I am being gifted a new mac laptop and I need help choosing which one.
March 20, 2016 6:18 PM   Subscribe

My macbook is from 2009. I haven't followed Apple news/updates for many years now so I am at a loss on how to prioritize the options available.

I have done a few quick searches until I found this website that is essentially saying to wait because all the products out right now are basically at the end of their cycle.

Some background information: I have owned 4 Macs since 1998 as well as various Windows machines. I am not a gamer although I am interested in exploring that. So I don't think I need any heavy duty graphics or processing. This may become a work computer if I can find a work from home job.

I am confused about SSD vs HD. Retina? Flash storage? I am not even sure what the latest USB or FireWire options are.

My family really wants to buy me a Mac for me and are pushing this purchase hard. I'd like to save them some money and possibly get a Windows machine but they won't hear it and I'd be even more lost trying to pick one of those.

So should I wait for the next generation mac laptop or buy something on the market now? Advice is welcome!
posted by futz to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The new models are going to be announced tomorrow. The expectations: a new version of the 12in MacBook that's substantially faster than the lumbering first version, and new designs of the retina MacBook Pro, all with Skylake processors. The Air range is somewhat out on a limb here, and there's speculation that it may go away. The non-retina 2012 MacBook Pro (with DVD drive and upgradeable HD and RAM) is still on sale and may not go away.

The 2015 MacBook Pros will be selling refurb at a decent discount as soon as the new models go on sale, and that'll be be plenty of computer for you if your expectations are shaped by 2009 hardware -- not so much raw processing power as battery life and screen clarity. On the other hand, the 2016 MacBook Pros may well be the sort of machine that you can use happily for the next seven years.

FireWire is no longer a thing, spinning hard drives are increasingly no longer a thing, USB 3 is a thing, USB-C is a thing, Thunderbolt 3 will be a thing.
posted by holgate at 6:28 PM on March 20, 2016 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow tomorrow? Thanks for all the additional info. If I decide to NOT go with one of the shiny new releases, which one would you choose? I don't know if you checked out the link in my post but if you did do you the think that is a good assessment of the current products?
posted by futz at 6:48 PM on March 20, 2016

Right now, all of Apple's laptops, save for one, have SSDs (Solid State Drives). They're essentially the same kind of storage in your smart phone. Having one in your computer... buddy, you will never want to go back to spinning platter drives, which is what you have now.

I'd wait to see what's announced tomorrow, but it sounds generally be well served by a MacBook Air. You can even pick up a refurbished model if you want to save a few bucks---I'd just try to get one with as much RAM as possible.
posted by SansPoint at 7:03 PM on March 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Do NOT get a Macbook Air. They are vastly underpowered, even the refurbs, for the price- you're basically paying for the half a pound or so of weight you save over the MBPs.

I have one of the current MBPs and could not be happier. I'd suggest a refurb of this model (I wanted to get one, but was under a time crunch and couldn't wait) with as much RAM as possible. Oh, and get AppleCare.
posted by Tamanna at 7:09 PM on March 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

If I decide to NOT go with one of the shiny new releases, which one would you choose?

Checkout the Refurbished Mac Store. Keep an eye on it especially in the next few weeks, since as the new models come out, the previous generation (the ones that are "new" right now on apple.com) will start appearing there more frequently.

FireWire is a thing of the past.

You'll want an SSD, and most laptops will come with them by default now. A major speed improvement.

The Mac has never been a great platform for gaming, and the graphics cards in even the Macbook Pros are hardly beefy enough to play the latest and greatest games, although they will play older games well, and classics like Civilization 5 and Starcraft 2. A refurb 2015 macbook pro with 8gb ram will be powerful enough to last the average user for 5 years or so.

