How to choose an Apple MacBook

When you decide to choose an Apple laptop, you’ve made the decision to go with macOS instead of Windows. Technically, you have the option of running Windows in emulation or via Bootcamp, but really you’re buying a Mac laptop because you want to run macOS.

But which Apple laptop to pick? Because there are three different product lines, each with distinct advantages. I’m an Apple guy who’s had dozens of Mac laptops, dating back to a PowerBook 100 (yup, that old). I’m going to put that experience to work in helping you to make the right choice between a MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

Step One: Know What You Need

It’s all too easy to get excited about cool technology and make snap decisions about a laptop that may not meet your needs. That’s why I always suggest people make a short list of must-have features before they start shopping. That way, emotion doesn’t get in the way of making the right choice.

A few things to think about. Do you need a display with a minimum size and resolution? Do you need a high-powered laptop, or one for casual use? How many ports do you need for peripherals? How much battery life do you need? And budget is always a consideration.

MacBook is Slim and Sleek

The MacBook is Apple’s mainstream laptop. For most users, this is probably the best choice. It falls in the middle of the Apple range in terms of pricing. It offers a beautiful, 12-inch Retina high resolution display, and it is incredibly thin and light (just 902 g and 1.31 cm at its thickest). The aluminum case is available in a variety of stylish colours, including Gold and Rose Gold.

To keep things as thin as possible and to offer power without sacrificing battery life, the MacBook is equipped with PCIe solid state storage, Intel m-series or Core-series mobile CPUs and up to 16GB of RAM. You also get the latest USB-C technology with a USB-C 3.1 port. The integrated battery is good for up to 10 hours of web browsing.

What may disqualify the MacBook, especially for power users, are two choices Apple made to help achieve that ultra-slim profile. First, the keyboard uses a new switch mechanism that means less travel. It’s full-sized and backlit—all good—but if you type a lot, you may feel this keyboard isn’t quite as responsive as you like. Count me in that camp … You also have a single USB-C port that does triple duty for charging, accessories and video output. If you plan to stay connected to power, with accessories like an external drive or monitor also hooked up, you’ll need a hub.

MacBook Pro Brings the Professional Power

The MacBook Pro line is a no-brainer if you need an Apple laptop that delivers on the performance front.

How to choose an Apple MacBookApple offers a wide range of models that allow you to pick one that suits your budget and portability requirements. The primary division is between 13-inch and 15-inch models. Both offer high resolution Retina displays, but the 15-inch MacBook Pro includes a discrete video card for a big boost in multimedia firepower.

The next big distinction is whether you want a Touch Bar or not. This innovative OLED strip replaces physical function keys with programmable virtual buttons, and offers Touch ID security. It’s available for both the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro.

The MacBook Pro line offers high performance, with CPUs ranging up to an Intel Core i7, PCIe solid state storage and DDR3 RAM. Both models offer 10 hours of wireless web browsing, which should be enough for a full day of work without needing to look for a power outlet. Ports are all USB-C (either two or four for the 13-inch, and four for the 15-inch), so if you have legacy USB accessories you want to use, you’ll need an adapter or hub.

MacBook Air is Affordable and Offers Classic Ports

The MacBook Air is an interesting laptop. Out of Apple’s current laptops, it’s been around the longest and it’s the most affordable. But it also forces you to make some significant choices.

How to choose a MacBookThe MacBook Air offers Intel Core CPUs all the way up to a Core i7, but they are Broadwell chips, a generation behind those offered in the MacBook and MacBook Pro—so not quite as good in terms of performance. The 13-inch display gives a little more screen real estate than the 12-inch display on the MacBook, but it’s a lower resolution 1440 x 900 pixels instead of Retina. It’s not as crisp, or as bright. The trackpad supports multi-touch gestures, but lacks the Force Touch capability of the MacBook and MacBook Pro.

But on the plus side, the MacBook Air is still a very sleek and compact laptop despite the older design, weighing in at 1.3 kg, and measuring just 1.7 cm at its thickest. It gets 12 hours of battery life, tops for the Apple laptop lineup. Its keyboard is full-sized with backlighting like the other Mac laptops, but this uses the older key mechanism that offers further travel and more feedback. And while it lacks the latest high speed USB-C ports, the MacBook Air has two standard USB 3 ports, Thunderbolt and an SD card slot.

Which Did I Choose?

For many years, the MacBook Pro was my choice. But my current laptop is the MacBook Air. I work primarily with an external monitor, so the relatively low resolution display was not an issue. I chose a Core i7 CPU, maxed out the RAM and storage and as a result, it’s still pretty zippy—although compiling video does show its limitations. And I use a lot of older USB accessories, including a mechanical keyboard, thumb drives and external hard drives, so I wanted a laptop with standard USB ports.

On top of that, the MacBook Air is still very portable and the 12-hour battery life combined with an excellent makes it great for travel.

Give Each Option a Try

How to choose a MacBook

I’ve given you my opinion on each of these Apple laptop options, and hopefully you’re at the stage where you know if you have any specific requirements.

But nothing beats some hands-on time to really get a feel for which suits you best. I’d suggest visiting your local Best Buy store before making a final decision, and getting some hands-on time. Maybe the MacBook keyboard won’t bother you the way it bothers me. Maybe you’ll decide the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar is the coolest thing ever and a must-have. Heck, maybe you’ll decide you want to go extreme on the portability front and opt for an iPad Pro instead … Best Buy has you covered with all the latest Apple products, so you’ll always be able to make the right choice.

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Brad Moon
Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. After 13 years as a product manager with a leading Canadian tech company, I transitioned into a full-time career of writing about technology. I’ve contributed to a range of publications and websites including Forbes, Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, About.com, MSN Money, the Winnipeg Free Press, InvestorPlace Media, Shaw Media and—combining technology and my three kids—I’ve been a Core Contributor to the award winning GeekDad blog since its launch in 2007.

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