Macs

Mac buying guide: How to pick the right computer

If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re thinking about buying a new Mac and may be in need of a little guidance. Fortunately, we’ve tested (almost) every standard-configuration Mac model currently in Apple’s lineup. We’re quite familiar with Apple’s Macs, and we’re happy to help you choose the right Mac for you.

This buying guide provides an overview of all the Mac models available, and what each model is best suited for. To get more details, you can read the full review for each Mac model by clicking the “Read our complete review” links.

Quick reference chart: Apple's current laptop lineup
Quick reference chart: Apple's current desktop lineup

MacBook Air

MacBook Air

What is it? The MacBook Air is Apple’s ultrathin, ultralight laptop. It comes in two screen sizes: 11 inches (2.4 pounds) and 13 inches (3.0 pounds).

Who’s it for? The MacBook Air is ideal for anyone who is always on the go, doesn’t want to be bogged down by a regular-size laptop, and needs a computer that’s more versatile than an iPad.

What are the specifications? The four MacBook Airs have the same 1.3GHz dual-core Core i5 processor. All MacBook Air models come standard with 4GB of RAM and integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 technology. Apple claims 9 hours of battery life for the 11-inch models, and 12 hours for the 13-inch models.

The main difference between the laptops is storage. The $999 11-inch model and the $1099 13-inch model have 128GB of flash storage, while the $1199 11-inch model and the $1299 13-inch model have 256GB.

How do I connect stuff? The MacBook Air has built-in Wi-Fi for connecting to a network. It also provides built-in Bluetooth for wirelessly connecting a mouse or other peripheral. If you want to connect to an ethernet network, you'll need a USB Ethernet Adapter.

Thunderbolt is the MacBook Air’s high-speed connector. The laptop also has a pair of USB 3.0 ports, which can work with devices that use USB 2.0. If you have a FireWire 800 drive, you'll need to buy a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter.

How fast is it? The MacBook Air is quite capable of handling everyday tasks, such as sending and receiving email, browsing the Web, and using office applications. You can even use it for editing short videos, or for working with JPEGs from your iPhone or point-and-shoot camera.

The MacBook Air's flash storage really helps the performance. For example, the MacBook Air outperforms several standard configurations of the non-Retina MacBook Pro, which uses a hard drive (solid-state drives for the MacBook Pro are available for an additional cost).

Macworld’s buying advice: The MacBook Air is a great laptop for someone who does general-purpose work and moves around a lot, such as a student or a self-employed person. You can’t easily upgrade the storage after purchase, so you should buy the model with the largest amount of storage you can afford. (After-market storage upgrades are available, but Apple does not provide support for such upgrades.)

Read our complete review of the MacBook Air (Mid-2013)

MacBook Pro with Retina display

Apple sells two types of MacBook Pros. I’ll cover the Retina MacBook Pro first.

What is it? The Retina MacBook Pro features a high-density display with so many pixels that images and text look especially smooth and clean—at normal viewing distances, you can't discern individual pixels. Apple updated the Retina MacBook Pro in October.

Who’s it for? The Retina MacBook Pro is for the demanding user who wants a portable computer that also performs well. Retina MacBook Pro models sit at the top of the performance chart of Mac laptops.

What are the specifications? The Retina MacBook Pro is available in screen sizes of 13 inches and 15 inches.

There are three 13-inch models. The $1299 model has a 2.4GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, and 128GB of flash storage. The $1499 model has a 2.4GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and 256GB of flash storage. The $1799 model has a 2.6GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and 512GB of flash storage. All three 13-inch models have an Intel Iris Graphics integrated graphics processor.

Apple has two 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros. The $1999 model has a 2.0GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, 256GB of flash storage, and Intel Iris Pro integrated graphics. The $2599 model offers a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 16GB of memory, 512GB flash storage, Intel Iris Pro integrated graphics, and a discrete 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics processor.

The screen is the Retina MacBook Pro's marquee feature. The 13-inch Retina display has a native resolution of 2560 by 1600 pixels, and OS X offers a scaled resolution up to 1680 by 1050 pixels. The 15-inch Retina display has a native resolution of 2880 by 1800 pixels, and OS X’s highest scaled resolution on those laptops is 1920 by 1200 pixels. These high-scale resolutions can accommodate the workspace of a larger-screen standard Mac laptop on a smaller Retina MacBook Pro, if you can tolerate the smaller icons, text, and other graphics on screen. If you use a third-party app such as QuickRes, you can set the Retina screen to use resolutions higher than the scaled settings OS X offers, including the native resolution.