If you don't care much about games, and don't see the charm of a retina display, a refurb 2015 Macbook Air will also do you just fine. Computers have been powerful enough for the past 5 years or so, and have only seen incremental improvements, so these days upgrades are really only noticeable for specialized cases or really heavy workloads.
posted by dis_integration at 7:11 PM on March 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

DEFINITELY wait until we know what the announcement brings. Note that any advice I give here should be checked against the new reality as of about 18 hours from now. The buyer's guide on MacRumors, which you linked to, is an excellent place for you to start. Check MacRumors tomorrow night for summaries of all the announcements.

If you can, wait a few weeks to see what reviewers say about the new models, especially compared to the previous versions. You may decide that the newly announced products don't seem like a huge upgrade to you. If so, once the new ones start coming out, start watching the refurbished Mac store for deals on the last-generation devices.

Some big questions for you to answer:

What screen size are you happy with? I personally feel cramped on anything less than 15", so I've had Macbook Pros since college. But maybe you like the idea of a lighter device, or you're really concerned about price. If you don't need 15", you could go MacBook Air (11" or 13") or just regular MacBook (12"). The 12" MacBook is surprisingly thin, but this thinness is achieved by the use of a new keyboard style which a lot of people don't like (the clickiness feels off). On the other hand, I've heard people say that you get used to it pretty fast. The current 12" MacBook just has one port for all connections (including power and data), a USB-C port. Some watchers are hoping that Apple will add at least one more port with the new version announced tomorrow. 11" vs. 12" vs 13" might not seem like a big deal to you, but I'd suggest going to an Apple Store (or wherever) to try out the different sizes and see if any stick out to you as particularly good/bad choices.

Is this going to be your only computer? If so, I'm not sure you're going to enjoy gaming on it much unless you go 15" MacBook Pro with some graphics upgrades. If the kind of "work from home job" you're talking about doesn't involve anything processor-intensive (heavy-duty photo or video editing, scientific computing, etc.) and instead is mostly email, web browsing, and word processing / Powerpoint, then you'll be fine with a non-Pro machine.

Some questions for me to answer ;-)...

SSD hard drive is almost certainly the way to go. Unless you have large photo/video/music libraries that you absolutely need to have with you all the time, the relatively low storage sizes (compared to spinning drives of similar cost) won't be a huge burden. Invest in a couple of spinning external hard drives and set up a good backup plan, and you're good to go. The speed boost of SSDs is hard to believe until you see it for yourself.

Retina is, for me, the kind of thing that you don't think you need until you start playing with a machine that has it. I always thought my non-Retina machine was fine, until I got a Retina MacBook Pro, and now I don't think I could go back. But I have pretty much normal vision (when wearing glasses) and, like I said, a 15" MBP. If you get one of the smaller-screened laptops, and/or your vision isn't great, the Retina resolution might help you read text more easily.

My general thinking with laptops is to go for all the upgrades I can right out of the gate. I'm on my computer 8 hours a day for a living, and I want it to be as capable as possible for as long as possible. So I like to max out the hard drive size, graphics, screen, and RAM at the time of purchase. Note that Macs' hard drives and RAM are harder to upgrade yourself now than in the past, so it'd be best to just buy a machine that you like as is.

And just before post: Yes, Tamanna is right. Get AppleCare!

I realize this has gone pretty long. I'm not an expert, just your friendly neighborhood nerd who checks MacRumors daily and always listens to MacBreak Weekly. But hopefully this gives you something to chew on. Good luck, and enjoy your new machine! Oh, and make sure to follow up here and let us know what you decided and why—it could be helpful to others with similar questions in the near future.
posted by dondiego87 at 7:12 PM on March 20, 2016 [8 favorites]

I personally don't like working on the macbook air machines, or the new Macbooks; they're too small to be comfortable. There comes a level where form factor actually matters, and their keyboards really bother me.

One thing to consider along many of the new mac product lines is their inability to easily upgrade (SSDs soldered in, batteries nearly so, integrated RAM). I've recently needed to shift my purchase tactic of "best processor, smallest HD, smallest RAM" and upgrading as I need, to save cash, as Apple installed items are usually more expensive than the parts I would pick up.

