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How to Pick the Right MacBook for You

in 2020, Apple’s MacBooks entered a new era. The company announced it was moving away from the Intel chips it had been using since 2006, and rolled out the first Macs with the Apple-designed M1. Cut to 2023 and the company now offers the choice between eight custom processors, the latest of which is the M2 Ultra—powering the new Mac Studio and Mac Pro.

Just like Apple’s iPhones, the chips run on the ARM architecture and afford the company greater control over its hardware and software. These processors make Apple laptops both more powerful and power-efficient, meaning greatly improved performance and battery life. You get other perks, like the ability to run mobile apps originally made for iOS. Despite all these advancements, choosing a MacBook is still difficult. Here’s what you should spend your hard-earned money on.

Updated June 2023: We’ve added the 15-inch MacBook Air and details on the M2 Ultra.

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The Best for Most People

Apple MacBook Air (13 Inch, 2022)$1,099 at Apple$1,099 at Best Buy$1,099 at B&H

Apple’s MacBook Air (7/10, WIRED Recommends) comes with a ton of upgrades on both the inside and out. The company officially ditched the signature wedge design for a boxier chassis. It comes in two new colors—midnight and starlight—in addition to the traditional space gray and silver options. The display is also bigger and is equipped with an updated webcam. Coming in at 13.6 inches (it’s 13.3 inches on its predecessor), the screen has thinner borders, a brightness of 500 nits, and a notch that houses a 1080p camera.

Apple didn’t throw in additional ports, but the MacBook Air has the same MagSafe treatment as the high-end MacBook Pro models. Now you can attach the power cable magnetically to the laptop to charge it, freeing up both Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports. Speaking of, there's support for fast charging if you purchase the 67-watt USB-C power adapter, which Apple claims can juice up the laptop up to 57 percent in 30 minutes. I only have to charge it after about eight hours of use. When working outdoors with the screen at full brightness, the battery usually lasts for about six hours.

Under the hood is Apple’s M2 chip, which offers a decent boost in performance compared to the original M1 processor. You get an 8-core CPU with the option to choose between an 8-core or 10-core GPU. I tested the model with an 8-core CPU, 10-core GPU, and 8 GB of unified memory. The MacBook Air ran smoothly on standard workdays when I had apps like Slack, Spotify, Telegram, and Messages running simultaneously along with 10 to 15 tabs open on Google Chrome. But I did notice its limitations on hectic days when I increased the tab count to 30. Whether I was switching tabs, scrolling, or minimizing and expanding windows, the experience felt sluggish. I even triggered the dreaded rainbow wheel a few times. My recommendation? Upgrade the unified memory to 16 gigs for a smoother experience.

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The M2-powered Air is an ideal option for most people who need a reliable laptop for everyday tasks and a little bit more. If your workloads are graphics-intensive, then I suggest snagging one of the 14- or 16-inch MacBook Pro models below.


If You Want a Bigger Screen

Apple MacBook Air (15 Inch, 2023)$1,250 at Amazon$1,299 at Apple$1,299 at Best Buy

The 15-inch MacBook Air (8/10, WIRED Recommends) is the first large-screen option within the Air lineup. Seriously, you don't need to splurge on a 14- or 16-inch MacBook Pro just to get a big display now. It packs all the same features as its smaller sibling (see above) including a redesigned chassis and a 1080p webcam. Even with the larger design, it remains thin and lightweight. At 3.3 pounds, it's a little over a half-pound heavier than the 13-inch model and slightly lighter than the 14-inch MacBook Pro.

It's powered by the same M2 chip too, complete with an 8-core CPU and 10-core GPU. (Unlike the smaller MacBook Air, the base model comes with a 10-core GPU instead of eight.) If it's within your budget, I highly recommend upgrading to at least 16 GB of unified memory. Having used the M2-powered 13-inch MacBook Air with 8 GB of memory over the past year, I'd often see the rainbow wheel whenever I'd have several tabs and windows open. This time, I tested the 15-inch MacBook Air with 16 GB of memory, and it handled 40 Chrome tabs, three separate windows, and multiple apps, without any hiccups.

