The latest additions to Apple’s MacBook lineup are the new M3-equipped MacBook Pros. After testing them out, we think Apple has finally solidified the use cases for its two laptop series: Pro models are for true professionals, Air models are for everyone else. But there are still gradations within those models and different configurations will work for different people.
We’ve reviewed the current MacBook lineup and based on our testing, we created this guide to help demystify the chips, specs and everything in between so you can figure out which model will work best for your needs. We update this guide when Apple releases new models and we’ve had a chance to try them out. Apple’s next laptop update will likely put the M3 chip into the MacBook Air models, but we don’t expect to see those machines until next year. For now, these are the best MacBooks for everyone from students to power users.
Apple 2022 MacBook Air M2
Best MacBook overall
Apple 2020 MacBook Air M1
Best budget MacBook
Apple 2023 MacBook Pro M3
Best MacBook for creatives
Factors to consider when buying a MacBook
Compared to PCs, Apple computers tend to have more streamlined specifications. The company has long been known for this simplicity, and the M-series “system-on-a-chip” condenses things even further. The M1, M2 and M3 chips combine, among other technologies, the CPU, graphics card and unified memory (RAM). Apple’s Neural Engine is included too, which is a specialized group of processor cores that handles machine learning tasks such as image analysis and voice recognition. While a unified chip means you have fewer decisions to make when picking a MacBook, there are still a few factors to consider, including the number of CPU cores, amount of RAM, storage capacity, screen size, and, obviously, price.
The M1 chip is offered with a single configuration: an 8-core CPU and a 7-core GPU. At the other end of the spectrum, the M3 Max chip is built with up to a 16-core CPU and a 40-core GPU. Cores are, in essence, smaller processing units that can handle different tasks simultaneously. Having more of them translates to the computer being able to run multiple programs and applications at once, while also smoothly processing demanding tasks like video editing and high-level gaming. In short, more cores allow for more advanced computing. But if your needs fall below professional-level gaming and cinematic video and audio editing, getting the highest number of cores is likely overkill — and after all, more cores equals higher cost and more power usage.
Your options for memory, RAM or, in Apple’s terminology, Unified memory, varies depending on the chip you choose. The MacBook Air with the M1 chip comes with either 8 or 16GB of RAM. With the M3 chip, you can opt for 8, 16 or 24GB. The M3 Pro chip includes 18 or 36GB of memory, while the most powerful M3 Max chip gives you the option of 48, 64, or, in a first for an Apple laptop, a whopping 128GB.
You’ve likely heard the analogy comparing memory to the amount of workspace available on a literal desktop surface, whereas storage is the amount of drawers you have to store projects to work on later. The larger the worktop surface, the more projects you can work on at once. The bigger the drawers, the more you can save for later.
More RAM is ideal for people who plan to work in multiple programs at once. And the more demanding each program is, the more RAM will be required. Extra memory can also come in handy if you’re the type who likes to have infinite numbers of tabs open on your browser. If your daily workflow doesn’t involve simultaneously using a vast number of memory-intensive programs, you can save yourself money and buy the RAM configuration that you’re most likely to actually use.
For casual users, 8GB may be enough, however, if you can afford an upgrade to 16GB of RAM, we recommend going doing so, as modern browsers tend to be pretty memory-hungry. Investing in more RAM now will give your new MacBook a longer lifespan of reliable use. It’s also important to keep in mind that, unlike most PCs, the RAM in current-model MacBooks is not user-upgradable, so you’ll want to get what you plan on needing at the outset.
Storage capacity (SSD)
Storage options range from 256GB of SSD for the M1 MacBook Air and 8TB of storage for the MacBook Pros with the M3 Max chip. If you want to rotate between a long roster of game titles or keep lots of high-res videos on hand, you’ll want more storage. If you’re mostly working with browser- and cloud-based applications, you can get away with a smaller-capacity configuration. That said, we recommend springing for 512GB of storage or more, if it’s within your budget. You’ll quickly feel the limits of a 256GB machine as it ages since the operating system alone takes up a good portion of that space. Having 1TB will feel even roomier and allow for more data storage over the life of your laptop.
When Apple announced the iPhone 15, the company also announced new iCloud+ storage storage plans, with subscriptions that allow up to 12TB of storage. You could also transfer files to an external storage device. But if you don’t want to pay for a monthly subscription and prefer the convenience of having immediate access to your files, it’s best to get the highest amount of storage space your budget allows for at the outset.
MacBooks come in 13-, 14-, 15- and 16-inch sizes. That might not seem like a huge difference, but, as Engadget’s Nathan Ingraham noted when he reviewed the new 15-inch MacBook Air, “a bigger screen makes a surprising difference.” That’s especially true if you plan to use your laptop as an all-day productivity machine and won’t be using an external monitor. More space means you can more clearly view side-by-side windows and have a more immersive experience when watching shows or gaming.
