The first fork in the road you'll come to when shopping for a MacBook is whether to follow the Air path or head down the Pro road. For most people looking for an everyday home laptop or a work laptop for running basic office apps, a MacBook Air will suffice. An Air is also the better pick for students on tight budgets. For creative types who need the added processing and graphics muscle of Apple's new M3 Pro and Max chips, a MacBook Pro is worth the added cost. To help you find the right MacBook for your needs and budget, here are the main considerations to keep in mind.
The entry price for a MacBook is $999. That gets you the M1 MacBook Air that was released in 2020. Apple still sells it alongside the newer M2 MacBook Air models. Stepping up to a MacBook Pro model with an M2 Pro chip will cost you $1,999 or more, but you can get a less powerful 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro for $1,599. Here are the starting prices of Apple's current MacBook lineup:
- 13-inch M1 MacBook Air: $999
- 13-inch M2 MacBook Air: $1,099
- 15-inch M2 MacBook Air: $1,299
- 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro: $1,599
- 14-inch M3 Pro MacBook Pro: $1,999
- 16-inch M3 Pro MacBook Pro: $2,499
Size and display
If you'll be taking your MacBook with you to class or work or just down to your local coffee shop most mornings, an Air is the better choice. The 13-inch MacBook Air models weigh less than 3 pounds, and the roomier 15-inch Air weighs only 3.3 pounds, which is lighter than the 14-inch MacBook Pro.
Of course, the flip side to portability is screen size. The 16-inch MacBook Pro gives you ample room on which to work and multitask, while the 14-inch MacBook Pro tries to hit the sweet spot between roomy display and travel ease. Unless you need Pro-level performance, we feel the 15-inch Air does a better job of hitting that target.
- 13.3-inch M1 MacBook Air: 13.3-inch display (2,560x1,600 resolution), 2.8 pounds
- 13.6-inch M2 MacBook Air: 13.6-inch display (2,560x1,664 resolution), 2.7 pounds
- 15.3-inch M2 MacBook Air: 15.3-inch display (2,880x1,864 resolution), 3.3 pounds
- 14.2-inch M3 MacBook Pro: 14.2-inch display (3,024x1,964 resolution), 3.4 pounds
- 14.2-inch M3 Pro MacBook Pro: 14.2-inch display (3,024x1,964 resolution), 3.5 pounds
- 16.2-inch M3 Pro MacBook Pro: 16.2-inch display (3,456x2,234 resolution), 4.7 pounds
The processor, aka the CPU, is the brains of a laptop. MacBooks have used Apple's own processors since the introduction of the M1 processor in 2020. The M1-based MacBooks were clear improvements over Apple's preceding Intel-based machines in terms of overall performance, efficiency and battery life. The M1 MacBooks were more powerful with longer runtimes while also operating more cooly and quietly.
The latest MacBook Air models feature the M2 processor, and MacBook Pro models were just updated with the new M3 chip. The M2 MacBook Air models offer slightly better performance than the M1-based versions but not nearly to the degree of going from Intel CPUs to the M1. We have yet to test the recently released MacBook Pros based on Apple's new M3, M3 Pro and M3 Max chips, but expect to see similar gains from M2 to M3 as we saw moving from M1 to M2.
The graphics processor, or GPU, handles all the work of driving the screen and generating what gets displayed, as well as speeding up a lot of graphics-related (and increasingly, AI-related) operations. Apple's M1 and M2 CPUs integrate the GPU. The more processing cores the GPU has, the better the graphics performance. Here's the breakdown:
- M1: 7-core or 8-core GPU
- M2: 8-core or 10-core GPU
- M3: 10-core GPU
- M3 Pro: 14-core or 18-core GPU
- M3 Max: 30-core or 40-core GPU
Memory, or RAM, is where the operating system stores all the data for currently running applications, and it can fill up fast. After that, it starts swapping between RAM and SSD, which is slower. MacBook Air models start at 8GB of RAM along with the 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro. The minimum on the M3 Pro or M3 Max MacBook Pros is 18GB. If you buy from Apple, you can configure the laptop with more memory -- up to 16GB or 24GB on MacBook Airs and up to 128GB on the M3 Pro and Max MacBook Pros.
You can't upgrade the memory on recent MacBooks post purchase, so you'll need to get the RAM you need up front. MacBooks are able to smoothly run MacOS and the preinstalled apps with the minimum RAM offered, but doubling the RAM will make your MacBook feel faster and likely lead to a longer useful life of the product.
MacBooks feature solid-state drives, or SSDs. MacBook Air models start with a 256GB SSD, and MacBook Pros offer a 512GB SSD at minimum. If you use cloud storage for your files, music collection and photo library, then you might be able to get away with a 256GB SSD without filling it up before too long. We were happy to see the 13-inch MacBook Pro with its paltry 256GB SSD go away; Pro users need 512GB at the very least.