Which MacBook Should You Buy?

The Rewards of Choosing the Right Apple Laptop: Navigating the Price Tag and Making Tough Decisions

In 2020, Apple ushered in a new era for its MacBooks by announcing its departure from Intel chips, which had been in use since 2006, and introducing the Apple-designed M1 processor. Fast forward to 2024, and the company now offers a selection of 11 custom processors, with the latest being the M3 lineup powering the newest MacBook Pro (14-inch and 16-inch) and the updated MacBook Air (13-inch and 15-inch).

Similar to Apple’s iPhones, these chips utilize the ARM architecture, giving the company greater control over both its hardware and software. These processors not only make Apple laptops more powerful but also more energy-efficient, resulting in significantly improved performance and battery life. Additionally, users enjoy perks such as the ability to run mobile apps originally designed for iOS. Despite these advancements, choosing the right MacBook remains a challenging task. Here’s how to wisely invest your hard-earned money.

Updated as of March 2024: We’ve included our insights on the new M3-powered 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Air.

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Which MacBook is Right for You?

The latest MacBook Air, rated 7/10 and recommended by WIRED, featuring the M3 chip, doesn’t bring significant changes compared to the M2 version. It maintains the same square chassis (as opposed to the older wedge design), a 13.6-inch LCD screen with a 60 Hz refresh rate and a maximum brightness of 500 nits, along with a notch housing a 1080p webcam.

It is available in the same four colors: Starlight, Midnight, Space Gray, and Silver. However, the Midnight color now features an anodization seal to reduce fingerprints, which works quite well—although smudges are still visible, especially in direct sunlight, I didn’t find myself wiping it down as frequently as the Starlight version. However, dust is more noticeable on such a dark shade.

Apple has maintained the same port selection, including two USB 4/Thunderbolt ports, a 3.5 mm headphone jack, and a Mag Safe port for charging. There’s also support for fast charging with the purchase of the 70-watt USB-C power adapter, which Apple claims can charge the laptop up to 50 percent in 30 minutes (if you opt for one of the higher storage configurations, Apple will include it in your purchase). Regarding battery life, Apple claims the same 15 hours of wireless web browsing as its predecessor. In real-world usage, I experienced a battery drain of 29 percent after eight hours of work. It’s an improvement over the M2-powered MacBook Air, which needed to be plugged in after the same amount of time, but it’s not a significant leap forward.

Under the hood, you’ll find Apple’s M3 chip, offering a significant performance boost over the original M1 processor—Apple claims it’s up to 60 times faster. However, compared to the M2 chipset, it’s only around 20 percent faster, so it may not be worth upgrading if you already have that model. With the M3, 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 16 GB of unified memory. Performance was consistently smooth during typical workdays with apps like Slack, iMessage, Spotify, and Telegram running simultaneously, along with around 60 tabs open in Google Chrome.

When I pushed it with about 10 more tabs, it started to show some strain. However, it wasn’t enough to cause the dreaded rainbow wheel or prompt me to close any tabs or force-quit apps. This smooth performance can be attributed to the higher unified memory configuration. If it’s within your budget, I highly recommend opting for anything above the base 8 GB model for a more seamless experience.

Apple has also introduced the ability to use two external displays, supporting one display with up to 6K resolution at 60 Hz and another with up to 5K resolution at 60 Hz. This is a welcome improvement since the M1 and M2 chipsets natively support only one monitor. However, there’s a significant caveat: You must keep the MacBook Air closed. Technically, it still supports only two displays, and one of the external displays will go dark whenever you open the lid.

The M3-powered Air is an excellent choice for anyone in need of a reliable laptop for everyday tasks and a bit more. If your workload leans towards graphics-intensive tasks, I’d recommend considering one of the 14- or 16-inch MacBook Pro models instead.

The 15-inch MacBook Air marks the introduction of a large-screen option within the Air lineup. Now, you don’t have to invest in a 14- or 16-inch MacBook Pro just to enjoy a bigger display. It retains all the features of its smaller counterpart (see above) while maintaining its slim and lightweight design at 3.3 pounds—roughly half a pound heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Air and slightly lighter than the 14-inch MacBook Pro. It also boasts Wi-Fi 6E connectivity for download speeds twice as fast as its predecessor, although you’ll need a Wi-Fi 6E router to fully utilize this feature.

In contrast to the smaller MacBook Air, the base model of the 15-inch variant comes with a 10-core GPU instead of the 8-core GPU. I tested the 15-inch MacBook Air with 16 GB of memory, and it handled 41 Chrome tabs, three separate windows, and multiple apps without any performance issues. As always, I recommend upgrading to at least 16 GB of unified memory to ensure smooth operation when multitasking with numerous browser tabs and apps open simultaneously.