I'm also a fan of the improved speaker system. Instead of using the same quad-speaker setup on the 13-inch model, this MacBook comes with a six-speaker system that includes two tweeters and two sets of force-canceling woofers. The difference is noticeable. It delivers better sound clarity, and I don't have to crank it to max volume whenever I watch a movie. Another noticeable change? Battery life. Even though Apple claims both the 13-inch and 15-inch have up to 15 hours of wireless web browsing, I experienced better results with the larger model. I'd have to plug in the 13-inch MacBook after seven or eight hours of use, while the 15-incher hit 18 percent after about 10 hours of use.

I never once felt the need to connect the 15-inch MacBook Air to an external monitor, which is something I regularly did with the 13-inch model. If you spend all day working off a laptop and don't mind toting a slightly larger machine—that's still fairly lightweight—then it's worth it. 


Best Budget MacBook

Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020)$750 at Amazon$999 at Apple$750 at Best Buy$850 at B&H

If you don’t want to spend too much, then stick with the MacBook Air (9/10, WIRED Recommends) that runs on the M1 chip from 2020. It remains one of the most powerful laptops you can get for the price, and mine is still going strong. It's not the snazziest Apple laptop, but it lasts more than a full workday, with the battery hitting 22 percent after I ran it almost nonstop from 9 am to 7 pm using Safari and work apps like Slack. (I had to plug in the previous Intel model by 4 pm.) 

Unlike older MacBooks using Intel chips, this one can instantly wake up from sleep whenever you tap the keyboard or trackpad or lift the screen, just like when you tap your iPhone or iPad to wake it up. There’s no fan here, so it remains whisper-quiet even under the heaviest loads. There is a thermal heat spreader to dissipate heat, but it also never gets too warm.

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It comes with 256 GB of storage, but you can upgrade to another model with an extra graphics core and 512 GB. Unless you need more storage, the extra core isn’t worth the jump in price. Instead, spend $200 more for 16 GB of RAM, which will let you run a greater number of apps simultaneously without slowdowns. My biggest gripes with this machine? The 720p webcam isn’t great. M1 and M2 Macs also natively support only one external monitor.


For Power-Hungry Port Lovers

Apple MacBook Pro (14 and 16 Inch, 2023)$1,999 at Apple (14 Inch)$2,499 at Apple (16 Inch)$1,950 at Amazon (14 Inch)$2,449 at Amazon (16 Inch)

Want the most powerful MacBooks with Apple’s silicon? Look no further than the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro (9/10, WIRED Recommends)—if you can stomach the $2,000 starting price. You can choose to outfit either with Apple’s new M2 Pro or M2 Max processors.

Both models have the same chassis as their predecessors, which come equipped with mini LED screens (providing deeper blacks and rich color like on the iPad Pro), a 120-Hz refresh rate for smoother-looking screens, a physical row of function keys in place of the Touch Bar (complete with a Touch ID button), a 1080p webcam, and a six-speaker sound system. You'll also get a variety of ports including an HDMI 2.1, three USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 4, an SD card slot, a high-impedance headphone jack, and a MagSafe charging port. Apple also added Wi-Fi 6E support along with Bluetooth 5.3.

The two processor choice options are significantly more powerful than most people need. If you’re mostly working through a web browser and typing up documents, these machines are overkill, and you should stick with a MacBook Air. Editing 4K videos? Rendering 3D models in CAD? Producing music? That’s what these machines are intended for. 

WIRED reviewer Adam Speight tested the 16-inch MacBook Pro with an M2 Max chip. He put the device through its paces by adding 4K footage, 3D effects, and image files to a project in Adobe Premiere Pro. The result? Smooth playback (without the need to reduce the quality of the footage to avoid stutters) and a speedy export time—proving that it's an excellent device for handling intensive, graphically-demanding production work. The 14-inch MacBook Pro with an M2 Pro processor also delivered smooth performance when put through a slightly similar stress test (such as editing RED raw footage via Final Cut) with zero stuttering or hiccups.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro with an M2 Max does have exclusive access to a High Power Mode, which enhances performance for more graphics-intensive projects like editing 8K footage. Its larger chassis lends itself to better airflow and cooling, and it also trumps the 14-inch model in battery life. During intensive workloads, the 14-inch MacBook Pro lasted two hours on battery while the 16-inch reached three to four hours. With web browsing, we experienced about 12 hours on the bigger MacBook while the smaller model only hit about half that.

