Update, 10/26/21: We’ve reviewed our recommendations and have updated our best overall and best gaming picks with the new 2021 MacBook Pro.
What to Look For in a MacBook in 2021
Apple has completed its transition from Intel to Apple Silicon for its entire line of MacBooks. All modern MacBooks Apple sells come with an Apple M1, M1 Pro, or M1 Max chip. These Macs get long battery life, run cool and quiet, and are still incredibly speedy. They have great build quality, excellent support from Apple, and are generally just great laptops.
MacBooks run Apple’s macOS instead of Windows. A lot of applications support Macs, including productivity mainstays like Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop. However, if you’re considering switching from PC to Mac, it’s worth checking whether the software you need will work on a Mac before getting one. For example, most PC games only run on Windows and won’t work on a Mac, even if you get a MacBook with powerful graphics hardware.
These Apple Silicon-based Macs can still run older software written for Intel Macs. However, they will perform better when running software that has been optimized for M1 Macs. At the end of 2021, lots of popular third-party applications have native support for Apple Silicon, including Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, and Google Chrome. You can even install iPhone and iPad apps on an M1 Mac!
If you have an Intel Mac, it will still perform well and continue to work for years to come, but we don’t recommend buying into a processor architecture that’s on the way out. You may still find some remaining Intel-based MacBooks for sale on some third-party stores, but we highly recommend getting a modern MacBook with Apple Silicon.
There are many benefits to the new Apple M1 chip architecture beyond big performance gains in optimized software. These include vastly improved power and heat efficiency for longer battery life and a cooler lap, fast unified RAM, and integrated GPU cores that outpace any Intel-based graphics solution.
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Apple Silicon-based MacBooks don’t support Boot Camp. You can’t install Windows on an M1 MacBook. (However, you can’t install Windows 11 on an Intel MacBook without a workaround, either.) You can, however, use Parallels for Mac or CodeWeavers Crossover to run Windows software on an M1 Mac. Now, let’s get to the best MacBooks you can buy on the market.
- ✓ M1 Pro chipset means monster performance
- ✓ MagSafe connector could save your laptop
- ✓ Charging over Thunderbolt is still supported
- ✓ The HDMI port and SDXC ports are useful for pros
- ✗ More expensive than the 13-inch MacBook Pro
- ✗ Maximum of 32GB memory compared to 64GB on M1 Max chips
- ✗ Less portable than M1 MacBook Air
The best overall portable Apple computer is the 14-inch MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro chipset. It’s more costly than the M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro from last year, but even putting processing power aside, it’s an upgrade in every single way.
First, the ports. Apple has slowly walked back its Thunderbolt-only stance and brought back MagSafe connectors for power to keep your laptop from flying off of a table when someone trips over the power cable.
The company has also added an HDMI port and an SD card slot for good measure. The much-maligned TouchBar and replaced it with more standard function keys, but you still get a TouchID sensor.
Compared to the 8‑Core CPU/GPU M1 in the 13-inch model, the M1 Pro chip in the 14-inch MacBook Pro features an 8-core CPU and 14-core GPU. This model also starts at 16GB of unified memory, meaning it’s much more future-proof than the smaller MacBook.
The 14-inch MacBook Pro also benefits from the Liquid Retina XDR display. Not only does this display look fantastic, but it’s especially useful if you edit HDR video.
If you’re looking for slightly more power, you can upgrade to a 10-core CPU, 14-core GPU M1 Pro chip for $200, or a 10-core CPU, 16-core GPU M1 Pro for $300. Storage starts at 512GB, but you can upgrade to as much as 8TB of SSD storage, but it will cost you.
Best MacBook Overall
MacBook Pro 14-inch (M1 Pro, 2021)
Apple Silicon is here to stay, and looking at the performance, that seems to be a good thing. The 14-inch MacBook Pro also has more useful ports than the 13-inch model.
- ✓ Fast, efficient performance thanks to the M1 chip
- ✓ The smallest, most lightweight Apple notebook
- ✓ Beautiful Retina display
- ✓ Excellent 18-hour battery life
- ✗ Lack of cooling means thermal throttling happens quicker than on the MacBook Pro
- ✗ Only two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports
The 13-in MacBook Air with an M1 chip starts at $999 for the base model, so you can save over the best overall pick if you’re looking for an entry-level MacBook. The MacBook Air retains its iconic wedge-shaped form factor, but now it’s completely silent on account of not having a fan inside it.
