Which MacBook should I buy? Here’s what you need to know

MacBook Air vs Pro split down the middle, on a blue and purple background
(Image credit: Apple)

The question of which MacBook to buy got a lot more interesting this past year, and for good reason. Apple's laptop business is on a hot streak, thanks in large part to the remarkable performance of its bespoke M1 chips, and the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are better than they have been in years.

That's good news for anyone who wants to buy a new MacBook, since you can be confident you're getting one of the best laptops on the market when you opt for an Apple machine with an M1 chip inside. But the power and efficiency of Apple silicon has also blurred the line between the MacBook Air vs Pro, which can make it hard to know which model to buy.

To help you out, we've compiled this list (based on our hands-on testing) of the top MacBooks and their unique strengths and weaknesses. While every new MacBook offers a great screen, good speakers, and a comfortable keyboard to type on, there are some significant differences between the various models that you should know about. 

Whether you're shopping for yourself or someone you love, this article will help equip you with everything you need to know in order to find the best MacBook for your needs.

MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro specs

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Header Cell - Column 0 MacBook Air13-inch MacBook Pro14-inch MacBook Pro16-inch MacBook Pro
Starting price$999 $1,299$1,999$2499
Screen13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)14.2 inches (3024 x 1964) min-LED 16.2 inches (3456 x 2234) min-LED
Battery life14:41 of web browsing (M1, tested) | Up to 18 hours of video playback (M1, claimed) | 9:31 (Intel, tested)16:32 of web browsing (M1, tested) | Up to 20 hours (Apple M1, claimed) | 10:21 (Intel, tested)17 hours of video playback (rated)21 hours video playback (rated)
ProcessorApple M1 (8-core)Apple M1 (8-core)Apple M1 Pro, M1 Max (10-core)Apple M1 Pro, M1 Max (10-core)
GraphicsIntegrated 7-core M1 GPU | Integrated 8-core GPUIntegrated 7-core M1 GPU | Integrated 8-core GPU 16-core or 32-core 16-core or 32-core
Storage256GB to 2TB256GB to 2TB512GB to 8TB512GB to 8TB
Memory8GB, 16GB8GB, 16GB16GG, 32GB16GB, 32GB, 64GB
Ports2 Thunderbolt 3/USB42 Thunderbolt 3/USB43 Thunderbolt 4/USB-C, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe3 Thunderbolt 4/USB-C, HDMI, SD Card, MagSafe
SecurityTouch IDTouch IDTouch IDTouch ID
AudioStereo speakers, Dolby Atmos supportStereo speakers, Dolby Atmos support, 3-mic array6-speaker array, Dolby Atmos support6-speaker array, Dolby Atmos support
Dimensions12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches12.31 x 8.71 x 0.61 inches14.01 x 9.77 x 0.66 inches
Weight2.8 pounds3.0 pounds3.5 pounds 4.7 to 4.8 pounds

You should buy the MacBook Air with M1 if...

...you want the lightest, most portable MacBook you can buy. It's also the cheapest option, with a starting price of $999.

Apple released the MacBook Air with M1 at the tail end of 2020, making it one of the first MacBooks to ship with Apple's inaugural M1 chip. In the year since we've seen Apple iterate on the M1 and release new MacBooks with beefier chips, but that doesn't mean the 2020 M1 MacBook Air is outdated. 

To the contrary, it remains one of the lightest and most performant ultraportables on the market. The model we reviewed (upgraded to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage, which would cost about $1,599) turned in some remarkable results in our laboratory testing, performing at speeds that rival beefier and more expensive Windows laptops. And with a tested battery life of almost 15 hours (14:41), the M1 MacBook Air is proven to last longer on a single charge than most laptops on the market.

MacBook Air on a desk

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

However, there are some weaknesses in the design of the 2020 MacBook Air. The bezels around the display are a bit thick for our tastes, and the remarkably thin and light chassis doesn't offer a lot of port options. You're limited to a headphone jack on the right side and 2 Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports on the left side. At least one of those ports will be needed to to charge the laptop. 