If you upgrade your own gear (or pay someone else to) to increase longevity, it's worth checking out for the models you're looking at, if certain parts can be upgraded later. Mostly this has been RAM, but I've heard that some SSD's are fully integrated too? So, maxing out your RAM, and probably getting a lager-than-you-currently-have SSD would be a good track to take.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:14 PM on March 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Some more info about what your needs are might be helpful. I have been using a MacBook Air since 2012. For my purposes--academic reading and writing, internet surfing and Netflix, and occasional photo editing--my 2012 model is yet to show its age or feel sluggish. That being said, the screen feels a bit dated, especially compared to the 27" iMac 5K that is my desktop computer, or anything with a retina screen.

The Pros are great, and certainly more powerful, but the half pound that doesn't seem like much on paper makes a huge difference if you are commuting on public transit with a computer 5 days a week. It really depends on what kind of demands you are going to be putting on your computer.

I love the form factor of the new MacBook. It is beautiful. But as holgate notes, the first version was horrifically underpowered. Avoid the first gen at all costs! Tomorrow's announcement is pretty exciting in this regard. MacBook Airs are looking a bit tired, and the 12" MacBook with some appropriate processing power sounds dreamy.

You are likely to end up with an SSD, and there is very little not to love, but they are smaller. If you have a big media collection, or plan to, get yourself a nice external drive for archiving your files.

Have fun with your new Mac!
posted by jamaal at 7:25 PM on March 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just thinking about size, I'd be tempted to get something with very small screen real estate for easier portability, then a larger monitor to use it with at home. Of course this depends on what you'll use it for, and where you'll do most of your work, but I bought at 13" Air and regret not buying an 11" just about every time I take it out of the house or travel with it.
posted by tapir-whorf at 8:04 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

It would help to know a bit more about your specific computing needs, particularly how much storage you want. With that being said, you really can't go wrong with the 13 inch Retina Macbook Pro.

I upgraded from a Macbook Air to the Pro last year (before the Air, I had the old school plastic body macbook), and it's like night and day. The Retina screen really is great. It's definitely heavier, but it's still much lighter than laptops used to me. I use my Macbook Pro for work and school, and I carry it around a lot, and I don't find it to be that heavy. (I'm a petite female, fwiw.)

Oh, and you should definitely get SSD (which almost all the macs will have these days). I'd highly encourage you to go for the 512 GB storage. If you're interested in gaming, you may also want to spring for 16 GB Ram. (I upgraded to both of these options. I could have probably gotten by on 8 GB of RAM, but if you have a decent collection of movies, TV, music, or photos, you'll want to go for the extra storage.)

Before going for the Pro, I was seriously considering the new Macbook, but I just wasn't willing to spend that much money for such an underpowered computer. Definitely see what gets released tomorrow, but I think your best bet will be a refurbished 2015 Retina Macbook Pro (13 inch unless you want to trade off portability and spend a bit more for the larger 15 inch screen).

Just for example, you could get a refurbished 13 inch MB Pro with 215 GB storage/8 GB storage for $1269 which is a decent price for a computer that will likely be as good as new. For $1529 you could upgrade to 512 GB storage.

Of course, you could certainly get a Windows machine for much cheaper, but I'm very partial to macs, and the pro is such a great computer that you could probably be very happy with it for many years to come.

Oh, and yes, Macrumors is definitely a reputable source. I keep relatively up to date on Apple stuff, and I still spent awhile perusing their info when I was debating what laptop to get.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:06 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

holgate: The new models are going to be announced tomorrow. The expectations: a new version of the 12in MacBook that's substantially faster than the lumbering first version, and new designs of the retina MacBook Pro, all with Skylake processors.

