You can buy a ready-to-ship Mac at any Apple Store, reseller, or online vendor, but if you want something custom, you have to go to Apple's website and build it to order (BTO). That way, if any of the standard configurations aren't enough for you, you can bump up the CPU, add more memory, and even go with faster storage. Not every Mac has every option, of course, but for the ones that do, it''s worth asking — which upgrades are worth the price?
About Apple Silicon
In June 2020, Apple announced it would begin transitioning from Intel-based chips to its own single system on a chip (SoC) architecture. The first of these Apple silicon devices arrived in late 2020, with many more expected in 2021.
The first SoC Macs only use an Apple M1 chip with no upgrade possible. However, you can still make CPU adjustments on Intel-based Macs that remain on the market. Computers with the Apple M1 chip are reflected on the lists below.
Mac upgrades: Are CPU upgrades worth it?
The CPU — central processing unit — is the engine that makes your Mac go. Currently provided by Intel, they range from the ultra-low-power Core i3 to the ultra-powerful quad-core Core i9 in high-end MacBook Pro and iMac to the Xeon workstation chips in the Mac Pro.
Generally speaking, faster cores let you do single things faster. More cores let you do more things at once. So, getting a faster core is like upgrading from a regular car to a race car. Going from dual to quad-core is like getting a second car.
Since you can't change a CPU after you buy your Mac, you want to make sure you buy the right one — not just for your needs now, but for your needs next year and the year after that.
-- MacBook Air 13-inch: The entry-level MacBook only includes SoC as of December 2020; there are no longer Intel-based MacBook Airs on the market. But, this is the best MacBook of the year overall.
-- MacBook Pro 13-inch: Entry-level models come with an Apple M1, although Intel-based models remain — at least for now. These models come with either 2.0GHz quad-core i5 or 2.3GHz quad-core i7 processors. Most people are going to be happy with one of the former. If you need a little extra bump, choose the 2.3GHz model.
MacBook Pro 16-inch: The baseline 16-inch with Touch Bar comes with a 2.6 GHz 6-Core i7 or 2.3GHz 8-core 9th-generation Intel Core i9 processor. Upgrading the processor will make your MacBook Pro absolutely scream, but all those cores and all that speed comes at the expense of battery life. Still, if you're going high-end, $200 isn't a lot more to add on.
iMac 4K 21.5-inch: The lower-end iMac starts with a 2.3GHz dual-core 7th-gen Intel Core i5 processor and goes up to a 3.0GHz 6-core 8th-gen Intel Core i7 processor. You can ramp that up to a 3.2GHz 6-core 8th-generation Intel Core i7 processor for $200. If you're buying the 4K Mac for budgeting purposes, that extra money may not be worth it. The 3.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i3 processor model is an excellent middle ground. It's $200 more than the baseline model, but a solid investment.
iMac 5K 27-inch: You can get a 3.1GHz 6-core 10th-gen Intel Core i5 standard and up to 3.8GHz 8-core 10th-gen Intel Core processor. For $400 more, you can bump it up to a 3.6GHz 10-core 10th-generation Intel Core i9 processor. If you need 10 cores, this is the upgrade you want. If you need more power, however, you should take a look at the iMac Pro instead.
iMac Pro: You're really upping your game with the iMac Pro. It comes standard with a 3.2GHz 8-core Intel Xeon W processor. For $800 more, you're going to get a 3.0GHz 10-core Intel Xeon W processor, but you can max out the CPU to a 2.3GHz 18-core Intel Xeon W processor for $2,400. Your pro needs will determine what suits you best, but if you need an iMac Pro, you probably need a little more than the baseline. I recommend bumping up to a 2.5GHz 14-core Intel Xeon W processor to max out your efficiency. It's the best value for your money. However, it's worth pointing out that the iMac Pro's silicon is a few years old, so it may be smarter to either go with a Mac Pro or wait for the iMac Pro to receive a processor update.
Mac mini: The Mac mini, like the 13-inch MacBook Pro, is in a period of transition. You can purchase one with an Apple M1 chip or spend more on an Intel-based model. The latter comes standard with a 3.0GHz Intel Core i5 6-Core Processor. You can also select a 3.2GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i7. Depending on your needs, the i7 may be unnecessary. Stick with the 6-core i5 model if you don't plan on putting too much strain on your DIY Mac. Remember, you can stack these babies, so it may be smarter to spend the money on multiple Mac minis.
