptop — thanks to the community for providing so many!

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LaptopGeekbench 6 single-coreGeekbench 6 multicore
MacBook Pro (M3 Max)320021711
MacBook Pro (M3 Pro)315414357
MacBook Pro (M3)313812018
MacBook Pro (M2 Max)268514626
MacBook Pro (M2 Pro)267312253
MacBook Pro (M2)25899630
MacBook Air (M2)25759647
MacBook Pro (M1 Max)312519078
MacBook Pro (M1 Pro)237812230
MacBook Pro (M1)23368265
MacBook Air (M1)23348313

SSD read and write speeds have remained largely consistent across models too. The only real outlier was the M2 Pro MacBook Pro cutting the speed nearly in half — due to using fewer NAND storage chips which reduces the memory bandwidth quite significantly.

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LaptopBlackmagic Disk Speed write (MBps)Geekbench 6 multicore
MacBook Pro (M3 Max)7594.25561.1
MacBook Pro (M3 Pro)4211.55069.6
MacBook Pro (M3)2769.12904.3
MacBook Pro (M2 Max)5717.26664.8
MacBook Pro (M2 Pro)2932.13455.8
MacBook Pro (M2)2794.72953.8
MacBook Air (M2)2800.12210.6
MacBook Pro (M1 Max)5314.65564.5
MacBook Pro (M1 Pro)5321.55377
MacBook Pro (M1)28252752.4
MacBook Air (M1)2904.12609

But the real difference in performance can be felt with the upgrades made to creatively intensive tasks, as Handbrake times (transcoding 4K video to 1080p) and Photoshop PugetBench times have progressively gotten faster over time.

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LaptopHandbrake timePhotoshop Pugetbench
MacBook Pro (M3 Max)02:341443 / 3:29
MacBook Pro (M3 Pro)04:341120 / 4:06
MacBook Pro (M3)05:37877 / 4:53
MacBook Pro (M2 Max)03:591218 / 3:54
MacBook Pro (M2 Pro)05:03934 / 4:40
MacBook Pro (M2)06:51817 / 4:54
MacBook Air (M2)07:52821 / 4:49
MacBook Pro (M1 Max)04:48877 / 4:44
MacBook Pro (M1 Pro)04:51806 / 4:54
MacBook Pro (M1)07:44649 / 6:18
MacBook Air (M1)09:08579 / 6:57

MacBook hierarchy: Gaming performance

MacBook Pro 16-inch (M3 Max, 2023)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

For all intents and purposes, it looks like Apple is finally caring about MacBook gaming. The improvements made to the GPU cores on the M3 MacBook Pros, from hardware accelerated ray tracing to dynamic caching, tell you all you need to know. 

Alongside this, the new games moved over to Apple’s own Metal FX coding language, and the game porting toolkit make it a more enticing proposition for developers. But are we seeing the big improvements right now? Not so much.

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LaptopBorderlands 3 (1920x1200)Sid Meier's Civilization VI (1920x1200)
MacBook Pro (M3 Max)54.6 fps59 fps
MacBook Pro (M3 Pro)28.9 fps53.7 fps
MacBook Pro (M3)19.8 fps50 fps
MacBook Pro (M2 Max)n/a57.6 fps
MacBook Pro (M2 Pro)n/a56.8 fps
MacBook Pro (M2)n/a51.1 fps
MacBook Air (M2)n/a40.3 fps
MacBook Pro (M1 Max)n/a46.1 fps
MacBook Pro (M1 Pro)n/a43.2 fps
MacBook Pro (M1)n/a38.1 fps
MacBook Air (M1)n/an/a

Games at the moment are not making the most of the new development tools on offer, and I’m confident we’ll see faster frame rates as time goes on and more devs take advantage of what the platform has to offer. But we’re only seeing a few frames per second difference across different generations.

MacBook hierarchy: Price-to-performance ratio

This is where things get interesting, as we break down exactly how much power you’re getting for every dollar invested into your MacBook. Yes, these numbers may be skewed by the cost of previous models going down over time, but it’s interesting to see nonetheless.

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LaptopPrice per point (Geekbench 6 multicore)
MacBook Pro (M3 Max)$0.14
MacBook Pro (M3 Pro)$0.13
MacBook Pro (M3)$0.12
MacBook Pro (M2 Max)$0.20
MacBook Pro (M2 Pro)$0.13
MacBook Pro (M2)$0.11
MacBook Air (M2)$0.09
MacBook Pro (M1 Max)$0.13
MacBook Pro (M1 Pro)$0.11
MacBook Pro (M1)$0.09
MacBook Air (M1)$0.09

With the diminishing returns of Apple Silicon improvement over generations, you can see how that cost starts to rise. However, I wasn’t expecting to see the M2 Max MacBook Pro 16-inch shoot up in cost against every other model.

