New MacBook, Pro, Air or Mini: Which Apple Mac Should You Buy?

By Christopher Phin on at

So that shiny gold New MacBook has kicked you into "buy a new Mac" mode? (If not, why are you here?) If so, Apple would be delighted to oblige – after all, it has models ranging from £399 all the way to £7,779, if you would be so bold, from super-light laptops to industrial powerhouses. So long as your budget is "at least £399", there’s plenty of choice here to suit every budget.

"Too much choice," you might say. Trust Uncle Giz, then, to explore the options. We’re going to do this three ways: tell you what most people should buy, take a whistle-stop tour around the current line-up and explain each model’s pros and cons, pepper in some hard advice, as if it were possible to simultaneously sit next to tens of thousands of people in a pub, and suggest some ideal set-ups for students, commuters, and more.

Apple Mac 101: Tutorial Mode

OK, let’s start with the real basics: if you’re not doing anything computationally intensive on your Mac – gaming, or some pretty heavyweight creative tasks such as frequently converting or rendering video files (rather than merely watching them) – in reality, you pretty much don’t have to worry about "how powerful" your new Mac will be. Macs have been able to do modern general computing stuff without breaking a sweat for many years.

For most people, how fast or what kind the processor is, whether the Mac has discrete or integrated graphics and how fast the ports are kinda doesn’t matter, because you’ll be putting comparatively little strain on those bits of the system. (For this reason, be sure to check out the refurb store, which has terrific bargains on slightly older but still under-warranty and 100 per cent extremely usable and lovely hardware.) Basically, the things that actually impact how fast your Mac feels, counter-intuitively, ain’t the speed of the processor.

What does make a difference in everyday computing is the amount of RAM and whether the Mac you pick has SSD or hard disk. The two are kind of related: if you don’t have enough RAM to run all the apps you want to at the same time (4GB is bare minimum; 8GB sensible minimum), the Mac will shift bits of the apps off to the hard disk temporarily. Hard disks are badly suited to this kind of thing, but an SSD – even one that connects over early SATA connectors never mind the new PCIe connectors Apple is moving to – is much better; that, and the fact that SSDs are just generally faster at the kind of tasks that bog down a computer, mean that you can get better responsiveness on a low-RAM Mac if it has an SSD.

In short: don’t buy a Mac these days that has a hard disk inside it, unless it’s for something like a server role where you’re not sitting in front of it, using it all the time. The exception to this rule is if a Mac has a Fusion Drive, which pairs a hard disk with an smaller SSD – with the Mac dynamically ‘archiving’ rarely used files off to the hard disk. Most of the time, this should feel as snappy as a pure SSD system, while being much cheaper. (Of course, if you can afford pure SSD, do it. Lower power, quieter, and faster overall.)

One big gotcha when buying a Mac, though, is that you increasingly can’t upgrade them yourself, so you need to spec the Mac you want when you order it. Don’t worry to much about the sealed battery – yes, it’s a pain, but Apple can replace it for you if you wear it out after a few years, and it’s not much more expensive than just buying a replacement battery used to be. Still, keep an eye on RAM and internal storage.

You Should Probably Buy this Mac

Before we go any further, for most people, a MacBook Air is (still) the Mac to get, off the bat. Capable enough for most things, but light, highly portable and with hugely impressive battery life. The new MacBook is stunning, yes, and despite its comparatively weak internals will be eminently usable for most people, but for many it will be too soon to ditch peripherals or juggle with adapters, and the Air remains significantly cheaper. The 11-inch Air is cute and portable, while the 13-inch gives a bit more breathing space for working on the go.

Whichever you buy, though, your productivity will go through the roof if you also go all in for an external display for when you’re at your desk. It doesn’t have to be fancy – could even be something you pick up for a song second-hand on eBay – but adding an external display, especially if you plump for the 11-inch Air, will give you the creative power you need to do good work at your desk but a tiny, light little machine with bags of stamina to chuck in your satchel if you head out.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro is more powerful and flexible, and has that lovely Retina display, but don’t feel hard done by if you can’t afford it; the Air is fine, and in any case is slimmer, lighter and lasts longer away from the mains. Alternatively, consider a mid-range iMac paired with an iPad Air for on-the-go work.

