Best MacBook in 2021 | CNN Underscored
If you need a new Apple laptop, it’s a really good time to buy one. The latest MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro models use a proprietary chip designed by Apple — the M1— instead of the Intel processors the company has used for several years. In our testing, the M1 set new standards in speed and energy efficiency, and it is available even in the company’s least expensive notebook, making the $999 MacBook Air a clear choice for the best Mac laptop for most users. For those who need a little more power and battery life, the 13-inch MacBook Pro should fit the bill.
Best Apple laptop
The upgrade pick
Our top pick for a laptop isn’t that surprising: the entry-level, M1-powered MacBook Air ($999). It keeps the same exact build of the previous Air, including the Magic Keyboard that’s truly a treat to type on. But this new model removes the fan and swaps out the Intel chip for the M1, the first Apple Silicon processor.
Apple’s M1 chip sets a new standard with blazing performance, and it’s so energy efficient that it stays cool enough that the new Air doesn’t need a cooling fan. That’s something we haven’t encountered on a Mac before. In our benchmarking, the M1 Air beats the previous Air and the Intel-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro, and ties the 16-inch MacBook Pro. That’s $2,399 performance for $999.
But what about in everyday use? Well, it’s great for productivity and personal tasks like writing, emailing, messaging, browsing the web, streaming and even creative tasks. We were easily able to export 1080p HD and 4K videos at full resolution with no slowdowns. It can handle multiple instances of the same app — several windows in Safari or Chrome with multiple tabs open — and you can leave Photoshop open in the background.
Apple’s macOS is also optimized for the M1 chip, as are several major apps. Apple’s entire suite of applications is optimized, and Chrome already has a new version. But fear not, for most Intel apps will run just fine, thanks to an emulator called Rosetta 2, which is installed automatically when you open a non-optimized app. Just open the app and dive right in — the initial launch might take a little extra time as Rosetta 2 works, but it will run normally afterward. You’ll also find that the standard 8GB of RAM is plenty — even for those creative tasks.
The new MacBook Air has the same battery inside as the previous Intel version, but the M1 uses a lot less energy while pushing out more power. This means the Air stays cool in operation (it doesn’t even have a fan) and delivers ridiculous battery life, clocking more than 12 hours. In everyday use, you’d be hard-pressed to kill the battery. That makes it perfect for remote work around the house, and gives students enough bandwidth to make it through a day of classes and then hit the library to crank out an essay afterwards.
The 13-inch Retina display comes in with a resolution of 2560 x 1600 and 227 pixels per inch, it supports the P3 wide color gamut, and 400 nits of brightness were enough for us to see the display clearly wherever we used it. Apple’s True Tone adjusts the color temperature to suit the space you’re in.
The controls are all great. The M1 Air, like last year’s Intel Air, uses the improved Magic Keyboard that replaced the problematic butterfly keyboard that marred some recent Apple laptops. The keyboard is punchy, with a typewriter-like recoil, and was very comfortable to type on, with plenty of travel (aka the depth needed for a proper keypress). The large trackpad is smooth to the touch, with clear haptic feedback for right, left and double clicks.
It’s difficult to find a better overall machine than the M1 Air. Performance is so much improved that it makes the budget Air competitive with Apple’s power-user oriented MacBook Pro range. Yes, it’s good for productivity and personal needs, but it can meet the demands of creative and power users as well. It’s our choice for the best Apple laptop.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro — with an M1 chip with an extra graphics processing unit (GPU) core over the one used in the MacBook Air, as well as a fan that lets that processor work harder when needed — has a little more muscle, enough that it’s replacing the 16-inch MacBook Pro as our upgrade pick for an Apple laptop.
The upgrades mean the new MacBook Pro has a longer runway for intense tasks and repetitive workflows over the MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro rendered full video files seconds — or with 8K footage, minutes faster than the Air. Those saved minutes can make a difference when on a deadline for a project or working out in the field.
