Unless you are a competitive gamer or use software that only runs under Windows, Apple laptops have become an intriguing and perhaps even a compelling choice for mainstream users. While Windows 10 fixed lots of flaws (mainly by giving users easier options to ignore touchscreen features altogether if they wished), it's no secret that Microsoft has struggled to get its users to adapt to touchscreen-centric operating systems (OS). Apple, on the other hand, has up to now resisted jumping on touch computing for its laptops and desktops, and its OS X El Capitan operating system has earned solid reviews, despite one buggy update that has since been fixed. And don't forget, if Windows is an absolute must for a specific application, Apple laptops can run that operating system as well -- though you'll need to pay for a copy of Windows as it's not included.
In general, Apple laptops get lots of love from experts and owners, though there's a little less consensus over which model they love the most. For now, we give the edge to the 2016 Apple MacBook (Est. $1,270 and up), but that has as much to do with the marketplace at the time this report is being written as it does with the capabilities of that system.
But make no mistake, the Apple MacBook is a very capable ultraportable laptop, though perhaps not a slam-dunk choice for those not committed to using Apple systems. The mid-2016 version's base configuration now boasts the latest 6th generation (Skylake) 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor (upgradable to a Core m5 or Core m7), 8 GB of memory, 256 GB of flash storage, and a high resolution (2304-by-1440 pixel) 12-inch retina display. A step up version boosts the base processor to the m5 and storage to 512 GB of flash memory, and adds around $300 to the price. All versions are ultra-thin (no more than .52 inches at the thickest point) and ultra-light (2.03 pounds). Color choices are rose gold, space gray, gold and silver.
To get the laptop down to those kind of dimensions took quite a bit of engineering, and quite a few compromises -- some of which might be asking a little too much of some users. Without a doubt, the change to Skylake technology has brought with it a notable boost in performance -- 20 percent reports TheVerge.com, 11 to 30 percent based on which previous generation MacBook it's being compared to, says MacWorld.com. Performance is still going to trail behind that of a Windows laptop equipped with an Intel Core i processor, however, a trade-off many are willing to accept in exchange for the core m’s lower heat output and battery consumption (and we'd expect the Core m to begin popping up in more Windows Ultrabooks as well as time moves on). "The MacBook never felt sluggish in our testing, but it's still not always as instantly responsive as we'd like, given the starting price of $1,299," says Matt Safford at ComputerShopper.com. .
Otherwise, aside from an additional color (rose gold), things are pretty unchanged from last year -- and that's both good and bad. Getting the bad out of the way, lots of reviewers are peeved that some of the biggest drawbacks they saw with the 2015 version are unchanged-- primarily a dearth of ports, including just a single USB-C input, meaning you'll need to spring for a hub for your peripherals. On the plus side, the Retina display is gorgeous, and the Force Touch touchpad (identical to the ones in the current MacBook Pros) has received good reviews. The keyboard also seems to be well liked -- though CNET continues to gripe that its low key-travel could take users some time to get used to.
We also saw a lot of positive feedback for the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Est. $1,250 and up). Critics note that while some Windows laptops aren't far behind, the 13-inch MacBook with Retina display still offers a great balance of portability and performance. Thin (.71 inches) and light (3.48 pounds), the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display also fits neatly into the profile of an ultraportable.
So, why then isn't it our Best Reviewed pick? Simply because it's long overdue for a refresh to current generation technology. A new MacBook Pro was expected by many in the spring or early summer, only to disappoint when it failed to show up. It's now widely expected to debut by sometime in the fall of 2016, making it tough to recommend the current version as it could be outdated in just a few months, or even weeks. Rumors and speculation abound about the new goodies in the next MacBook Pro, of course, and most will probably miss the mark. But at the very least, a move to current generation Skylake processors (and as noted at 9to5Mac.com, an even bigger jump to next-generation Kaby Lake processors is not out of the question if the release of the Mac Pro is pushed to late fall or beyond) and USB-C support are pretty much assured.
If none of that matters to you, and the 2016 version has not yet been released, the 2015 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display is still a worthy consideration. When new, it received excellent reviews all around, with PCMag.com and Laptop Magazine granting it Editors' Choice standing. User reviews were, and continue to be, top notch.
The base version is equipped with a 5th generation (Broadwell) 2.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of memory, a 128 GB flash drive and Intel Iris Graphics 6100 integrated graphics. Memory, the processor and more can be upgraded at purchase, but not the flash drive. If you need more storage, step up versions offer a 256 GB flash drive or a 512 GB flash drive. The highest configuration also ups the processor to a 5th generation 2.9 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 and allows you to optionally upgrade the flash drive to a 1 TB capacity.
For power users who prize performance over light weight or low price, the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (Est. $1,850 and up) may also be worth considering, but this is a case where we would definitely recommend waiting. Apple is still using even older processors in the 15-inch version, so performance upgrades should be even more notable. The base configuration includes a 4th generation (Haswell) 2.2 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16 GB of memory, a 256 GB flash drive and integrated Intel Iris Pro graphics.
If the base version doesn't provide enough power for you, there's a step-up version as well, but it adds around $500 to the price. The hardware line up is goosed up to include an even faster 4th-generation 2.5 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, a 512 GB flash drive and dual graphics -- integrated Iris Pro as well as a discrete AMD Radeon R9 M370X graphics card with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. The AMD card is a help when it comes to things like photo editing, but even when it was first introduced last year, CNET noted that it wasn't a very good gaming card.
While Apple fans may are waiting impatiently for the debut of the latest MacBook Pro, those waiting for a refresh of the MacBook Air might need to brace themselves for some disappointment. Though the 13-inch Apple MacBook Air (Est. $925 and up) did receive a memory upgrade in March 2016 to 8 GB of RAM, Laptop Magazine and others are reporting rumors that it might be the last upgrade that the system receives, with Apple abandoning the line in favor of the MacBook and MacBook pro.
However, it's not all bad news. Experts expect that the Air will be with us in its current form for quite some time, positioned as a bargain system with older but still very functional hardware for those on a budget, a strategy that Apple has followed in the past with its iPad and iPhone devices.
The 13-inch Apple MacBook Air is powered by a 5th-generation 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, integrated Intel HD Graphics 6000, 8 GB of memory and a 128 GB flash drive. The processor (to a Core i7) can be upgraded, but storage cannot be. For that, you need to opt for step up 13-inch Apple MacBook Air with 256 GB flash drive (Est. $1,050 and up), which leaves most of the other hardware as is, but swaps in a 256 GB flash drive (upgradeable to 512 GB).
If there's a weakness in this laptop, it's in its display. While the 1,440 by 900 pixel (native) display of the 13-inch MacBook Air is nice, it was behind the curve compared to competing laptops even when first introduced.
The MacBook Air is also available with an 11-inch display. That version also rated well with experts when it first debuted, and continues to garner kudos from users. That said, the 13-inch version has some notable advantages -- a bigger display, roomier keyboard, longer battery life (an "epic" 14 hours in Laptop Magazines tests) and a few extra features -- most notably an SDXC memory card slot. The 11 inch version also comes with only 4 GB of memory standard, but it can be upgraded to 8GB. Otherwise, the internal line up is the same, and performance (save for a few hours less battery life) should be the same as well.
Of course, price is the biggest selling point for this laptop, and the base version of the 11-inch Apple MacBook Air (Est. $825 and up) retains its title as the least expensive Apple laptop you can buy. A step-up 11-inch Apple MacBook Air (Est. $1,050 and up) swaps the 128 GB flash drive in the base version for one with a capacity of 256 GB (upgradable 50 512 GB).