Apple

How to choose the right Mac for your use case

Posted on October 19th, 2021 by

Apple’s Mac product line has changed a lot recently, and if you’re looking for a new Mac, you have a number of options to consider. For some people, it’s a simple choice, but for others, the choice can be more complex.

You may need a desktop Mac, and you currently have four options for that type of computer. If you want a laptop, then you have three options. But you might want to use a laptop on your desk as well, increasing the number of possibilities. In this article, I’m going to help you choose which Mac you need according to your use case.

Apple’s M1 processors

The biggest change regarding the choice of new Macs is the release of Macs running Apple’s M1 processors. Apple’s initial presentation of these new computers was so stunning that Mac users couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The speed and power consumption promised was unexpected, and this has borne out in benchmarks and real world usage.

The first M1 models featured a processor with eight cores; think of a core as a mini-processor. Much of the work we do uses just a single core, but demanding tasks use multiple cores working simultaneously.

The second round of M1 Macs – using what Apple is calling the M1 Pro and M1 Max processors – focused on the MacBook Pro. With two models, 14" and 16", these are real pro laptops. They come with 8 or 10 cores, plus additional graphic cores, and allow you to add more memory than the first M1 Macs.

With much of Apple’s product line now updated to the company’s own processors, you don’t have to worry about getting a Mac with a backward-looking Intel processor (unless you need one; see below). You have options at all prices, and in just about all possible form factors. The first wave of M1 Macs, released in late 2020, included the 24" iMac, the MacBook Air, the 13" MacBook Pro, and the Mac mini. The second wave, released in October 2021, added two MacBook Pro models, a 14" and a 16".

M1 iMacs come in seven colors.

One important point: if you depend on software that has not been and won’t be updated to work well on Apple’s M1 processor, or if you absolutely need a Mac with an Intel processor because you want to run Windows on your Mac using Boot Camp, then now is the time to get one. The only ones still sold, at the time of this writing, are one Mac mini model, the 27" iMac, and the Mac Pro. Soon, all Macs will have Apple’s processors.

Cost

If money is no object, and you need a workhorse, then don’t waste too much time. Go for the Mac Pro At $5,999 and up, this is the Rolls Royce of the desktop Mac, and you can configure it to a staggering cost – over $50,000 – if you want it to be lightning fast, with lots of RAM and SSD storage. However, we’re at an inflection point, where Apple will soon be releasing a version of this computer with its own processors, so now may not be a good time to buy the Mac Pro. While you may need it for your work, you may actually be better off getting a maxed-out MacBook Pro with the best processor and memory option, and connecting it to an external display via Thunderbolt 4.

The Mac Pro with Apple’s Pro Display XDR.

Naturally, you don’t buy a Mac Pro just for the speed, but also for the ability to add copious amounts of RAM, tons of storage, potentially use it with high-speed networking cards, and much more. Paired with Apple’s $5,000 Pro Display XDR, this is the ultimate workstation for high-value digital creation. If you need the Mac Pro, you know you need it. (Spoiler: most of us don’t need it, but there are those for whom it’s an essential tool.)

On the laptop side, the high end is the 16" MacBook Pro which starts at $2,499; its price rises if you add a processor with more, and if you up the memory and storage. It’s possible to configure a 16" MacBook Pro to cost over $6,000. (I discuss memory and storage below.) Given the speed of Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max processors, this computer may rival the Mac Pro.

What do you use your Mac for?

Do you just use a Mac for browsing the web, sending email, perhaps streaming music or playing simple games? If so, you don’t need to buy the most expensive Mac. However, if you’re a serious gamer or if you shoot a lot of videos or edit photos, then you’ll want a Mac that can handle the load. With the speed of the M1 Macs, however, you may not need to max out your gaming rig. MacBook Pros with the new M1 Pro and M1 Max processors are just starting to ship, and they may be more than fast enough for gaming without getting the top configuration.

And do you want portability? If so, how much weight are you willing to carry around? Do you want a computer that you can use on your desk but that you can fold up when you don’t need it? Today’s laptops can offer the best of both worlds for many people. Even if you find the display a bit small for home or office use, you can connect an external monitor, but you can put it out of the way when you aren’t using it and don’t want to see it.

If weight matters, then the MacBook Air at 2.8 lb. is the lightest of Apple’s laptops, trailed by the 13" MacBook Pro at 3 lb., and the 14" MacBook Pro at 3.5 lb. The 16" MacBook Pro is a whopping 4.7 lb., so you may want to avoid this model.

If your computer usage is fairly light and if there are no special apps you need – and if you don’t need to work with lots of files that you copy to and from your computer – you might even want to consider an iPad.

Desktop Mac Pros and Cons

If you work at a desk – at home or in an office – and don’t need a portable computer, then the iMac is the best choice. You can opt for the 24" or 27" model, depending on how big a display you need. It’s worth noting that while the 24" iMac was refreshed in April 2021 with the M1 processor, the 27" iMac is still the 2020 model with Intel processors. Apple upgraded the smaller iMac from 21.5" to 24", and it’s likely that the 27" model will become a 30" iMac, when they get around to it. My guess is that we’ll see a refresh for the larger iMac, in the same style of the smaller model, in early 2022, or perhaps at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June. For now, if you want a large display on your desk, and you want a powerful Mac, the latest MacBook Pro models with an external display might be right for you.

There are two other desktop options for the Mac: the Mac Pro, which I discuss at the beginning of this article, and the Mac mini, which was updated in late 2020 with Apple’s M1 processor. Everything I said above about the speed of the M1 Processor applies as well to the Mac mini; all of the M1 Macs have exactly the same processor.

