Apple’s Mac product line has changed a lot in the past couple of years, 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, deciding which is the right Mac 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, you have a choice of two models, with three different screen sizes, and a variety of features and processors. But you might want to use a laptop on your desk as well, connected to an external display. In this article, I’m going to help you choose which Mac you need according to your use case.
Apple’s M1 & M2 processors
The biggest change in recent years regarding the choice of new Macs is the release of Macs running Apple’s M series processors, which started in late 2020. In mid-2022, Apple had transitioned all their Macs but one to these in-house chips. 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 was 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 calls 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.
And in March, 2022, Apple brought out the M1 Ultra, in its then-new Mac Studio. This processor is made up of two M1 Max processors, using a die-to-die interconnect, providing parallel processing.
In June 2022, Apple announced the first Macs with the next-generation M2 processor. And in January 2023, the expected bump to the M2 processor arrived, with the M2 Pro and M2 Max processors. These latest processors have 12-core CPUs and up to 38 GPU cores. They also have more performance cores, and can handle more memory, up to 96 GB.
There are still two Macs running M1 processors: the less expensive MacBook Air, which is still a bargain at $999, and the Mac Studio, which is due for a refresh soon. Perhaps as soon as this year, Apple may announce next-gen M3 processors, and Apple will keep iterating in this direction going forward.
With all of Apple’s product line (except for the behind-schedule Mac Pro) now updated to the company’s own processors, you shouldn’t worry about getting a Mac with an antiquated Intel processor (unless you really need one; see below). You have options at all prices, and in just about all possible form factors.
M1 iMacs come in seven colors.
Before March 2022, I used to say, if money is no object and you need a workhorse, don’t waste too much time. Go for the Mac Pro. At $5,999 and up, this was 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, the Mac Pro is now long in the teeth. Their Intel Xeon W processors, while fast and boasting many cores, are years-old relics from spring 2019. While Apple had promised to transition all its Macs to its own M-series processors in two years, they missed that goal with the Mac Pro. If you absolutely have to have a fast Intel Mac specifically, then you’ll still want this, but Apple’s new Mac Studio, released in March 2022, is the way to go if you’re a pro. In fact, it’s worth wondering at this point whether we’ll even see another Mac Pro, or if the Mac Studio will be its replacement.
The Mac Pro with Apple’s Pro Display XDR.
You don’t buy a Mac Pro just for the speed, but also for the ability to add copious amounts of RAM (up to a ludicrous 1.5 TB), tons of storage (up to 8 TB), potentially use it with high-speed networking cards, and much more, something you cannot do with the more limited Mac Studio. 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.)
The Mac Studio, which looks like a grown-up Mac mini, is the Mac that debuted the M1 Ultra processor; this is two processors linked together, to provide double speed, double memory, and double GPU power. At $3,999, it’s substantially less expensive than the Mac Pro. A less powerful model, with an M1 Max processor, starts at $1,999. Together with Apple’s new Studio Display ($1,599), this provides a powerful workstation for creative pros. The Mac Studio supports up to 128 GB unified memory and 8 TB SSD storage, but even fully maxed out, only costs $7,999; compare that to the cost of a top-of-the-line Mac Pro, which is about that of a luxury car.
However, the Mac Studio is not expandable, and you may need certain types of expansion cards that you can only add to the Mac Pro.
On the laptop side, the high end is the 16″ MacBook Pro, updated in January 2023, with an M2 Pro processor, which starts at $2,499; its price rises if you bump it to the M2 Max processor, and if you up the memory and storage. It’s possible to configure a 16″ MacBook Pro to cost $6,499. (I discuss memory and storage below.)
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 the cheapest Mac is the best choice. Go for the base model MacBook Air, which sells for $999; you won’t regret this. While this Mac is more than two years old at the time of this writing (January, 2023), it’s still a great Mac, and will last for years for most users. The M2 MacBook Air is more recent, but costs $200 more. You might be better off buying the cheaper MacBook Air and spending that $200 on increasing the memory. ￼
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 now seven processors available – the M1, M1 Pro, M1 Max, M1 Ultra, and M2, M2 Pro, and M2 Max – what seemed simple when Apple first released these Macs has now gotten more complicated. Even processor benchmarks are hard to interpret; the single-core performance of all the M1 processors is essentially the same, and the multi-core benchmarks show little difference between the M1 Pro and the M1 Max. M2 processors run about 10-20% faster, for single and multi-core performance, but that speed bump makes little difference to most users.