Anything's possible, although it should be noted there are no solid rumors of new laptop models tomorrow. The only rumors floating around are for the new small/entry iPhone ("iPhone SE"?), a 9.7-inch iPad (iPad Air 3 or a small version of the Pro?), new Apple Watch bands, and software updates for iOS, watchOS 2, tvOS, and OS X. There are new laptop chips available, but many think the laptop refreshes won't happen until June right before WWDC.
posted by bluecore at 8:23 PM on March 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Anything's possible, although it should be noted there are no solid rumors of new laptop models tomorrow.

It really depends where you get your rumours, though I now see that Mark Gurman says 'no Macs tomorrow', so it'll be a good test of who's got the lowdown. Not being snarky here: skip to the one-hour mark on the latest ATP for the discussion on new laptops. There's inevitably a question about Intel being supply-constrained on Skylake mobile chips, so if there's no laptop announcement, we can blame them. Grar.
posted by holgate at 8:43 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have the 13-inch MacBook Air from early 2014. It's a wonderful machine and my favorite Mac to date; it's my fourth laptop by them since 2001. (Like many others, I have a love-hate relationship with Apple but I'll spare you the details.) It's a vast improvement on earlier models in all ways. I feel no need to update anytime soon but can say that friends' newer laptops -- MacBook Pros with retina displays and more -- are pretty neat, too. I got the larger screen for more relaxed surfing but the smaller one would have been easier for travel; I just bring my iPhone instead and am fine on shorter trips. I'm someone who prefers simpler models but the bells and whistles can be great if that's your thing!

I have a desktop PC at work as well as a Google Chromebook. They're OK but nowhere near as nice or easy to use as my MacBook. I'd go to the Apple Store and try the new ones out: I think the right choice will be pretty clear or, at the very least, you'll know what you don't want!
posted by smorgasbord at 8:53 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

holgate: The non-retina 2012 MacBook Pro (with DVD drive and upgradeable HD and RAM) is still on sale and may not go away.
There is a hardware issue with the 13" 2012 MacBook Pro. Brue Computing published a video about the hard drive cables rubbing against the chassis and eroding the cable's insulation. This short makes the hard drive undetectable unless the cable is replaced.

One can find testimony across the Internet about this issue. I have this model and I'm on my fourth cable. Still love the machine, though!
posted by chinesefood at 9:14 PM on March 20, 2016

I asked a version of this question a few weeks ago and the consensus was to get the 13" MBP retina.

Like chinesefood mentioned, my non-retina 2012 had issues. It needed the cable and hard drive replaced, which Apple Care didn't cover because they said there was "liquid damage." *coughbullshitcough*

I used the crap out of it, but I have to admit that I use my work Air a lot more these days because it's a lot faster and lighter. For more processor-intensive tasks, it sucks. I wouldn't buy an Air, personally, because I do quite a bit of video and photo editing and advanced graphics rendering.

But you should go to an Apple store (if that's possible) and try them all out - that will help you narrow it down.
posted by guster4lovers at 9:35 PM on March 20, 2016

You want an ssd, you want retina, and you want to wait until tomorrow.

I've got a late 2014 retina 13", and it's still just about perfect, so if someone forced you to buy something tonight, you wouldn't have too much grounds to regret it. And I think the 13" retina today is a really nice place: compact, light, more than fast enough, and enough battery to last me a day if I don't run Tweetbot or a heavy chat app. The screen resolution is high enough that your eyes will give out before you make any half way native app like chunky.

If they don't make any big changes tomorrow, it will be noticeably faster, and it will have noticeably better battery life. The keyboard might change in ways that you like or don't like (I'm very undecided on Apple's new keyboards today). It might get thinner and lighter at the cost of staying at today's battery life. Or it might not.
posted by wotsac at 9:42 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your input. Very very helpful. I didn't know if SSD was a fad or the future.

To answer a few questions:

I store all media files on external hd's.
I have tons of photos and use a few different applications for that.
Not a gamer at all.
Bigger screen is preferred.
Weight of laptop doesn't really matter. I will veeerrry rarely take this anywhere.
Re: work from home...I am currently disabled. (I am leaving a huge chunk of the story out of here because it isn't relavent) If I do find a job I can assume that it will be some sort of customer service gig and that my computer setup will need to meet some basic software/hardware minimums.

