What Mac should I buy?

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Updated March 28, 2023

One question I receive from many of my clients is what Mac they should buy. Luckily, Apple’s product lineup is very simple compared to most other brands. Basically, it comes down to whether you need a portable computer, a desktop computer, and how much power you need.

How many computers is too many?

In general, I recommend no more than one computer per person. Having multiple computers means more to manage and maintain, and more things that can get out of sync. Maintaining a second computer “just in case” is like having a second car just in case one has to be in the shop. It just means you’re going to be in the shop twice as often.

Desktop or laptop?

Desktop computers give you more bang for the buck. It costs a lot more to cram powerful computing power into something portable.

But what if you want both? If you want a portable Mac on the go but enjoy having a large luxurious screen at home, I recommend getting a laptop computer and adding a huge monitor, possibly with a mouse and keyboard. You’ll come out ahead financially and with less headache compared to two computers. So if you already have a laptop but want a big screen, you can get a fantastic 27” 4K monitor in the $400-500 range. Read my article on the topic for my current recommendation.

Which model?

  • Portable
    • MacBook Air – A lightweight but still powerful computer, as long as you are getting the new model with the Apple M1 or M2 chip. They are literally 3x or more faster than their Intel predecessors. This is the Mac I recommend to almost anyone who is looking at a laptop computer.
    • MacBook Pro 13″ – Slightly heavier than the MacBook Air, the new one with an Apple M2 processor is only slightly more powerful than the new MacBook Air. The key differences are that it has a fan to cool the system so that it can maintain heavy workloads for longer without slowing down (though unless you are doing really serious video editing etc. you probably won’t even notice this), it has a screen with slightly better color, a microphone with better sound quality, and better battery life when compared to the MacBook Air. And it includes the controversial Touch Bar rather than the Function Row of the keyboard. But otherwise, it’s an almost identical computer.
    • MacBook Pro 14″ or 16″ – This is a computer for media professionals or for those who want a large screen in a portable format. Reasons for choosing it over the MacBook Air are a larger screen, more ports (1 additional USB-C, HDMI, SD card), better screen color, and support for multiple external monitors. Benchmarks show that the 14″ MacBook Pro is roughly 33% faster than the MacBook Air. Not too shabby for the Air! The 14″ and 16″ are identical, except that the 16″ doesn’t have some of the lower configuration options and only the 16″ has some of the top options. In general, you can expect about a $500 difference between the two sizes.

Below is a table comparing the size, weight, and price of the various MacBook models. All prices are with 16 GB of memory and 512 GB of storage so that you can compare more similar computers. I added the 13″ Mid-2020 MacBook Pro so you can see how the current models stack up against the new Apple processors

ModelPrice w/16 GB RAM, 512 GB StorageSpeed against MacBook Air M2 (Geekbench Multi-Core)PortsWeightThickWide
13.3″ 2020 MacBook Air Core i3 IntelOne quarter speed2 USB-C, headphone2.8 lb0.63″, tapered to 0.16″11.97″
13.3″ Mid-2020 MacBook Pro Core i5 IntelHalf the speed4 USB-C, headphone3.1 lb0.61″11.97″
13.6″ MacBook Air M2 8-core$1,599BaselineMagSafe 3, 2 USB-C, headphone2.7 lb0.44″11.97″
13.2″ MacBook Pro M2 8-core$1,699Same, can be faster in sustained workloads2 USB-C, headphone3.0 lb0.61″11.97″
14.2″ MacBook Pro M2 Pro 10-core$1,99933% fasterMagSafe 3, 3 USB-C, headphone, SD, HDMI3.5 lb0.61″12.31″
16.2″ MacBook Pro M2 Pro 12-core$2,49970% fasterMagSafe 3, 3 USB-C, headphone, SD, HDMI4.7 lb0.66″14.01″
  • Desktop
    • iMac — for most people
      $1,299 starting, but I recommend choosing 16GB of memory which starts at $1,499
      If you need a desktop computer this is almost certainly what that you want to get unless you are a multimedia professional. It comes in a 24″ size in multiple colors, and in two basic configurations. One model has two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports. For a $200 upcharge, the upgraded model throws in two additional ports (though they are just regular USB-C without Thunderbolt capability, which probably doesn’t matter to most), ethernet, and Touch ID. The upgraded model is also available in additional colors.
    • Mac Mini — for those on a budget or who want to get a very large monitor
      $599 starting, but I recommend choosing 16GB of memory which starts at $799
      The Mac Mini is popular among those who want an inexpensive entry into the Mac world. The basic model is actually a really good machine, though it does not include a monitor, mouse, or keyboard. But it’s extremely versatile. It’s popular for hobbyists and for servers where cheap raw computing power is needed. If you would like a 24″ monitor, I would recommend just going with the iMac. Having everything integrated means far less clutter and better reliability.
    • Mac Studio — for the multimedia professional
      $1,999 starting
      This is essentially a beefed-up Mac Mini with lots more ports. Though it appears to fill the gap between Mac Mini and Mac Pro, Mac Studio is more powerful than the basic Mac Pro. That will probably change once Apple moves Mac Pro away from Intel. If you need a powerful desktop computer for high-end graphics and video editing, this is probably the one you want. The basic model includes an M1 Max processor and has options for the M1 Ultra, which can make this computer about twice as fast as the fastest MacBook Pro.
    • Mac Pro — for almost no one until updated with the Apple processor
      $5,999 starting
      No home user needs one of these expensive machines for anything but bragging rights. They are designed for people doing professional video and photography work where time is money. Even among professionals, these are often overkill for all but the most demanding workloads. Also as of March 2023, it has not received an update since 2019 so it’s already becoming quite dated.

What configuration?

Getting your Mac configured properly upfront is far more important today than it was in the past. Macs now are rarely upgradeable, so in most cases, if you want to upgrade your memory or storage your only option is to replace the computer. While this does sound like it’s all a negative, this does make the computers faster because the parts are closer to each other, more reliable because there are fewer contact points, and smaller because there are no connectors needed. Unfortunately, most of the basic configurations that Apple carries in-store are not ones I would recommend. And Apple employees will rarely try to upsell even when they should.

Memory or RAM. In general, I recommend 16GB for most users, or 32GB if you do professional multimedia work. Every non-pro Mac comes standard with just 8GB which is plenty at the moment but in the future, as software and websites become more demanding it may not be enough. Another reason I recommend more RAM is that it takes some pressure off of the drive, which can wear out if it is used too much (I’m not going to go into the details but it’s because of something called page swapping, where it uses your storage as memory overflow). So bumping up to 16GB can add a year or two to the life to your Mac because it makes it more future-proof and it reduces wear and tear. Memory isn’t storage. It has nothing to do with how many files your computer can handle. For more on the difference, I wrote a blog post about that.

Storage capacity. If you don’t know how much storage you need, my general rule of thumb is to get something with at least twice as much storage as you are currently using. That will give you room to grow over the next 5 to 10 years of life that you can expect from your Mac. To see how much storage you are using go to the Apple menu > About this Mac > Storage (macOS 12 and earlier) or Apple menu > System Settings > General > Storage (macOS 13 and later). If you want help cleaning up your storage so that you aren’t taking a bunch of junk into consideration, you can read my blog post about that or you can book an appointment with me.

I’m using roughly 375 GB (844 minus 469), so that means I should get a computer that has at least 750 GB (375 x 2).
In macOS 13 it shows that I am using 792 GB of storage. Unless I can reduce the storage usage, my next computer should probably be at least 1,584 GB, or about 1.5 TB. Most Macs go from 1 TB to 2 TB so I might want to consider cleaning up instead.

Processor, CPU, or GPU. Beginning in late 2020, Apple has begun releasing processors dubbed “Apple Silicon”. Sometimes you will see this written as the specific chip such as M1 or M2. As of March 2023, only the Mac Pro desktop has yet to get this new processor. These processors are phenomenal, with many Macs getting 5x or more speed than their Intel predecessors. All while also increasing battery life. Many computers have different processor options such as more graphics processor units (GPUs) or Max, Pro, or Ultra designations. If you have an extremely heavy workflow such as editing video you may need to choose one of the upgrade options. But for the standard person who uses it to watch videos, use the web, and write email, the lowest processor option for each Mac is more than sufficient.

AppleCare+. I’m always on the fence about recommending AppleCare+. It often makes sense to get it for a portable computer which is more prone to physical damage. But it’s really up to you. In addition to extending the warranty from 1 year to 3, it’s also insurance for accidental damage (with a deductible of course). And now you have the option of extending it beyond 3 years.

How long can I expect a Mac to last?

It’s hard to predict when your computer might become obsolete or when it might start breaking down. And sometimes you just get lucky or unlucky. Sometimes a Mac will last less or more, but in general:

  • MacBook Air typically lasts about 5 to 8 years
  • MacBook Pro typically lasts about 6 to 9 years
  • iMac typically lasts about 6 to 11 years
  • Mac Mini, Mac Pro typically last about 7 to 11 years

If your Mac is a major tool for your income, it’s normal to upgrade near the beginning of that range or sometimes even earlier. If you’re a casual home user you can usually make it toward the end of that range unless it just poops out.

What determines a Mac’s lifespan?

