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Best Apple Laptops

By: Carl Laron on August 02, 2017

The Apple MacBook Pro: Boringly better

Unless you are a competitive gamer or use software that only runs under Windows, Apple laptops have become a worthwhile consideration for mainstream users. 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.

If you want a MacBook, critics largely say that for most users, a MacBook Pro is the one to get. However, while the MacBook Pro still gets lots of love from experts and owners, it appears that just a little bit of the shine may be wearing off after the latest (June 2017) update generated a bit of a ho-hum reaction. It's not that critics don't think that the latest MacBook Pro isn't a terrific laptop, and the best MacBook Pro to date -- it's just that the overarching feedback is that it's just not that much more terrific or that much "more better" than the 2016 version.

"I'll start off with the good news," says CNET's Dan Ackerman. "If you splurged on one of Apple's very expensive high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro laptops when its big redesign was launched in the fall of 2016, you're not going to feel especially put out by this modest mid-2017 update." PCMag.com puts a little more positive spin on the situation by saying "There haven't been any revolutionary changes to the company's product lines this year so far, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing, since the good just keeps getting better."

So, let's ignore the relative lack of Editors' Choice and similar accolades and focus on what the experts largely agree on: While there's no need at all to replace your 2016-vintage MacBook Pro with the latest model, if you need to update an older machine, or are hankering to make Apple your laptop brand, the 2017 MacBook Pro is one terrific machine.

The MacBook Pro comes in two screen sizes, 13 inches and 15 inches, but the differences between the machines go beyond size. We like the 13 inch MacBook Pro (Est. $1,300 and up) best for its combination of power, portability, and (relative) affordability. But it has some downsides compared to the 15-inch version, including less connectivity, limited graphics capabilities, and it can't be upgraded to the very fastest Intel Core processors. If you are a power user, and those limitations are a concern, the 15-inch MacBook Pro (Est. $2,400 and up) might be a better option. We'll look at that system in a little more depth further down on this page, but for now let's turn our attention to the 13-inch version.

The base version comes with a reasonably robust hardware line up, including a dual-core 7th-generation (Kaby Lake) Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of memory, a 128 GB SSD and Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 integrated graphics. From there you can upgrade the processor, up to a dual-core Intel Core i7; storage up to 1 TB; and memory up to 16 GB.

Higher end systems come with Apple's Touch Bar, which replaces the traditional function keys on a keyboard with a context-sensitive glass touch strip that works with programs that have been adapted for it. Some love the Touch Bar, others don't. "While some Wirecutter staffers have found the Touch Bar to be gimmicky and want their F-keys back, others have found it to be surprisingly useful, even in everyday apps." says Dan Frakes at TheWirecutter.com.

The display is as stunning as ever. "The MacBook Pro's 2560 x 1600-pixel display is a beauty, offering eye-popping color and sharp clarity, says Laptop magazine. The version they test is an upgraded 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (Est. $1,800), which features a somewhat more powerful Intel Core i5 along with Intel Iris Plus Graphics 650 integrated graphics and a 256 GB SSD. Performance is outstanding in benchmark testing, even besting that of some Kaby Lake Core i7 equipped Windows machines, such as the well-regarded Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Est. $1,325 and up) that's profiled in our discussion of the best Windows laptops. Battery life is good, but Windows competitors do better and the ThinkPad outlasts it in Laptop magazine's test by some 3.5 hours; still, at 8 hours and 40 minutes, the MacBook Pro should get most people through the day just fine.

While some Windows ultraportables, and some other Apple laptops, are slimmer and lighter still, the MacBook Pro is light enough and svelte enough to be not too much of a burden to tote around. The tale of the tape tells us that the 13-inch MacBook Pro weighs just over 3 pounds, and measures 11.97 by 8.36 by .59 inches. As to build quality, it's a MacBook, so that and the quality of the materials used are both are first rate. What's not first rate is the port availability. The base version has just two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports -- and that's it. The step up versions, with the Touch Bar, increase that to four, but you will still need adapters for older devices.

