[Discussion] Which MacBook Should I Buy?

With 11 models, each offering multiple configuration options, and confusing pricing tiers, picking a Mac laptop has never been more difficult. The latest MacBook Pro models are more expensive than the models they replace. The MacBook Air, our longtime favorite, hasn’t seen a significant update in years. And the 12-inch MacBook is still mainly for people willing to pay a premium for a smaller size and lower weight—and willing to live with limited connectivity.

Still, many people will consider only a Mac laptop, and with good reason: The machines are solidly built, and they perform well. They have a stable, easy-to-use, and bloat-free operating system (macOS). They work well with other Apple devices, and they come with the best support of any computer brand. Maybe you’ve always used a Mac and you’re shopping for a new one, or maybe you’ve decided to switch from Windows. Whatever the reason, if you’re one of these people, the question for you isn’t “What laptop should I buy?” but rather “Which MacBook should I buy?

Our pick

MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017) with 256 GB storage

Very good performance in a thin, light laptop with a fantastic display and two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports.
Our pick

MacBook Pro (13-inch, Early 2015) with 256 GB storage

A bit slower, a little thicker, and half a pound heavier than the 2017 model, and its screen isn’t quite as good, but has a slew of legacy ports and a better keyboard. It’s now only available refurbished.

Most people who want a great general-use Mac laptop for their only computer should get either the MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017, two Thunderbolt 3 ports) or the MacBook Pro (13-inch, Early 2015) with 256 GB of storage. The 2017 model offers slightly better performance and the future-proofing of USB-C connectivity, while the 2015 model is better for people who truly need legacy ports or who want a better keyboard. However, the 2015 model was discontinued in June 2017, so Apple sells only refurbished versions—but that’s okay, as the refurb version is quite a bit less expensive, and we think you should consider buying refurbished anyway.

That said, the best MacBook for you depends a lot on what you’ll use it for, and of course, how much money you can afford to spend on it. We’ve tested all the available models, and here’s our take on who should get what. (We list recommended configurations for each model, but since you can’t upgrade most Apple laptops later, you should be sure to get the right specs up front.)

The best all-around Mac laptop: 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar (2017 or 2015)

which macbook 2015-2016 13-inch

Our pick

MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017) with 256 GB storage

Very good performance in a thin, light laptop with a fantastic display and two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports.
Our pick

MacBook Pro (13-inch, Early 2015) with 256 GB storage

A bit slower, a little thicker, and half a pound heavier than the 2017 model, and its screen isn’t quite as good, but has a slew of legacy ports and a better keyboard. It’s now only available refurbished.

Right now the MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017, two Thunderbolt 3 ports) and the MacBook Pro (13-inch, Early 2015) are the least-expensive Mac laptops that have all the power, connectivity, and features most people will need, in a package that will continue to serve you well for many years – especially important if your laptop is your only computer. The non-Touch Bar 2017 version offers the best performance and future-proofing, while the 2015 version is a solid choice for anyone who needs legacy ports or wants a better keyboard.

Neither model gives you the new Touch Bar or the Touch ID sensor found on the higher-end 2017 MacBook Pro models, and both are a bit slower than those models. But most people don’t (yet) need the Touch Bar, and most won’t notice the performance difference – if you know you will, you already know these models aren’t for you.

Comparing the configurations, you’ll see a few differences. The 2017 13-inch MacBook Pro is slightly faster than the 2015 model: about 4 percent faster in single-core benchmarks and about 7 percent faster in multi-core benchmarks. Both have a fantastic 2560×1600 Retina display, but the 2017 model has a brighter version that supports the P3 color gamut – a number of photographers have told us that the screen alone makes the newer models compelling. The 2017 model also has a much larger trackpad, a new keyboard, much better built-in speakers, and Bluetooth 4.2 (versus 4.0); it’s also about half a pound lighter (3 pounds), and slightly smaller in every dimension, than the 2015 version. (All current MacBook models support 802.11ac Wi-Fi.)

Perhaps the most notable difference for most people, however, is the selection of ports. The 2017 model has just two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, with each supporting charging, 40 Gbps data transfers, external displays (up to 5120×2880 resolution, or 5K), USB peripherals – you name it. USB-C is clearly the future, but few peripherals have adopted it yet, so if you have any hard drives, scanners, printers, thumb drives, or card readers that use USB 2 or 3, you’ll need a hub or adapter. Similarly, if you want to use an external display or projector, you’ll need the right adapter. The only other port on the 2017 model is a 3.5 mm headphone/mic jack.

