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How to Pick the Best MacBook So You're Not Overspending for What You Don't Need

Peter Dasilva | Reuters
  • Apple's 2020 MacBook Air runs on the M1 chip and costs $999.
  • Its new MacBook Air runs on the M2 chip, starts at $1,199 and has a number of upgrades from its predecessor.
  • The MacBook Pro starts at $1,299 and is made for users who need a lot of processing power.

Apple has five MacBook computers to choose from, which might be a little daunting if you're in the market for a new laptop as we hit back-to-school season. There's the new MacBook Air, for example, but Apple also sells its older 2020 MacBook Air. Then there are three different MacBook Pro computers to pick from.

Your choice will depend on what you use your laptop for and your budget. Here's what you need to know about each available MacBook and how to pick the best one for you.

2020 MacBook Air with M1, $999

Apple Macbook Air
Source: Apple
Apple Macbook Air

The 2020 MacBook Air, at $999, is the cheapest MacBook that Apple sells, but it's still a great computer. It runs on an M1 chip, and it's powerful enough to handle the things most people need but is slower for tasks such as video editing.

The 2020 MacBook Air has an 18-hour battery life, similar to the 2022 MacBook Air.

You miss out on a few features in this year's upgrade, which we'll talk about next. But this should be your go-to if you "just need a computer."

2022 MacBook Air with M2, $1,199

Kif Leswing/CNBC

This is the best MacBook for most people.

Apple's newest MacBook Air, which starts at $1,199, uses the latest M2 chip, was totally redesigned and is thinner than ever.

The latest MacBook Air has MagSafe charging. That's the small magnetic charging cable that pops onto the side and easily pops back out. So, if you trip on the cord, the whole MacBook won't fall off your desk. You can also charge the laptop using one of two Thunderbolt USB C ports. You can fast charge it up to 50% in 30 minutes if you buy Apple's 67-watt charger for $59.

This MacBook is the most portable model, weighing just 2.7 pounds. The 2020 Air weighs 2.8 pounds. The screen display is slightly larger at 13.6 inches.

The sound quality and webcam also got upgrades. The M2 MacBook Air has two additional speakers, for a total of four, making movies and music sound fuller. Its webcam has been upgraded from 720p to full 1080p HD.

If you spend an extra $200 on the newest MacBook Air, you get faster charging, a better webcam, better speakers and a newer design. This model also has more than enough processing speed for the average user.

MacBook Pro 13-inch with M2, $1,299

Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro with M2
Apple
Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro with M2

The new MacBook Pro is a little confusing. It's a step up from the MacBook Air. But it has the newest M2 processor, which isn't as powerful as the older M1 Pro or M1 Max processors found in the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros.

The 2022 version runs on the M2 chip, has 20 hours of battery life and is the only MacBook with a Touch Bar, the little strip that runs above the keyboard that you can use to scroll through photos, skip or pause/play media and more. The Pro also has better speakers and a higher-end display than what you'll find on the MacBook Air.

It uses MagSafe charging, like the 2022 MacBook Air, but it has a feature called Active Cooling that uses a pair of fans, which is an improvement over the Air. That helps it handle heavier tasks such as more advanced video editing.

The Pro is slightly heavier, at 3 pounds, and its screen is slightly smaller, at 13.3 inches. Overall, if you're using a high-powered function such as video editing or photo editing, the processor and the graphic performance are noticeably different on the 2022 MacBook Pro.

14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro with M1 Pro or M1 Max, $1,999

Apple MacBook Pro
Source: Apple
Apple MacBook Pro

Get one of these if you need the most power possible in a MacBook.

Apple launched the $1,999 14-inch and $2,499 16-inch MacBook Pro models last year, finally bringing back features such as an SD card reader, a full HDMI port for adding another display and more.

They have the best screens available in a MacBook, with high refresh rates, so everything looks smooth when you're scrolling through a website, for example. They support up to two additional monitors instead of just one like the MacBook Air models. And, most importantly, they can be configured with M1 Pro or M1 Max chips, which are more powerful than the M2 chip in Apple's other computers — at least until we hear about Apple's M2 Pro or Max plans.

So, if you're doing heavy video editing, or just love high-end screens and lots of ports, then these are for you. Just expect to pay more.

Correction: The MacBook Air M2 doesn't have a fan. Updated to clarify 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros were released in 2021.

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