There are typically three different reasons a Mac has to be put out to pasture:

  • Apple has stopped releasing security patches. This typically happens after around 8 to 11 years. Once your Mac has dropped off of the major annual upgrades you get two more years of security patches. At that point, if a problem is found with that software your computer could be compromised if it’s connected to the internet. There is evidence that since Apple is now developing its own chips rather than relying on security updates from Intel, we might start seeing longer support, but we won’t know that for sure until about 2031 when the first Apple Silicon Macs pass the decade mark.
  • Your needs have outgrown the computer. It could be that you’re using the computer in a more demanding way as you learn more about it and find more ways for it to help you. Or it could be that newer cameras, websites, and software are just pushing it harder and bogging it down more than a few years ago. This is the primary reason I suggest adding a few upgrades when you first purchase it. Adding extra memory can help your computer last you an extra 2 or 3 years.
  • The computer starts physically breaking down. This could be obvious things like a broken screen or hinges, or it could be more invisible things like liquid damage, air pollutant buildup, fractures in the soldering, or chips that are worn out or just starting to degrade. Sometimes this is just due to physical age, sometimes it can be due to humidity, vibration, or smoky environments, but mostly just luck.

Do I need any accessories?

Generally, I do not recommend any of Apple’s accessories such as chargers or adapters. They are usually overpriced and Apple doesn’t have a very good track record at making cables that are reliable. The good news is that the new computers all use USB-C which is an industry standard, so for the first time ever, notebook chargers are universal, which is the tradeoff we get for no longer having MagSafe. Forget to pack your Apple charger? You can grab a new Dell or Acer charger and use that!

About the only Apple-made adapter I recommend is the Apple Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 adapter, if you need to connect any Thunderbolt 1 or 2 devices such as the Apple Thunderbolt Display or a Thunderbolt hard drive. That’s the only one on the market that I think will work well. It allows you to connect any Thunderbolt 1 or Thunderbolt 2 devices to any Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4 computer. For Thunderbolt hard drives, unless it’s a RAID drive that can take advantage of the additional speed, you might just be better off switching to a USB cable if your drive has that option. Many Thunderbolt drives also have a USB port. It’s much cheaper and you’re unlikely to notice a difference.

For cables, I almost always recommend the Anker PowerLine series. They are extremely durable and a great value.

For chargers, I usually recommend Anker and Aukey. Some of my favorite configurations have two or more ports so that you can simultaneously charge your Mac and your iPhone. Or your Mac and iPad. Or your Mac and an Android. Apple does make a fantastic dual-USB-C charger that you can choose if you custom order a MacBook Air direct from Apple.

For USB-C adapters and hubs, I often recommend Anker or Aukey. They each have many different configurations that are good for different needs.

Sometimes what works better than a USB-C adapter is to replace the entire cable itself with a cable with USB-C on one end and the connector you need on the other. Especially when it comes to external hard drives. It usually costs $2 or $3 more than an adapter, but it’s going to be less bulky and more reliable.

When should I buy a Mac?

Of course, if you need to buy a new Mac now go ahead and buy it. But if you have the luxury of choosing when, I normally recommend getting one when it has recently been released rather than right before a new one comes out. Sometimes holding off for a month or two means getting a computer that will last a year or two longer. Knowing when Apple will release a new model can be tricky. Most computers get updated about once a year, but sometimes they go two or even more years between updates. It’s not like cars where a new model is predictably released annually. To check where we are in the update cycle visit the MacRumors Buyer’s Guide. They have an easy-to-understand table that shows each model of Mac, when the last release was, and how regularly they are updated. As well as a list of recent rumors about upcoming updates.

Where should I buy my Mac?

The first place people think of to buy a Mac is from the Apple Store. But Apple rarely offers the best prices. There are a lot of third-party resellers who are Apple-authorized, so you get the same warranty as if you bought directly from Apple.

  • Apple Refurbished Store can be a great place to look if you’re interested in a previous year’s model or a model that has been available for a while. They all come with new bodies, new batteries, and the same warranty as a brand-new Mac. I buy from there myself when I’m not needing a just-released model. Inventory changes constantly and often times the configuration you want isn’t available, but it’s worth checking.
  • Best Buy often has great prices if they have what you’re looking for. Though be careful as they oftentimes will sell items that are several years old for a small or no discount and will rarely indicate that it’s a previous model. You have to look it up by model number which can be confusing. Also, be wary of their open-box items. Sometimes people returned the computer for a reason.
  • B&H Photo & Video keeps many custom configurations in stock so it’s often the fastest way to get a model with some upgrade options. They also sometimes offer really good deals for several hundred off retail price. Be careful to check the year in the description because they do sell previous models. Though if a previous model is what you’re after they often offer steep discounts.
  • Micro Center is a small chain of computer stores with a few locations around the country. They often have great prices, but they don’t usually have custom configurations.
  • Amazon recently became an Apple Authorized Reseller, and sometimes you can find fantastic prices there. Though because their website is enormous I find that their labeling is often inaccurate. Sometimes they will label a prior model iPad as the current model, for example.

Further help

If you are an existing customer who needs help with this or if you have other questions, or if you are in San Francisco and interested in becoming a client I invite you to book an appointment with me. Otherwise, you may wish to contact Apple Support or find a local Apple consultant.

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