Mac Pro: The granddaddy Mac comes standard with a 3.5GHz 8‑core Intel Xeon W processor, but if you're buying a Mac Pro, you probably need something a little faster. For $7,000, you can upgrade to a 2.5GHz 28‑core Intel Xeon W processor, but that is overkill for a lot of your needs. Most pros recommend upgrading to either a 3.3GHz 12‑core Intel Xeon W processor for $1,000 more or a 3.2GHz 16‑core Intel Xeon W processor for $2,000. This level is suitable for CPU rendering, compiling large projects, running multiple virtual machines, and similar tasks.
Mac upgrades: Are RAM upgrades worth it?
The more memory your Mac has, the bigger the images and videos you can work with, the more apps you can keep open, and generally, the better performance you'll get. Modern Macs are more memory efficient than ever. But if you want to work with many files and a lot of big files, RAM can still make your experience smoother.
Increasingly, Mac memory is also soldered right to the board, just like the processors. The 27-inch iMac still lets you change memory after purchase but, with MacBooks, what you buy is what you're stuck with. So, again, don't buy for today. Buy for tomorrow.
The Apple M1 SoC comes standard with 8GB of unified memory on the current models, although you can increase this to 16GB, as you can see below.
MacBook Air: Apple's ultra-light laptops come with 8 GB of RAM, but you can upgrade to up to 16GB for $200 more. If you plan on running a lot of processor-heavy apps at the same time, you're going to want to spend that extra money. I recommend investing here. The more RAM you have, the faster your apps will run when your MacBook Air gets overworked.
13-inch MacBook Pro: The smaller of the two Mac laptop powerhouses (the ones with an M1) start with 8GB, and you can upgrade to 16GB for $200. It's a smart investment to spend the extra money to upgrade. Remember, the more programs you're running at the same time, the more RAM you want, keeping it going fast and strong. The Intel-based models start at 16GB, but you can update to 32GB for an extra $400.
16-inch MacBook Pro: The 16-inch MacBook Pro starts with 16 GB of RAM. You can jump that up to 64GB of RAM for an additional $800. That may be overkill for most people, though. If you're planning on running multiple processor-heavy applications, like video editing software, you should at least upgrade to 32GB of RAM, but max it out if you're doing most or all of your work on the MacBook Pro.
iMac: 8 GB is the starting point for the 21.5-inch and 27-inch iMac, but you can upgrade the 21.5-inch 2.3GHz dual-core 7th-generation Intel Core i5 processor model to 16 GB for $200. All of the 27-inch iMac models can be upgraded to 128GB of RAM. For the 21.5-inch iMac, you should update to at least 16GB, 32 if you're going to be running many processor-heavy apps. For the 27-inch iMac, however, we recommend not buying your RAM from Apple. You can install additional RAM yourself at a later date using aftermarket RAM. It's easy to do and costs less.
iMac Pro: The iMac Pro starts with 32GB of RAM and can be upgraded to 256GB of RAM (that's right, 256GB). You can't upgrade the RAM aftermarket in the iMac Pro, so you'll definitely want to add more. Do you need 256GB? If you're running multiple processor-heavy apps, like video editing programs, VR or AR development simulations, and the like, you should consider a decent bump of at least 128GB of RAM.
Mac mini: The Apple M1 Mac mini comes with 8GB of unified memory standard and can be upgraded to 16GB. The Intel-based models start with 8GB, which you can upgrade to 64GB. Most people aren't going to need to go this far, however. On the Intel-based models, you can upgrade the RAM in the Mac mini yourself, however, so if you're willing to do it yourself with less-expensive third-party RAM, you'll save a few bucks.
Mac Pro: The Mac Pro can support up to 768GB of RAM, 1.5TB if you get the 24 or 28-core model. It comes with 12 physical DIMM slots, which means that you can add memory at any time aftermarket. Just keep in mind that, even though the Mac Pro supports both R-DIMM and LR-DIMM, you can't use both in the same system. I recommend purchasing RAM on your own from a third-party vendor so you can choose which type is right for your system.
Mac upgrades: are storage upgrades worth it?
Though computing storage has been freed up with cloud-based services, storage capacity is the one place where an upgrade is recommended, no matter what. Whatever you can afford when you purchase your new Mac, you should buy. If you can't afford any storage upgrades, however, don't be downhearted. Cloud storage and external hard drives are cheaper than ever and can help with your capacity needs.
MacBook Air: The MacBook Air comes with either 256 or 512GB of built-in SSD storage and can be upgraded to up to 2TB of SSD storage. If you can afford it, we recommend going for 1TB. You'll probably never need that much, but having it will make you feel better. If 1TB is too expensive, you should, at least, go for 512GB.