Another notable difference is the speaker system. The quad-speakers found in the 13-inch MacBook Air are upgraded here to a six-speaker system, featuring two tweeters and two sets of force-canceling woofers. The improvement in sound quality is noticeable, providing better clarity without needing to max out the volume when watching movies. Battery life is also improved. While Apple claims both the 13-inch and 15-inch models offer up to 15 hours of wireless web browsing, I observed better performance with the larger MacBook. The 13-inch MacBook typically required recharging after seven or eight hours of use, whereas the 15-inch model still had 54 percent battery remaining after the same duration with similar workloads.

I rarely found the need to connect the 15-inch laptop to an external monitor, unlike with the 13-inch MacBook Air, where it was often necessary. If you prefer a larger screen and find the smaller ones a bit cramped, the 15-inch MacBook Air is the way to go.

Best Budget MacBook

The 2020 MacBook Air, rated 9/10 and recommended by WIRED, still offers impressive performance for its price, especially considering the reduced cost since its launch. Despite daily and rigorous use, my unit continues to perform well. While it may not be the flashiest Apple laptop, its battery lasts through a full workday, with 22 percent remaining after almost nonstop use from 9 am to 7 pm, including browsing with Safari and running work apps like Slack. (In comparison, I typically had to plug in the old Intel model by 4 pm.)

Unlike older MacBooks that may still be available with Intel chips, this one wakes up instantly from sleep with a tap of the keyboard or trackpad, similar to waking up your iPhone or iPad. It remains whisper-quiet even under heavy loads since it lacks a fan. Instead, it utilizes a thermal heat spreader to dissipate heat, ensuring it never gets too warm.

Currently, you can only purchase the base model with 8 GB of unified memory and 256 GB of storage, which should suffice for general tasks. However, if you frequently have numerous browser tabs and apps open simultaneously, you may experience some slowdowns. One downside is the 720p webcam, which isn’t great, and the fact that the M1 chipset only supports one external monitor.

For Those Seeking Power and Plenty of Ports

Apple has recently launched the latest 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models, less than a year after releasing the M2 Pro and M2 Max versions. Alongside the M3 Pro and M3 Max chip options, you can now configure the 14-inch model with the entry-level M3 chip, effectively replacing the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which Apple no longer sells through its store. The 16-inch variant can be paired with either the M3 Pro or M3 Max. Additionally, Apple has introduced a new Space Black color option, available only on high-end models, which features a special treatment to reduce fingerprint smudges.

Both sizes maintain the same chassis as their predecessors and are equipped with Mini LED screens, providing deeper blacks and rich color similar to the iPad Pro, along with a 120 Hz refresh rate for smoother interactions. Apple has increased the brightness by 20 percent. These laptops offer a variety of ports, including HDMI, three USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 4 (the 14-inch version with M3 has two), an SD card slot, a high-impedance headphone jack, and a MagSafe charging port. Other features include a 1080p webcam, a six-speaker sound system, and support for Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.3.

Of the three processor options available, the M3 Pro and M3 Max are designed for power-intensive tasks like editing 4K videos, rendering 3D models, and music production. For more casual use, such as web browsing and document editing, the M3-powered version is recommended. I tested the 14-inch MacBook Pro with this chip and found that performance remained smooth even with multiple apps running simultaneously and around 30 browser tabs open. I recommend opting for 16 gigabytes of unified memory if possible. While the M3 Pro and M3 Max versions support two external displays out of the box, the M3-powered 14-inch MacBook will gain this capability in a future software update.

WIRED contributor Christopher Null tested the 16-inch MacBook Pro with an M3 Max chip and found incremental but measurable improvements compared to previous-generation MacBooks. Benchmark tests showed significant performance gains, particularly in High Power Mode, which is exclusive to the 16-inch MacBook Pro and enhances performance for graphics-intensive projects. Battery life on the 16-inch MacBook Pro reached an impressive 19 hours and 20 minutes of YouTube video playback time in High Power Mode, while the 14-inch model with M3 achieved 22 hours of YouTube playback time.

For those who prioritize a large display and excellent battery life, the 16-inch MacBook Pro with an M3 Max chip is recommended. The M3 Pro chip coupled with either size is suitable for intermediate content creators, with the 14-inch MacBook Pro being more portable. The 14-inch model with M3 is ideal for users who want some “Pro” features without the high cost, although most users may find the M3-powered MacBook Air models sufficient. If you desire the 120 Hz screen refresh rate, extra ports, or slight performance boost, the 14-inch MacBook Pro with M3 is a great choice. internal link

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