If you’ll be using legacy ports frequently, the 2015 MacBook Pro has two Thunderbolt 2 ports (20 Gbps), two USB 3 ports, an HDMI video port, an SD card reader slot, a headphone/mic jack, and Apple’s handy MagSafe magnetic power connector. However, Apple discontinued the 2015 version in June 2017; the company now sells this model only through its refurbished store. But that’s okay, as the refurb version is quite a bit less expensive, and we think you should consider buying a refurbished MacBook – directly from Apple – anyway.

If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of adapters while waiting for the rest of the computing world to migrate to USB-C, or if you value the feel of a great keyboard enough to buy last year’s computer to get it, the 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro is a great computer. And because it’s an older model (still available new from some third-party vendors, or refurbished directly from Apple), you can get it at a discount. If you want the best screen, the latest ports, and slightly better performance in a lighter package, and you don’t mind the new keyboard, go with the 2017 version without the Touch Bar.

Which specs should you buy? We think most people will be fine with the stock Core i5 processor in either model, the stock 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage (a $200 upgrade for the base 2017 model and a configuration option for the 2015 refurb)

What we don’t like: Most people don’t yet need the Touch Bar found in the higher-end MacBook Pro models, but we wish our pick at least included Apple’s Touch ID sensor, which is available only alongside the Touch Bar. After using Touch ID on a 2016 Touch Bar–equipped MacBook Pro for several weeks, we found it to be really useful for everything from logging in to authorizing software installations to paying for online purchases (so far at a limited number of websites).

According to Ars Technica, the 2016 non–Touch Bar 13-inch MacBook Pro had slower Wi-Fi than either the 2016 version with Touch Bar or the 2015 version. Specifically, the 2016 MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar maxed out at 867 Mbps of Wi-Fi throughput; the 2015 model and the 2016 model with Touch Bar can do up to 1.3 Gbps. We’ll update this guide once we get more info about the 2017 models.

We miss Apple’s MagSafe magnetic power connection on the 2017 MacBook Pro, which uses USB-C for all connectivity, including power.

At $1.500, the 2017 MacBook Pro in our recommended configuration is pricey, considering that our top Windows Ultrabook pick, the Dell XPS 13, costs around $1.150 for roughly similar specs, including Thunderbolt 3—though with a lower-resolution (but still 1080p) display.

For ultimate portability – at a price: 12-inch MacBook

which macbook 12-inch macbook

12-inch MacBook

A gorgeous Retina display in a super-thin, 2-pound laptop, but the single port, slower processor, and new keyboard may be dealbreakers for some people.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro models offer more performance than most people need, but that means the laptop will be nicely usable for years. However, if portability is more important to you, the 12-inch MacBook is an appealing option—with a few significant drawbacks.

At just 11 inches wide, 7.75 inches deep, and 0.14 to 0.52 inch thick, the 2-pound MacBook is shockingly thin and light, and not much bigger than a 9.7-inch iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard attached. Yet the MacBook sports a fantastic 2304×1440, 12-inch Retina display and a full-size keyboard (Apple’s new low-profile version), and it offers the same 10-hour battery life as other Mac laptops. (That’s Apple’s estimate. Joanna Stern of The Wall Street Journal [subscription required] got 8.5 hours in her automated Web-browsing tests of the 2016 version.) It’s also the only MacBook available in four finishes: silver, space gray, gold, and rose gold.

The MacBook’s size, weight, battery life, and screen are, frankly, the stuff of a road warrior’s dream, but the laptop is in many ways a reimagining of the original MacBook Air: Like the Air at its 2008 debut, the 12-inch MacBook is the smallest, thinnest, and lightest Mac laptop, but it achieves those metrics in part by using a lower-power processor and skimping on ports. And the MacBook goes one step beyond the original Air by adding an extremely thin new keyboard that won’t please everyone. (That keyboard is also on the 2016 and later MacBook Pro models—the only way to avoid it is to never buy a post-2015 Mac laptop.)

