There’s never been a better time to buy a laptop. Today’s top notebooks are more powerful and portable than ever, and you no longer have to pay a fortune for a dependable workhorse.
Most laptop shoppers, though, will have to make an important decision before hitting “buy”: Do you go for one of Apple’s premium MacBooks or delve into the vast amount of Windows 10 laptops out there? We’re here to help you make that choice.
There are a ton of key factors to consider when deciding between a MacBook or Windows notebook, from the software experience to the range of machines available in each ecosystem. Here’s what you need to know before buying your next laptop.
It’s all about the software
The biggest difference between Windows and Apple laptops comes down to the software and user experience. And while Windows 10 and macOS both have their pros and cons, your choice between the two may largely come down to personal preference as well as how each platform syncs up to your other devices.
If you’re a big Apple fan, macOS may be more your style. MacBooks can sync up easily to your iPhone and iPad, allowing you to access things such as calendars, contacts, notes and even text messages across devices. Thanks to macOS’ Handoff feature, you can start a task on your iPhone, iPad and even Apple Watch and finish it on your Mac.
Its latest major software update, macOS Big Sur, makes the Mac experience more iOS-like than ever. You’ll see familiar app icons and widgets for things such as Messages and Mail, and can quickly adjust things like brightness and music playback via a handy Control Center that mimics what you get on an iPhone. If you’re an iOS fan who likes the streamlined software experience that Apple delivers, the Mac has that same “it just works” simplicity to it.
Meanwhile, Windows 10 is the most popular operating system out there and can be found on everything from budget entry-level notebooks to high-end gaming rigs from a variety of manufacturers. If you’ve used any version of Windows over the years, you’ll find plenty of familiar features, including a Start menu for quickly accessing apps and a bevy of built-in Microsoft programs such as Outlook and the snappy new Edge browser.
Windows 10 is arguably the more flexible of the two operating systems and comes optimized for touch on supported touch-screen laptops and convertible 2-in-1 devices (Apple currently doesn’t offer a touch-enabled MacBook, if that’s something important to you). And while the Mac has Handoff for iPhone users, Windows 10 has a handy Your Phone app that lets you access your Android apps and messages right from your laptop. Your Phone also works with iOS devices, but its functionality is largely limited to sending web pages from your phone to PC.
Think about the apps you need
Perhaps even more important than the user experience is what apps you actually plan on using. Both Windows and macOS have access to most major web browsers, productivity suites and creative applications, so either will likely get the job done for everyday web surfing, email and basic office work. But for those who need something more niche, the differences matter.
Macs are popular among music producers, thanks to Apple’s high-end Logic Pro software as well as the intuitive GarageBand app you get out of the box for free. Photo and video editors might be drawn to MacBooks as well, thanks to popular Apple-only apps like Final Cut Pro and Pixelmator.
If gaming is your priority, however, Windows wins by a landslide here. Assuming you pick a powerful enough system, Windows 10 laptops have access to thousands of top PC games across various marketplaces, including big blockbusters like The Witcher 3, Control and Doom Eternal. MacBooks can play some essential favorites like Minecraft and Cuphead as well as the 100-plus titles on Apple Arcade, but those looking to do serious gaming should spring for a capable Windows laptop.
Consider your budget (and how much power you need)
Price will likely be one of your main concerns when buying a new laptop, and MacBooks and Windows notebooks can differ wildly in terms of the types of systems you can get at different price points.
Apple’s current MacBook lineup is simple and streamlined, but the company’s laptops aren’t the cheapest. The most affordable notebook in Apple’s roster is the $999 MacBook Air, which delivers the best performance you can find in this price range, thanks to its stellar new M1 processor.
Stepping up to the MacBook Pro line will get you added graphics muscle (ideal for intensive tasks like photo and video editing), but you’ll pay a premium starting at $1,299 for the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Those who want a bigger screen can spring for the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at $2,399 and can go up to a whopping $6,699 depending on how much extra memory, storage and graphics power you want to configure it with. However, we recommend waiting for Apple to upgrade the 16-inch MacBook Pro with its new M1 chip before you buy one.
Windows laptops, on the other hand, run the gamut from a few hundred bucks to thousands of dollars. If you just need something for basic web surfing, email and word processing, affordable machines such as the $199 HP Stream or $499 Acer Aspire 5 will more than get the job done. Those who need to do heavier multitasking without spending a fortune can check out the $999 Dell XPS 13 and $949 Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, two of our picks for the best laptops you can buy overall. There are also convertible 2-in-1 machines such as the $399 Microsoft Surface Go 2 and $649 HP Envy x360 13, which can double as tablets, thanks to detachable keyboards or folding designs.
Top gaming laptops run the gamut from the attainable $1,099 Asus ROG Zephryus G14 to the fully loaded $3,625 Alienware Area-51m, which packs a powerful Intel Core i9 processor and beastly Nvidia RTX 2080 graphics for tearing through the hottest PC games at optimal settings. And if it’s a mobile workstation you need, models such as the $1,989 HP Zbook Studio pack in desktop-grade specs for getting video editing and design work done on the go.
To wrap things up, Apple’s laptop selection is less daunting, with three main models that lean toward the premium side of things. But you can’t beat the sheer variety and versatility of Windows laptops out there, whether you need a $200 notebook for web surfing or a $2,000 powerhouse for playing the latest blockbuster games.
Picking between a MacBook and Windows laptop comes down to three key factors: your budget, your performance needs and, perhaps most critically, the types of apps and software experiences you want access to.
MacBooks are a no-brainer for those already in the Apple ecosystem, with seamless interactivity with your iPhone and iPad. From the new M1-powered MacBook Air to the high-end 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple’s powerful laptops are especially ideal for creative tasks such as photo and video editing.
But if you need something more affordable — or more niche — a Windows laptop might be for you. Windows notebooks start at much cheaper prices than MacBooks, and power users and serious gamers have plenty of great options on the premium side of things.
There’s no wrong option; whether you swear allegiance to Apple or decide to wade into the world of Windows, you’ll have your pick of some of the absolute best laptops on the market right now.