How To + Recommended

How to choose the right Mac for your use case

Posted on November 30th, 2018 by

When it’s time to buy a new Mac, you are faced with many options, making it hard to choose which computer best meets your needs. You may need a desktop Mac and you currently have four options. 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.


The first thing to consider is cost. If money is no object, then don’t waste too much time. Go for Apple’s “Pro” computers: the iMac Pro and the MacBook Pro. The former, at $4,999 and up, is the Rolls Royce of the desktop Mac, and you can configure it to a staggering cost if you want it to be lightning fast, with lots of RAM and SSD storage.

On the laptop side, the high end is the 15″ MacBook Pro which starts at $2,399 (or half an iMac Pro), and its price rises if you add the fastest processor, more RAM and extra storage. It’s actually possible to configure a 15″ MacBook Pro to cost over $7,000. (I’ll discuss RAM and storage below.)

The iMac Pro.

Most people don’t have unlimited budgets, so choosing carefully is important. Most Mac users will keep their computers for a few years, so you want a Mac that works now and in the future and you want one that is adapted to the computing you do.

What do you use your Mac for?

Do you just use a Mac for browsing the web, sending email, perhaps streaming music or 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 to Mac that can handle the load.

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 your computer usage is fairly light and if there are no special apps you need – and if you don’t need to work with specific 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 your office – and don’t need a portable computer, then the iMac is the best choice. You can opt for the 21.5″ or 27″ model, depending on how big a display you need. I recommend you don’t scrimp and buy the non-retina 21.5″ iMac model. The difference between an older display and a retina display where you cannot see the pixels because they are so small is striking, and once you’ve started using retina displays, you won’t want to go back.

The disadvantage to an iMac is, of course, portability. If you ever need to use your Mac in a different location, it’s hard to carry around. So you’re stuck in one location, even one position in your home or office. (Sure, you can unplug it and move it to a different room, but you won’t want to do this often.)

There are two other desktop options for the Mac: the Mac Pro, released five years ago, and still sold with five-year old technology at 25% less than the original price, and the Mac mini, just recently updated after four years. Both of these computers come sans display, so you’ll need to add that to your cost and the Mac mini comes without a keyboard or mouse/trackpad.

There are really no cases where the Mac Pro is a good deal unless you like that circular form factor and have money to burn. But the Mac mini can be a good, compact Mac to put on your desk connected to any size monitor. It’s a bit weak compared to, say, a MacBook Pro, and doesn’t have the kind of graphics card you need for gaming, so it’s mostly for those people who want to run it as a basic workstation or a small server or want to use a display they already have with a compact computer.

The Mac mini.

Mac Laptop Pros and Cons

Apple has three laptop lines: the MacBook, the MacBook Air, and the MacBook Pro. The MacBook comes in a 12″ model, the MacBook Air in a 13″ model, and the MacBook Pro is available in 13″ and 15″.

The MacBook Air has been recently updated, making the older MacBook the odd one out, and its technology isn’t up to date. But the 12″ MacBook is the lightest laptop and if weight is important, and your usage is light as well, then you might want to consider it.

The MacBook Pro.

The MacBook Pro is more expensive but more flexible with more ports and much larger storage options. You can get the MacBook Pro with and without the Touch Bar, a strip that replaces the top row of keys on the keyboard. This feature is loved by some and hated by many and increases the price of the MacBook Pro substantially.

Consider size and weight. As I said above, the MacBook is the lightest Mac at 2.03 lbs, and the 15″ MacBook Pro weighs in at 4.02 lbs. If you’re planning to carry your Mac around with you, this makes a difference. (As a comparison, there’s only a small difference between the 13″ MacBook Air and MacBook Pro: 2.75 lbs vs. 3.02 lbs.)

The MacBook Air.

As for the actual usage, the MacBook Pro has more power, offers more storage and RAM, and with its Thunderbolt connectors, can power external monitors with ease, making it a Mac you can use both on the desk and on the go. You can even use an eGPU (an external graphics card) with some applications making it quite flexible. For casual use, the MacBook Air is probably best, especially since it has just been updated and has some of the latest technologies including Touch ID (which can also be found on the MacBook Pro).

Storage and RAM

Apple makes a lot of money on its “build-to-order” models where you add storage and RAM to your Mac. For example, if you buy the 21.5″ retina iMac, with 8 GB RAM, its base price is $1299. If you want to add another 8 GB RAM to it, that’s a whopping $200 more. To move from the pokey 5400 rpm hard drive to a 256 GB SSD, that too is $200. You can nearly double the price of this model with upgrades: add a faster processor, go to 16 GB RAM and 512 GB flash storage for the cost of $2199.

Think wisely about how much money you’re going to put into extras. Additional storage may be tempting, but at a cost: if you want 1 TB SSD in a 13″ MacBook Pro, count an additional $800.

Do you really need extra RAM and storage? You can’t add RAM 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 RAM is sufficient; if you use apps that need more RAM, you probably already know that. (And if you really need a lot of RAM, 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).

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 hard drive. (See this article for more on choosing the right type of drive.)

One Way to Save Money

You may not need to buy the newest Mac and can 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.

So consider your needs and you’ll find there’s a Mac that matches your use case. There are lots of options today, both in terms of size, weight, power and price. There’s a Mac for everyone!

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Macs, iPods, iTunes, books, music and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast and PhotoActive, and a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than twenty books, including Take Control books about iTunes, LaunchBar, and Scrivener. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →