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Best Mac 2021: Which iMac or MacBook Pro should you buy?

Apple's Mac lineup is continuing to move away from Intel and go all-in on Apple Silicon. We'll help make sense of it all.

Apple's made some significant strides with its Mac lineup over the last 12 months. At the end of 2020 we saw the first Apple Silicon processor in the M1. This year, the iPhone maker has two faster chips ready to power a pair of redesigned MacBook Pro laptops. The M1 Pro and M1 Max boost performance across every metric, furthering Apple's transition of the entire Mac line away from Intel processors to its own Apple Silicon chips.

The 2021 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro laptops join the 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and the 24-inch iMac as having made the switch to Apple's own processors. 

As Apple furthers the streamlining of its Mac lineup to Apple Silicon processors, you have to pay attention to the particular model you're buying and what kind of processor it's using. The latest MacBook Pro models have left Intel behind, but when it comes to the iMac, that's not the case. So which Mac should you buy? Well, it depends. Let's take a closer look. 

MacBook Air

A classic design

m1-macbook-air.jpg
Apple

Display: 13.3-inch | Processor: Apple M1| Memory: 8GB | GPU: 7-core | Storage: 256GB | Webcam:720p | Ports: 2 x Thunderbolt 4 ports | Dimensions: 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.63-inches | Weight: 2.8 pounds | Colors: Gold, silver, space gray 


The design of Apple's MacBook Air hasn't changed much over the years, and that's alright with me. It's a classic design that lends itself to portability, and now with the M1 processor, performance. 

Apple no longer sells the MacBook Air with an Intel processor, with the main purchasing decisions now based on whether you want the base model that comes with a 7-core GPU, or a step up with an 8-core GPU. For most, the 7-core GPU will suffice. 

Outside of the GPU, you can select between 8GB or 16GB of memory, and increase storage up to 2TB. You'll get a Touch ID sensor on the keyboard for quick unlocking of the MacBook or any protected apps, like a password manager. 

The MacBook Air continues to be the perfect Mac for someone who doesn't do much more than web browsing, school or enterprise work in Office apps, and/or occasional video or photo editing.

Pros:

  • Lightweight and portable 
  • Impressive performance 
  • Long battery life

Cons:

  • Right now, memory options are limited 

MacBook Pro

You have a few choices

screen-shot-2021-10-18-at-1-31-51-pm-2.png
Apple

Display: 13.3-inch, 14.2-inch or 16.2-inch | Processor: Apple M1, M1 Pro or M1 Max | Memory: 8GB, 16GB, 32GB or 64GB | GPU: Apple Silicon, ranging from 8 cores to 32 cores | Storage: 256GB up to 8TB | Webcam: 720p or 1080p | Colors: Silver, space gray 


Apple now sells three different models of the MacBook Pro, all of which are powered by some form of an Apple Silicon processor. The 13-inch MacBook Pro is powered by the base M1 processor, while you can configure the 14-inch or 16-inch MacBook Pro with either the M1 Pro or M1 Max Apple Silicon processor. The days of an Intel-powered MacBook Pro are now over. 

The base 13-inch model sticks to a design that includes a TouchBar and lacks an HDMI port or SD Card reader. The recently announced MacBook Pros, however, have ditched the TouchBar in favor of dedicated function keys and a Touch ID sensor. The bigger MacBook Pro models now have an HDMI 2.0 port, an SD Card reader, and MagSafe has made a comeback. 

We've thoroughly tested the M1 MacBook Pro, but with the M1 Pro and M1 Max having just been announced this week, we can't vouch for the performance improvements Apple has claimed. Just for the record, CPU performance is 1.5x faster on the M1 Pro and 2.0x faster on the M1 Max than on the base M1 processor.

You're going to pay for that extra performance, though. The base 14-inch model starts at $1,999 and goes up to $5,899 when maxed out. The 16-inch version starts at $2,499 and goes up to $6,099. Yeah, they're pricey. 