MacBook hierarchy: Battery life and heat

M3 Pro MacBook Pro (14-inch)

(Image credit: Future)

There isn’t much to say here that wouldn’t be stating the obvious. The battery life and surface temperatures have (mostly) improved incrementally over time with each generational shift. 

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LaptopTemperature (Touchpad)Temperature (G/H keys)Hottest surface & temperature
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M3 Max)75.5 degrees80.5 degrees81 degrees (underside)
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3 Pro)76.1 degrees79.5 degrees81.3 degrees (F7 key)
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3)77 degrees78.5 degrees78.5 degrees (underside)
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M2 Max)78 degrees80.5 degrees81.5 degrees (underside)
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M2 Pro)78 degrees80.5 degrees81.5 degrees (underside)
MacBook Pro (M2)79 degrees80.5 degrees83 degrees (underside)
MacBook Air 15-inch (M2)78 degrees79.5 degrees83 degrees (underside)
MacBook Air 13-inch (M2)80 degrees81.5 degrees83.5 degrees (underside)
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M1 Max)83.5 degrees88 degrees88.5 degrees (underside)
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M1 Pro)85 degrees88.5 degrees89.5 degrees (underside)
MacBook Pro (M1)78 degrees81 degrees82.5 degrees (underside)
MacBook Air (M1)78.5 degrees80.5 degrees83.5 degrees (underside)

Whatever thermal management components Apple are tweaking every year, they are certainly working (though I’d still love to see the team put a fan in the MacBook Air). There are some fluctuations in the battery life department, though — namely that the 13-inch Pro with its lower quality display and slower processor means the beefier battery lasts a whole lot longer.

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LaptopBattery life (web surfing hh:mm)
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M3 Max)17:11
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3 Pro)17:22
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3)17:25
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M2 Max)18:56
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M2 Pro)16:38
MacBook Pro (M2)18:20
MacBook Air 15-inch (M2)14:48
MacBook Air 13-inch (M2)14:06
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M1 Max)15:31
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M1 Pro)14:08
MacBook Pro (M1)16:32
MacBook Air (M1)13:19

MacBook hierarchy: Which should you buy?

So let’s revisit the question we posed right at the beginning of this — which MacBook is right for you? Well let’s break it down into three use cases to help you out.

“I just need something cheap for the bare essentials”

Look towards the MacBook Air M1 or the MacBook Pro M1. They are older laptops, but there is a reason why we continue to write about them. That’s because they continue to be mightily impressive laptops — offering decent performance for your day-to-day and battery life that continues to embarrass competitors to this day in a premium shell.

However, the latest MacBooks are also coming down below the $1,000 mark too, and you could snag the M2 MacBook Air if you prefer to be future-proofed with software updates for a while longer. If that’s important to you, alongside that flatter aesthetic and MagSafe, this is an obvious choice.

“I’m a creative enthusiast looking to boost my workload without breaking the bank”

MacBook Pro 14-inch M3 on marble bench showing display

(Image credit: Future)

Let’s say you are getting started with a YouTube channel, dipping your toes into more complex photo edits and learning on the go, or you have musical or spoken word aspirations for both audio recording and production.

There are certain situations where a MacBook Air would be fine, but there are limits to its potential because of that thermally compromised design choice to remove the fans. So let’s turn to the Pros, where you’re spoilt for choice.

The best option would be the base M3 MacBook Pro — the latest low-end of the pro spectrum gives you all the goodness of the 14-inch frame with a lower cost. However, you shouldn’t ignore past generations, especially given how cheap you can pick up that M1 Pro option.

“I’m a professional and I want to give it the full beans with my workload”

MacBook Pro 16-inch (M3, 2023)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

From designing a new building or crafting a cinematic masterpiece, to advanced 3D editing or medical sciences, the Max models will satisfy your needs here. It just depends on how quick you need that ultra powerful chip to run.

It comes as no surprise that the best model for you will be the M3 Max option, but don’t count out M2 Max or even M1 Max. They are still stellar laptops that you can pick up at rather impressive prices for the huge gains in RAM and storage that you get for them.