What Mac should I buy?

information sign on shelf

Updated November 30, 2020 to include information on the new M1 Macs.

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 what you want is a big screen, you can get a fantastic 27” 4K monitor in the $500 range. My recommendation and the one I personally own is the HP Z27.

Which model?

  • Portable
    • MacBook Air – A lightweight but fairly powerful computer, as long as you are getting the new model with the Apple M1 chip rather than an Intel chip it will outperform nearly any Mac.
    • MacBook Pro 13″ – Only slightly heavier than the MacBook Air, the new one with an Apple M1 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.
    • MacBook Pro 16″ – This is the computer for media professionals or for those who want a large screen in a portable format. If you are able to wait until sometime in 2021 (date to be determined) Apple should have a new model with the Apple processor that should be an enormous upgrade.
  • Desktop
    • iMac – If you need a desktop computer this is almost certainly the one that you want to get. It comes in two sizes – 21.5″ and 27″, which is mostly a personal preference of size. Sometimes they are named as 4K and 5K. One word of warning, do NOT get the option for a Fusion Drive. It’s well worth the extra cost of an SSD, even if you aren’t a power user. If you are able to wait until sometime in 2021 (date to be determined) Apple should have a new model with the Apple processor that should be an enormous upgrade.
    • Mac Mini – The Mac Mini is popular among those who want an inexpensive entry into the Mac world. The basic model at $699 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 configure it with upgrades the price can reach up to $1,699, but it’s a lot of bang for the buck if your intent is simply to connect it to a big television, to run without a monitor, or if you have a monitor already and you are cost-sensitive.
    • iMac Pro and Mac Pro – 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.

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. 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. Nearly every 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. So bumping up to 16GB can add 2 to 3 years of 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 type. As of the 2020 iMac update, all Macs now come with SSD (sometimes called Flash Storage) as standard, which is fantastic. These Solid State Drives are extremely fast because instead of containing mechanical spinning disks they have chips that can access any information instantly. Not only do they drastically speed up the computer (usually between 2 to 10 times faster!), but they are more reliable. If you are purchasing a 21″ iMac you also have an option for a Fusion Drive which is a combination of the new SSD and the old mechanical drive. I never recommend these. It is tempting because it promises the speed of an SSD with the storage capacity of a regular hard drive, but I’ve found them to be extremely unreliable. They are two drives in one which basically means it doubles your chance of a drive failure.

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. 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).

Processor or CPU. Beginning in late 2020, Apple has begun releasing processors they developed themselves called the M1. I presume that we’ll see a new generation soon called M2. As of November 2020 only 3 computers have this new Apple chip (MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13″, and Mac Mini). Currently, you do not have an option for a different processor, so the rest of this section is moot. But the good news is that this single option is fantastic in terms of both speed and power efficiency.

If you’re getting a computer with an Intel processor, for most people I recommend an i5 processor. But if you do a lot of media work the i7 or i9 are definitely worth considering. Or if you just want to spend a little extra for a computer that is silkier. The i3 is an option on some models, but most people find it to feel sluggish. If you’re on a budget this is the first upgrade I would skip.

The processor type might make more of a difference than the speed. For example, going from 2GHz to 2.5GHz might not make a huge difference, but going from an i5 to an i7 might. And even more than that are the number of cores. A quad-core is roughly twice as fast as a dual-core of the same GHz depending on how you use the computer.

One case in which you don’t want a CPU upgrade is if battery life is important to you. Faster processors can chew through your battery faster.

Graphics processor or GPU. Some Mac models give you a choice in graphics processor. This doesn’t affect how well your computer plays videos. This is for people who do heavy-duty video editing or who play video games. For most home and office users, I recommend getting the cheapest graphics processor. But anyone who does heavy video work may want to upgrade. Fancier graphics processors can drain your battery faster and can shorten the life of your computer because of the heat they generate.

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.

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, or iMac Pro typically lasts 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.
  • 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 just bad 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 now 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 that will work well. 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 easy to untangle. AmazonBasics, CableMatters, and Nomad are also good brands.

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.

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. Great brands are Anker, AmazonBasics, and CableMatters.

Different USB shapes that are all being replaced by USB-C

Some samples of these cables are below, in order of left to right in the image above:

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. 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.
  • 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.
  • Mac Business Solutions is a small retailer in Rockville, Maryland that I like to use because all orders, including all custom orders, receive a roughly 6% discount. Though they are a small local shop, they have a great online store and ship nationwide. Any custom configurations will take a little extra time, but it’s usually the same time as ordering direct from Apple.
  • Best Buy often has great prices if they have what you’re looking for. Though be careful to buy only items labeled “latest model” as they often times will sell items that are several years old for a small discount and will rarely indicate the year. 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. Personally, I’ve had better luck at Best Buy with iPhone, iPad, AirPod, and HomePod rather than with Mac.
  • Amazon recently became an Apple Authorized Reseller, and sometimes you can find fantastic prices there. However, they don’t sell MacBook Air with 16GB of RAM, my most commonly recommended Mac.

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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