But perhaps it’s time to ignore all this. The transition from Intel to M-series processors marked a big change in the speed of all Macs; you probably don’t need to think much about processors, unless you’ve decided on a Mac model and want to choose which version you want.
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 2.7 lb. is the lightest of Apple’s laptops, trailed by the 13″ MacBook Pro at 3 lb. The 14″ MacBook Pro at 3.5 lb., and the 16″ MacBook Pro is 3.6 lb., so there’s not much difference is weight for the two larger models.
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. Only the 24″ model is available; Apple discontinued the 27″ iMac when the company released the Mac Studio, so if you do want a larger display, you should consider either a Mac mini with Apple’s Studio display, or the new Mac Studio, with the same display. Or, you could work with a laptop connected to the Studio Display, offering you both desktop and portable usage with the same Mac.
The Mac mini was updated to the M2 processor in January, 2023, and its price dropped to $599 for the base model. It’s a good deal for many use cases: it’s small and quiet, and only requires that you add your own peripherals. With options for an M2 Pro and M2 Max, you can get higher performance from the Mac mini today than from the Mac Studio, though with more limited connections. And expect the Mac Studio to be upgraded to M2 processors soon.
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 M2 MacBook Air is a great choice for anyone who wants a powerful, yet inexpensive Mac. It’s a totally new take on Apple’s lightest laptop. Gone is the aerodynamic wedge shape, and it now looks a bit like two iPad Pros stacked together. Still fanless, the M2 MacBook Air adds a Liquid Retina display, MagSafe charging, and boasts up to 18 hours of battery life. This comes with a price: it’s now $200 more expensive than the M1 model, which is still being sold at its original price of $999.
The M2 MacBook Air is slightly lighter than the 13″ MacBook Pro, 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. This is also the last Touch Bar MacBook Pro; the 14″ and 16″ models don’t have it, and we will likely never see the Touch Bar on future Macs.
If you do find the Touch Bar useful, you might want to lean in that direction. But the base M2 MacBook Air costs $1,199 and the MacBook Pro starts at $1,299.
The 13″ MacBook Pro.
As far as usage, the two models are similar. 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 M2 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. The MacBook Air also has Mag-Safe charging, while the MacBook Pro has a Touch Bar.
In January, 2023, Apple updated two MacBook Pro models, the 14″ and 16″, with M2 Pro and M2 Max processors. These iterated on previous M1 Pro and M1 Max models, but with the ability to get more memory and storage than before. Prices for these models start at $1999 and $2499 respectively.
The 14″ and 16″ MacBook Pros.
The M2 Pro and M2 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. (The M2 MacBook Air also has this feature.) 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 anymore 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 the days of buying cheaper third-party RAM are over. (With the exception of the 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, and another $200 to max it out at 24 GB. To double the storage from 256 GB to 512 GB, that’s another $200. With the maximum 24 GB memory and 2 TB SSD storage, that computer is now $2,499.
If you look at the more recent M2 Pro and M2 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 $2,200 more to add 8 TB of SSD storage. If you pay for the fastest processor, you can ever equip the MacBook Pro with 96 GB memory, at a cost of an additional $800. And the Mac Studio, with an M1 Ultra processor, lets you go up to 128 GB of memory.
Do you really need extra memory and storage? The arrival of the M series Macs has changed this calculation. When the first M1 Macs were released, I bought the base M1 MacBook Air, and, for the first time ever, I stuck with the default RAM, just 8 GB. I was able to use this with the most demanding tasks that I perform, and the computer doesn’t even blink. When I upgraded to the M2 MacBook Air, I decided to spec it out, with 16 GB memory and a larger SSD. This is more than sufficient for the work I do, but I think I might have been able to get by with just 8 ￼GB memory.
On the newer MacBook Pro models, memory starts at 16 GB, and can go up to a whopping 96 GB, depending on the processor option. If you use your Mac for processor-intensive tasks, 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 heavy video editing, and, in this case, get as much as you can afford. But don’t think that 96 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 some refurbished Intel Macs; if you need one of these, this is a good option.
There are lots of choices for Macs today, covering a wide range of size, weight, power, and price. Given that Apple’s transition to its 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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