The MacBook Pro line has always filled the role of a portable laptop that provides extra power and, now, extended battery life. If you're in need of a laptop that will allow you to edit videos and photos or dive into CAD programs on the go, then the MacBook Pro is for you. 

Pros:

  • You have plenty of options, depending on your needs
  • The M1 MacBook Pro is impressively fast 
  • The new M1 Pro and M1 Max promise to be even faster and more impressive 

Cons:

  • Too many options can be confusing  
  • Higher-end MacBook Pros are expensive 

iMac

What color would you like?

desktop-m1-imac.jpg
Apple

Display: 24-inch or 27-inch | Processor: M1 or 10th Gen. Intel Core i5 | Memory: 8GB or up to 128GB | GPU: 7-core GPU or AMD Radeon Pro 5300 | Storage: 256GB or 512GB | Webcam: 1080p | Colors: Blue, green, pink, silver, yellow, orange, purple 


You have two options when it comes to the iMac. If you go with the brand new, and really colorful, 24-inch iMac, it comes with an M1 processor. However, if more screen real estate is what you're looking for, you can get the slightly larger 27-inch iMac that is still equipped with an Intel processor. (The 21.5-inch iMac is still an option, as well. It comes with an Intel processor.)

Reviews of the 24-inch iMac have been on par with other M1 Macs. It has plenty of power and is capable for everyday computing and then some. Keep in mind you can connect an extra monitor to either iMac to add more screen space. 

Apple has developed color-matching keyboards for the new iMac, which have, for the first time, built-in Touch ID sensors. Meaning, you can log into your Mac on the included keyboard using your fingerprint. Right now, these keyboards are only available with the new iMac and can't be purchased on their own. 

The 24-inch iMac comes with two Thunderbolt 4 USB 4 ports and two USB 3 ports, and the power adapter now has an Ethernet port built into it. The Intel-based iMac comes with 4 x USB A ports, 2 x Thunderbolt 3 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and an SD card reader. 

It's clear the Intel iMacs' days are numbered and that Apple is getting closer to replacing it with an Apple Silicon equivalent, but it's unclear when that will take place. Rumors have suggested when it does happen, the 27-inch display will be replaced by something bigger -- perhaps 30-inches or even 32-inches. 

Pros:

  • The new colors are fun
  • A larger display on the base model is always welcomed

Cons:

  • If you need more screen real estate or memory, you're locked into the 27-inch iMac for now

Mac Mini

A small desktop setup

m1-mac-mini.jpg
Apple

Display: N/A| Processor: Apple M1 or Intel Core i5 | Memory: 8GB | GPU: 8-core or Intel UHD Graphics 630 | Storage: 256GB or 512GB | Dimensions: 7.7 x 7.7 x 1.4-inches | Weight: 2.9-pounds 


The Mac Mini was switched over to Apple's M1 processor alongside the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro in late 2020. Apple didn't completely ditch the Intel Mac Mini, however, as the company still sells an Intel-based Mini that starts at $1,099. 

That's a big difference compared the M1 Mac Mini that starts at $699, and as with the rest of the M1 versus Intel comparisons, the biggest difference here is going to be the amount of memory you can put into the Mac Mini.

The Mac Mini is a strong desktop option if you don't need anything portable, and now it's more affordable than it's ever been. Unless you absolutely need gobs of memory, there's really no reason to go with the Intel version of the Mac Mini, especially with its starting price. 

The biggest downside I can think of to the Mac Mini is that you'll still need to supply your own display, keyboard, and mouse.