Unlike other MacBook models, which run on Intel’s Core i series of processors, the 12-inch MacBook uses Intel’s Core m processors. The Core m chips consume significantly less power and generate less heat than the Core i5 and i7 CPUs, so they’re a good fit for tablets and super-thin laptops like the MacBook that have less room for battery cells and cooling fans. However, the Core m processors are also considerably less powerful than the i5 and i7 chips. In other words, you shouldn’t buy the 12-inch MacBook expecting outstanding performance.

Of course, the Air went on to become, after several years of upgrades and price cuts, Apple’s most popular laptop ever. We expect to see the 12-inch MacBook undergo a similar evolution over the next few years.

Which specs should you buy? The MacBook comes standard with 8 GB of RAM, which should be fine for most people; the base 256 GB of storage should also be enough. If you plan on using the 12-inch MacBook for several years, spending an extra $300 for the version with a Core i5 processor and 512 GB of storage will help the computer feel fast for a longer stretch and give you twice the storage. (You can upgrade the 2017 MacBook to 16 GB of RAM at the time of purchase, but most people buying the MacBook won’t need to.)

What we don’t like: As we mentioned above, the single USB-C port is almost a deal breaker at best, it’s something you’ll have to deal with eventually. We’re also not huge fans of the 12-inch MacBook’s keyboard.

But our biggest complaint concerns the 12-inch MacBook’s price: It’s significantly slower than the cheapest current MacBook Pro, with a smaller screen and fewer ports, at a price that’s only $200 lower for similar storage. We understand that people always pay for portability, but we’re looking forward to seeing the 12-inch MacBook come down in price.

For the absolute best performance: 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

which macbook 15-inch macbook pro

MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2017)

With the largest screen, fastest components, and discrete graphics, this is the biggest and best-performing MacBook around, but it’s still relatively thin and light. It also gives you the nifty Touch Bar.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro also sports four Thunderbolt 3 ports, has the same keyboard and improved speaker system that debuted with the 2016 models, and offers an even larger—let’s just call it ginormous—Force Touch trackpad. Yet despite its 15-inch screen and aluminum body, the biggest MacBook Pro measures less than 14 inches wide, about 9.7 inches deep, and just over half an inch thick, and it weighs only 4 pounds.

Which specs should you get? The 15-inch MacBook Pro comes standard with 16 GB of RAM, and you can’t configure it with more. If you really need more horsepower than the stock i7 processor, we recommend skipping the 2.7 GHz upgrade and jumping right to the 2.9 GHz CPU. We generally recommend 256 GB of storage for laptops, but if you’re a pro working with video, large images, or other large data files, you should buy as much storage as you think you’ll need to have with you all the time.

What we don’t like: The 15-inch MacBook Pro is expensive, even for a 15-inch power notebook.

It’s limited to 16 GB of RAM. While 16 GB is more than enough for most people, some pro-level users would like the option to upgrade to 32 GB (or more!). Apple says that the reason for this restriction is that fast LPDDR memory is limited to 16 GB on the Intel chipsets it uses in its laptops. The next generation of these processors will allow 32 GB, but for now, Apple says that to support more than 16 GB it would have had to use a design that’s much less power efficient, so battery life would have suffered.

We suspect that even among pros, a good proportion would prefer long battery life over the option to have more than 16 GB of RAM, given the choice, but it’s still a frustrating limitation for anyone who needs more memory. Over the past few years, however, Apple has been increasing the performance of memory and storage in its MacBook Pro models, and these improvements have significantly improved overall performance when memory is constrained—for example, when the computer is swapping data between RAM and storage. If you’re concerned that the 16 GB limit will affect you, we encourage you to get your hands on one of the new MacBook Pro models and push it hard to see if it really will hamper your workflow. If it does, you’re out of luck—this year—on the Mac side of the laptop category.

We miss Apple’s MagSafe magnetic power connection on the new MacBook Pro models, which use USB-C for all connectivity, including power.

A number of early adapters of the 2016 15-inch MacBook Pros have reported much shorter battery life than promised: as little as three hours, in contrast to Apple’s claims of up to 10 hours. The problem doesn’t seem to affect everyone, or even a majority of people, but we’re hoping it’s a software issue that a future update to macOS will address.

What about the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar?

This version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017, four Thunderbolt 3 ports) basically splits the difference between our top pick—the $1,500 MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017, two Thunderbolt 3 ports)—and the 15-inch MacBook Pro. You get the 15-inch model’s Touch Bar, faster components, and two additional Thunderbolt 3 ports, but in a 13-inch package that weighs a pound less.

