How to pick the best MacBook or MacBook Pro for any price point
You have to buy what you can afford — but make sure you're only paying for what matters to you. AppleInsider did the math, and has some recommendations for every price point.
We had to double-check this when our Numbers spreadsheet told us: there is one case where you have a choice of two different Apple portables for exactly the same price. If we ever doubted it, then, that is one clear situation where cost is not the deciding factor.
It's just that we think it never is. What you always need to do is balance the price, the performance and many other factors regardless of what budget you have or what Mac portable you want.
Mind you, money is usually one of those factors. There's no getting around the fact that if you want the absolute best MacBook Pro with maxed out everything then just a good reason isn't enough, you're also going to need $6,699.
We've looked at what you can get for budget price points from under $1,000 up to that fully-loaded top price. We've also given you reasons to move up to the next tier if you can.
Keep in mind
The more you spend on your Mac portable, the better it will be. That doesn't mean, though, that you'll even notice the difference. Your MacBook Pro 15-inch with Touch Bar will be capable of rendering VR video all day but if you just type in TextEdit on it, you're not seeing the benefit.
Equally, there are always three things that make the greatest difference between MacBooks today or really any computers, any time.
The processor and now particularly its number of cores defines how fast the MacBook is. Even a small increase in processor speed costs money and gets you a performance benefit.
RAM makes your machine seem faster too. The more RAM you've got, the more the MacBook can do at the same time and the more responsive it will be at all times. When we've bought machines before, we've even taken more RAM over a higher processor speed when necessary.
With MacBooks you get 8GB, 16GB or 32GB RAM and you want the most you can afford. Whatever work you do, get the most RAM you can. However, not all models have these three choices and whatever RAM you get, you're stuck with it forever. There's no adding more later.
Lastly, storage. Every Apple portable device on sale today uses solid state drives that Apple refers to as flash storage, instead of the older spinning hard disks. These are much faster, they last much longer without problems and they are the future. They've been the future for a long time, though, and while the price per gigabyte has dropped gigantically in recent years, it's still expensive.
Which means that very often the only difference between two of Apple's current models is in how much storage. The smallest SSD in MacBooks is 128GB but some models offer you 512GB, 1TB, 2TB or 4TB.
Again, not every model has all of these and, again, whatever you buy you're stuck with. Plus this can currently be the most expensive part of a MacBook: of that top $6,699 price tag. $3,200 is down to the 4TB drive option.
Consequently you want the biggest SSD drive you can get but it's probably the thing that you're going to compromise on first. If you work on huge files or projects like photographers or video editors do, take it on the chin and pay. If you only type poems in Microsoft Word, you can settle for the lowest SSD but remember they fill up faster than you think.
There is only one Mac portable under a grand and it's the base MacBook Air which retails at $999.
For that you get a 13-inch screen with 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD. It's a good, solid machine but you won't use it for games and you shouldn't use it for video editing.
It's real appeal, though, is that price point: every other model of MacBook offers you more and sometimes for not a great deal higher price.
If price is the overriding issue, however, think about skipping MacBooks entirely and instead buying an iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard. Other keyboards and keyboard cases are available but to have something you can just nip into the Apple Store to buy, this combination is powerful.
It's also a little cheaper. The MacBook Air has a 12-inch screen and for $31 less, you could by an iPad Pro with 12.9-inch screen plus the Smart Keyboard. This is a bulkier package to carry around than the MacBook Air and it's hard to quantify the differences between macOS and iOS. However, the iPad Pro is newer and will feel faster.
Plus the iPad Pro has a hugely better display than the MacBook Air.
In fact, the first reason to move even a little bit up the budget scale above $1,000 is to get a better screen.
But, here's the thing. There's always used. There is a healthy market on eBay for used MacBooks and MacBook Pros, and it can be worthwhile to scope them out — if a bit beyond the scope of this article.
From $1,000 to $1,500
There's still reason to look at an combination of an iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard in this price range. Apple's iPads don't have options yet for choosing how much RAM you get but they do all come in different storage sizes. The 12.9-inch model can have 64GB, 256GB or 512GB storage with the top one making a total cost of $1,448 with the Smart Keyboard.
Also, that price is for the cellular model. No MacBooks can directly use a cell connection for the internet so the iPad Pro has more benefits than just price/performance. Though note that you would still have to pay a monthly cell phone bill on top of the iPad Pro purchase price.
This price range also still has a version of the MacBook Air: a $1,199 model that comes with twice the storage space at 256GB SSD.
That's a good price for the storage but this is still a MacBook Air with its slower processor and poorer screen than in the rest of the range.
Instead, this is a case where you get better value spending slightly more money. Spend $100 and get a basic MacBook for $1,299 which has 256GB SSD. Its processor is also newer than the one in the MacBook Air.
That's easily enough to make us prefer the MacBook over the MacBook Air — but this is where we found two models with the same price.
