Jacob Krol/CNN

If you need a new Apple laptop, it’s a really good time to buy one. Thanks to the company’s powerful new processors, MacBooks are faster and longer-lasting than ever, and offer a range of options depending on how much power you need. The M1-powered MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro offer class-leading speed and battery life for relatively attainable prices, while the new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros provide lots of ports, more advanced displays and even more power for creative professionals thanks to their M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. After testing all of Apple’s current MacBooks, here are our picks for the ones you should buy right now.

Best Apple laptop

At $999, the MacBook Air with M1 is a budget laptop that can take on any task — from web browsing to productivity to 4K video editing. And if you're in the Apple ecosystem, it will work perfectly with other Apple devices.

The upgrade pick

The 14-inch MacBook Pro offers beastly performance for serious power users as well as the best ports, display and speakers on a MacBook.

Best Apple Laptop: MacBook Air (starting at $899; amazon.com and apple.com)

Jacob Krol/CNN

Key specs

  • Display: 13.3-inch Retina display at 2560 x 1600 (tested)
  • Processor: Apple M1 with 7-core (tested) or 8-core GPU
  • RAM: 8GB (tested) / 16GB
  • Storage: 256GB (tested) / 512GB / 1TB / 2TB
  • Size and weight: 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.16 - 0.63 inches, 2.8 pounds

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 upgrade pick: 14-Inch MacBook Pro (starting at $1,949; amazon.com and apple.com)

Michael Andronico/CNN

Key specs

  • Display: 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR display at 3024 x 1964
  • Processor: Apple M1 Pro (tested) or M1 Max
  • RAM: 16GB / 32GB (tested) / 64GB (M1 Max only)
  • Storage: 512GB / 1TB (tested) / 2TB / 4TB / 8TB
  • Size and weight: 14.01 x 9.77 x 0.66 inches, 4.7 pounds

The new 14-inch MacBook Pro revives the classic magnetic MagSafe charger, drops the polarizing Touch Bar for physical function keys and finally gives you a healthy amount of ports again. When you combine that with a stunning Liquid Retina XDR screen, incredible speakers and some wild M1 Pro performance, this is the laptop to get for power users who need as much speed and connectivity as possible.

The new Pro features three Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports for connecting to high-end displays and accessories, an SDXC slot for transferring photos and videos from a camera, an HDMI port for external monitors and TVs and a headphone jack that can sense how much current a connected set needs supplying the appropriate voltage to drive basic earbuds or the high impedance headphones audiophiles love. While it’d be nice to also have a USB-A port for the many legacy accessories we still use daily, that selection is still a big upgrade from the measly two Thunderbolt 4 ports you got on the 13-inch Pro and Air.

This charger snaps magnetically to the resurrected MagSafe port (just like the one on your 2000s-vintage MacBook) on the new MacBook with a satisfying click, creating a firm connection but one that can safely detach without sending your laptop flying should someone trip on the wire. This cable also charges the new MacBook ridiculously fast, matching Apple’s claims of going from 0% to 50% in 30 minutes in our tests.

The new MacBook Pro’s keyboard finally ditches the much-maligned Touch Bar in favor of a full-size row of physical function keys, which we find much more useful for quickly adjusting things like brightness and volume. Other than that, this is largely the same snappy Magic Keyboard that we loved on last year’s models, just with a slick black-on-black design that helps distinguish the new Pro as a heavy-duty work machine.

The 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros ship with your choice of M1 Pro or M1 Max processors, both of which are designed to give exponentially more performance muscle to serious creatives and developers than the M1 chips on the 2020 models. We’ve been testing the 14-inch model with an M1 Pro processor, which manages to significantly outdo the already absurd speeds we’ve gotten from the M1 MacBooks.

Rotating a detailed 3D sculpture in Cinema 4D felt smooth and instant, and there wasn’t a single stutter as we scrolled down more than 1,500 audio tracks in Logic Pro. An 8K video project loaded instantaneously in Final Cut Pro, and we were able to export it to 720p in about 30 seconds.

On the Geekbench 5 multi-core test that measures general processing speed, our 14-inch Pro scored a whopping 12,463 — that’s a big leap over the 7,628 we saw from the M1 MacBook Pro, and more than double the score of Windows competitors like the Surface Laptop Studio and Dell XPS 13 OLED.