The Retina MacBook Pro does not have a SuperDrive, so if you need one, you'll have to buy an external USB optical drive.

How do I connect stuff? No need to worry about wireless connectivity: The Retina MacBook Pro has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

It’s the wired connectivity you need to be concerned with. The Retina MacBook Pro has two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, and that’s it. If you want to connect a FireWire device, you'll have to use a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter. Fortunately, you can use USB 2.0 devices with the USB 3.0 ports without a problem.

If you wish to connect to an ethernet network, you'll need a USB Ethernet Adapter.

How fast is it? The Retina MacBook Pro’s processors, flash storage, and 8GB of memory combine to produce impressive performance. The 15-inch models can keep up with the stock configuration of the $1299 iMac with a 2.7GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and a hard drive. Both the 13- and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros are faster than the stock configurations of the Mac mini, Apple’s affordable desktop computer. And the Retina MacBook Pros offer a significant performance boost over their non-Retina counterpart (see below).

Interestingly, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro was only 10 to 15 percent faster than the 13-inch MacBook Air in much of our testing. But if your work requires a lot of heavy-duty processing, note that the MacBook Air may throttle itself down to keep its temperature at an optimal level, and such an adjustment will affect performance.

Macworld’s buying advice: For the most demanding mobile Mac user—someone whose work requires a lot of processing power—the Retina MacBook Pro is the ticket. If you're looking at a 13-inch model, the $1499 Retina MacBook Pro hits a sweet spot for price and performance. The $600 that separates the two 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro models is a hefty chunk of change; the $2799 MacBook Pro is the top-of-the-line Mac laptop, offering the strongest performance. If your work mostly involves Internet access and other productivity tasks, however, go for a MacBook Air.

Read our complete review of the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pros (Late 2013)

Read our complete review of the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros (Late 2013)

MacBook Pro

What is it? Before the MacBook Pro with Retina display existed, there was the MacBook Pro. This laptop has a standard, non-Retina display.

Who’s it for? The standard MacBook Pro is for the user who wants a portable computer that doesn’t sacrifice a lot. The MacBook Pro isn’t as fast as an iMac desktop system, but it can be faster than the MacBook Air at certain tasks.

What are the specifications? When Apple released the Retina MacBook Pro, the company initially kept four different models of the non-Retina MacBook Pro in stock. But when the company updated the MacBook Pro line in October, the non-Retina line was reduced to a single laptop.

That laptop is a 13-inch model with a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, a 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive, and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics subsystem. You can customize your order with a faster processor, more memory, a larger hard drive, or a solid-state drive.

The standard MacBook Pro is the only Mac laptop with a built-in SuperDrive. If you need to burn or read optical discs, and you’d rather not use an external drive, the standard MacBook Pro is the laptop for you.

Apple used to offer a 17-inch standard MacBook Pro, but phased it out in favor of the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro.

How do I connect stuff? Like all Mac computers, the standard MacBook Pro has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But unlike other Mac laptops, the standard MacBook Pro continues to offer ports that Apple has phased out of the MacBook Air and the Retina MacBook Pro.

If you have FireWire 800 drives that you use regularly, you’ll be happy to know that the standard MacBook Pro comes with a FireWire 800 port. None of Apple’s other laptops have FireWire. If you don’t want to carry an adapter for your FireWire drive, the standard MacBook Pro is your only choice.

The standard MacBook Pro also has a gigabit ethernet port, which you can’t find on the MacBook Air and the Retina MacBook Pro.

Like all Mac laptops, the standard MacBook Pro has two USB 3.0 ports.

How fast is it? Both 13-inch standard MacBook Pro models are slower overall than the 13-inch MacBook Air—blame the performance hit on the MacBook Pro’s hard drive, which can’t keep up with the MacBook Air’s flash storage. However, the MacBook Pro has a huge performance advantage over the MacBook Air on tasks, such as video editing, that are processor intensive and don’t have to read or write to the storage device much.

Macworld’s buying advice: The standard MacBook Pro is for the mobile user who doesn’t want to sacrifice a lot of features. The hard drives create a performance bottleneck, so if you want to get the best performance, consider customizing the laptop to replace the hard drive with an extra-cost SSD. If you want a laptop for travel and can’t decide between a standard MacBook Pro and a MacBook Air, go with the MacBook Air unless you really need built-in FireWire; you might also consider a Retina MacBook Pro.

Read our complete review of the standard MacBook Pro (Mid-2012)

Next page: Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro

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