Defining the best MacBook for programming can be a little subjective since many of us will have our personal favorite. We've been testing and reviewing MacBooks for over a decade, and we can say that any current Apple laptop can easily handle most programmers' requirements, but there are a few things to consider when choosing the right one for you.
Apple laptops deliver everything we want from a laptop for programming without us necessarily needing to go to the expense of buying the super-powerful new 2023 M3 Pro or Max MacBook Pros. Choosing the best one for your comes down to questions of size, portability, budget and what else you might want to do with the machine, all of which we analyse below.
We have made our recommendations based our own expert reviews and our contributors' many hours of combined experience using MacBooks as their everyday devices for work. We've compared the best MacBooks for programming for different requirements and budgets, highlighting the pros and cons of each. If you don't want an Apple-specific list, head over to our best laptops for programming guide. We also have a guide to the best laptops for graphic design.
The Quick List
The new entry-level MacBook Pro 14 offers more than enough power for programmers with a winning balance of size, portability and price. It's sleek and has a premium build without the price tag of 'Pro'-chipped models.
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If you prioritise portability because you work in different locations, the MacBook Air is notably thinner and 300g lighter while still offering a good deal of power and a crisp bright Liquid Retina display.
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You really don't need a powerful MacBook for programming, and even the base M3 and M2s are overkill if you're not using them for other things. A comfortable keyboard and crisp display are key, and the M1 Air delivers that for under $800.
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Programming can be much more comfortable on a larger screen. That often means sacrificing portability. But while the 2023 MacBook Air 15 is logically larger than its siblings, we were impressed with how light and compact it is for a 15in laptop.
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If you're doing more than programming, the M2 Pro-chipped MacBook Pro 16 provides incredible performance for demanding graphical work, outstanding battery life and a larger screen. There's now an M3 Pro version, but you're more likely to find a deal on this model.
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The best MacBook for programming in full
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The best MacBook for programming overall
We think the MacBook Pro 14-inch (M3, 2023) is the best MacBook for programming overall, offering the best trade off between power, price and portability. One of the new MacBook Pros released in November 2023, it's the first 14-inch MacBook Pro to come with the base M chip (in this case the M3) that than a Pro or Max chip. That makes it more affordable than previous MacBook Pro 14 generations if you go for this base model, which has more than enough power for programming.
Until this laptop, the entry-level MacBook Pro was the smaller 13-inch device, but we think the slightly larger screen of the 14-inch laptop is preferable for long sessions writing code while still being portable enough to sling in a bag when necessary. It's so new that we haven't completed our full review yet, but our initial experience supports Apple's claim that it delivers 15 hours of web browsing, while the mini-LED backlit Liquid Retina XDR display is crisp and bright (1,000 nits).
and of course, if you do need more power, more memory or more storage, the sky is practically the limit with these new MacBooks. You can choose the M3 Pro or M3 Max chip rather than the base M3 and up RAM to 128GB if you're doing a lot, lot more than programming with your laptop.
The best MacBook for programming on the move
If you want something more portable, we think the MacBook Air (M2, 2022) is the way to go. It's very similar to the 13-inch MacBook Pro released in the same year in terms of performance, but it's a tiny bit cheaper and lighter (it's also lighter and more compact than the previous MacBook Air, despite having a larger screen (13.6-inch) and more powerful processor).
The screen is 25 per cent brighter than the previous Air (see our budget pick below), and the laptop has MagSafe support, which means plugging and unplugging the power cable is easy and safe. We found battery life to be superb (we got over 16 hours of video playback when we tested it). The M2 chip makes light work of compiling code, and the extra screen space makes it a joy to code on. If the 14-inch MacBook Pro is too expensive, and offers a level of performance that you just won't need, then we strongly recommend the new MacBook Air instead.
See our full MacBook Air (M2, 2022) review for more details.
The best cheap MacBook for programming
If you're a coder on a tighter budget who just does not need the kind of horsepower the other MacBooks offer, then the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) remains an excellent choice.
The 2020 MacBook Air still hits the perfect sweet spot between value and performance. It's the cheapest MacBook you can buy new even at full price, but it often sees discounts. In our tests, we were impressed by how fast and smooth the laptop is in use, and we got well over a full day of use on a single battery charge.
Another benefit of the M1 MacBook Air is that it's fanless, which makes it silent in use. While the M1 chip has been succeeded by the M2, it still offers fantastic performance, especially when compiling code. This isn't the best MacBook to choose if you're going to be doing video editing or image editing , but if you only need a laptop for programming and general productivity, this should still do the job just fine.
See our full MacBook Air (M1, 2020) review for more details
The best MacBook for programming with a bigger screen
A larger screen is better for coding, but there's always a trade of, and we think the 13 and 14-inch laptops above have the edge in other aspects: power and display quality in the case of the M3 MacBook Pro and portability in the case of the M2 Air. But if you do want a larger screen that makes it easier to work across multiple windows, visualise more code at once (or view your code at a larger size), the 2023 MacBook Air 15 is our choice.
The newest MacBook Air, this was a bit of a surprise initially since a larger 15-inch laptop seemed to contradict the concept of the Air, but the laptop actually makes perfect sense since it makes efficient use of space (like the 13, it has no fan) to offer something that's incredibly light and compact for a 15-inch laptop. It's not a lot cheaper than the new MacBook Pro M3 at full price, but there are often decent deals to be had.
Read our MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022) review for more details.
The best MacBook for programming and more
If you need a MacBook that can handle much more than programming and you also want the largest screen you can get, the MacBook Pro 16-inch (2022) could be the best choice for you. It's essentially the same as the 14-inch model at number one in our list, coming with a choice of Apple's M2 Pro or M2 Max chips, but with a larger screen and battery.
People who find looking at lines of code on a larger screen more comfortable will love this device. The 16-inch MacBook Pro also boasts the best battery life of any MacBook. Apple says that you should get around 14 hours of web browsing from a charge, but we've seen more like 22 hours for basic online work. You can also configure it up to 64GB of memory, up to 8TB of storage, making it a supremely powerful MacBook. While it will be overkill for many programming tasks, it's ideal for anyone doing demanding video work on the side.
Apple has a newer M3 model released just 10 months later in October 2023, but as a laptop for programming, this is already much more than you need, plus the January 2023 model is coming in for some very attractive discounts at the moment.
See our full MacBook Pro 16-inch (2023) review for more details.
How to choose the best MacBook for programming
Is a MacBook good for programming?
We think MacBooks are great laptops for programming. They have bright, crisp retina displays that show type clearly, they're powerful and they have good battery life – important if you're coding on the go. MacBooks now come in a good range of sizes, from the cheaper 13-inch MacBook Pro and Air to the larger and more powerful 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros and now even a 15-inch MacBook Air so there's plenty of choice.
Is a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air best for programming?
It used to be that we would easily recommend a MacBook Pro over a MacBook Air for programming because of the larger screen and retina display, which is great if you have the font for your programming set small.
But in recent years, the differences between the MacBook Pro and Air have become less clear-cut. MacBook Airs now have retina displays and Apple's own silicone (either the M1 or M2 chip), and there's even now a 15-inch MacBook Air for those that prefer a larger screen.
This means that we would only recommend paying more for a MacBook Pro (and even more for a M Pro-chipped model) if you'll be using your MacBook for other, more graphically demanding tasks as well. Programming alone does not require the amount of power delivered by the M Pro chips, but you may want to consider one of these if you're also doing other types of work.
How we tested the best MacBooks for programming
We tested all of our picks of the best MacBooks for programming hands on as part of our full reviews of each product (see the link in the description of each product). When we reviewed each laptop, we performed a series of benchmark tests in order to evaluate their performance, display brightness and accuracy and battery life.
Our reviewers also used them over a period of at least two weeks, testing them for a wide range of uses. As well as using them for programming, our reviewers used them from general office programs, browsing, entertainment, photo editing and video editing in order to decide which of our buying guides they might fit. We also took into consideration customer reviews. To choose the best MacBooks for programming, we considered display size and quality, ergonomics, particularly the comfort of the keyboards, battery life (important if you often program from a cafe as well as from your home or office) and also price.