The Best MacBooks of 2021 for School, Gaming, and More

The Best MacBooks of 2021 for School, Gaming, and More

macbook slightly open to shine light on keyboard and table
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Is it time for a new MacBook, but not sure which model is right for you? Do you go for a new Apple Silicon Mac, or can you buy an Intel model with confidence? We have some recommendations. Here’s the best MacBook you can purchase today.

What to Look For in a MacBook in 2021

In 2021, Apple is in a state of transition with its MacBooks, moving from using Intel chips to its own ARM-based Apple Silicon. Apple expects its entire range of Mac hardware to be using the new systems-on-chip by 2022.

As such, not every MacBook that Apple sells is using the newest chip, the Apple M1. This is because Apple Silicon uses a different processor architecture to the Intel chips that came before them, which means that software needs to be recompiled to work at full speed on the new hardware.

But while Apple’s Silicon-based Macs can run older software with a slight performance penalty, Intel chips will eventually be left behind in terms of software support. For the time being, universal binaries allow Apple developers to build their apps for both architectures. Still, in terms of “future-proofing,” an M1 Mac is better positioned than an Intel one.

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Intel processor Macs still perform well and will continue to work for years to come, but it’s difficult to recommend buying into a processor architecture that’s on the way out. The bulk of our recommendations will be for the latest models that sport the latest Apple Silicon systems-on-chip.

There are many benefits to the new Apple M1 chip architecture beyond big performance gains in optimized software. These include vastly improved power and heat efficiency for longer battery life and a cooler lap, fast unified RAM, integrated GPU cores that outpace any Intel-based graphics solution.

With that in mind, there are still some arguments to be made for buying an Intel-based MacBooks, like if you will natively run Windows or play a lot of games. For most users, though, you’ll want to go with an Apple Silicon MacBook.

Best MacBook Overall: MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020)

M1 macbook Pro on grey background

Pros

  • Newest M1 Apple Silicon system-on-chip
  • Active cooling for better performance under load
  • Great compact form factor
  • Redesigned Magic Keyboard

Cons

  • Only two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports
  • Maximum of 16GB RAM
  • Not compatible with external GPU enclosures
  • Slightly thicker and heavier than the MacBook Air

The best overall Apple notebook is the MacBook Pro 13-inch with the latest M1 chip. This was the first MacBook Pro to receive the Apple Silicon treatment, sporting an 8-core CPU and 8-core CPU in the base $1,299 model.

The M1 MacBook Pro includes a cooling system that allows the new chip to run under a computing load longer. When a chip runs too hot for too long, its speed is limited (known as thermal throttling) to protect it from damage. This means that the chip won’t run at its best, which reduces performance. Once the heat disperses, the chip ramps back up to full capacity.

This provides enough grunt and cooling capacity to handle demanding tasks like 4K video and photo editing, running creative software, and some gaming.

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The MacBook Pro is a bit bigger than the MacBook Air, which means it’s a little heavier, but it also has a larger battery. Thanks to the M1 chip, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is rated for 20 hours battery life on a single charge, though real-world usage may reduce this somewhat.

Other features that the M1 Pro has over the Air include the MacBook Pro Touch Bar and better speakers with a punchier bass. You can customize the machine at checkout to add up to 2TB of internal solid-state storage or add more RAM (for a total of 16GB).

Unfortunately, you’ll be limited to two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports that use the USB-C connector, so a dongle might be required to connect a monitor, USB-A devices, or a memory card.

Best Overall MacBook

2020 Apple MacBook Pro with Apple M1 Chip (13-inch, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD Storage) – Space Gray

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 chip uses the new Apple Silicon architecture for unbeatable performance in optimized apps. It’s currently the strongest M1-equipped notebook Apple makes.

Best Budget MacBook: MacBook Air (M1, 2020)

macbook air on blue background

Pros

  • Fast, efficient performance thanks to the M1 chip
  • The smallest, most lightweight Apple notebook
  • Beautiful Retina display
  • Excellent 18-hour battery life

Cons

  • Lack of cooling means thermal throttling happens quicker than on the MacBook Pro
  • Only two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports

The 13-in MacBook Air with an M1 chip starts at $999 for the base model, so you can save over the best overall pick if you’re looking for an entry-level MacBook. The MacBook Air retains its iconic wedge-shaped form factor, but now it’s completely silent on account of not having a fan inside it.

The base M1 MacBook Air has the same 8 CPU cores found on higher-end models but only 7 GPU cores. This is a great way of saving money if you don’t think you’ll be using visually demanding applications like video editors or games. You can opt for a version of the MacBook Air with an 8-core GPU at checkout for an additional $250 if you don’t want to sacrifice graphics performance.

Not having a fan means that the MacBook Air can’t run under load for as long as the MacBook Pro before thermal throttling sets in. Granted, if you’re looking for a budget laptop, you’re probably only looking for light productivity and web browsing, so this isn’t a huge concern.

The MacBook Air still has stellar battery life, with Apple rating it for 18 hours on a single charge. The 13.3-inch Retina display covers the full P3 wide color gamut, though it doesn’t get quite as bright as the MacBook Pro and there’s no Touch Bar above the keyboard. Touch ID is present and allows you to log in or authorize changes and payments using your fingerprint. It’s not the most accurate, but for MacBooks it’s a nice addition.