However, because it uses a dual-core processor—Core i5, upgradable to Core i7—rather than a quad-core one, the 13-inch Touch Bar version doesn’t offer the sheer performance you get with the 15-inch MacBook Pro. In fact, it’s not that much faster than our top pick, the 2017 non–Touch Bar MacBook Pro.

In addition, the two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the right side of the 13-inch MacBook Pro have less throughput than the two on the left: As Apple notes, “Always plug higher-performance devices into the left-hand ports on [the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar] … for maximum data throughput.” Of course, even the two “reduced throughput” Thunderbolt 3 ports offer far more throughput than most people will use, and you can connect 4K and 5K displays to any of the four, but it’s still a drawback to have to stop and think about which port you should use.

A number of owners of the 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, including multiple Wirecutter staffers, have complained about poor battery life: Some get as little as three to four hours of use time on a charge. One of those Wirecutter staffers has tried many Apple recommendations, and even taken the laptop to an Apple Store for testing—the Genius Bar said nothing was wrong with the laptop—but still doesn’t get even half of Apple’s advertised 10-hour battery life. We’ll be testing the 2017 version, but Apple says that the only change from the 2016 model is an upgraded processor (to Intel’s Kaby Lake line), which shouldn’t dramatically affect energy use in most everyday tasks. Finally, several Wirecutter staffers have noted that over time, the keys on their 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar have started to stick or to need more pressure to register a keypress.

In other words, compared with our top pick, the $1,800 (or more) you pay for the Touch Bar version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro mainly buys you the Touch Bar, two additional Thunderbolt 3 ports, and slightly faster components (processor, RAM, GPU), but it doesn’t give you dramatically better performance. And while short battery life isn’t a universal problem, we’ve seen enough reports of it that we have serious concerns about power management on this model. We currently don’t recommend the 13-inch MacBook Pro unless you truly need its extra features and you’re willing to risk short battery life.

Buying a refurbished MacBook

With most products, we recommend against buying refurbished items: They often have cosmetic blemishes, they may be less reliable than a new unit, and they usually come with a shorter warranty than you get when buying new. But we think buying refurbished directly from Apple is worth considering. Based on our own experiences and many reports from other people and publications, a refurbished Mac is every bit as reliable as a new one and is almost always cosmetically indistinguishable from new. It also comes with a full one-year Apple warranty, and it’s eligible for Apple’s optional AppleCare extended warranty. In other words, you’re getting something that’s basically new, but at a significant discount.

The Certified Refurbished section of Apple’s online shop is a little hidden, but it offers a variety of MacBook models, updated daily. With a little patience, you’ll likely find exactly the configuration you want. Especially common are refurbs of Apple laptops originally released roughly six months to two years ago—models that are still selling in large quantities but have been around long enough that Apple is getting returns and repairs in sufficient numbers to warrant listing the refurbs.

For example, the 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro—one of our picks for most Mac users—is regularly available in the refurb section at a discount of $200 to $500 off the new price, depending on configuration. (A model with a 2.9 GHz Core i5 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of storage is frequently available for about $1,530—nearly $500 off the normal price of $2,000.) Similarly, if you’re interested in the MacBook Air but wary of paying full price on a laptop with a non-Retina display and an older processor, you can get one at roughly 15 to 25 percent off through the refurbished section.

To be very clear: We’re talking specifically about buying refurbished Macs directly from Apple, not other vendors, even when vendors (such as Amazon) claim they’re selling “certified refurbished” models. Apple doesn’t certify refurbished models from other sellers—they’ve been “certified” only by the seller—and these units usually don’t come with Apple’s full warranty.

A good number of Wirecutter staffers have purchased refurbished Mac laptops and desktops from Apple without problems—some of our Apple experts buy only Apple refurbs. One staffer had issues with a refurbished 2012 MacBook Pro, but Apple replaced it with a good unit; over dozens of other purchases, none of our staffers have had a problem.

If you know the specific configuration you want to buy, we recommend setting up an alert on Refurb Tracker: Enter your country, MacBook model, and keywords (for example, “16GB AND 256GB”), and the site will notify you (via email or RSS) when matching systems are available in Apple’s refurb store.

What about the 13-inch MacBook Air?