But screen size is the main factor influencing weight. The 13-inch MacBook Air M2 weighs 2.7 pounds, whereas the top-end 16-inch MacBook Pro weighs 4.8 pounds. If you plan to travel a lot or swap your work locations regularly, a smaller screen will make life easier in the long run.
All MacBooks feature IPS LCD panels (in-plane switching, liquid crystal display), which Apple markets as Retina displays. The MacBook Air M1 has a Retina display. A Liquid Retina display comes with the M2 MacBook Air and the Liquid Retina XDR display comes with the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros. “Liquid” refers to the way the lighted portion of the display “flows” within the contours of the screen, filling the rounded corners and curving around the camera notch. “XDR” is what Apple calls HDR (high dynamic range).
Compared to most other laptops, MacBook displays are notably bright, sharp and lush. But one feature worth pointing out is another Apple marketing term: ProMotion. It’s the company’s term to describe a screen with a higher, 120Hz refresh rate, which results in smoother scrolling and more fluid-looking graphics. Only the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros offer ProMotion; the other models max out at 60Hz, which is perfectly fine for everyday browsing and typical workdays. But if you want buttery-smooth motion from your display, you’ll have to shell out more money for an upgraded model.
The least expensive MacBook is the 13-inch M1 Air with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD, which sells for $999 and has been regularly going for $750 at multiple retailers. Alternatively, you can spend up to $7,199 for the 16-inch MacBook Pro M3 Max with 128GB of RAM and 8TB of storage. Chip type, screen size, memory and storage capacity all influence the price at checkout, which is why guides like this may help you determine just what you need (and what you don’t) so you can get the most cost-effective machine for you.
Our guide suggests MacBook Air M2 for most people, the MacBook Air M1 for students and those on a budget, and the 14- or 16-inch MacBook Pros for professionals. If you have extra money to spare once you’ve picked your machine, we recommend upgrading to at least 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage to make your machine as future-proof as possible.
Best MacBook overall: MacBook Air M2
Our resident laptop expert Devindra Hardawar called the MacBook Air M2 a “near-perfect Mac” in his review, awarding it a high score of 96. It’s the newer of the two Air models Apple still sells, and notably a better buy than the 13-inch MacBook Pro, as the latter is both heavier and more expensive. The Air was built around the new M2 chip and completely refreshed for 2022 with a new, squared-off design that ditches the wedge shape.
The 13.6-inch Liquid Retina screen hits up to 500 nits, making it both bigger and brighter than the previous generation. The 60Hz refresh rate doesn’t deliver the butter-smooth scrolling you get on Pro models, but it’s lovely nonetheless. The quad speaker array pumps out great sound, filling a room at max volume without distortion, and the three-mic array does a good job of picking up your voice for video calls. The 1080p webcam is an improvement over previous generations. It even beats our top Windows laptop, Dell’s XPS 13 Plus which still sports a 720p camera, but Devindra found the image the Air captures to be drab.
Despite being thinner than ever, the M2 Air manages to hang on to its 3.5mm headphone jack and includes two USB-C Thunderbolt ports and a MagSafe connector. That means you don’t have to block a potential data port while charging. The battery life is ample, lasting 16 hours and 30 minutes in our rundown test, which should be more than enough for a day (or two) of work.
The M2 processor gives the Air enough speed to play games, particularly those from Apple Arcade. Streaming and cloud gaming work well through Safari, and you’ll find a handful of compatible titles on Steam. However, many of the bigger AAA releases still aren’t compatible with Macs – though Apple is looking to change that. Our review unit performed well in benchmark tests, beating the Air M1 and nearly matching the performance of the 13-inch MacBook Pro M2. It’s a fanless system which means it’s quiet, but to keep things cool, the CPU does have to be throttled occasionally.
Overall, it’s an excellent choice for everyday use and can handle most tasks. Of course, if you’re planning on doing intensive video editing, you’ll likely want something more powerful, such as the MacBook Pro M2, but the Air is arguably the best multipurpose, ultraportable laptop that Apple makes.
Our review MacBook Air had an M2 chip with a 10-core GPU, along with 16GB of memory and 1TB of storage. That configuration will run you $1,799. We think the processing power of the Air is plenty capable without the GPU bump and the terabyte of storage is probably overkill for most casual users. Instead, we recommend the $1,499 setup with an 8-core GPU, 16GB of memory and 512GB of SSD storage.
