in 2020, Apple’s MacBooks entered a new era. The company announced it was moving away from the Intel chips it had been using since 2006, and it rolled out the first Macs with the Apple-designed M1. Cut to 2021 and the company has added two more chips to the lineup—M1 Pro and M1 Max—both of which power the latest MacBook Pro.
Just like Apple’s iPhones, the chips run on the ARM architecture and afford the company greater control over its hardware and software. They make its laptops both more powerful and more power-efficient, meaning greatly improved performance and battery life. Plus, you get other perks, like the ability to run mobile apps originally made for iOS. Still, choosing a MacBook is now more difficult. Apple is no longer selling Intel-powered models, but you can find one at a third-party retailer with only a few more years of support. Is it worth buying one? Or should you go all-in on Apple silicon? Here’s what we think you should spend your hard-earned money on.
Updated November 2021: We’ve added our thoughts on the new MacBook Pro models.
Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-year subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you’d like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.
Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020)
The Best All-Arounder
The MacBook Air (9/10, WIRED Recommends) with the M1 chip from 2020 is one of the most powerful laptops you can get for the price, surpassing benchmark scores with top-end Intel-powered models. This is especially true when you use apps natively engineered for the new processor, like the Safari web browser.
You can still download and install apps made for Intel’s x86 chips (the ones in every PC you’ve likely ever owned). That’s because Apple has a transition tool called Rosetta 2 that will automatically ask to be downloaded alongside these apps. It’s what enables them to work well with the M1, often better than on Intel Macs. But over the past year, many apps—like Adobe Lightroom and Google Chrome—have made M1 versions available, so you shouldn’t have a problem. If you’re worried your favorite app might not work, do some research and scour forums to see if an M1 version is available or the x86 version will run just fine.
The MacBook Air lasted me more than a full workday, with the battery hitting 22 percent after I ran it almost nonstop from 9 am to 7 pm using Safari and work apps like Slack. (I had to plug in the previous Intel model by 4 pm.) M1 machines can also instantly wake up from sleep whenever you tap the keyboard or trackpad or lift the screen, just like when you tap your iPhone or iPad to wake it up. That’s a marked difference from older MacBooks that took several seconds to light up. There’s also no fan in the MacBook Air, meaning it remains whisper-quiet even under the heaviest loads. There is a thermal heat spreader to dissipate heat, but it also never gets too warm.