If you're stuck on the exact combination to go with, we recommend the 16-inch MacBook Pro with an M2 Pro chip for those who want a big display and more battery life. For intermediate content creators, the M2 Pro coupled with either size will suffice—the 14-inch MacBook Pro is similar in size to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, making it easier to travel with, but the 16-inch MacBook Pro might feel ginormous. We suggest you stay away from the 14-inch model with an M2 Max chip—the smaller battery coupled with the power-hungry processor won't result in the best battery life. 


If You Want the Touch Bar

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2022)$1,299 at Apple$1,299 at Amazon

The 13-inch MacBook Pro (7/10, WIRED Review) with M2 sits in an awkward spot. It has the same processor that's in the MacBook Air (our top pick) and doesn't offer any major hardware upgrades (except for the fact that it has a fan, which I'll get to in a second). It still comes with the same 13.3-inch display, a 720p webcam, and two Thunderbolt USB-C ports. One small change? There's support for high-impedance headphones in the audio jack, so you can get slightly more fidelity if you have a nice pair of corded headphones. 

What makes this machine unique from the MacBook Air is the fan, which allows the processor to get a little warmer and eke out more power over a longer period of time. This helps if you’re working on pro-level tasks like video editing but can’t spend the premium that Apple charges for its bigger Pro models. Other advantages include slightly longer battery life over the Air and a Touch Bar at the top of the keyboard (if that's your thing). It’s the only MacBook that Apple now sells with the Touch Bar. The laptop is slightly heavier (3 pounds versus 2.7 pounds), but it matches the Air’s size and is still slim. 

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It performed fairly well in our tests. On busier work days, when I had about 20 tabs open on Google Chrome and a few apps running simultaneously in the background, it felt sluggish; there was some lag when switching between windows and tabs, and the rainbow wheel appeared a few times. I experienced some stuttering while editing a stream of 4K Pro Res files on Final Cut Pro—it particularly struggled with slight color adjustments and built-in effects. Editing photos on Pixelmator and Adobe Photoshop, on the other hand, felt a lot smoother. The MacBook Pro stuttered when I added some rotation, adjusted sliders, and made minor changes to color, but it still powered through a multitude of layers and effects without the fans kicking in. 

It’s not completely unusable for intensive tasks, but it’s likely not powerful enough for most power users. If the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro models above are too pricey, try looking for the 2021 14- and 16-inch models as they're more powerful, and you might be able to find them at a nice discount.


Which M-Series Chip Is Right for You?

Now that Apple offers not one but eight in-house chipsets for MacBooks, choosing the right one might feel a bit overwhelming. It all depends on what you plan on using the MacBook for. 

M1: This is the base-level chip of the lineup. It has an eight-core CPU and up to an eight-core GPU with support for up to 16 GB of unified memory (RAM) at an extra cost. It’s much faster than any previous Intel-powered MacBook Pro, and it is the practical choice for most people. It packs more than enough processing power to get you through common day-to-day tasks—even light gaming— and it can handle more intense jobs like photo and video editing. Only the MacBook Air from 2020 uses this chipset.

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M1 Pro: The next step up is the M1 Pro. It has up to 10 cores in the CPU and up to a 16-core GPU, with up to 32 GB of unified memory. Apple says performance and graphics are both twice as fast as on the M1. We found it to be considerably more capable than the base chip, and it’s the ideal option for anyone who works heavily on MacBooks for music production or photo and video editing.

M1 Max: Like the M1 Pro, the M1 Max has a 10-core CPU but a heftier 32-core GPU (with support for up to 64 GB of unified memory). Apple says it’s four times faster than the M1 in terms of graphics. As proven in testing, this chip is extremely powerful, as it handled every heavy-duty task with ease. It’s the clear choice if you need a computer that can handle multiple streams of 8K or 4K video footage, 3D rendering, or developing apps and running demos. You probably already know if you need this much power.