The 13-inch MacBook Air is certainly the best laptop for anyone that prizes portability above all else. However, if a slightly larger screen size is tempting to you, don't sleep on the 15-inch MacBook Air M2. The new laptop does everything that 13-inch model does well, while giving you a larger screen to work with in a still-svelte package. It doesn't side-step the very Apple issue of having a little less RAM and storage than we'd prefer in its base model (8GB, 256GB SSD), but that doesn't hold it back. It's one of the best MacBooks we've used recently and it gives fans of the Air lineup a new configuration to consider. And since it’s starting price is only $200 more than that of the 13-inch Air, the jump isn’t as cost-prohibitive as, say, the 14-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at a whopping $2,000.
Best budget MacBook: MacBook Air M1
The MacBook Air M1 may not have the most current Apple silicon, but it gets so much right that it’s still an excellent laptop, and probably the best MacBook for college students. It earned a high score of 94 in our review and Devindra declared it one of the fastest ultraportables you could buy at the time. Of course, now that the M2 is on the scene, its numbers are comparatively less impressive – but with a base price of $999 (and often on sale for less), it’s a relatively affordable way for students or those with tight budgets to snag an entry-level machine that's both fast and capable.
The Air’s 13.3-inch Retina display looks beautiful and is ideal for binge sessions. The laptop’s sturdy, wedge-shaped unibody case weighs just 2.8 pounds, making it easy to take to class or work. You can even fire it up in the quietest library without making a sound, thanks to a heat sink and passive cooling that eliminate the need for a fan. The keyboard offers a satisfying amount of depth despite its thin profile and the trackpad is smooth.
The performance of the M1 chip really makes the MacBook Air M1 stand out. It’s impressively responsive, launching apps nearly instantly and running them effortlessly. Safari delivers a slick browsing experience, loading complex pages quickly. The M1 chip is also behind the Air’s long battery life. We managed to get 16 hours and 20 minutes during our video rundown test, which should be more than enough to get you through a full-day grind.
Of course, it’s not without drawbacks. The M1 Air houses a 720p webcam, which isn’t as sharp as the M2 Air’s 1080p camera and it only comes with two Thunderbolt ports and a headphone jack. If you’re charging your computer, there’s only one available plug for accessories. There’s no SD card slot, either, and since Apple hardware isn’t the easiest to upgrade yourself, you’ll want to buy all the storage you need right out of the gate.
We recommend sticking with the base configuration (8GB RAM/256GB SSD) if you’ll mostly be using web-based programs and cloud-based apps. For an extra $200, you can upgrade to 16GB of memory which is good if you stream heavily, like to have a lot of open tabs or want to run a ton of apps at once. Alternatively, the same amount could get you 512GB of storage if you want to keep a lot of files and photos locally.
Best MacBook for creatives: MacBook Pro M3
During a late-night, pre-Halloween event, Apple revealed its new M3 chip along with the new MacBook Pros that would house it. There’s a new base model Pro with 8GB of memory, 512GB of storage and the standard M3 chip (the M2 generation was only available with the M2 Pro or M2 Max chips). It sells for $1,599, making it the most affordable 14-inch Pro model yet.
Unfortunately we don’t recommend you grab that one. You’ll at least want to spring for a model with 16GB of RAM to get the most out of your new M3 machine. Beyond that, it’s hard to go wrong with these new MacBooks. As Devindra points out in his review, these new chips are “incredibly efficient and powerful” and the laptops themselves are as “elegant as ever.”
For multimedia professionals, we recommend bumping up to the M3 Pro chip with an 11-core CPU and 14-core GPU. You can grab one with a 14-inch screen, 18GB of memory and 512GB of SSD for $1,999. If you’ve got demanding video and/or audio projects with big timelines, you may want to jump up to the 16-inch M3 Max MacBook Pro with a 14-core CPU and 30-core GPU. That configuration will run you $3,499 paired up with 36GB of RAM and 1TB of storage. For something in between those two picks, you could go for the 14-inch M3 Pro with a 12-core CPU and 18-core GPU paired with 18GB of RAM and 1TB of storage. It combines the speed of the M3 Pro chip, without the higher price of the Max chip, running you a more palatable $2,399.
Apart from the chips, the hardware on the M3 MacBook Pros remains largely the same. You still get a bright and vibrant MiniLED Liquid Retina XDR display with a 120Hz refresh rate for smooth scrolling and animations.
The crisp, punchy sound from the six-speaker array is better than what most laptops can deliver and the built-in mics are great for video calls. It has the same array of ports as the M2 Pros, including an SD card slot, headphone jack, HDMI port and three Thunderbolt 4 sockets plus the MagSafe charging port.
As for battery life, our rundown tests outperformed Apple’s listed estimates by a couple hours, getting 24 and a half hours on the 14-inch model and 20 more minutes than that with the 16-inch Pro. In real-world use, it took two days before needing to hook the laptops back up to the grid.