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.

Amazon's 12 Days of Deals is here with big discounts for all

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.

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 that's it.

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 2018, 8th generation Amber Lake processor, which is a more mobile-friendly, Y-series version of Coffee Lake. It just doesn't run quite as fast or as hot. And Intel UHD Graphics 617, which is, you know, Intel embedded graphics.

Unlike most computers, even most Macs, there are no other options here. Every MacBook Air comes with exactly the same 1.6GHz dual‑core Core i5 processor, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz. And that's it. That's all. It's like iPad simple.

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 $1099 but you might be able to find it for less over the holidays if you keep it locked to Thrifter.com.

For that you get 8GB of low power DDR3 RAM and 128GB of SDD storage, which, yeah, is on the low side. I mean, it might be fine if you do most of your work online, stream most of your music and videos, and especially if you use Safari instead of a ton of Chrome tabs and Electron apps.

If you want or need more breathing room, you can go to 16GB of RAM or an extra $200, and to 256 or 512 GB, or 1 TB of storage, for an extra 200, 400, and 600 bucks respectively.

So, you're looking at $1099 base to $1899 maxed out, with a bunch of options in between, but fewer and simpler ones than usual.

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 close bracket, 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

If you need a new MacBook but you need it to do quote unquote real work bracket TM close bracket, if you're a pro photographer, videographer, audio producer or engineer, designer or coder… or aspiring to be, then you want the MacBook Pro. And, if you still want some portability with that power, you want the smaller, 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Here's what you give up:

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 2.4GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 Coffee Lake processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz. Or, for an extra $300, a 2.8GHz quad‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i7 Coffee Lake processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.7GHz.

You can go from 8GB of low-power DDR3 RAM to 16GB for an extra 200 bucks, but that's the hard limit on both low-power and the 13-inch, alas.

For the 2-port entry-level model, you can go from 128GB of SSD to 256 or 512GB, or 1 or 2TB for an extra 200, 400, or 600 or $1000 bucks respectively. Which is still crazy expensive, even with price drops at the higher tiers.

For the 4-port model, you can go from 256GB of SSD to 512GB or to 1 or 2TB for 200, or 400, or 800 bucks, also respectively.

That also takes you from the baseline $1299 all the way up to $3099.

There will likely also be an updated 10th generation whatever-lake, Magic keyboard version announced some time next year, but for now, 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.

And, again, keep it locked to my colleagues at Thrifter.com for the best Black Friday and holiday deals.

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 2TB of storage and 16GB of RAM. The 2019 13-inch models also feature a tweaked butterfly 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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