If maximum power is your prime concern, and your wallet has the thickness to back your ambitions, then the 15-inch MacBook Pro should be the Apple of your eye. Even the base version packs some serious firepower with a quad-core Intel Core i7, 256 GB SSD, 16 GB of memory and Radeon Pro 555 discrete graphics alongside integrated Intel HD Graphics 630 graphics (with automatic switching). Available upgrades include still more powerful Core i7 processors, larger SSDs (up to 2 TB), and more advanced discrete graphics.

Of course, maxing out the 15-inch MacBook Pro with all of its available options can run you a little north of $4,000. Ouch. But even then, this is not a gaming machine. Equipped with the most advanced graphics option that Apple offers, "The MacBook Pro can do some side gaming, but expect to have to lower a fair amount of graphics options for smooth frame rates, PCMag.com's Matthew Buzzi says. However, for heavy duty productivity, the MacBook is a powerhouse. "This high-end MacBook Pro laptop blew through our standard benchmarks," CNET says.

The larger screen size brings increased weight and girth, of course, but not so much that this laptop has to stay glued to the desktop. It measures 13.75 by 9.48 by .61 inches, and weighs just over 4 pounds. As with the 13-inch version, the Retina display is gorgeous, and it's bigger, measuring 15.4 inches and delivering a resolution of 2,880 by 1,800 pixels. Build quality is excellent, but port selection is not -- again, just four USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, with adapters for other connections "sold separately."

While the 13-inch MacBook Pro is thin and light, it's neither the thinnest nor lightest MacBook Apple has to offer. The 12-inch Apple MacBook (Est. $1,300 and up) is sublimely svelte, weighing just over 2 pounds and measuring 11.04 by 7.74 by .52 inches. It, too has received an upgrade to Kaby Lake technology, which improves battery life and processing speed compared to its predecessor. The base configuration comes with a 7th generation Core m3, which emphasizes low power consumption -- and low heat output -- over raw processing power, but upgrades to 7th Generation Core i5 and even Core i7 processors are available. The rest of the component lineup includes 8 GB of memory (upgradable to 16 GB), a 256 GB SSD, and Intel integrated graphics. Four color choices are available -- rose gold, space gray, gold and silver.

Though performance will lag with the Core m3 found in the base version, the latest generation processor technology improves things considerably. Saying that he found the "entry-level MacBook quite responsive," Laptop magazine's Mark Spoonauer observes "I had no problem editing a photo in Pixelmator while streaming Spotify with more than a dozen tabs open in both Safari and Chrome."

The keyboard in previous generation MacBooks have absorbed some criticism, but the new version shares the same keyboard switches as the MacBook Pro. That means that while key travel is still shallow (and that's an issue on the Pro as well), the overall experience is more satisfying. "The keys are still flatter than anything you've probably used before, but once you get the hang of it, it's easy to type quickly and accurately, Spoonauer says.

One thing that's not changed is the dearth of ports. Just one USB C port, and it lacks Thunderbolt 3 support. "If you regularly connect USB keys, an external display or any other outboard gear, it's still a hassle," CNET's Ackerman says. Adapters, dongles and hubs are available, but their costs can add up quickly. "A simple USB-C to USB-A adapter is $20, while Apple's big multiport dongle that gives you HDMI, USB-A and USB-C (the latter for pass-through charging) is $70," Ackerman adds.

Finally, the 13- inch MacBook Air (Est. $1,000 and up) is still, somehow, hanging on. It's not been updated in several years, and most experts expect that it never will be, but it still has its hardcore fans. And for those who want a sleek Apple ultraportable on a budget, and can live with somewhat dated performance, the MacBook Air is the least expensive MacBook you can buy.

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. $1,200 and up), which leaves most of the other hardware as is, but swaps in a 256 GB flash drive (upgradeable to 512 GB). The 11-inch MacBook Air can also still be found in some retail channels, but has been discontinued by Apple.

Beyond the dated technology, if there's a weakness in the 13-inch MacBook Air, it's in its display. While the 1,440 by 900 pixel (native) display is nice, it was behind the curve compared to competing laptops even when first introduced.

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