The base M1 MacBook Air has the same 8 CPU cores found on higher-end models but only 7 GPU cores. This is a great way of saving money if you don’t think you’ll be using visually demanding applications like video editors or games. You can opt for a version of the MacBook Air with an 8-core GPU at checkout for an additional $250 if you don’t want to sacrifice graphics performance.
Not having a fan means that the MacBook Air can’t run under load for as long as the MacBook Pro before thermal throttling sets in. Granted, if you’re looking for a budget laptop, you’re probably only looking for light productivity and web browsing, so this isn’t a huge concern.
The MacBook Air still has stellar battery life, with Apple rating it for 18 hours on a single charge. The 13.3-inch Retina display covers the full P3 wide color gamut, though it doesn’t get quite as bright as the MacBook Pro and there’s no Touch Bar above the keyboard. Touch ID is present and allows you to log in or authorize changes and payments using your fingerprint. It’s not the most accurate, but for MacBooks it’s a nice addition.
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Best Budget Option
- ✓ M1 chip is fast and efficient
- ✓ Perfect for most college-related tasks like word processing and web browsing
- ✓ All-day battery life
- ✓ Perfect weight and thickness for carrying around campus
- ✗ A lack of cooling makes the MacBook Air M1 less suited to demanding tasks
- ✗ MacBook Pro may be better for video editing, music creation, 3D applications
For most students who use their computers to write papers, research assignments, and stay in touch with classmates and tutors, the 13-in MacBook Air with an M1 chip is perfect.
It’s smaller and lighter than the comparably-sized MacBook Pro by 0.2lb (which makes more of a difference than you’d think), and it still manages all-day battery life. The high pixel density screen is beautiful to look at, with crisp text and colors that pop.
Not to mention it’s cheaper than an M1 MacBook Pro by $300! You can also use a higher education discount at the Apple Store for a deeper discount.
Conversely, if you think you’ll be using your computer for more advanced video or photo editing, then you might find the MacBook Air limiting. Instead, the M1 MacBook Pro will net you an additional GPU core and better cooling so that you can run your computer under load for longer without suffering a thermal penalty. Whether the Pro is worth the upgrade is dependent on your major and extra-curricular activities, but if you need a little more processing power, you’ll want to go Pro.
Either MacBook can be made more useful and productive with the right accessories. If you want more space to view multiple documents or web pages at a time, a decent budget monitor can make a world of difference. Something like the Dell S2721QS will provide 4K real estate for less than $300.
If you’re going to be typing a lot, you may also want to invest in a mechanical keyboard. These peripherals have higher durability, are more comfortable to type on, and may make you a better typist.
Best for Students
Budget 4K Monitor
- ✓ M1 Pro is plenty of power, even for most games
- ✓ Upgrade to M1 Max is only another $200
- ✓ Incredible battery life
- ✓ Native games and apps are lightning quick
- ✗ macOS games aren’t as prevalent as Windows games
- ✗ No Boot Camp to run Windows games
- ✗ Much pricier than Windows gaming laptops
It’s an interesting time for gaming on Apple computers, and if you want power to spare and you’re all-in on Apple, the MacBook Pro 16-inch with an M1 Pro chip is your best bet.
The announcement of the M1 Pro and M1 Max chipsets for MacBook Pro models made a lot of waves. For every article claiming that the new laptops were reclaiming the “Pro” in the MacBook Pro name, there was another claiming that these models still aren’t for gaming.
The fact is that Apple doesn’t sell new Mac laptops with Intel chipsets anymore. The future, as far as Apple sees it, is in its own chips. On one hand, this means you can’t buy a new Intel MacBook Pro and install Windows, but on the other hand this could free up developers to focus on games designed for Apple’s chipsets.
Developers have been making games for Apple Silicon in the form of iPhone and iPad games for years. This means that even if your favorite big-name developer isn’t shipping a Mac game this year, there’s a likelihood that we’ll start seeing more games taking advantage of Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, making this a worthwhile upgrade.
As far as specs go, the M1 Pro-powered 16-inch MacBook Pro will handle anything you can throw at it, with a 10-core CPU and 16-core GPU, plus 16 GB RAM. A 512GB SSD is included at the $2,499 price, but you can upgrade to 1TB for $200. If you’re also a creative professional or you crave all the power you can get, you might want to upgrade to the M1 Max version for another $200.
Best MacBook for Gaming
MacBook Pro 16-inch (M1 Pro, 2021)
The M1 Pro-powered 16-inch MacBook Pro is one of the most powerful laptops that you can buy right now, period. If you need the M1 Max chip, it’s available as an upgrade option.