The current Mac mini is a good deal: it starts at $699, it’s small and quiet, and only requires that you add your own peripherals. Apple still sells a Mac mini with an Intel processor: it’s $1,099, and if you need a small desktop Mac with an Intel processor, it’s currently your only option.

The Mac mini.

Mac Laptop Pros and Cons

Apple has two laptop lines: the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. The MacBook Air comes in a 13" model, and the MacBook Pro is available in 13", 14", and 16".

The MacBook Air is one of the four current M1 Macs, and as such, it’s a great choice for anyone who wants a powerful, yet inexpensive Mac. It’s slightly lighter than the 13" MacBook Pro – also an M1 Mac – and the main difference is that the MacBook Pro has a Touch Bar. This feature is loved by some and hated by many and increases the price of the MacBook Pro substantially. If you do find the Touch Bar useful, you might want to lean in that direction. But the base MacBook Air costs $999 and the MacBook Pro starts at $1,299.


The 13" MacBook Pro.

As far as usage, the two models are essentially identical. They both have the same processor, offer the same amounts of RAM, and each has only two USB-C / Thunderbolt ports. It’s worth noting that the MacBook Air is fanless, so makes no noise. Part of the reason for this is the fact that Apple’s M1 processor is so power-efficient that it doesn’t give off much heat. So if you want a quiet Mac, the MacBook Air is for you.

In October 2021, Apple brought out two new MacBook Pro models, the 14" and 16", with the new, second-generation M1 Pro and M1 Max processors. If the first M1 Macs were fast, these are even faster, especially with the additional graphics cores they contain. Prices for these models start at $1999 and $1499 respectively.

The 14" and 16" MacBook Pros.

Unlike the M1 Macs, the M1 Pro and Max MacBook Pros have more ports, and offer MagSafe charging. This is a magnetic cable connection which ensures that if you trip over your charging cable, your laptop will not crash to the floor. They have improved displays, and are much better overall than the 13" MacBook Pro. But if you don’t need these extra features, and power, you can save a lot of money by getting either the MacBook Air or the MacBook Pro 13".

Storage and memory

Apple makes a lot of money on its build-to-order models where you add storage and memory to your Mac. And they’re not calling this RAM any more on their own processors, but rather unified memory, since it is shared across the processor by its different subsystems. In addition, it’s welded to the processor, so they days of buying cheaper third-party RAM are over. (With the exception of the 27" iMac and Mac Pro.) For example, if you buy the 13" MacBook Pro with 8 GB memory, its base price is $1,299. If you want to add another 8 GB to it, that’s $200 more. To double the storage from 256 GB to 512 GB, that’s another $200. With the maximum 16 GB memory and 2 TB SSD storage, that computer is now $2,299.

If you look at the more recent M1 Pro and M1 Max models, you have more options for the processor, memory, and storage. The 14" MacBook Pro starts at $1,999, and you can spend up to $700 more for a processor with more cores, up to $800 more to go from 16 GB memory to 64 GB, and up to a whopping $2,400 more to add 8 TB of SSD storage.

Do you really need extra memory and storage? You can’t add memory yourself to any but the Mac Pro or 27" iMac, so you need to decide how much you need when you buy your Mac. For most people, 8 GB is sufficient; if you use apps that need more RAM, you probably already know that. (And if you really need a lot of memory, then the 27" iMac lets you buy third-party RAM and upgrade it at a much lower cost than when you buy it from Apple.)

The arrival of the M1 Macs has changed this calculation. Their processors and on-board RAM are so well optimized that an 8 GB model may be sufficient for all your needs. I bought the base MacBook Air, and, for the first time ever, I stuck with the default RAM, just 8 GB. I’ve been able to use this with the most demanding tasks that I perform, and the computer doesn’t even blink.

On the newer MacBook Pro models, memory starts at 16 GB, and can go up to 64 GB, depending on the processor option. Depending on what you use your Mac for, you may want to go for the maximum, but that’s really putting the "pro" in the MacBook Pro. These certainly are pro computers: they can handle processor-intensive video editing, and, in this case, get as much as you can afford. But don’t think that 64 GB memory will change your everyday work if you don’t do demanding computing tasks.

As for storage, one rule of thumb is to look at your computer today and see how much you use, then double that amount. Because over the lifespan of the computer, your apps will get larger, you’ll have more photos, more music and more videos. However, if you have a very large music or video library, you may not need to pay for extra storage; with a desktop Mac, you can use an external drive. External SSDs are inexpensive, and take up little space, so if you need, say, 1 TB of passive storage, that’s your best option. (See this article for more on choosing the right type of drive.)

One Way to Save Money

You may be able to save money by checking out the Refurbished and Clearance section on Apple’s online store. Here you’ll find Macs and other Apple products at generally 15% off. These may be last year’s models, but they benefit from the full Apple warranty and you can even buy AppleCare protection. I’ve bought Macs like this and they are a good way to save money. You don’t have any configuration options, though, so you need to find a Mac that matches your needs. At the time of this writing, Apple is selling lots of M1 Macs on their refurbished page, but also has plenty of refurbished Intel Macs, and, if you need one of these, this is a good option. .

There are lots of choices for Macs today, covering a wide range of of size, weight, power, and price, with a solid line of Macs with Apple’s own processors. Given that Apple’s transition to their own processors is nearly complete, this is a good time to get a new Mac that is fast, and has the potential to serve you for many years.

 

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About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Apple products and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast, as well as several other podcasts, and is a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than two dozen books, including Take Control books about Apple's media apps, Scrivener, and LaunchBar. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →