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The best MacBook you can buy in 2021

The best MacBook
(Image credit: Future)

Buying the best MacBook can be a confusing affair at the moment. With MacBooks coming in different sizes, possessing different names, and powered by different chips, there are a lot of things to consider when looking for the best MacBook you can buy.

Part of the problem is that Apple is midway through replacing the Intel processors in its MacBooks with its own Apple Silicon chips. The first of these, the M1, massively ramped up the laptops’ performance, but Apple continues to sell older Intel models. The M1 offers incredible value, and you might ask why you should bother with an Intel MacBook, especially if you're a digital creative. Yet there are some cases when you might want one, despite the fact it’s being phased out.

But there’s more to consider beyond the performance. Screen size, graphical power, storage sizes, and more all come into play. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. If all this leaves you more than a little confused, don’t worry, as our buying guide is here to clear things up and show the best MacBook that you should buy today.

We’ll even help you grab some money off thanks to our round-up of all the latest Apple deals. And if you’re not sold on the idea of buying a MacBook, we’ve also scoured the internet for the very best MacBook alternatives, the best cheap iMac deals and the best Mac mini deals as well.

The best MacBook you can buy in 2021

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 chip running Apple's macOS Big Sur operating system

(Image credit: Apple)

01. MacBook Pro (M1, 13-inch)

The best MacBook for school (and everything else)

Specifications
Processor: Apple M1
Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Memory: 8GB, 16GB (unified memory architecture)
Touch ID and Touch Bar?: Both
Reasons to buy
+Incredible performance+Fantastic battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks discrete graphics-Only two ports

If you’re in the market to buy a MacBook these days, there should be one name right at the top of your list: The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Apple’s M1 chip.

The M1 chip is so good, it’s hard to believe it’s Apple’s first entry in its own MacBook chip line. It’s a massive improvement over the Intel processor in its predecessor, and in our review it handled almost anything we threw at it – including editing 8K footage in Final Cut Pro X – with absolute ease.

It has a superb Retina display, too, with P3 gamut support (great for photography work). And don’t be concerned by the 16GB memory limit. Apple uses something called a unified memory architecture, which is shared across the processor and GPU. In short, it helps the memory go much further than in standard setups. As some reviewers have noted, the 16GB option performs more like 32GB in a traditional laptop.

There’s plenty for students, too. You get an excellent keyboard that’s comfy even when you’re typing all day long, and its phenomenal battery life – 13 hours in our testing – is perfect for all-night study sessions and working on the go.

And with rumors of a totally redesigned 14-inch model coming later this year, the smaller MacBook Pro is going to get even better. Simply put, it’s the best MacBook you can buy.

The MacBook Air with M1 chip running Apple's macOS Big Sur operating system

(Image credit: Apple)

02. MacBook Air (M1, 13-inch)

The cheapest MacBook still packs an almighty punch

Specifications
Processor: Apple M1
Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Memory: 8GB, 16GB (unified memory architecture)
Touch ID and Touch Bar?: Touch ID only
Reasons to buy
+Superb M1 chip+Silent operation
Reasons to avoid
-No discrete graphics-Display inferior to MacBook Pro

In previous years, the MacBook Air was way down the Apple pecking order, far below the much more performant MacBook Pro. Now that both the Air and the Pro have the same M1 chip, all that has changed and the Air has become one of the best MacBooks you can buy. It means you get almost identical performance as the MacBook Pro for $300 less, which is almost unheard of in the laptop world.

We say almost identical performance because the MacBook Air is totally fanless. While that means it can’t quite hit the peaks of the MacBook Pro, it means it is completely silent at all times, even under load. If you love your laptops quiet, that’s great news.

Aside from being the cheapest MacBook available, it’s also the lightest, weighing in at 2.8 pounds. And like the MacBook Pro, you get excellent battery life of over 11 hours – and that was from a looping video test in our review, so it should last even longer in normal usage. Combined, the low weight and high longevity make it exceedingly portable.

By adding the M1 chip to what often felt like an underpowered machine in the past, Apple has upended the paradigm that cheaper means worse. If you’re looking for an entry-level Apple laptop, the MacBook Air is an incredibly attractive choice.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro seen from the front

(Image credit: Apple)

03. MacBook Pro (16-inch)

Expansive display makes it the best MacBook for creative work

Specifications
Processor: Intel Core i7, Intel Core i9
Storage: 512GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, 8TB
Memory: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB
Touch ID and Touch Bar?: Both
Reasons to buy
+Great performance+Large Retina display
Reasons to avoid
-Very expensive-Uses older Intel architecture

With Apple’s M1 chip hogging all the limelight, you might wonder whether there is still a place for Intel-based MacBooks in Apple’s line-up. Well, the 16-inch MacBook Pro makes an excellent case for the Intel side of things, at least for now.

That’s because it has the highest performance ceiling of any MacBook. Sure, the M1-enabled MacBooks do incredibly well for their price tags. But if you want the absolute best MacBook in terms of performance, that accolade goes to the 16-inch MacBook Pro once you max out its components. Its Intel Core i9 chip will chew through heavy duty loads all day long.

But it’s more than just a powerful machine. The 16-inch MacBook Pro has the largest display of any MacBook, with slimline bezels, 500 nits of brightness, and support for the P3 wide colour gamut. Its cooling system keeps heat to a minimum, it comes with a comfy keyboard and the Touch Bar, and its speakers are some of the best in any MacBook.

In other words, it’s a strong all-rounder. Yes, it’s expensive and still running on an Intel architecture, but you get an awful lot for your money.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Intel chip seen from the front

(Image credit: Apple)

04. MacBook Pro (Intel, 13-inch)

Some niche uses, but you’re better off waiting

Specifications
Processor: Intel Core i5, Intel Core i7
Storage: 512GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB
Memory: 16GB, 32GB
Touch ID and Touch Bar?: Both
Reasons to buy
+Lots of storage+Good RAM options
Reasons to avoid
-High price for performance-Will probably be replaced soon

When Apple unveiled its first M1-powered Macs in late 2020, the company said its transition to the new chip architecture would take about two years. In light of that, it has kept a few Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro models available for sale for the time being. So, should you buy one?

The answer is yes, but only if you have some specific requirements. Right now, the 13-inch Intel MacBook Pro sits somewhere between the M1 MacBook Pro and the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and that’s reflected in its price. It doesn’t outperform the M1 models, but it does offer more storage and more memory (although as we mentioned in the M1 MacBook Pro section, the M1 Macs use their RAM much more effectively). If you need lots of storage or lots of memory, the 13-inch Intel MacBook Pro might be tempting.

However, don’t expect it to hang around for long. Apple is widely rumored to be revamping the MacBook Pro with better Apple Silicon chips later this year, and when it does so, the Intel MacBook Pro could be phased out and replaced with new high-end Apple Silicon-enabled MacBooks. For that reason, if you want top performance from a 13-inch MacBook Pro, you should probably wait a little longer if you can.

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Alex Blake

Alex Blake is a freelance tech journalist who writes for Creative Bloq, TechRadar, Digital Trends, and others. Before going freelance he was commissioning editor at MacFormat magazine, focusing on the world of Apple products. His interests include web design, typography, and video games.