The new laptop is a bit quieter than the previous Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro . We did manage to activate the fan when rendering multiple 4K and 8K video clips. We expect pro-level applications to run more efficiently and make less use of the fan for these intense workflows as they get optimization updates for Apple Silicon. Adobe’s Lightroom is already optimized for Apple Silicon and Photoshop will be updated with support in 2021.But in the meantime, we had no issue running Intel-optimized creative apps on the MacBook Pro thanks to Rosetta.
Inside the 13-inch MacBook Pro is a 58.2-watt-hour battery, and larger than that of the MacBook Air. We’re still running our battery test on the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but we expect it to hit close to 18 hours with a typical workload and 19 hours and 20 minutes just playing back video. That beats the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which lasted for just shy of 10 hours and 30 minutes. Rapid exports of HD, 4K and 8K video dropped the battery only by a few percent. That’s seriously impressive, and Chrome (now optimized for Silicon) doesn’t cause the battery to tank either. The 13-inch MacBook Pro is otherwise unchanged from the previous model. It shares the comfortable Magic Keyboard and large trackpad with the Air, while the MacBook Pro adds Apple’s Touch Bar in place of the physical row of function keys on the MacBook Air. This allows applications to customize the experience; we found it useful for scrolling through a timeline while editing video, but not many apps have yet adopted the functionality in a useful way, so it’s really a matter of personal taste whether it’s a worthwhile upgrade. Touch ID is just as fast as on the Intel machines for authentication and easy unlocking.
The Pro’s 13.3-inch Retina display with True Tone can hit up to 500 nits of brightness, noticeably brighter than the Air, especially when working in brightly lit rooms or outdoors. Like the Air, it delivers a 2560 x 1600 resolution at 227 pixels per inch with support for P3 Wide Color.
As a whole, the 13-inch MacBook Pro impresses and sets a high standard for a Pro machine powered by Apple Silicon. Luckily the prices are staying the same as earlier models, the 13-inch, starting at just $1,299. To sum up our experience, it has a battery and performance that outperforms the MacBook Air and even the 16-inch with most tasks. The 13-inch Pro stands strong as a do-anything laptop. Over the MacBook Air, it has a longer runway that can sustain more intense tasks for longer periods of time.
While in terms of sheer processing power the 13-inch Pro is competitive with the 16-inch MacBook Pro (which this year is still based on an older Intel chip) Pro creatives may want to consider the larger laptop with its larger display and better support for peripherals. But for everyday video editing tasks, whether it’s your sole machine for TikTok or YouTube production or you’re looking for a remote workstation to supplement your desktop powerhouse, the 13-inch MacBook Pro makes a lot of sense.
Once we had all the models on hand, we began the unboxing process and charging them up to 100%. (Many laptops come with some power out of the box, but very rarely do they ship topped up.)
As with every CNN Underscored review, we rigorously test devices both quantitatively and qualitatively. For laptops, we made the decision to benchmark first to get a standard for quantitative performance. If you’ve read our standalone laptop, tablet or mobile phone reviews, these tests will be familiar.
We performed GeekBench 5 tests. These run the laptops through a series of workflows and application processes, many of which you’d find yourselves (and we found ourselves) completing on a daily basis.
Regardless of operating system, we put each laptop through our standard battery test, which involves charging the laptop to 100%, setting brightness to 50% and engaging airplane mode to ensure connectivity is off. We then loop a 4K video file with the sound set to 15% until the battery dies and the machine turns off. These tests are monitored in person as well as via two cameras to ensure accuracy.
The combination of battery and benchmark testing gives us a quantitative feel for the devices and a hard number for each that can be used for comparisons. We then used each laptop as our daily driver for work, play and entertainment tasks, testing the battery to see if it could last through a full day of tasks, watching a movie to get a feel for the display and, of course, running a bunch of different applications.
Our testing categories were as follows:
- Build quality: We looked at what the laptop was physically made of and how it felt in our hands, on a desk and in our laps.
- Portability: Thickness and weight of each laptop was top of mind here, along with the overall size and bezels. We also tested if it could fit in a range of bags.
- Looks: We took note of the overall design, if it was sleek or stealthy.
- Total battery life: The CNN Underscored battery test, explained above, was used to determine a quantitative battery life number.
