The 4 best Apple MacBook laptops in 2021 for work, general use, and students

  • Apple’s M1-powered MacBook Air is the best choice for most people.
  • But for those who need a bigger screen and better speakers, we recommend the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
  • Check out our guide to the best laptops for more buying advice.

Whether you’re a Mac or Windows fan, buying a new computer is an important decision. At the very least, a good laptop should offer the right level of performance, long battery life, and a comfortable keyboard and trackpad at a reasonable price.

For Apple users, the M1-powered MacBook Air is the best at fulfilling this criteria. Apple’s new chip enables battery life that may very well be the longest we’ve ever seen in a laptop, as well as impressively fast performance.

Of course, the MacBook Air isn’t right for everyone, which is why we also recommend the 16-inch MacBook Pro for those who need more screen space, storage, and higher-quality speakers. There are also a few reasons why Apple’s Intel-powered MacBook Pro might be a better choice, especially if your workflow involves specialized software that might not be optimized for Apple’s new chip yet.

But if you’re not in a rush, it might be worth waiting before you buy. Apple is expected to release new versions of the MacBook Pro this year, followed by a refreshed MacBook Air, according to Bloomberg. The new laptops are said to come with the next iteration of Apple’s M1 processor, improved designs, and a new version of the MagSafe charging system it used to include on its laptops.

Here are the best MacBooks you can buy:

The best MacBook overall

Apple MacBook Air 2020

The latest MacBook Air released in late 2020 gains Apple’s new M1 processor, which brings impressively fast performance and long battery life, for under $1,000, making it the best Apple laptop overall.

Pros: Fast performance, super-long battery life, much-improved camera

Cons: iPhone apps don’t add much to the experience

The MacBook Air has consistently been the go-to MacBook for most people and a solid entry-level computer. But the introduction of Apple’s M1 chip makes it even more powerful than its predecessor for the same price, solidifying its choice as our top pick.

The M1-powered MacBook Air‘s battery life alone makes it a worthwhile choice. During my testing, I was able to get more than 12 hours of use out of the MacBook Air, far longer than the roughly seven hours of usage I experienced on the Intel-powered model from early 2020. 

The M1 chip’s eight-core processor also brings notable performance gains, making tasks like photo editing and exporting large files a breeze. During my tests, it was faster than the previous Intel-powered MacBook Pro at just about everything. It also uses Apple’s image signal processor for its webcam, meaning you can expect much clearer video quality on your next Zoom call. 

Otherwise, it comes with the same sleek wedge-shaped design that’s been present on the MacBook Air line for years, as well as Apple’s much-improved Magic Keyboard. In terms of storage and memory, the MacBook Air goes up to 2TB of capacity and 16GB of RAM. It comes with two USB-C ports on all configurations. 

Laptops like the MacBook Air that are powered by Apple’s own chip can also run iPhone apps, since this chip is based on the same basic architecture as the one in the company’s smartphones. While that’s a nice perk, it’s really the performance and battery life that make Apple’s M1 stand out.

The best high-performance MacBook

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The 16-inch MacBook Pro‘s powerful performance, larger screen, and high-quality speakers make it a great choice for creative professionals. 

Pros: Larger display, great keyboard, lots of configuration options, excellent speakers

Cons: Hefty upgrade prices, only four I/O ports for the size

The end of 2019 brought us the first entirely new MacBook Pro since 2016: a 16-inch version that replaces the long-standing 15.4-inch model. It was also the first laptop to get Apple’s superior new Magic Keyboard.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro has plenty to offer when it comes to performance and configuration options. Although it doesn’t run on Apple’s new M1 chip, Apple’s biggest laptop does come with up to an eight-core Intel processor, up to 64GB of memory, up to 8TB of storage, and up to 11 hours of battery life.

Those are the highest configuration options for memory and storage across Apple’s laptop lineup. Compared to the other laptops Apple sells, the 16-inch Pro also has the most selection when it comes to graphics, with the option to configure it with a variety of AMD Radeon Pro GPUs. 

But it’s not just the broader configuration options and larger size that makes this the best choice for pros. The 16-inch MacBook Pro comes with a three-microphone array and is the only Apple laptop with a six-speaker audio system, making it a better choice for media professionals that may need high-quality audio playback. The speakers can also come in handy if you’re on a lot of Zoom calls throughout the day and need a system that’s a bit louder and clearer. 

All told, the 16-inch MacBook Pro‘s bigger size, variety of configuration options, and high quality speakers are ideal for those shopping for something that isn’t quite as large and powerful as a desktop, but is closer to the desktop experience than any of Apple’s other laptops.

The best middle of the road MacBook

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For anyone that needs as much power as Apple is willing to cram within a 13-inch laptop, the MacBook Pro with M1 is worth a look. 

The MacBook Air is powerful enough for everyday tasks. But the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 is better-suited for those who need more power in a laptop that’s not as big as the 16-inch. It shares many similarities with the MacBook Air; they both come in nearly identical configuration options, include the same number of ports, and have very similar screens. 

