Best MacBook buying guide 2016: Which Mac laptop should you buy

We weigh up the pros and cons of the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro (Retina and non-Retina) and 12in Retina MacBook.

Macbook Pro's are as desirable as they are expensive.

Macbook Pro's are as desirable as they are expensive.

Which MacBook should I buy?

There are three different models of MacBook laptops in Apple's line-up: MacBook Air, MacBook Pro (which is primarily advertised with a Retina display, but also comes in a non-Retina version), and the 12in Retina MacBook. Two of these lines have recently been updated:the 12-inch MacBook and (very slightly) the Air. We're still waiting for the MacBook Pro to be refreshed.

Further complicating matters, each of those MacBooks is available in different sizes and configurations, with various build-to-order options. It's not surprising, then, that many people have difficulty deciding between them. In this article we're helping you make that decision by examining the options and providing expert advice about which MacBook is best for you.

First, let's take a look at what's on offer.

[You should also read our Best Mac buying guide]

MacBook Air buying advice

There are four standard configurations of MacBook Air available. You can either have an 11in or a 13in screen, and in either case you can either have 128GB or 256GB of flash storage. All four base models come with a 1.6GHz processor; the 11in models both come with 4GB of RAM and the 13in models have 8GB. But you can give the processor a boost, or bump an 11in MacBook up to 8GB of RAM, if you're willing to pay a little more.

(Apple updated its MacBook lines - or part of them - in April 2016, but the sum total of the Air's upgrade was for the 8GB of RAM to be included in the base price for the 13in models.)

Here's what the base specs will cost you:

MacBook Air 11in, 128GB: $1,399
MacBook Air 11in, 256GB: $1,699
MacBook Air 13in, 128GB: $1,549
MacBook Air 13in, 256GB: $1,849

The MacBook Air used to be the most portable MacBook available, but 2015's 12-inch MacBook has now taken that position. However, the 11in MacBook Air model is still ideal for anyone who travels a lot, and if you can live with the physical design, which hasn't changed in years, it remains a strong and (by Apple's standards) highly affordable option. It offers far more bang for your buck than the costly and rather underpowered 12-inch model.

Retina MacBook Pro buying advice

When it comes to the MacBook Pro, there are a total of five models with Retina displays, three of which have 13in screens while the remaining two have 15in displays. (There's also a single non-Retina Pro model, which is hidden away at the bottom of the Buy Now page, not advertised on the main page, and generally treated like a pariah. But it's still a decent laptop - we'll look at the non-Retina Pro in a moment.) For each screen size you can choose various base storage allocation, varying from 128GB to 512GB, although the 15in model doesn't come with the lowest of those options.

Thanks to its higher specs the MacBook Pro with Retina display offers more power than the MacBook Air, and the display also offers a significantly higher resolution. Internally, each of the MacBook Pro with Retina display models differ, but we'll come to that later.

Here's what the various base specs of the MacBook Pro cost:

MacBook Pro 13in, 128GB: $1,999
MacBook Pro 13in, 256GB: $2,299
MacBook Pro 13in, 512GB: $2,799
MacBook Pro 15in, 256GB: $3,099
MacBook Pro 15in, 512GB: $3,799

Non-Retina MacBook Pro buying advice

There is one more MacBook Pro available, the MacBook Pro with no Retina display. It's only available as a 13in 2.5GHz model, but it's the last remaining MacBook with an optical disc drive - a CD/DVD writer that Apple refers to as the SuperDrive.

MacBook Pro, 13in non-Retina: $1,699The non-Retina MacBook Pro hasn't been updated by Apple since 2012. There have been rumours over the years that Apple will update the non-Retina MacBook Pro. We did think that it would dissapear from the lineup, but it's apparently not past its "sell-by" date. There's clearly a market for it, and with its built-in Ethernet socket and SuperDrive it clearly appeals to people who are permanently linked to a pre-wireless world.

Even so, we think you are better off avoiding this model and getting a faster and more modern model. Either a slinky 12-inch MacBook or the powerful MacBook Pro with Retina display.

12-inch MacBook buying advice

The MacBook, introduced in April 2015 and given a substantive update in April 2016 - as opposed to the Air, which got the tiniest update imaginable and the Pro, which was ignored completely and will presumably have to wait until WWDC 2016 - is now available in gold, silver, Space Grey or Rose Gold, just like the iPhone SE.

Colour choices aside, there are two models of MacBook to choose from: either 1.1GHz with 256GB of flash storage ($1,999) or 1.2GHz and 512GB ($2,449).

These are the same clock speeds as we saw in 2015's 12-inch MacBooks, but they should be considerably faster in practice because this time they're Intel's sixth-generation 'Skylake' Core M chips. Apple claims they bring 25 percent faster graphics and 20 percent faster general processing; we'll test these theories out when Apple send us review samples. The RAM is faster, too: 1866MHz, up from 1600MHz.