The 13-inch MacBook Air used to be our pick for the best Apple laptop for most people. Though it hasn’t seen a significant update in several years, it’s still a current model, and it still offers solid performance, great battery life (up to 12 hours, by Apple’s estimates), the same fantastic keyboard as the 2015 MacBook Pro, and a nice array of legacy connections: one Thunderbolt 2 port, two USB 3 ports, an SD card slot, Apple’s MagSafe power connector, and a headphone jack. It’s a solid, quality laptop in a thin, 3-pound package.

However, the Air’s basic design hasn’t been revised in years, it still has a non-Retina 1440×900 display and older Broadwell Core i5 and i7 processors, and it doesn’t have the great Force Touch trackpad found on every other current Apple laptop. Given that the 12-inch MacBook is smaller and lighter than the Air but with a better screen and newer features, the Air seems to exist mainly so that Apple has a $1,000 laptop option. The main reason to choose an Air is if it’s all your budget will allow. Otherwise, you’re better off with a 13-inch MacBook Pro or a 12-inch MacBook.

What about the 2015 15-inch MacBook Pro?

Apple still sells the 2015 version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The 2015 model lacks the current 15-inch model’s Touch Bar, improved screen, faster components, and new keyboard and trackpad, but it includes the older (better) keyboard and a slew of legacy ports. And the 2015 model’s processing power comes close to that of the Touch Bar version for a significantly lower price. That said, most people buy a 15-inch MacBook Pro for its screen and overall performance, and the 2017 model has a much better screen; the newer machine’s components (GPU, RAM, storage) are faster, too, and it includes Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports for the speediest connectivity. In other words, if you’re truly a pro, we think you should go with the 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Should you upgrade from an older model?

MacBook Air: If you have a 2013 or later MacBook Air, you probably don’t need to upgrade to the current (2015) Air—the difference in performance is relatively small between models from the past few years, and the other improvements with the latest Airs (such as Thunderbolt 2, compared with Thunderbolt 1 in the 2013 and 2014 Airs) aren’t things most MacBook Air owners are likely to benefit from.

You might, however, consider upgrading from an Air to a different MacBook model entirely if your Air has only 4 GB of RAM and it’s not enough for the tasks you use it for, or if you have an 11-inch Air and need a bigger, better screen. Or perhaps you have a 13-inch Air and want a higher-resolution, Retina display. In these scenarios, we recommend upgrading to a 13-inch MacBook Pro or a 12-inch MacBook: You’ll get a modern computer with a much better screen and either much better performance (the MacBook Pro) or much better portability (the 12-inch MacBook).

MacBook Pro: If you have a 13-inch or 15-inch MacBook Pro from 2013 or later, the improvements in overall performance you’ll see by upgrading to a 2017 model—or to our 2015-model pick—will be relatively small for tasks that aren’t processor intensive, such as browsing the Web, streaming video, handling email, and working with documents. Where you will see noticeable improvements is in processor-intensive tasks such as video editing and rendering, advanced photo editing, games, 3D software, data crunching, and other tasks for which the “Pro” moniker is appropriate—and the older your current laptop is, the bigger the difference you’ll see.

If you use those kinds of apps, the speed of your computer is likely very important—time is money—and you’ll be able to get things done faster on the latest models. Similarly, if your job involves accurate color, the 2017 MacBook Pro models have a display that Apple says is the brightest, with the highest contrast and the widest color gamut, of any Mac laptop, and that component may make an upgrade worthwhile. (As we noted above, a number of photographers have told us that the new screen alone makes the newer models compelling.) Finally, if you need the fastest data connections or high-resolution external displays, the 2017 MacBook Pros have Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports that allow for the fastest available data transfers and support the largest, highest-resolution monitors. If you don’t need those things, even a 2013 MacBook Pro is still a great computer.

If you’re satisfied with the performance of your current MacBook Pro, is the Touch Bar worth upgrading for? Not yet. It’s a lot of fun to use, and we think it will eventually find its way onto most MacBook models, but not enough apps have been updated for it yet to justify buying a new computer solely for this feature.

12-inch MacBook: The 2017 model offers a modest speed increase over the original version from 2015. But unless you’re upgrading from the base (Core m3) 2015 model to a 2017 MacBook with a Core i5 or Core i7 processor, the bump in performance probably isn’t worth the price of upgrading—and if performance is that important, you’ll likely be better off upgrading to one of our main picks rather than just a newer 12-inch MacBook.

(AN FRAKES)

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