OK, Which MacBook Should You Buy?

OK, Which MacBook Should You Buy?
Image: Apple

Take a peek at Apple’s website or walk into an Apple Store and you’ll be inundated with MacBook options: MacBooks Air and Pro, of all different shapes, sizes, and specs, all vying for your attention and a significant chunk of your money. It’s not easy to know which is the right fit for you, especially once you factor in the final price tag. So I’m going to make things a bit easier for you: Here’s a bit about what each current MacBook Apple is all about and who it’s for, to help you decide which one to buy.

This breakdown is focused on the MacBooks currently for sale on Apple’s website. There’s a separate, equally important conversation to be had about how to buy a refurbished MacBook, and we offer some tips for buying refurbished laptops in this piece. Buying used is a great way to pick up a solid MacBook for a very reasonable price.

(Note: When discussing pricing, I’m going off of Apple’s MSRP. Keep in mind you can always take advantage of Apple’s education discount on any MacBook you buy, even if you aren’t a student or teacher.)

The best all-around machine: M2 MacBook Air ($AU1,899)

Let’s start with Apple’s current golden goose: The M2 MacBook Air is what the company would love you to buy. It ships with the M2 chip, the next generation of Apple silicon. With it comes boosts to CPU performance and big gains in GPU performance, which show legitimate improvement over the already impressive M1.

In addition to the new chip, this MacBook Air sports a refreshed design. Gone is the device’s signature wedge-shaped chassis, replaced with a look that resembles an ultra-thin MacBook Pro. Also eye-catching: the new “Midnight” colour; a nice look for a laptop, but does pick up fingerprints easily. You also get a fantastic, slightly larger 13.6-inch display with a, iPhone-like “notch” cutout for the 1080p camera. To some, the best “new” feature is the return of MagSafe for magnetic charging (thank goodness).

The M2 MacBook Air seems like a no-brainer, until it comes time to configure it. The base model ships with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB hard drive. For basic use, especially paired with an iCloud lifestyle, that might do, but it won’t necessarily future-proof the device. If you ever feel Chrome start to choke or your family photos start to inch towards 256GB, that might not be enough RAM or storage for you, and there’s no upgrading after the fact.

While 8GB of RAM is suitable for many purposes, I usually recommend 16GB to make sure the computer will work well in the long run. If you bump the RAM up to a reliable 16GB and upgrade to a 512GB SSD (a popular configuration), the cost climbs to $AU2,499. If you choose to increase the GPU from eight cores to 10, that’s another $AU150. Apple’s not playing around here with pricing; even the MacBook Air is an expensive machine these days.

Another drawback is the Air’s fanless build. Some computers have fans inside to help move hot air away from the internal components and keep things running smoothly. Apple chose to let the MacBook Air cool passively, meaning the heat moves out on its own. That’s not a bad thing: For most workflows, passive cooling keeps things humming along fine. However, under intensive workloads, this method of cooling shows its limits. After a sustained period of intense activity, the M2 starts to heat up a lot, to the point where passive cooling can’t keep up. The only thing left for the computer to do is to throttle the performance of the M2 so it can stay within a safe temperature range.

Again, however, that’s under sustained, intensive workloads. An M2 will perform fine under smaller loads. And even if macOS throttles performance, it stops once the chip cools down enough, allowing you to take advance of its peak power again.

That said, let’s say you need to push the M2, and worry the lack of fans will hinder your machine’s ability to keep up. Apple has a solution for you that no anonymous internet commenter will recommend: The M2 MacBook Pro.

The workhorse: M2 MacBook Pro ($AU1,999)

The M2 MacBook Pro is an interesting machine. Unlike the M2 MacBook Air, the Pro looks exactly like its M1 sibling, which itself looks like almost all MacBook Pros since 2016. From the outside, no one would be able to tell which version of the MacBook Pro you had, which isn’t necessarily a detriment. Still, you might find it off-putting to spend a significant amount of money on a laptop that looks the same as most MacBook Pros from the last six years.

Weirdly, the Pro is missing a few features of the M2 Air: You have the standard 13.3-inch display you found on the M1 MacBook Pro, rather than the updated 13.6-inch display on the M2 (no notch, though). There’s also no MagSafe, which is confounding. Why, Apple?

What Apple decided to keep, however, is the controversial Touch Bar. I’m OK with that — my main laptop is still an original Touch Bar MacBook Pro, and not once in five years have I wished for physical function keys in its place — but not everyone feels that way. Still, with the company ditching the Touch Bar on almost every other MacBook, I’m happy there will still be more users able to experience it.