M1 Ultra: The M1 Ultra is the second-most powerful of them all. It's basically two M1 Max chips connected with a technology called UltraFusion. It packs a 20-core CPU, 64-Core GPU (which can be configured with up to 128 GB of unified memory), and 32-core neural engine—complete with seven times more transistors than the base M1. Even with the M2 Ultra now available, the M1 is plenty powerful and a great option for anyone who needs a heavy-duty processor for working with intense visuals and graphics. It’s available only on the first-generation Mac Studio, Apple’s beefy desktop computer, which Apple no longer sells directly through its site. You can still find it through third-party retailers, but we recommend purchasing it only at a discounted price.

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M2: You might think the M2 is better than the M1 Pro or M1 Max, but you'd be wrong. It's a base-level chip like the M1, with slightly more processing power. It packs an 8-core CPU and up to a 10-core GPU (two more GPU cores than its predecessor), along with support for up to 24 GB of unified memory. Apple says the second-generation chip has an 18 percent faster CPU and a GPU that’s 35 percent more powerful. The M2 is great for daily tasks like word processing and web browsing, but tasks like editing multiple streams of 4K footage and 3D rendering should be reserved for the M1 Pro or M1 Max (or the next two chips).

M2 Pro: The M2 Pro is the next step up from the M2. It has up to 12 cores in the CPU and up to a 19-core GPU, with up to 32 GB of unified memory. Apple claims performance is up to 20 percent faster than the 10-core M1 Pro and graphics are 30 percent faster. We recommend this chip for intermediate video and photo editors. It's a marginal upgrade compared to the M1 Pro, but it's the best option for those who want a more future-proof processor.

M2 Max: This is the most powerful processor for the MacBook Pro. It packs up to a 12-core CPU and up to a 38-core GPU (with support for up to 96 GB of unified memory). According to Apple, graphics are 30 percent faster than the M1 Max. The M2 Max is an excellent choice for those who work with graphics-intensive content including graphic design, 3D modeling, and heavy-duty video footage. But as with the M2 Pro, it's an incremental upgrade if you're coming from an M1 Max. We recommend the M2 Max if you're still on an older Intel-powered Mac.

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M2 Ultra: This is the successor to the M1 Ultra, making it the most powerful of them all. It's available on the second-generation Mac Studio and the latest Mac Pro. Composed of two M2 Max chips, using Apple's UltraFusion technology, the M2 Ultra has a 24-core CPU and a GPU configurable with 60 or 76 cores. Apple claims the CPU delivers up to 20 percent faster performance and a 30 percent faster GPU than the M1 Ultra. This is the chip to get if you're working with extremely heavy-duty content that you believe the M1 Ultra, M2 Pro, or M2 Max simply won't be able to handle. You'll know if you need a chip this robust.

Is It a Good Time to Buy?

Yes. Apple released new versions of the MacBook Pro in January and a new version of the MacBook Air in June. There's a chance we'll see another MacBook at the end of the year, but we're still pretty confident in our picks above. 

These Older Macs Are Still Good

Apple MacBook Pro (14 Inch and 16 Inch, 2021)$1,364 at Amazon (14 Inch)$1,600 at Best Buy (14 Inch)$2,000 at Amazon (16 Inch)

Apple no longer sells its 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro (8/10, WIRED Recommends) with M1 Pro or M1 Max chips from late 2021. But that doesn't mean you should steer clear of these older versions completely, especially if you're trying to save money. We recommend checking third-party retailers (like Amazon, Best Buy, or B&H) to see if any of the configurations with high-end M1 chips are on sale. Just cross-check the price with the latest models and make sure you're spending decidedly less on the older machine. 

The latest M2 Pro and M2 Max chips are marginal upgrades compared to their predecessors. In 2021, the 14-inch MacBook Pro with the M1 Max delivered buttery smooth performance when working with intensive video footage in Final Cut Pro (the fans only slightly kicked in), and that's no different now. When using the M1 Pro, we experienced some stuttering and dropped frames during the same workload. But this was an intensive stress test (we used RED raw footage); you can rest assured the M1 Pro can easily handle less taxing footage.