So, I am not a "power user" by any means but I don't want to sell myself short.
posted by futz at 9:51 PM on March 20, 2016

If you want to go refurbished and don't see exactly what you want you can use Refurb.me to notify you when a specific refurbished model is available.
posted by oneear at 11:53 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Weight of laptop doesn't really matter. I will veeerrry rarely take this anywhere.

Then go with the MBP, but buy a 13" and add a nice 27" external monitor (2560x1440 resolution).
posted by mr vino at 5:38 AM on March 21, 2016

Weight of laptop doesn't really matter. I will veeerrry rarely take this anywhere.

If you can work at a desk, then even the smallest Mac laptop can drive a decent-sized monitor, Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. You lose the pixel density of the retina display, but you get a big ol' screen. (Even the current generation Airs can drive a 4K display.)
posted by holgate at 5:41 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recently got my very first Mac not long ago, and I got the 13" Macbook Air with all the extra fixin's (8gb RAM, 512gb SSD hard drive, etc.) For what I will be using the computer for, which is primarily internet and light graphics purposes, it looks like this is a really great set up.

I did look into getting one of the shiny new Macbook models, but when I did a side by side compare with the Macbook Air, it didn't look like it had as many features? I was a little confused that it looked like it was going to be a step backwards in terms of computing power, and for about the same price as a beefed-up Macbook Air, I could get way more for my money.

I say this, however, not knowing ANYTHING about the brand new Macbooks that are apparently about to drop, so YMMV. Good luck!
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:37 AM on March 21, 2016

Don't sweat the options. Apple does a great job with their defaults (this coming from someone who builds a PC from components every few years). Max out ram, go with the misdle option for storage, and you're done.

Macbook Air 13" is the sweet spot currently for usability, weight, and battery life. The Retina screen is pretty but also pricey and currrently not available on the Air 13".

Two colleagues got the 12" with the Retina display, couldn't get used to the very short travel keys, and returned their machines.
posted by zippy at 10:56 AM on March 21, 2016

Well, bum. No Macs today, some time between now and WWDC in June then it surely is. Thanks, Obama Intel.

If you want one now, get the 13in rMBP, higher RAM, mid storage like zippy says.
posted by holgate at 11:04 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the topic of Windows, you'll have no problems running Windows on the Mac hardware if you decide to do so, as long as you're okay with splitting the main boot drive (SSD) with OSX. I run mostly windows on the 2011 MBP that work gave me. Aside from a few snide remarks from our CTO who lives and breathes Apple, it's been no trouble.*

Boot Camp, the bootloader from Apple that makes it possible, is a piece of cake. You need to pay for your own copy of windows, though, or transplant one from another machine. After you install Windows, you'll install a Boot Camp driver package in Windows, which will make all the Mac hardware work.

Switching between OSes means shutting down one to boot into the other, and it can be a minor headache seeing one Os's files from the other.

*Actually, installing Win7 was the last bit of trouble I had-- it doesn't support the Mac's USB 3.0 drives in the installer, so I had to install an extra driver to get that working. Windows 10 is what I run now, and I'm sure that supports it natively.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:54 PM on March 21, 2016

Hey, I am also in the market for a new Mac laptop, and Apple didn't come through with updates at their event! What do folks think we should do now?
I need a laptop for school, won't be doing anything super demanding on it like gaming or fancy graphic design, but also want something that can be my primary computer for a while. I like the MacBook Air, but don't want something that will be obsolete soon. It sounds like the 13" pro may be a safer bet, what do you think?
posted by bfc at 2:57 PM on March 22, 2016

bcc Yeah, unless you can wait until June, just pull the trigger now. The Pro is a safer bet, I think. You'll get more life out of it.
posted by SansPoint at 12:15 PM on March 23, 2016

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