RELATED: How to Run Your Retina Display at its Native Resolution

Best Budget Option

2020 Apple MacBook Air Laptop: Apple M1 Chip, 13” Retina Display, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD Storage, Backlit Keyboard, FaceTime HD Camera, Touch ID. Works with iPhone/iPad; Space Gray

The 13-in MacBook Air with M1 chip is silent and mighty with great battery life and a gorgeous display. It’s a bit cheaper than comparable MacBook Pro models and is better suited to light use.

Best MacBook for Students: MacBook Air (M1, 2020)

Mackbook Air slightly open against black background
Apple

Pros

  • M1 chip is fast and efficient
  • Perfect for most college-related tasks like word processing and web browsing
  • All-day battery life
  • Perfect weight and thickness for carrying around campus

Cons

  • A lack of cooling makes the MacBook Air M1 less suited to demanding tasks
  • MacBook Pro may be better for video editing, music creation, 3D applications

For most students who use their computers to write papers, research assignments, and stay in touch with classmates and tutors, the 13-in MacBook Air with an M1 chip is perfect.

It’s smaller and lighter than the comparably-sized MacBook Pro by 0.2lb (which makes more of a difference than you’d think), and it still manages all-day battery life. The high pixel density screen is beautiful to look at, with crisp text and colors that pop.

Not to mention it’s cheaper than an M1 MacBook Pro by $300! You can also use a higher education discount at the Apple Store for a deeper discount.

Conversely, if you think you’ll be using your computer for more advanced video or photo editing, then you might find the MacBook Air limiting. Instead, the M1 MacBook Pro will net you an additional GPU core and better cooling so that you can run your computer under load for longer without suffering a thermal penalty. Whether the Pro is worth the upgrade is dependent on your major and extra-curricular activities, but if you need a little more processing power, you’ll want to go Pro.

The Best Computer Monitors

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Either MacBook can be made more useful and productive with the right accessories. If you want more space to view multiple documents or web pages at a time, a decent budget monitor can make a world of difference. Something like the Dell S2721QS will provide 4K real estate for less than $300.

If you’re going to be typing a lot, you may also want to invest in a mechanical keyboard. These peripherals have higher durability, are more comfortable to type on, and may make you a better typist.

Best for Students

2020 Apple MacBook Air Laptop: Apple M1 Chip, 13” Retina Display, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD Storage, Backlit Keyboard, FaceTime HD Camera, Touch ID. Works with iPhone/iPad; Space Gray

If you’re using your MacBook to primarily write and research assignments, the MacBook Air with M1 has everything you need to succeed.

Budget 4K Monitor

Dell S2721Q 27 Inch 4K UHD, IPS Ultra-Thin Bezel Monitor, AMD FreeSync, HDMI, DisplayPort, VESA Certified, Silver

A budget 4K monitor like the Dell S2721Q is perfect if you need more screen real-estate to have multiple documents or web pages open at once for better productivity.

Best MacBook for Gaming: MacBook Pro 16-inch (Intel)

mackbook pro intel on pink background

Pros

  • Intel processor means you can install Windows for better game support
  • Running games natively in Windows will get the most out of your hardware
  • Compatible with external GPU enclosures
  • Beautiful 16-inch Retina display looks great

Cons

  • Intel processor means you’re buying a Mac with the ‘old’ architecture
  • Misses out on performance boosts to native Apple Silicon apps
  • Windows performance can be problematic due to poor driver support
  • There are better Windows gaming laptops for the money

If gaming is at the top of your priority list, you generally don’t want a laptop or MacBook. If you’re specifically looking for portability, consider buying a purpose-built Windows gaming laptop instead of a Mac. But, If you have to need a MacBook that can run video games, you’ll want the 16-inch MacBook Pro (from $2,399).

This version of the MacBook Pro doesn’t have the updated M1 chip yet. This means that the base model has an Intel Core i7 processor, with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB solid-state drive. You’ll also get the Radeon Pro 5300M discrete GPU, upgradeable to a 5600M on Apple’s website.

With an Intel processor at the helm, you can install Windows and get the most out of your hardware by running games natively. You can also grab an external GPU enclosure and a full-sized AMD graphics card for unprecedented GPU performance on a MacBook if you need it.

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Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t cater to the Windows side of the equation very well at all. While Windows can run on ARM, Apple Silicon-equipped Macs entirely lack the Boot Camp support seen on Intel models. Apple does next to nothing to improve the state of Windows on Boot Camp compatible models, so be aware of that before you buy.

Fortunately, the 16-inch MacBook Pro has some other benefits, like a gorgeous display with tiny bezels, better speakers than the 13-inch model, and maximum RAM and storage configurations of 64GB and 8TB, respectively. It’s a great MacBook, but definitely premium in price, and hard to argue for if a Windows gaming laptop can do the job instead.

Best for Gaming

2019 Apple MacBook Pro (16-inch, 16GB RAM, 512GB Storage, 2.6GHz Intel Core i7) – Space Gray

With its Intel CPU and discrete AMD GPU, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the best Apple notebook for playing games. Install Windows and get the most out of your hardware by running games natively.

if you prefer iPads to Macs but really want that laptop experience with a keyboard and trackpad, consider an iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard case instead of a MacBook. It’s Apple’s best laptop replacement and has a powerful M1 processor, just like a MacBook.

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