But since the MacBook Pro has a fan-powered cooling system unlike the Air, it’s probably better at maintaining high performance for longer periods of time. So if you frequently run heavy workloads that involve crunching a lot of data, for example, the Pro is probably a better bet. Another added benefit: it has slightly longer battery life than the M1-powered Air.

Those are the biggest differences between the M1-powered Pro and Air, but the former’s processor also has an extra core in its GPU at the base level compared to the Air. Its screen is also slightly brighter, and the Pro’s speakers support high dynamic range unlike the Air’s.

Like the Air, the Pro has two USB-C ports, a 720 camera that uses Apple’s image signal processor, Touch ID, and the Magic Keyboard.  

The 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro falls into a strange place in Apple’s lineup. It doesn’t have the perks that make the 16-inch Pro stand out, like a six-speaker audio system and flexible configuration options. But it also doesn’t have much that distinguishes it from the Air to justify the $300 starting price difference. 

Still, that’s exactly what makes it the right choice for buyers who find themselves in the middle. It’s a great option for those who want a bit more than what the Air has to offer along with the benefits of Apple’s M1 chip.

The best college MacBook

13 inch macbook pro 2020 magic keyboard

The best MacBook for college packs powerful performance into a compact, 13-inch laptop, but expands the connectivity options to four USB-C ports instead of two.

Pros: More storage and RAM, two extra USB-C ports for connectivity, great keyboard

Cons: Shorter battery life than M1 MacBook Pro and Air

Apple’s Intel-powered versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro fill in the gaps when it comes to storage, memory, and connectivity compared to the M1 model. 

Unlike the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1, the Intel version offers up to 32GB of memory, up to 4TB of storage, and four USB-C ports. The M1 model, by comparison, tops out at 16GB of memory, 2TB of storage, and two USB-C ports. It’s great for those who need more connectivity and storage than the M1-powered MacBook Pro allows for, but don’t want a laptop that’s as large and expensive as the 16-inch model. 

That extra ports alone could make this model worth it for college students, who may need to charge their laptop, plug in their iPhone, and connect a hard drive containing large video projects for class all at the same time. Plus, the Intel-powered MacBook Pro may be a safer option if you rely on specific software for classwork since Apple’s M1 architecture is still new and app makers are still updating their programs for it.

The Intel-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro comes in models that run on a Core i5 or Core i7 chip, which should be more than capable of managing hefty workloads. It has the same Retina display as Apple’s M1 laptops, and also has Apple’s Magic Keyboard. Like its M1-powered sibling, the Intel-based 13-inch Pro also has speakers with high dynamic range.

Although the Intel-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro offers the right balance of performance, portability, and flexible choices that make it ideal for the college experience, there are reasons students should consider Apple’s M1 laptops, too. 

The M1 MacBook Air may be a better fit if you need a laptop for little more than writing papers and prioritize long battery life and portability over additional configuration options.

How to buy a MacBook

MacBook Pro and Air

These are the top factors to consider when purchasing a new MacBook.

Performance 

To decide which MacBook is right for you, it’s important to understand what you intend to use it for. If you need a powerful machine for processing images, editing video, or handling complex data, the MacBook Pro is a better choice. 

Apple’s MacBook Pro models, particularly the 13-inch Intel-powered one with four ports and the 16-inch MacBook Pro, are upgradeable to 32GB of memory, while the less expensive M1 MacBook Pro, Intel-powered MacBook Pro with two ports, and M1-powered MacBook Air only come with up to 16GB of memory.

Even if you don’t need that much memory, a MacBook Pro model is still the best pick if performance is your top priority. For example, although the M1 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are very similar, the MacBook Pro has a slight edge when it comes to performance since it has a fan-powered cooling system and an extra graphics core in its processor at the base level.


Battery life

If battery life matters the most, go for the M1 MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. Apple’s custom chip brings unprecedented battery life to its laptops, with the MacBook Air lasting for up to 18 hours according to Apple’s estimates, and the MacBook Pro lasting for 20 hours. Apple’s Intel-powered laptops, by comparison, are only estimated to get between 10-12 hours of battery life.


Storage

Storage is also critical when it comes to picking out a new laptop. If you need the most space you can possibly get in a MacBook, you’ll want to consider Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro, which is configurable up to 8TB. The 13-inch Intel-powered MacBook Pro with four ports is a close second, since you can order it with up to 4TB of storage.

Apple’s other current laptops, including the M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, are only configurable up to 2TB of storage.


Size

Looking for a larger-sized laptop for getting work done? The 16-inch MacBook Pro is your best bet. It’s the only Apple laptop that comes in a size bigger than 13 inches, making it the right pick if you want a laptop that’s more ideal for a desktop-like setup rather than portability. 

If you want the most compact Apple laptop, check out the MacBook Air. Like most of Apple’s MacBook Pro laptops, the Air has a 13-inch screen. But it’s slightly lighter at 2.8 pounds, while the MacBook Pros weigh 3 pounds or more.

Check out our guide to the best USB-C hubs you’ll need for your Mac

hootoo USB-C hub

The best USB-C hubs you can buy


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