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The MacBook line offers three distinct choices: the 13-inch Air, 13-inch Pro and 16-inch Pro. Here's how to pick the right one for you.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

For many years, this was everyone's favorite laptop. It was reasonably priced, thin, light and built like a tank. It could last for years and take lots of falls and bumps. For any college student or coffee shop creative type, $999 would get you sorted. 

Then time passed the Air by. Its low-res display and the thick bezel around the screen fell behind average Windows laptops. The components were rarely updated. Fortunately, the Air got a huge refresh and now looks and feels very much like a MacBook Pro. Most importantly, it's back down to that magical $999 starting price. 

The M1-powered Air doesn't have any vents, which means there are no fans and no fan noise -- perfect for classrooms and conferences. You only get two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports and there's no Touch Bar, but for most people neither are really a big deal. 

If you're a college student, a would-be entrepreneur, a writer or just looking for an all-around laptop on the high end of casual, it's tough to go wrong with the MacBook Air. It'll rightly be the default starting point for a lot of people.

Read our review of the Apple MacBook Air M1.

 

$900 at Best Buy

MacBook Pro 13-inch

Andy Hoyle/CNET

When Apple updated the Air with its M1 chip, it also updated the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Unlike the Air, though, the Pro has fan vents, which help keep it cool when processing your raw photo edits or cranking through your video exports. 

More importantly, the switch to M1 means getting the best performance from your software requires the programs to be rewritten to take advantage of the new hardware. Fortunately, Apple's Rosetta 2 software allows Intel-native versions of applications to run normally with the M1 chip. In our testing, the performance difference was negligible if at all. 

All Pros now have the Apple Touch Bar, which isn't as useful as Apple would have you believe but not as useless as everyone else thinks. I use it all the time for screen brightness, volume control and a few other contextual buttons, like when using the calculator app. 

Since they're close in price, you might be tempted to get the less expensive Air over the Pro -- after all, they look and feel similar and share a lot of the same features. And for many people, that's the right call. But if you're working with more power-hungry apps such as Photoshop or Premiere, you'll want the Pro's performance boost. 

Read our hands-on testing of the MacBook Pro M1.

 

$1,299 at Apple

MacBook Pro 16-inch

Sarah Tew/CNET

The sole remaining MacBook with only Intel processors. The 16-inch Pro is sort of a resurrection of the late, great 17-inch MacBook Pro, which was discontinued back in 2012. It's huge, at least compared with the 13-inch MacBooks.

The main selling point is all that screen real estate, which is what you need if you're a designer or a number cruncher and need to keep a lot of things in front of you. Like the old 15-inch Pro, the 16-inch MacBook is ridiculously expensive, starting at $2,399 and going up from there. But if that's your all-day, every-day, work-from-home screen, it could be worth it. 

The other big selling point of the 16-inch Pro is that it includes discrete graphics, with a couple of AMD Radeon options. No, Macs are still not gaming machines, but if you're editing 4K video or doing 3D modeling, having a GPU is important. The other Macs include Intel Iris graphics, which is at least a step up from standard off-the-shelf laptop graphics.

The big cautionary statement here is that sometime in the next year, we expect this model to be updated with Apple's M1 chip to match the rest of the lineup. But if you need something right now, you can't go wrong with this (and used MacBooks typically fetch top dollar).

Read our Apple MacBook Pro (16-inch, 2019) review.

 

$2,249 at Adorama $2,049 at eBay $2,199 at Amazon

Which MacBook should I buy?

My TL;DR advice is as follows.

  • If you need a MacBook for everyday work, schoolwork, web surfing, movies and light creativity, go with the MacBook Air. For most people, this is all the MacBook they'll need. 
  • Need some more processing muscle or, for some reason, you really love the Touch Bar? Go with the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but keep in mind it may be a while before it can take full advantage of your software. 
  • The 16-inch MacBook Pro is basically a desktop replacement. If you're thinking of getting an iMac but want to carry it around sometimes, or if you definitely need a discrete GPU, then splurge on the 16-inch MacBook Pro. It's painfully expensive, but it's a real joy to use, and frankly, it's tough to go back to a 13-inch screen after using the 16-inch for a while.
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See also
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  • Best Chromebook for 2021
  • These are the best 2-in-1s that are more than just a laptop or a tablet
 



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