I am absolutely delighted at the new pro laptops Apple announced last week. I’m not going to make this post about Apple’s overall history of laptops over the last decade (others can explain it better) but this new release is Apple showing they are back on track to making excellent Mac laptops for their pro customers after a couple years of neglect leading to 2016, and then years of stubbornness after 2016.
Other sites actually have real reviews, which I guarantee will amount to “they’re incredible and super fast”, but I want to instead focus on a question that I get a ton from friends: “what Mac should I buy?” Now that Apple’s got a full lineup of laptops powered by Apple’s custom silicon, I can now answer this question for most friends without having to tell them to wait just a little longer.
Non-Pro users: MacBook Air
If you’re not a pro user, then the MacBook Air with M1 processor is great. These were first announced about a year ago, so they might be due for a refresh in the not-too-distant future (which might come with a more substantial redesign), but I don’t think one is imminent, and either way, the M1 MacBook Air is a solid all-around computer that will serve you really well for years.
RAM: 16 gigs
Do not buy a Mac with less than 16 gigs of memory.
I’m serious, don’t.
Even if all you do is “lightweight” stuff like browsing the web.
Fun fact: modern web browsers use a lot of memory to do their thing; web sites are very complicated!
SSD: at least 1 TB. If you know you need more, get more! But if your budget is tight, I’d rather see you skimp with the SSD instead of the memory.
You’ll be asked which processor you want. It doesn’t really matter. You’re choosing between a 7 and 8 core GPU. Most non-pro users won’t see much of a difference here. The reality is that some of their processors come off the line with only 7 GPU cores that work, and instead of throwing those out, Apple just disables the non-working GPU and sells the processor for a little less money.
Pro Users: MacBook Pro 14“ or 16”
A pro user can be a pro user for a lot of different reasons, but my recommendations here are pretty general:
14“ or 16”: It’s up to you! You can spec up either system however you like; the 14“ one isn’t less capable just because it’s smaller. I believe there is a high power mode offered on the 16” model only but I believe that’s strictly for sustained heavy workloads on battery. Otherwise, both the 14 inch and 16 inch systems are identical in terms of how they perform, so it really does just come down to what size you like.
Memory: Pick at least 32 gigs. If budget allows, get 64 gigs (you have to pick the M1 Max processor for this to be an option)
CPU/GPU: The biggest difference you’ll see is the number of GPU cores, otherwise you’re just picking between 8 and 10 CPU cores.
Going from 8 to 10 cores will give you a nice boost in performance on highly parallel workloads. Encoding video files or compiling code might be parallel. But adding 2 cores won’t make your computer feel 25% faster overall, but certain long-running tasks might be 20–25% faster with 2 extra processors.
There’s also a growing number of tasks where more GPU cores will be beneficial. We don’t use GPUs just to put graphics on your screen; a lot of software will use them for general compute. Pixelmator, for instance, has done this heavily, and I believe Photoshop does this now too. Adding more GPU cores will make work like this noticeably faster, and you can crank up to 24 GPU cores if your budget allows. Depending on what kind of work you do, this might be worth it. I’m a software developer, and most of my work is CPU-based so I never feel much need to a super beefy GPU.
SSD: Again, at least 1 TB but if you’re dealing in large files you might want to crank this up. It does get expensive very fast, though.
If you don’t really feel confident making a decision here, pick the base M1 Max machine, equip it with 64 gigs of RAM, and an SSD of 2 TB or more. Done.
Desktop users: you might want to wait
Prefer a desktop? I’m the same way, as you might recall! If you’re not a pro user, the M1 iMac is great and it’s spec’ed the same as the M1 Airs; just follow my non-pro guidelines and you’ll be fine.
Same applies to the Mac Minis.
If you have more demanding needs, wait for Apple to release new desktops with the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. I’m particularly excited to see a Mac Mini with an M1 Pro that will likely become my new home server.
And I am positively giddy thinking about the high-end pro Macs in the pipeline; if the M1 Pro and M1 Max processors are any indication of Apple’s strategy, then we might very well see high end pro machines with 20 and 40 CPU cores, and god knows how many GPU cores. In the meantime, I continue to love my Mac Pro.
iMac users who want more power than the existing iMacs, just sit tight; I suspect that in the coming months we’ll see iMac models that incorporate the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, at which point in time my pro laptop guidelines will apply.
AppleCare: Yay or Nay?
I always buy AppleCare for my computers; it has always paid off; it just needs to be serviced once out of warranty for the policy to pay for itself. And anecdotally, I find that AppleCare customers can get better treatment in certain scenarios than non-AppleCare customers, particularly if the rules need to be bent in a particular scenario, like getting a machine replaced after many repair attempts, or maybe issues that are just a wee bit out of warranty, or an accessory that isn’t covered.
And now you can even buy AppleCare coverage that covers accidental damage, and you can extend AppleCare past the three year mark, which is great news in a world where people keep computers for longer.
What Not To Buy
- Any machine with 8 gigs of memory. Seriously if that’s the only advice you take from reading this post, I’ll be content.
- Any M1 Pro or Max machine with only 16 gigs of memory – come on, bump it up to at least 32!
- The 13" M1 MacBook Pro – it’s a weird in-between product that isn’t really Pro, doesn’t offer any meaningful difference in real-world performance over the Air, has the Touch Bar we all agree is not useful, and is mostly just there to be a slightly-more-expensive-than-the-Air product.
- Any Intel Mac unless it’s a high-end model and you know for a fact you have good reasons to buy one (like if you know you need to virtualize the x86 version of Windows or something)
We are entering a golden age for Macs and I’m super excited about it.