13-inch MacBook Pro: The Apple M1 model starts with 256GB or 512GB of built-in SSD storage, which you can upgrade to 2TB of SSD storage. On Intel-based machines, it's 512GB or 1TB with upgrades possible to 4TB. If you're investing in the pro-model Mac laptop, you likely need a decent amount of storage. We suggest going for the full 2TB if you can afford it, but 1TB is good enough, especially if you use cloud-based storage and external hard drives.
16-inch MacBook Pro: The larger MacBook Pro starts at 512GB or 1TB of SSD storage and can be upgraded to up to 8TB, which is definitely a lot. Of course, you should always get as much storage as you can afford, but 1TB is good enough for most people, especially if you take advantage of cloud-based storage and external hard drives.
21.5-inch iMac: The two least expensive 21.5-inch iMacs come with 256GB solid-state drives (SSD), standard. You can switch to a 1TB Fusion drive for free, but it no longer comes recommended. A Fusion drive is a hybrid HDD and SSD. It's less expensive than an SSD, but it also does have that pesky spinning plate drive. The cool thing about a Fusion drive, however, is that macOS manages what gets stored where. Files that don't get accessed often get relegated to the hard drive and oft-used files stay on the SSD. A Fusion drive is slower than an SSD but also much much cheaper. We know you might be drawn in by all that extra storage for free but resist the urge. Instead, we recommend upgrading to the highest amount of SSD storage you can afford. Each tier increased by $200.
27-inch iMac: The 3.1GHz 6-core iMac only has one storage option: 256GB (but at least it's SSD). If you're on a tight budget, you don't have a lot of choices. You could, however, invest in external hard drives to store some of your files and documents. And, cloud storage is more prevalent than ever. The 3.3GHz 6-core iMac can be upgraded to 2TB of SSD storage, and the 3.8GHz 8-core iMac can be upgraded to 8TB of storage. To future-proof your Mac, we recommend adding as much storage as you can afford, though most won't need even 2TB of storage. We recommend at least upgrading to 1TB if you can afford it.
iMac Pro: The iMac Pro starts with 1TB of SSD storage, which is plenty for many people, but if you're buying an iMac Pro, you probably have higher storage capacity needs. You can bump that up to up to 4TB of storage for an additional $1,000. Since you can't upgrade aftermarket, I recommend maxing out your storage capacity if you can afford it.
Mac mini: The Apple M1 version comes standard with 256 or 512GB of SSD storage that can get upgraded to 2TB. The Intel model starts at 512GB and can also get upgraded to 2TB, if necessary. We recommend at least 1TB.
Mac Pro: The Mac Pro starts with just 256GB of SSD storage but is fully customizable after purchasing it. It might be smart to upgrade to 1TB right out of the gate, depending on how soon you'll be able to add third-party capacity upgrades, but don't spend too much money here since you'll be able to find lower-priced SSDs on your own.
Who should upgrade their Mac's processor?
Of all the upgrades, CPU configurations offer the most questionable benefit. A bump in overall processor speed is nice, but is it worth paying a couple of hundred bucks more to get another 10 or 30 percent improvement?
For people working with apps that can benefit from more processor cores — computationally-intensive operations that are optimized for multiprocessor computers, like math and science apps, video, 3D, video compression, and other similar things — going from a dual-core to a quad-core can quite literally double performance and should be considered.
Who should upgrade their Mac's memory?
8GB of RAM is standard on most Mac laptops and desktops, which is plenty for most people. If you run a lot of powerful programs at the same time, however, you should bump that up where possible. 32GB of RAM is the sweet spot for you.
Upgrading after the fact is only possible on very few Macs, so keep that in mind when deciding whether to upgrade. You may be stuck with what you have for years to come.
Who should upgrade the SSD?
Undercutting yourself with storage space right off the bat will cause you problems, but take a long hard look at your current storage footprint and see what you can't live without. If you're like many people, you'll discover that you don't actually need everything you have and that you'll be able to offload some of it to a server, external device, or archive system.
SSD is expensive, but the performance is spectacular - especially since has Apple incorporated PCI Express (PCIe)-based flash storage. Pay for as much as you can afford, but see what you can live without and try to save yourself some money.
There's a lot to think over, so if this hasn't helped you sort it out, please turn to our Apple Hardware forums and post your question there. Our legion of helpful forum posters will give you their expert feedback. You're also welcome to post comments here.
Update January 2021: Includes information on the first Apple silicon computers. Rene Ritchie wrote previous versions of this article.
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