So, you're planning to buy a new MacBook, for work, for school, to be more productive, to be more creative, to better do what you currently do or start doing something completely new. But… You're just not quite sure which one to get. Not yet.

Well, I'm here to help.

The New Grid

Last year, the MacBook lineup was far more complicated, the differences far more nuanced, and the choice… far more difficult.

Now, Apple has updated, cleaned up, and improved almost everything and the result is the cleanest lineup in half a decade. Maybe more. So…

  • If you just want a Mac you can take pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything with, and portability and price are your priorities, then you've got the new baseline, the new MacBook Air.

  • If you want a good mix of portability and power, and you're willing to pay a little more for it, then you have the entry-level and higher-end 13-inch MacBook Pro.

  • If you need power more than portability, and you're willing to pay a lot more — maybe even a lot more, depending on how much power you need — then you've got the brand new 16-inch MacBook Pro.

Now, simple as that is, there are some important things, and a bunch of options, you should know about each of those systems before you decide to make any of them your own.

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MacBook Air: The Baseline

If you need a new MacBook and that's all you really know or care about, if you're a student or teacher, a jet-setter or coffee-shopper, if you mostly use the web and documents, photos and messaging, get the MacBook Air.

MacBook AirSource: iMore

It's not only the least expensive MacBook in Apple's lineup, it's also the simplest. You pick your color, you pick your storage, you pick your memory, and pick your processor.

It's almost iPad simple for people who just want a Mac without all the fuss. And that's what the MacBook Air is for — everyone who wants a traditional computer without the traditional computer hassles.

Here's what you get, in your choice of silver, space gray, or gold:

It has Intel's 10th-generation Ice Lake processor in Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 varieties. And Intel Iris Plus Graphics, which is, you know, Intel embedded graphics.

It's got a 13.3-inch Retina display, which means a person with average vision from an average working distance can't see pixels, just sharp text and graphics, though at 400 nits and sRGB, it's not as bright or as colorful as the MacBook Pro displays.

Earlier this year, Apple updated it with True Tone as well, which means it now has sensors to read the color temperature in the room and adjust the white point so it always looks white. Not yellow. Not blue. But white.

It's got a 720p webcam and 3 mics to support voice activated Siri and the new macOS Catalina voice control.

It has two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports. One for power when you need it, and the other or both for just about everything else… though you'll like need a USB-A adapter or two as well, at least for the foreseeable future.

And, it's got Apple's T2 Security Chip, which makes it harder for anyone to steal or infect your stuff ad also gives you Touch ID, which makes it easier for you to unlock and authorize Apple Pay.

The base model starts at $999, with a price of $899 for those purchasing through Apple's education store.

For that you get a 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of LPDDR4X RAM and 256GB of SDD storage. If you want or need more breathing room, you can go to 16GB of RAM or an extra $200, and to 512 or 1 TB, or 2 TB of storage, for an additional 200, 400, and 800 bucks respectively. As for processors, you can upgrade to a 1.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 or 1.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 for an extra $100 or $250, respectively.

So, you're looking at $999 base to $2249 maxed out, with a bunch of options in between.

There may be a Comet Lake, Magic Keyboard version of the MacBook Air at some point next year, but for now, the newly updated MacBook Air really is the new normal for everyone who, like I said, just wants a MacBook to take with them everywhere and do pretty much everything they need doing.

The baseline

MacBook Air

A great laptop for almost anyone.

The MacBook Air, as it often has, rides the line between portability and power; a light enough package to take anywhere, and enough power to do almost anything. Touch ID is a welcome addition to the lineup.

13-inch MacBook Pro: The Balance

If you need a new MacBook but you need it to do quote unquote real work bracket (TM)(C)(R), if you're a pro photographer, videographer, audio producer or engineer, designer or coder, if time is money and power is worth a premium, then you want the MacBook Pro.

MacBook Pro in low lightSource: Rene Ritchie / iMore

Of course, not everyone has room in their workflow for the sheer power available to the 16-inch MacBook Pro. Or maybe they need something more portable, or more affordable (hey, I'm working with a sliding scale here). If that's the case, where you need more power than the MacBook Air offfers, but better portability or price than the 16-inch Pro, then you need the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Here's what you give up for going with the computer in the middle:

The MacBook Pro is squared more than wedge-shaped like the Air, and a quarter-pound heavier. It's also got 10 instead of 12-hours of web browsing battery life. And you can't get it in gold.

Here's what you get:

The 13.3-inch screen is the same size and density as the Air, but 100 nits brighter and with a wider P3 gamut, it's more colorful. Also, with all modern Macs and macOS Catalina, with Sidecar, you can now hook up a modern iPad as a second display to give yourself more screen real estate even on the go.

Processor options are… well… buckle yourself in.

The new baseline model starts with a 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 Coffee Lake processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz and Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645.

That's at $1299. For an extra $300, you can go to a 1.7GHz quad‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i7 Coffee Lake processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz.