As for the M2, it’s the same chip you find on the MacBook Air, but you get the beefier 10-core GPU by default, versus the eight-core GPU found on the base model Air. The big difference is the Pro has fans. The two machines compete admirably under normal workloads, but when you start to push their limits during intense activities over a sustained period of time, like high-resolution video editing, animating, and gaming, the MacBook Pro’s fans keep the M2 performing better.

Here’s the kicker: The M2 Pro is $100 more than the Air. That places you in one of two camps. Either you’re enticed by all the “new” the MacBook Air brings and can rest easy spending $100 less than you would on a MacBook Pro, or you know performance is everything to your workflow, and will spend the extra $100 to invest in a cooling system to keep that M2 working at its peak, even at the cost of some fun new features.

If you’re having trouble deciding between the M2 Air and Pro in particular, do not look to internet forums for help. Internet Mac “experts” have collectively agreed the M2 MacBook Pro is a terrible machine, thanks to its outdated design and price point. Really, they’re just mad when people don’t listen to their advice. Always buy the machine that fits your needs best, and ignore the haters.

The “budget” option: M1 MacBook Air ($AU1,499)

If your eyes skimmed over the paragraphs about performance and intense workloads because you’re looking for a laptop for email, Google Docs, and Netflix, you’ve found your new computer baby.

While Apple has dropped the M1 MacBook Pro from its current lineup, it still sells the M1 MacBook Air, cementing the machine’s place as the company’s choice entry-level laptop. But this machine feels far from basic — the M1 chip is still plenty powerful in 2022, and will be for some time. You’ll miss out on the CPU and GPU performances from M2, especially with the M1 Air’s basic seven-core GPU, but the M1 chip will be more than enough to handle most tasks you throw at it, including video editing, even with the base M1’s weaker graphics.

Since it’s a MacBook Air, there are no fans, so it’s the same principle as before: If you push the M1 too hard for too long, it will eventually heat up and begin to throttle performance. However, M1 is slightly more energy efficient than M2, meaning you won’t reach those heat levels quite so quickly.

The M1 Air starts at $AU1,499, which gives you the same 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage you find on the base M2 laptops. The best part is you can upgrade the laptop without it feeling like such a gut punch: Moving to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage prices you at $AU2,099, $AU400 less than the same configuration on the M2 Air, and $AU500 less than the same configuration on the M2 Pro.

The big boys: M1 Pro and M1 Max MacBook Pros ($AU2,999)

Historically, I’ve advised most people to steer clear of the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros — not because they’re bad machines, but because they’re too good. With the some of the highest-performing Apple silicon chips in a laptop; large, mini-LED displays; a MagSafe charger; an SD card slot; and an HDMI port, these devices are a dream. They also start at $AU2,999 ($AU3,749) for the 16-inch), which makes them very expensive laptops for most customers.

Even though the M2 chips are newer than the M1 Pro and M1 Max, the latter are still superior SoCs. In short, these chips have either an eight-core or 10-core CPU, with a GPU ranging from 14 to 32 cores, among other marketable differences. The M2, on the other hand, tops out with a 10-core CPU and 10-core GPU: The processing power is comparable, but graphically, the M1 Pro and M1 Max still outclass M2 in all tiers. Unless you’re someone who needs to take advantage of that performance, or you have the extra cash lying around, it usually isn’t worth the jump in price, even if these MacBooks are awesome.

However, Apple’s current pricing for M2 devices makes this situation a bit more complicated. If you’re eyeing an M2 MacBook Air and plan to spec up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, that will run you $AU2,499. If you want the 10-core GPU, or the same configuration in the M2 MacBook Pro, that’ll be $AU2,649.

It doesn’t matter if a 14-inch MacBook Pro is close in price: You can’t go wrong with the M2 Air or Pro. But if your budget is flexible, and you are looking at these particular configurations, shop around for deals on the M1 Pro MacBook Pro. You might find a better laptop than you ever thought you could without breaking your budget.

So, which MacBook should you buy?

If you aren’t totally convinced one way or another after reading through these comparisons, here’s my cheat-sheet for determining who each laptop model is for:

  • For most people, the best value in a new Mac is absolutely the M1 MacBook Air. It’s the least expensive, giving you room to upgrade the specs, and will provide enough power to get most people through most tasks. It’s a winner.
  • If you need more power but are on a budget, it’s the M2 MacBook Air or M2 MacBook Pro. If you need reliable performance over long, intensive tasks, spend the extra $100 on the MacBook Pro’s fans. If not, you’ll be happy with the Air.
  • If you need more RAM and storage, and if the budget allows, look for a deal on a certified refurbished 14-inch M1 Pro MacBook Pro. The extra $100 will net you a significant upgrade over Apple’s M2 offerings. If no such deal exists, or if you’re already at the top of your budget, any of the M2 MacBooks will suit you well.

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