The newer, more energy-efficient chips should also help with battery life. Apple reckons this year's 12-inch MacBooks are good for an hour more than their predecessors: 10 hours of web use, or 11 hours of movie watching.

While (as we said earlier) this is the lightest and perhaps prettiest Mac available, it's also one of the most expensive, and - while the new Skylake chips have closed the gap - they remain relatively low-powered to boot. While it is an utter joy to look at, and nice to use, we still feel it costs too much for too little.

Last year's first iteration of the 12-inch MacBook reminded us of the original MacBook Air (known as the Rev A). It also cost a premium, and had very little initial power. But over time it transformed into faster, and cheaper, workhorse. The MacBook is improving, and will continue to do so, but for now it's really not powerful enough to justify its price tag.

Read our review of 2015's 1.1GHz 12-inch MacBook here.

How many Mac laptops are there?

That brings the grand total of Mac laptops to 12. However, there are also build-to-order options so you can spec out the Mac laptop of your dreams at the checkout if you order online.

You could also watch this video where we discuss whether you should buy the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, or the slightly cheaper 13-inch MacBook Air.

Which MacBook should I buy for portability?

The 12in MacBook is the lightest and thinnest MacBook available, with a height of 0.35-1.31cm and a weight of 0.92kg. However, there are sacrifices to be made in terms of power, this being Apple's lowest specced computer. It's also one of the most expensive Macs, so not one for the budget-conscious.

Next up is the 11in MacBook Air, with a height of 0.3-1.7cm and a weight of 1.08 kg (sure, at its thinnest point the MacBook Air is thinner than the MacBook, but it tapers to a thicker 1.7cm). We still think this Mac is ideal for carrying with you on business trips or in your bag on the way to work.

Both these Macs could be slightly limiting due to their diminutive screen size. The 11in MacBook is the more limiting of the two, however. The actual screen size of the smallest MacBook Air is 11.6 inches, which is just 1.9 inches bigger (diagonally) than the iPad Air. Some people find the dimensions of the MacBook Air screen restrictive too, because the display is shallower than any other Mac due to it being 16:9 rather than 16:10, which is a more normal laptop screen aspect ratio.

The 12in MacBook has a bigger screen than the MacBook Air, plus it offers a much better quality display, more on that later.

We think that the best Mac for portability is actually the 13in MacBook Air; sure, it's bigger and heavier than both of the Macs mentioned (its the same 0.3-1.7cm dimensions as the 11in model, but is wider at 32.5cm rather than 30cm). But at 1.35kg it is not a lot heavier than the 11in model, and it is lighter than the 13in MacBook Pro (1.58kg).

To help you decide between the two 13in models, you can read our which 13in Apple laptop article.

The price of the 13in MacBook Air is a lot better than that of the MacBook too, starting at $1,549 rather than $1,999. You get the best of both worlds: a light laptop with a decent screen size.

Watch our 'which MacBook Air is best?' video below.

You can also find out more in our Which MacBook Air is best? article.

Which MacBook is best for battery life?

The battery life of the 13in MacBook Air is the highest of any MacBook available. Apple calls it an "all-day battery" but what that means is up to 12 hours, and a whopping 30 days of standby time.

Next up is the 13in Retina MacBook Pro which can manage 10 hours wireless web (and Apple claims 12 hours if you are just watching video in iTunes). Apple also claims 10 hours of web use - but just 11 hours of film watching - for 2016's updated version of the 12-inch MacBook.

The 11in MacBook Air and the 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display offer 9 hours of battery life for wireless web (10 hours for iTunes on the Air, while the MacBook Pro offers 9 hours of iTunes).

Finally, the older MacBook Pro without the Retina display offers just 7 hours of wireless web browsing.

Which MacBook is best for storage?

One thing to consider if you work with large files, as many creative professionals do, is the capacity of the storage inside the Mac.

There are two types of storage available: flash (also known as SSD) or a traditional hard drive.

You will find SSD options of 256GB and 512GB for the Retina MacBook Pro.

The MacBook Air also has 128GB and 256GB.

The 12-inch MacBook is available with 256GB and 512GB.

The non-Retina Macbook Pro is available with a 512GB standard hard disk ($1,699).

The build-to order, high capacity SSD options for all Macbooks do not to be available in Australia like the y are in other territories.

Even so, we think that buying a separate hard drive and plugging it in when necessary (or using network attached storage) is a better, and cheaper, solution.

The only Mac laptop to offer a hard drive is the older non-Retina MacBook Pro - this model comes with a 500GB hard drive. The hard drive in this Mac is far slower than the flash drives in the other MacBooks. We would advise anyone buying a Mac to look at a flash drive option.