With those models, though, you only get two USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 ports. If you want faster processors, you'll have to move up to the four-port models.

Those start at $1799 but give you a 2.0GHz quad-core 10th-generation Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz. Or, for an extra $200, a 2.3GHz quad‑core 10th‑generation Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz.

On the 8th-gen models, you can go from 8GB of low-power DDR3 RAM to 16GB for an extra 200 bucks. On the 10th-generation models, you start with 16GB of DDR4 RAM, with an option to spend $400 more for 32GB.

For the 2-port entry-level model, you can go from 256GB of SSD to 512GB, or 1 or 2TB for an extra 200, 400, or 800 bucks, respectively. Which is still crazy expensive, even with price drops at the higher tiers.

For the 4-port model, you can go from 512GB of SSD to 1TB, 2TB, or 4TB for $200, $400, or $1200 bucks, also respectively.

That also takes you from the baseline $1299 all the way up to $3599.

If you want the best blend of portability and power, so you can get as much work done as possible while carrying around as little as possible, be it photos, videos, or code in the air or on the road, you want the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The Balance

13-inch MacBook Pro

As much power as you (and your wallet) can handle.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro crams as much power into its chassis as it can while stil remaining as portable as possible, including up to 4TB of storage and 32GB of RAM. The 2020 13-inch models also feature a new, scissor-switch Magic Keyboard.

16-inch MacBook Pro: The Workstation

If you need a new MacBook but you need it to get quote unquote high end pro work bracket TM close bracket, if you're a pro photographer, videographer, audio producer or engineer, designer or coder, and if time is money and power is worth a premium, then you want the MacBook Pro. And if you want the most power possible, you want at the all-new, full-on, 16-inch MacBook Pro for starters.

16-inch MacBook ProSource: Rene Ritchie / iMore

Here's what you give up:

The 16-inch MacBook Pro isn't just taller and wider to fit in those extra couple screen inches. It's thicker and over a pound heavier, hitting 4.3. But, for that extra weight, you get an extra hour of battery life. 11 hours of wireless web browsing instead of 10 like on the 13-inch. Less, of course, if you're doing heavier work.

Here's what you get:

The 16-inch screen is the same as the 13-inch, same brightness, same gamut, just bigger and with more pixels. 3072‑by‑1920 pixels instead of 2560 by 1600 pixels.

There are also new speakers that support Dolby Atmos and sound almost as good as a HomePod, and new mics that sound almost as good as a USB microphone in a pinch. Almost.

Processor options are… extreme.

You start off with a 2.6GHz 6‑core 9th‑generation Intel Core i7 Coffee Lake Refresh processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz and Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB of GDDR6 memory.

That's for $2399. For an extra $300, you can go up to a 2.4GHz 8‑core 9th‑generation Intel Core i9 Coffee Lake processor with Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz.

For another $100, you can pump up the graphics to Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB of GDDR6 memory. For another $200, you can go to Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB of GDDR6 memory.

Depending on how you choose your own adventure through the build-to-order options, you can also find a 2.3GHz 8‑core 9th‑generation Intel Core i9 Coffee Lake processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.8GHz for $2799. And, which could be better if your workload peaks less and sustains more.

The 16-inch starts at 16 GB of 2666MHz DDR4 memory. You can go to 32GB for an extra $400 bucks and, as of right now, a whopping 64GB for an extra $800.

Storage starts at 512GB now, but you can get 1, 2, 4TB, or a new brain-bending 8TB for $200, $600, $1200, or $2400 bucks respectively. Ouch. But amazing.

So, yeah, that all still starts at $2399 but tops out at $6,099 now. Which is, legit, less than I thought it would.

Still, that's a lot of options, and a lot of money, but if you're a hardcore, keyboard clacking, pixel pushing, RED rendering, code crunching, design daring doer, your time is worth more than money, and you'll pay — or just bill out to your clients — just about anything for performance, then you want the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

The Workstation

16-inch MacBook Pro

As much power as you (and your wallet) can handle.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro features an array of different configuration, able to deliver enough power for the most demanding tasks in a computer that can still fit in your travel bag. The new 16-inch model goes up to 8TB of storage, 64GB of RAM, and has a brand new scissor switch keyboard.

The Decision

OK, so I know that's all still more complicated than you might like it to be. So, here's your cheat sheet again:

16-inch MacBook Pro vs. 13-inch vs. AirSource: Rene Ritchie / iMore

  • If you just want a Mac you can take pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything with, and portability and price are your priorities, then you've got the new baseline, the new MacBook Air.

  • If you want a good mix of portability and power, and you're willing to pay a little more for it, then you have the entry-level and higher-end 13-inch MacBook Pro.

  • If you need power more than portability, and you're willing to pay a lot more — maybe even a lot more, depending on how much power you need — then you've got the brand new 16-inch MacBook Pro.

And, if even that is still too complicated, just get the new Air.

VECTOR | Rene Ritchie

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