For that same $1,299 price could instead get you a MacBook Pro 13-inch with Function Keys. That's faster than the MacBook or MacBook Air, though for this price it does come with a smaller SSD of 128GB.
This MacBook Pro has with a 13.3-inch display, however, and that's like having the size of the MacBook Air's one with the quality of the MacBook screen.
There is weight and heft to consider, though. The MacBook is the lightest at 2.03 pounds while the MacBook Pro 13-inch without Touch Bar is 3.02 pounds. For comparison, the MacBook Air is 2.96 pounds.
When you read these figures you know there isn't a giant difference between them. However, when you use the machines, you realize that actually there is: the MacBook feels impossibly light. The MacBook Pro 13-inch with Function Keys feels solid.
The MacBook Air just feels old.
Still sticking within the $1,000 to $1,500 range, though, there is one more option. A budget of $1,499 gets you the higher-specification MacBook Pro 13-inch with Function Keys which contains a 256GB SSD. That makes the MacBook Pro 13-inch a better machine in nearly every single way except for weight — and the $200 price difference.
It's the best price to performance you'll get for under $1,500, though. If you need more storage, you have to go up to the next price tier. If you want more RAM than the 8GB all the models so far have come with, it's the same.
Plus you keep reading about MacBook Pro 13-inch models with Function Keys. If you want a Touch Bar or you want a bigger MacBook Pro, that will take you into the next tier too.
That MacBook Air does keep hanging on. It is a trooper and we did go wow when Steve Jobs pulled this incredibly thin machine out of an envelope.
However, he did that ten years ago and now we have faster, slimmer and lighter machines with much better screens. Today $1,549 will get you a MacBook Air with its poorer display and its slower performance than those other devices but with a 512GB SSD.
This is another case where it's worth your spending just a little more. For just $1,599 gets you a MacBook with the same 512GB SSD for just $50 more.
We don't think that's even a choice. The MacBook is lighter, faster, newer with the same storage and a Retina-quality display. Spend your money on the MacBook and never look back.
Unless you happen to have an extra $400 in your budget, that is. If you do then $1,949 gets you the absolute best MacBook possible with 512GB SSD and, crucially, 16GB RAM.
Yet this is probably the one point where the theory that the more you pay, the better your portable Mac is falls down considerably. With the exception of weight and RAM, you can get a better machine in the new MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar.
That's with Touch Bar. What you also get in the Touch Bar models is Touch ID, which is very nice. Also quad-core processors instead of dual core, which is dramatic. This is the biggest performance boost you'll see between portable Macs and here you're getting it for $1,799.
That's $150 less. True, you get a heavier machine and more significantly you get 8GB RAM instead of the $1,949 MacBook's 16GB.
However, you can configure your MacBook Pro to have 16GB RAM for $1,999 or just another fifty bucks more.
This MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar also has more configuration options than the MacBook. You can increase its processor speed and you can upgrade its storage to 2TB. That does come with a cost: this gets you the maxed-out 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and the price is $3,699 or way out of the $1,500-$2,000 tier.
We're into the territory of the newly updated MacBook Pro 15-inch models with Touch Bar now. These start at $2,399 with 16GB RAM and 256GB SSD. You can update either of those at time of order to get 32GB RAM and up to 4TB SSD storage. That combination takes you to $6,199 and if you update the processor speed, that's $6,599.
To top out at Apple's most expensive MacBook Pro ever, you can add a choice of faster graphics processor to bring it all to $6,699.
If you're going to be doing intensive work then you need processor speed and you also tend to need storage space. What all of the 15-inch MacBook Pro models give you, though, is a six-core processor. You won't notice anything like the difference in the jump in performance from dual to quad-core but video editing and rendering will be quicker.
But, we're still not sure if the jump from the six-core i7 starting at $2,399 and the six-core i9 for $3,099 more is worth it. That very much depends on if those seconds or minutes a day you save are worth that kind of cash to you when amortized over several years.
It's obvious to say that if what you need the maximum power and storage, then it could be well worth the $6,699. However, we look at it this way: if that's what you need to do and it is cost-efficient to spend that kind of coin, then spending less is wasting your money.
Three more things
We haven't even mentioned battery life in all this but that's for a reason. The battery life you get for all of Apple's current portables is 8-10 hours and that's plenty.
More significantly, we haven't mentioned that you're not tied to Apple when you want to buy Apple machines. There are online authorized resellers, such as Adorama and B&H, which will offer instant rebates and coupon savings on even the latest models (to compare prices across all product lines, see our Price Guides).
As they're discounts, they tend to vary a lot and they also often only last for short times so here we've only considered Apple's retail prices. The logic and your reasons for choosing a particular model remain the same, though, and if you happen to find a machine on sale for $200 off, it's a very nice bonus.
And, that third thing. While having a pile of on-board storage is convenient, like we said, is also very costly and should probably be the first thing to back off on to save some dough. Storage is easily added external to the device, perhaps with an online service, or even a USB-connected drive. We pick a faster processor or more RAM over more internal storage every single time.
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