Which MacBook is fastest?

As Apple's fastest Mac laptop, the 2.5GHz quad-core MacBook Pro may be a good choice for you if you are looking for the fastest Mac. There's even a build to order option of a 2.8GHz quad-core. The quad-core processor in the 15in MacBook Pro means it has double the processor power of the other dual-core Macs. This is likely to make a real difference to processor intensive work.

It's the priciest option, though. We recommend that if you think you want the most speed you can get for your money, find the build-to-order option within your budget that offers the fastest processor.

Find out the difference between i7 and i5 processors here.

How to choose the best Mac laptop for your needs

To figure out which MacBook will best suit your needs, you'll need to think about what's most important. Are you looking for a MacBook to take with you on business trips? Perhaps you're after a gaming machine, or you're a student who needs a MacBook for uni. Here, we take you through the options.

Which MacBook is best for work & productivity?

You'll get iWork for free when you buy any new Mac laptop, which means you'll be able to use Apple's Pages, Numbers and Keynote applications (the rivals to Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint).

There has been some research that suggests that the bigger the screen the more productive you will be (Monitor Size and Aspect Ration Productivity Research), so it might be best to opt for a 15in MacBook Pro to maximise the effect of the extra screen space.

Which MacBook should I buy for running graphics-intensive applications?

If you want to use your MacBook for more powerful tasks like running creative applications, then the MacBook Air and MacBook might not be the best option.

If you're a graphic designer, video editor or photographer, then the likelihood is you'll benefit from a bigger display and a more powerful Mac. There's no longer a 17in MacBook Pro option, but there are two 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display models available.

The first MacBook Pro 15-inch has a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor and costs $3,099. It has 16GB 1600MHz memory and 256GB flash storage.

The second MacBook Pro has a 2.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor and 16GB or 1600MHz memory. It has 512GB of flash storage. It costs $3,799.

The 2.5GHz model also has a discrete graphics card - the AMD Radeon R9 M370X - in addition to the Intel Iris Pro Graphics, where the other 15in has only the Intel Iris Pro Graphics. The MacBook Pro is able to switch in and our of the two graphics cards depending on the activity. If you are likely to need the best graphics on offer this will be the MacBook for you, but it comes at a high price - $3,799 Hopefully your work will stump up the cash for you.

Which MacBook should I buy for gaming?

The Mac is growing in popularity as a gaming machine, especially since the launch of the Mac App Store. Plus, the ability to install Windows via Boot Camp on a Mac means Mac gamers can run Windows games too.

If you want to buy a MacBook for gaming, then we'd recommend the (unfortunately most expensive) high-end MacBook Pro with Retina display. It's got AMD Radeon R9 M370X graphics card, which should enable it to provide the best performance out of all of the MacBooks available, and some Mac desktops.

However, even the Intel graphics in the 13in MacBook Pro models could be sufficient for your gaming needs. The Intel HD Graphics 6100 in the 13in model, and Intel Iris Pro Graphics in the 15in model are plenty fast enough for many of today's games.

Read next: Best Mac games

Which MacBook should I buy for university?

We'd suggest that students will have similar needs to business users. They'll want to be able to carry their MacBook to and from lectures, and probably won't need them to be hugely powerful (unless they're on a graphic design or video editing course).

In that case, we'd suggest the MacBook Air again. Take a look back at the advice we gave at the beginning of this article when discussing portability for more information.

However, it's worth noting that the Retina-less MacBook Pro still has an optical drive, and, surprisingly, some universities still require work to be submitted on a CD or DVD.

How to get an Apple education discount

Which MacBook should I buy if I'm on a budget?

If money is the deciding factor when it comes to buying a MacBook, then the cheapest model available is the 128GB 11in MacBook Air, which costs $1,399. At $150 more, you can get the 13in MacBook Air, and add another $450 to that and you can buy the Retina MacBook Pro for $1999.

The MacBook Pro without Retina display costs $1,699 but we think that is too much to pay what is essentially a machine from 2012, it hasn't been updated since then.

It's also worth taking a look on Apple's refurbished store, which often has MacBooks available to buy at reduced prices. Apple puts the products in the refurbished store through vigorous testing, so you'll hardly know the difference between a refurbished Mac and a brand new one.

See: Should I buy a secondhand Mac?

[Wondering whether to buy a MacBook or a Mac desktop? Find out if you should buy a Mac laptop or Mac desktop here.]

10 reasons why Macs are better than PCs

Which cables, adapters and accessories do you need for the Apple MacBook Air and Pro laptops

And Mac mini versus MacBook Pro

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By Karen Haslam

Macworld U.K.
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