Laptop Macs: The Options

13-inch Retina MacBook Pro

The 13-inch MacBook Pro is the best of the current line-up. It’s just (finally) been updated to Intel’s Broadwell processors, has fast storage and I/O, is slim and light, and has strong battery life and that beautiful Retina display. No, you don’t need a Retina display, but it is very, very lovely (and in any case talk of "need" inevitably leads you to the £329 laptop at PC World). Sadly, the quad-core Broadwell processors for the 15-inch models won’t be available till later this year, so for the time being avoid them if you can.

The MacBook Airs are lighter and have more stamina still – and they also now get Broadwell and Thunderbolt 2 – but they’re weedier, both in CPU and GPU terms. Frankly, though, they’re perfectly good enough for what most people need, and even when it comes to more intensive tasks such as gaming or video encoding, it’s not that they can’t do them but just that you’ll have to drop the detail in games or wait around for the video.

The new MacBook does rather throw a spanner in the works, though. It’s quite, quite beautiful, of course, and it’s the only way currently you can get an Apple laptop in anything but silver, if that's important to you. In many ways it’s the direct spiritual descendent of the original MacBook Air: comparatively low-powered, slim, light, with few external ports and a hefty price tag. If you just want it and your needs are pretty normal then by all means buy it.

You just have to be aware that you’ll get more power and flexibility if you buy the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro for about the same money (albeit with a slight penalty in portability and, yes, desirability) and that because it only has one port, you’ll have to juggle adapters (Apple’s is £65) and docks if you want to plug stuff in. And because Apple has sadly ditched its clever MagSafe power connection for the new MacBook there’s a greater chance you’ll drag it to the floor if you trip over the cable.

There’s one last model in the line-up, a vestigial non-Retina 13-inch MacBook Pro. In general terms, it’s a bad buy – old internals, thick, heavy, weak battery life when compared to its siblings – but it’s the only one here with native FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet ports, and it has an internal DVD drive.

Plus, while the base spec comes with a hard disk, this is the only model where you can unscrew the base plate and change the drive (and battery) yourself, swapping in a cheap Crucial MX100 SSD or similar. So it has some advantages for folk who don’t want to abandon legacy peripherals or modes of working — or, indeed, a degree of control over their hardware.

Desktop Macs: The Options

Let’s get one thing straight: very few people need a Mac Pro. Lovely though they are (and as, surprisingly, keenly priced as they are, actually), these are niche machines for super high-end creative and science professionals. Yes, we want one, too, but let’s be sensible about this.

At the other end of the scale, the little Mac mini finally got an update recently which means it now has modern I/O and some better internals. "From £399" is tempting, especially if you already have a monitor, keyboard and mouse you can hook up to it, but that entry-level Mac mini model is really quite weedy.

To be sure, it will cope fine with browsing, email, iWork and some light photo editing if you don’t mind it being a little sluggish here and there, but the especially slow hard disk, slow processor, weak graphics and bare-minimum RAM means most people should talk themselves up. (You can configure a Fusion Drive and more RAM in this model, but by that point, you’re looking at the same kind of money as the mid-range model, and approaching iMac levels.)

The Mac mini is a nice little machine if your needs aren’t too demanding, but it only really makes sense if you already have the other bits to plug into it. Otherwise, go iMac.

Again, though, reject that entry-level 21.5-inch model. It’s not that it’s "too slow" – though, like the entry-level Mac mini, it’s no more than adequate, and best suited to light web/email/documents-type work – but that you could buy a MacBook Air plus an external monitor and get essentially the same performance for the same price but with the added bonus of being able to throw your Mac in a bag.

If you’re deciding between 21.5-inch and 27-inch iMacs on screen size alone, be aware that the 27 really is a beast, and the unprepared can find it quite overwhelming. What’s more, since OS X’s windows management is still a bit basic, arranging your work on that huge canvas can be a chore. Consider instead buying the smaller iMac and then plugging in a second display with the difference in price; this can help you prioritise your work and juggle windows more easily.

All but the very top-end iMac come with hard disks, and we strongly encourage you to configure this as an SSD or Fusion Drive when you order instead. And ahh, that top-end iMac, with its Retina 5K display. It is a sight to behold, and actually not ludicrously over-priced, but it’s still two grand, and that, objectively, is a hell of a lot of cash.