The M1 Pro’s graphics capabilities are equally impressive, as we noticed on the Geekbench 5 OpenCL test (which measures GPU performance) as well as on our gaming benchmarks. The 14-inch MacBook Pro’s OpenCL score of 36,326 is nearly double what we got from the M1 MacBook Air (17,183) and Pro (19,339), which illustrates just how much extra visual muscle the new model has over the standard M1 machines. Heck, it even came somewhat close to the Surface Laptop Studio (51,933) — a laptop that has a discrete Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti GPU.

It’s worth noting that we tested an upgraded $2,899 version of the base 14-inch MacBook, which features an M1 Pro chip with a 10-core CPU and 16-core GPU alongside 32GB of RAM (which aids in multitasking) and 1TB of storage. Those who need the absolute best power for things like advanced 3D rendering and software development will want to consider the higher-core M1 Max options, but even our middle-of-the-pack M1 Pro pumped out some of the best laptop performance we’ve ever gotten our hands on.

The new Pro packs a 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR display at a 3024 x 1964 resolution, which, like the iPad Pros that feature the same display tech, pumped out some very rich colors and preserved the finer details of photos and videos. When flipping through XDR-optimized images in Affinity Photo, we were struck by the bright, bold blues and deep blacks in a composite image of a ballerina, and noticed accurate colors and tons of detail in an 8K nature video.

The new MacBook Pro display finally makes the jump to 120Hz, meaning it’s twice as smooth as previous MacBook screens, and the faster refresh rate makes things like scrolling through webpages and thumbing through video look considerably more fluid. Around the display, Apple has shrunk the bezels down considerably (about 24% compared to the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro) for a more immersive screen, which doesn’t leave room for a camera. Instead, the camera lives in an iPhone-style notch at the top of the screen. Some reviewers have complained about this design decision, but we didn’t really notice it much in everyday use.

The webcam itself is exceptional, thanks to a bump in resolution from 720p to 1080p that works in tandem with some very impressive image processing smarts to produce accurate-looking images that even beat out our best webcam pick in the Logitech C920 in certain scenarios. The new MacBook Pro’s speakers are likewise superb, with enough volume to fill our bedroom while providing plenty of depth and clarity for all the music we threw at it.

There’s one area where our particular 14-inch MacBook Pro unit didn’t blow us away, and it’s battery life. Apple’s new laptop lasted just over six and a half hours on our continuous 4K video playback test, and we got roughly the same amount of endurance during a typical day of using Slack, Chrome and Outlook while occasionally jumping to heavier creative apps.

That’s only a fraction of what we got from the M1 MacBook Air (14:12) and 13-inch MacBook Pro (16:30), and behind the eight hours and 14 minutes we saw on the Surface Laptop Studio. The good news is that the MagSafe 3 charger often fully juiced the laptop in less than an hour, so you’ll want to keep it handy on the road.

If you can live with its battery life and don’t mind the high price, the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros are the new MacBooks to buy for video editors, 3D artists, developers or any other kind of power user who could benefit from tons of processing and graphics muscle.

How we tested

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:

Design

  • 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.

Battery life

  • 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.

Hardware

  • 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.

Speakers

  • 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?

Display

  • 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.

Keyboard

  • 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.

Software

  • 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?

Usability

  • Overall: We noted what it was like to use as a daily driver and how it performed with a plethora of apps and workflows.

Warranty

  • Overall: We noted the length of the included warranty and what it covers.

Others we tested

MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2020) (starting at $1,299; amazon.com and apple.com)
The M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro was our previous upgrade pick for Apple users, thanks to a slight bump in maximum graphics performance over the M1 MacBook Air. However, it has since been replaced by the new 14-inch MacBook Pro, which offers a much bigger leap in overall performance, has far better ports and ditches the annoying Touch Bar for a more practical set of physical function keys.

MacBook Pro 16-Inch (2021) (starting at $2,449; amazon.com and apple.com)
The 16-inch MacBook Pro has everything we love about our upgrade pick in the 14-inch model, just with a larger screen and a few more configuration options for really maxing out the processor. It’s a great choice if those two things matter to you (and if you have the cash to spare), but we think the 14-inch MacBook Pro’s lower starting price and more portable design make it the better pick for most power users.

MacBook Air (Intel) ($929, originally $1,199; apple.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.

MacBook Pro 13-Inch (Intel) ($1,799, 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 models are a bit dated. 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.

MacBook Pro 16-Inch (Intel) (starting at $1,950; amazon.com)
The 16-inch MacBook Pro from 2019 was previously our video editing and creative laptop of choice, thanks to its strong performance and connectivity options. However, it’s since been phased out by the 2021 16-inch model, which offers far more ports, a more advanced Liquid Retina XDR display and significantly better performance, thanks to your choice of Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max chips.