Pros:

  • Impressive performance in a compact desktop 
  • Most affordable Mac
  • Strong performance 

Cons:

  • If you need more memory, Intel is the only way to go and that's expensive 

Mac Pro

A powerful Mac

mac-pro.jpg
Apple

Display: N/A | Processor: 3.5GHz Intel Xeon W | Memory: 32GB | GPU: AMD Radeon Pro 580X | Storage: 256GB SSD | Webcam: N/A | Ports: 2 x USB 3 ports, 6 x Thunderbolt 3 ports, 2 x Ethernet 10Gb ports, 3.5mm headphone jack, | Dimensions: 20.8 x 17.7 x 8.58 | Weight: 39.7 pounds | Colors: Silver 


The current Mac Pro was released in June of 2019, so its internal hardware is somewhat outdated at this point. For example, all of the USB-C/Thunderbolt ports are Thunderbolt 3, and Apple is currently transitioning its Mac lineup to Thunderbolt 4. 

That said, it's the most expensive and most powerful Mac money can buy. Pricing starts at $5,999 for the specs you see listed above, but you can max out the Mac Pro for a total cost of $51,948 -- and that even includes a set of wheels that go on the bottom of the Pro's housing. It doesn't, however, include a display. 

The Mac Pro is a niche product for people who need a lot of computing power. Someone who does a lot of 4K/8K video editing, for example, will benefit from building the Mac Pro to fit their use case with more memory, a faster processor, or more storage.

Pros:

  •    Fully customizable 
  •    Need power? The Mac Pro has all the power

Cons:

  •   You're going to pay for that power, though
  •   It's two years old and hasn't seen a meaningful upgrade

What's the difference between an Intel Mac and an Apple Silicon M1 Mac?

The difference between an Intel Mac and an Apple Silicon Mac is, of course, the processor. Apple has used Intel processors for years, but it made the switch to its own ARM-based processors, called Apple Silicon, at the end of 2020. Apple now has three different processors, the base M1, M1 Pro, and M1 Max. The M1 is used across multiple devices, while the M1 Pro and M1 Max are only found in the newest MacBook Pro models.

Apple is now able to control the release schedule for Mac upgrades and maximize performance. Apple's M1 Macs are faster than nearly all Intel-powered Macs, and the laptops have extended battery life that's almost too good to be true. For example, the M1 MacBook Pro will last up to 20 hours on a single charge.

There are a couple of downsides to the M1 processor you need to know about. The M1 Mac is limited to just 16GB of memory, with the M1 Pro and M1 Max processors offering more RAM at a higher price. 

Will all of my apps work on Apple's processor?

Odds are, yes. In addition to working on an emulation tool that allows Intel-based apps to run on Apple Silicon, Apple has given developers the tools they'll need to optimize apps for the M1 processor. I've been using an M1 MacBook Pro since launch and have yet to find an app that simply won't work.

Most big app developers, like Google, Microsoft, and Adobe, have already released updated versions of their apps for the M1 processor or have a beta version available.

App compatibility is unlikely to be an issue if you decide to make the switch. 

Which kind of Mac should I get?

A year after Apple Silicon launched, there haven't been any big gotcha or growing pains on new Macs. App compatibility was there on day one, and developers almost immediately began optimizing their apps to take advantage of the new processor.

At the end of the day, your purchase decision shouldn't come down to whether or not to get an M1 Mac. Instead, you should take into account which Mac will best fit your needs and use case. If you're a creator who deals with large files, will 16GB of RAM really be enough? If not, go with the new MacBook Pro laptops or an option that still has an Intel processor you can add more RAM to. 

As means for future-proofing your investment, going with any M1 Mac is probably the best bet. 

Our process

Relying on years of experience using and testing Macs, combined with reading popular reviews, we are able to shed some light on what each product listed does and who it's best intended for. 

How to choose  

So, after all of that, which Mac do you choose? My advice would be to start by figuring out what you plan on using the Mac for. If you're going to need a workhorse for editing video, photos, and other taxing tasks, then that rules out the MacBook Air. On the flip side of that, if you don't need a computer that is built for higher-end tasks, then the MacBook Air is the best bang for your buck. Odds are for more Mac owners, the MacBook Air is more than enough computer -- a statement that's always been true, but is even more so now that it's using Apple's M1 processor. 

The best Mac in 2021: Which device is best for you?