- Stress test: We noted whether intense photo or video editing reduced battery life and how the laptop performed when playing a game.
- Benchmarking: Using GeekBench 5, explained above, we established a baseline for performance.
- Processors and GPU: We observed how the internal hardware performed and if most models across similar price points had the same specs. Can these handle a full productivity load? Can we get the laptop to bottleneck?
- RAM: We considered how much RAM or memory comes standard and if it’s enough for core tasks.
- Storage: We noted whether the laptop opts for a solid-state drive (SSD) or a traditional hard drive (HD).
- Ports: We looked at how many ports the laptop features, any legacy options available and if a dongle comes in the box.
- Overall: We observed how the speakers performed in core use cases, including movies, music and system sounds.
- Compression: We made note if the laptop speakers added any extra compression to core sounds or tracks.
- Bass: Did the laptop generate bass, or was it mostly missing?
- Overall: We tested the display with various test images, applications (including word processing for pixelation), videos, VoIP, photo editing, gaming and even video editing. We additionally took a closer look at vibrancy, bezels, clarity and resolution.
- Overall: To get a feel for a keyboard, you really need to type a ton — and that’s exactly what we did. We paid close attention to specific categories, like tactileness and punchiness of the keys.
- Experience out of the box: What apps come preloaded that provide real user benefits? Is there a ton of bloatware?
- Ease of use: How easy was it to navigate around the respective base software and any core apps?
- Overall: We noted what it was like to use as a daily driver and how it performed with a plethora of apps and workflows.
- Overall: We noted the length of the included warranty and what it covers.
MacBook Air (Intel) ($899, originally $1,099; bhphotovideo.com)
The last Intel-powered MacBook Air was an outstanding laptop that held our overall position before the M1 MacBook Air. It has an identical build with a slim aluminum chassis in a range of three colors, along with a 13-inch Retina display and the Magic Keyboard. It was a go-to recommendation with an 8th Gen Intel processor and a recommendation to opt for 16GBs of RAM. It can still be a good investment if you don’t mind the non-Apple processor, a fan and if you find it at a substantial discount.
For all others, though, we’d highly recommend the base $999 MacBook Air — the M1 Chip and 8GBs of RAM are plenty for all everyday tasks and can even handle 4K exports and more intense ones.
13-inch MacBook Pro (Intel) ($1,699, originally $1,999; bhphotovideo.com)
Six months before the M1 Macs arrived, Apple refreshed the 13-inch MacBook Pros by removing the butterfly keyboard (a needed step) and giving select models the 10th Gen Intel processors. It was a simple way to refresh the line without changing much; after all, they kept the same design that the new M1 MacBook Pros feature. The base $1,299 model featured the same 8th Gen processor that didn’t offer much speed improvements and felt like a MacBook Air with a bit more runway. The higher-price models received the 10th Gen, which delivered more performance.
Now, with the M1 Macs fully available, the performance of these are easily outperformed. If you’re in the market right now, we’d suggest an M1 MacBook Air for most people. That said, if you see a good deal on the Intel 13-inch, it could be worth the plunge.
16-inch MacBook Pro (starting $2,249, originally $2,399; amazon.com)
The 16-inch MacBook Pro was previously our video editing and creative laptop of choice. It’s still the optimal Mac choice if you want a big screen on the go or want a superior onboard audio system, but the 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro outperforms it in terms of sheer processing speed. With core tasks like 4K movie exports, batch photo edits and intense coding projects, the 13-inch is faster. The 16-inch machine, for the moment, has significantly better support for peripherals, and for audio and video professionals who depend on outboard gear it may be a better choice. It has more ports for expansion (the 13-inch Pro has only a pair of Thunderbolt ports while the 16-inch model has 4), and significantly can natively support dual external monitors running at full 4K resolution and at a 60 Hz refresh rate (the M1 MacBook Pro only supports a single external monitor, though you can work around this limitation with a hub that uses DisplayLink). The 16-inch Pro also supports external GPUs for high-end video and motion graphics work (the M1 doesn’t yet support such devices.