What's the Best Mac Laptop or Desktop for You?

·7 min read

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If you want a Mac computer, it's not always easy to choose the right model.

Is the MacBook Air or the MacBook Pro the better choice for laptop shoppers? If you are looking at a desktop, should you go for an all-in-one iMac or the Mac Mini, which doesn't come with a monitor or keyboard but is consequently less expensive?

Those choices always took some time to think through, but this year the process is more complicated, thanks to the introduction of a new Apple-designed processor called the M1.

Mac computers that launched in 2020 are the first to use the M1, which replaces the Intel chips that have powered Macs since 2006. When Apple announced the M1 in June, the company said the chip would dramatically improve all Macs’ performance along with MacBooks’ battery life and at the same time enable users to run many iPhone and iPad apps.

Consumer Reports tested the first Macs with these new processors in the fall, looking at criteria like performance (do apps run smoothly?), versatility (are there sufficient ports to plug in your accessories?), and battery life.

Across the board, they did very well in our ratings, with fast performance and long battery life. The transition from Intel processors to the M1 has gone smoothly so far.

It’s important to note, however, that Apple still sells Mac computers using Intel processors, including versions of the MacBook Pro, iMac, and its Mac Pro professional desktop. Apple said earlier in 2020 that it expects the full transition to the M1 to take about two years.

These are still very good computers that in some cases can be configured more aggressively than their M1 counterparts. For example, the Intel-based 16-inch MacBook Pro tops out at 8 terabytes of solid-state storage, compared with the 2 terabytes of the 13-inch Pro with the M1. Does anyone need 8TB of storage in a laptop? Perhaps not, but the point stands.

And unlike the M1-based Macs, at least some of the Intel-based Macs, such as the 16-inch MacBook Pro, can be configured with dedicated graphics cards from AMD. That will help with gaming performance.

So which Mac is right for you? Let’s start with the laptops.

MacBook Air or MacBook Pro?

Apple makes two laptop computers, the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Both do well in our ratings, but they’re aimed at different audiences.

The Air starts at $1,000, comes in one size (13 inches), and is a smart choice for everyday use. It’s capable of running a wide variety of apps, whether that’s a web browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Safari; a word processor like Google Docs, Pages, or Word; or a spreadsheet program such as Excel, Numbers, or Sheets.

And with the M1, you can now run iPhone and iPad apps. It’s a neat feature—I enjoy using my preferred podcast app, called Overcast, on my MacBook Air—but because the Mac doesn’t have a touch screen, the experience is slightly clunky.

At 2.8 pounds, the computer is lightweight (you’d hope so with a name like Air) but not uniquely so. The 13-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (2.8 pounds), 13-inch Dell XPS (2.7 pounds), and Apple’s own 13-inch MacBook Pro (3 pounds) are comparable. And the 13-inch LG Gram weighs an almost unbelievably feathery 2.1 pounds.

In terms of specs, the Air starts with the Apple M1 processor, 8 gigabytes of memory, and 256GB of solid-state storage. (Don’t know what solid-state storage is? We’ve got you covered.) It lasted between 10.75 and 12.5 hours in our tests, depending on how hard it’s pushed. The Intel model it replaced lasted between 7 and 12.75 hours, so this M1 version nets out a little bit higher all told.

CR reports two battery numbers because we subject all laptops to a pair of battery tests: one that runs the battery down with lightweight tasks like web browsing and another with taxing fare such as 4K video streaming.

The MacBook Pro comes into play for people who need more horsepower, for tougher computing tasks.

Apple offers two Pro models: a 13-inch laptop that uses the Apple M1 processor and an older 16-inch model with an Intel processor.

Unlike the Air, the 13-inch Pro has an onboard fan that kicks in while you’re doing long, intense tasks such as rendering 4K video. That helps it keep cool, allowing the laptop to push harder for longer before getting too warm (which causes it to then throttle back the performance). That makes the 13-inch Pro better suited for professionals or other people who frequently find themselves using demanding apps such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere Pro.

The 16-inch Pro with an Intel processor, meanwhile, may be particularly useful for people who like to play games, thanks to its dedicated AMD graphics card.

And while the M1-equipped Air and Pro both open with 8GB of memory and 256GB of solid-state storage, the Pro has a higher ceiling: It can be configured with up to 16GB of memory and 2 terabytes of solid-state storage. The 16-inch model can be equipped with even more memory and storage. It costs a princely sum to reach those heights, but there are many options in between.

The Pro’s display gets brighter, too, which is useful if you enjoy working outside. A brighter screen is easier to see in direct sunlight.

So where does that leave an Apple fan looking for a new laptop?

The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are both solid choices. What it comes down to, really, is how much you want to invest in high-end specs for tasks like photo editing, video rendering, and game play. The Air starts at $1,000. For the 13-inch Pro, it’s $1,300, and the 16-inch Pro starts at $2,400.

Still on the fence? Here's my advice. If you're not planning to use the laptop for creative work such as video editing, the Air is probably the better choice—and it's the one I bought myself. It's all the laptop most people need.

Which Desktop Mac Is a Better Choice?

Desktop computers typically offer more bang for the buck than laptops in terms of power and performance. Their use of a dedicated mouse, keyboard, and display may also make them a compelling option ergonomically.

There are two solid options for consumers in our ratings: the Mac Mini and the iMac. Like the two Mac laptops, these computers are aimed at different users.

The Mac Mini has Apple’s new M1 processor, and starts with 8GB of memory and 256GB of solid-state storage. It has an onboard fan, like the 13-inch Pro. The Mini’s starting price of $700 makes it the least expensive way to buy a Mac, but you have to supply your own mouse, keyboard, and display; none of those accessories are included in the box. It’s a little like going to a restaurant where you bring your own bottle of wine.

The iMac, on the other hand, is an all-in-one device and comes with a mouse, keyboard, and your choice of monitor: a 21.5-inch option for $1,100 or a 27-inch option for $1,800.

The iMac hasn’t yet been moved over to the M1 and still starts with the Intel Core i5, and adds 8GB of memory and a 1TB hard disk drive. (Hard drives are not as fast as solid-state drives, but they’re less expensive—particularly at larger storage volumes like 1TB.)

Apple also sells a 27-inch iMac Pro for $5,000 with an Intel Xeon processor (which is a tier more powerful than the Core processors). We haven’t tested it because it’s primarily aimed at professional users and not everyday consumers.

So which desktop Mac is right for you?

The Mac Mini is a bargain for consumers happy to supply the keyboard, mouse, and monitor. For everyone else, the iMac is the better choice. It hasn’t been moved to the M1 processor yet, but it’s still a very solid computer, and everything you need is right there in the box.