Quirks and Issues

There are eccentricities and problems with Apple’s laptops that you should know about before you buy.

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Bland Touch Bar: When Apple debuted the Touch Bar in late 2016, it touted the thin touchscreen strip above the keyboard as the next generation of user input. This shift didn't pan out. There was little interest from third-party software designers in doing anything innovative with the tiny display. Most of Apple’s newest MacBooks do not have the Touch Bar anymore, a clear indicator that the company is moving away from it. The company only sells one MacBook with it now. 

Palmy trackpad: Apple's trackpads are among the best in the computer business, but with the newest MacBooks these input devices have been blown up to unbelievable proportions and crammed against the bottom edge of the keyboard, right where you rest your palms while typing. Although there’s supposed to be intelligent palm rejection software at work, the trackpads are susceptible to accidental input.

Parched for ports: Aside from the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros, the rest of Apple’s MacBooks feature one port type: USB-C (usually only two). It might not work with some of the devices you own. You’ll want to invest in a few adapters if you plan on hooking your computer up to a projector or want to use things like USB drives and SD cards. 

MacBooks to Avoid

Older MacBooks with butterfly keyboards (2015-2019): Apple’s notorious first to third-generation “butterfly switch” keyboards are gone from the entire current MacBook lineup. And good riddance. Former WIRED editor Jeffrey Van Camp and senior writer Lauren Goode both had multiple issues with the 2017 Pro keyboard. If you’re buying an older-model MacBook, Apple does replace the keyboards for free and did add extra dust guards to the late-2018 and early-2019 models. Apple has detailed instructions on how to clean the old keyboard if yours gets flaky, which is a decent first line of defense against busted keys. Apple also extended its keyboard repair program to cover repairs on all Macs that have been purchased between 2015 and 2019, regardless of warranty status. Still, unless you’re getting it really cheap, we suggest sticking with the newer models that feature the much-better Magic Keyboard and the newer, more advanced processors.

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The old MacBook Air models (with a silver bezel): Apple’s slim laptop was groundbreaking when it debuted in 2008. Unfortunately, the MacBook Air didn’t undergo many changes until 2018. These older Airs rock a dowdy-looking, non-Retina screen and weak Intel chips that are years old. The old laptops might not require the dongles that a newer MacBook might, but the newer laptops will undoubtedly feel faster for longer. Don’t let their lower price tag tempt you—there are way better laptops you can nab for that kind of cash. How to spot it: The older Air has a thick silver border (bezel) around its screen instead of the black glass of the new models.

The old 16-inch MacBook Pro from 2019: This is a fine laptop that’s not too old, but its price makes no sense when compared to the new 16-inch MacBook Pro. You’re much better off sticking with the new M2 Pro or M2 Max-powered 16-inch MacBook. How to spot it: The product name usually includes “Intel.” 

2020 Intel-powered MacBook Air and MacBook Pro: These models have been completely eclipsed by the late 2020 models with Apple's M-series chips, from performance to battery life. They’re only worth buying if you can snag them for well under $500. Anything close to $900 and you should just pay up for the MacBook Air with M1. It's superior.

Get AppleCare+

None of Apple’s MacBooks are cheap, and replacement parts are nightmarishly expensive. Since the entire computer is fully integrated into Apple’s tightly designed aluminum chassis, you’re one coffee spill away from a shockingly large repair bill. This is why Apple’s AppleCare+ is worth it—starting at $249, AppleCare extends your factory warranty to three years, gives you matching telephone support, and throws in two accidental damage repairs as well. After paying a minimum $99 service fee, whatever you did to zap your shiny new Mac will be undone, and you’ll be back to hammering away on your keyboard.

Education DiscountsApple Education Store

Apple always offers small discounts on hardware for students and teachers. All you need to do is purchase something through Apple’s Education Store, choose the product you want (you should see the discounted pricing), and go through the motions to place the order like normal. You don’t need to show any proof that you’re a student at the time of purchase, but you should be honest, as Apple can email you at a later date and ask for verification. 

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