Note, too, that while the other models in the line-up can act as dumb monitors using Target Display Mode, the 5K iMac can’t, since the current display connections don’t have enough bandwidth for all those pixels. Of the current line-up, the 2.9GHz 21.5-inch model is the best balance of power and price, but it’s 2.7GHz brother is just fine, and if you want the bigger screen of the 27-inch iMac, the jump up in price isn’t too hard to swallow.

The Best Mac for: Students

For most academic courses, a MacBook Air is the best bet, since it’s highly portable and has great battery life – go for the 13 if the latter is more important, and the 11 if it's the former. If you’re doing a creative or science course that demands a lot of computing grunt and you need portability, then as meaty a MacBook Pro as you can afford, but also consider a powerful iMac plus an iPad Air (along with a Bluetooth keyboard).

The Best Mac for: a Shared Family Computer

An iMac is perfect here; neat and self-contained, and easy to move around and control. If your needs are very modest, you might even get away with the entry-level model, but upsell yourself a little if you can. Alternatively, a Mac mini would be okay, but only, really, if you already have a monitor, keyboard and mouse knocking about.

The Best Mac for: Home Users

The MacBook Air gets a nod again here since it’s as good for light work as for lounging about on the sofa, especially when paired with a big external display, but once again we’re going to suggest you think about putting a meaty iMac in your home office instead and then just using an iPad or even iPhone around the house.

The new MacBook would work here as well if your budget will stretch to it (and to the adapters you need to use other stuff with it, if necessary). If you just want something more powerful – a MacBook Pro, say – then knock yourself out, but the machines we’ve recommended will be more than efficient for most home tasks.

The Best Mac for: General Offices

A nice little mid-range iMac would work well here, but since many offices have a cupboard stashed with old keyboards and monitors somewhere, a Mac mini wouldn't be a bad shout. Indeed, Mac minis still make good small-office servers (you can upgrade the built-in OS to a server OS for £14.99 on the App Store, and run email, web, chat and other servers yourself), and if you’re using Mac minis for this, you might get away with leaving them with a hard disk.

The Best Mac for: Portability

Assuming you're here needs are greater than an iPad, the MacBook Air will be fine for many, although a few folks in some departments might need the extra grunt of a MacBook Pro. Do consider the runt of the litter, that old non-Retina MacBook Pro, too; since it has a built-in Ethernet port and SuperDrive, it might be better suited to certain office infrastructures and workflows. Plus: the IT folks can tinker with it a bit more to keep it running for a few years to come.

The Best Mac for: Commuters

If you’re working on the go, you want small and you want long battery, so you want the new MacBook or the MacBook Air. (Depending on what kind of work you do, you could even consider an iPad instead.) Of the two, the Air is probably slightly more practical today since it has built-in full-size USB ports for keeping your iPhone charged without having to mess around with adapters.

The Best Mac for: "Creative Professionals"

If you’re working in film, 3D or very intensive photography or illustration, you’re one of the few people who would benefit from the Mac Pro. Note that you can buy (and easily fit) aftermarket SSDs for it now, so now buying the base spec and adding more internal storage that way is now worthy of consideration.

The ability to drive many monitors and high-speed peripherals from its six Thunderbolt 2 ports is certainly a huge advantage for creative pros. But if you can’t stretch that far – quickly consider the cost of extra displays – then a high-end iMac, especially the 5K model, is worth getting.

If you’re actually doing creative work on the go, as opposed to just keeping on top of emails or reviewing rushes, then don’t look at anything other than the Retina MacBook Pros. And actually, unless you simply can’t wait, we’d say hold off until the 15-inch models with the new quad-core Broadwell chips and their Iris Pro graphics hit, since you’ll want that power.

But Finally: Do You Really Need a New Mac?

If you're not a first-timer and are just here because your old Mac is feeling a bit sluggish, don't forget that a little TLC can restore it to something approaching its former glory. Performing a clean install can be a bit labour-intensive, but it will make a huge difference, while maxing out the RAM is usually a cheap way to get some responsiveness back, and if you can get to the hard disk of your Mac easily, replacing it with an SSD will have a genuinely transformational effect on how fast it feels. The guides at iFixit.com show how easy this would be for your model.

Let us know what your Mac poison is down below.

Top Image Credit: Crying man at Shutterstock (edited)