This is hardly an insurmountable problem — you can always invest in a good USB-C hub if you want to plug in more stuff — but these days, a pair of USB-C ports and a headphone jack is the bare minimum a laptop can offer and still be considered a useful productivity device. 

Apple MacBook Air M1 on a desk

You'll be hard-pressed to find a laptop thinner and lighter than Apple's M1-equipped MacBook Air (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In a better world, the Air would offer more ports in a more convenient configuration. We may get a glimpse of that world in 2022, when Apple is expected to release a MacBook Air 2022 model with some upgrades inside and out. However, the latest rumors we've heard suggest such an Air won't be released until the latter half of 2022, so if you need a new Air now, you might not want to wait and see if a better version is waiting in the wings. 

The 2020 MacBook Air is still an excellent laptop, and since it weighs less than 3 pounds this little speed machine remains real easy to carry all day.

You should buy the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 if...

...you want the smallest, lightest MacBook Pro you can get, with the best battery life.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 was released in November of 2020 alongside the M1 MacBook Air, so it's more than a year old at this point. Apple has since come out with two larger versions of the Pro with more powerful M1 chips, but just like with the Air, that doesn't mean there's no merit in buying a new 2020 M1 MacBook Pro. This is still a remarkably powerful laptop; it can handle intensive tasks like video editing or game development nearly as well as its larger siblings, plus it's easier to carry and more battery-efficient.

MacBook Pro M1 on a table

(Image credit: Future)

In our MacBook Pro M1 review we praised this laptop's compelling one-two punch of performance and power efficiency, as it ran rings around older MacBook Pros powered by Intel chips. In our battery test, this MacBook Pro lasted an incredible 16 hours and 25 minutes on a single charge, one of the highest results we've ever seen from a laptop. The fact that the 13-inch Pro was able to achieve that while still delivering excellent performance makes it a great choice for anyone who's looking for an Apple laptop that's beefier than the Air, yet still light enough and long-lasting enough to carry all day. 

MacBook Pro

The 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro still sports a Touch Bar, a real love it or hate it feature that's been axed from Apple's 2021 MacBooks. (Image credit: Stephen Lam/Getty Image)

Be aware, however, that the 2020 M1 MacBook Pro suffers from the same paucity of ports which plagues the M1 Air. You get just two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports on the left side and a headphone jack on the right, which is the bare minimum most people will need to make adequate use of the laptop. This weakness is even more galling on the M1 MacBook Pro, since it's marketed as a laptop for professionals yet lacks ports that many creative professionals would appreciate, like a microSD card reader for pulling footage off memory cards.

You should also know that this MacBook Pro still sports the Touch Bar, a controversial design feature found on older MacBook Pros but removed from the 2021 versions. So if you like the Touch Bar (a touch-sensitive strip of screen above the keyboard which can dynamically display different controls depending on what app you're using), this is the best MacBook you can buy that still has one. If you don't like the Touch Bar but want a new MacBook Pro, good news: Apple released a pair this year that should make you very happy.

You should buy the 14-inch MacBook Pro if...

...you want the most powerful laptop Apple sells in its lightest, most portable form.

In 2021, Apple released new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros that offer a slew of improvements over earlier iterations. Both models are configurable with the same components, a rare indulgence on Apple's part that lets you pack all the power on offer in the 16-inch Pro into its smaller sibling — if you're willing to pay the price.

The MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

And what power you have on tap in these machines, which can be configured with multiple models of Apple's new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Both blew away the competition in our lab testing, consistently delivering impressive performance, lightning-quick file transfer speeds, and remarkably fast video transcoding. There are some impressive upgrade options on the Pro too, as you can configure it with up to 64GB of RAM and 8TB of storage. 

Plus, the battery life is still great: the 14-inch MacBook Pro 2021 with an M1 Pro chip lasted just over 14 hours (14:09) in our battery test. While that does make it the least long-lived MacBook on this list, 14 hours still beats the vast majority of laptops on the market.

The MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)

Finally, a MacBook Pro with ports pros might actually want. (Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

As nice as the guts of the new MacBook Pros are, the outside has also gotten a welcome revamp. The 14-inch MacBook Pro offers the same port array as its bigger sibling, and what a useful one it is: 3 Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports, an HDMI out, an SD card reader, a headphone jack and a dedicated MagSafe 3 charging port. The return of MagSafe charging is a welcome one, though you can also charge these Pros via the USB-C ports if you want.

And the screen! The 14-inch Macbook Pro sports a 14.2-inch (3,024 x 1,964 pixels) mini-LED display that makes everything you do on it look good, from watching movies to editing photos. Plus, Apple trimmed back the bezels around the screen, making it easier to focus on whatever you're watching. 

The only catch is that the design leaves a little black plastic notch hanging down from the top bezel to house the webcam. It's pretty easy to ignore, and it contains a great 1080p FaceTime HD camera, making these 2021 Pros the first MacBooks to ship with 1080p webcams.

As you can probably tell, there's a lot to like about the 2021 MacBook Pros. The 14-inch model is a great buy right now because it's cheaper than the larger model ($1,999 to start, compared to $2,499) yet offers nearly the same power and features. This model is also more than a pound lighter than its larger sibling, too, which could make a big difference if you're planning to carry your MacBook around all day.

You should buy the 16-inch MacBook Pro if...

...you absolutely, positively must have the biggest, beefiest MacBook Apple makes.

We've long been fans of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, largely because for a long time it's been the most powerful and best-sounding MacBook on the market, with a six-speaker setup contributing to that latter claim. But with the 2021 revamp, Apple made our favorite Pro even better. 

In our 16-inch MacBook Pro 2021 review, we said this model established the new high-water mark for MacBook performance, and with good reason: the 16-inch Pro is both remarkably powerful and power-efficient, with a gorgeous 16.2-inch (3,456 x 2,244 pixels) mini-LED display and a killer speaker array.

MacBook Pro 2021 (16-inch) review unit sitting on a patio table

(Image credit: Future)

The 16-inch model sports the same revamped design as its smaller sibling, down to the expanded port options, wonderfully thin bezels and hanging camera notch. Plus, its larger size gives it room for a larger battery, one that helped the 16-inch Pro last an astounding 15 hours and 31 minutes on a single charge in our battery test. That's plenty to carry all day without worrying about finding a charger, and it makes the 16-inch Pro the second longest-lived MacBook on this list, second only to the incredible 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 (16:25). 

MacBook Pro 2021 (16-inch) review unit on a table

(Image credit: Future)

Of course, the downsides are that the 16-inch Pro has a higher cost of entry for any MacBook. It's also the heaviest laptop on this list by far, weighing in at nearly 5 pounds. But with all that power attached to such a big, beautiful screen, the 16-inch Pro is well-equipped to serve as a beefy portable workstation, and it's one of the best laptops for video editing you can buy.

Which MacBook is right for you?

It should be pretty clear that now's a great time to buy a new MacBook. Apple's laptop business has gone from strength to strength since the debut of the M1 chip in late 2020, and the Apple silicon train shows no signs of slowing down for the foreseeable future. 

Even the cheapest M1-equipped MacBook is more performant and power-efficient than most similarly-priced laptops, and if you can afford to splurge the new MacBook Pros are the most powerful MacBooks we've ever seen. 

The things to think about before you buy are: how big of a screen do I want, and what kinds of ports do I need? How often do I plan on carrying this thing around? And most importantly, what can I afford? 

Now is a good time to buy, because you're pretty much guaranteed to get a great machine no matter how much you spend on a new MacBook.

Alex Wawro
Senior Editor Computing

Alex Wawro is a lifelong tech and games enthusiast with more than a decade of experience covering both for outlets like Game Developer, Black Hat, and PC World magazine. A lifelong PC builder, he currently serves as a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice.