If you think Christmas will be here before you know it, Black Friday (November 24) most certainly will, bringing the usual dizzying array of discounts across innumerable pieces of gadgetry. And that price chopping extends to notebooks, an arena in which Apple’s MacBooks are ripe for reductions.
Mainly because they are, generally speaking, so expensive in the first place, so there’s plenty of headroom for discounting (particularly in the case of the wallet-worrying MacBook Pro with Touch Bar).
We’re hoping to see some majorly impressive discounts on Apple notebooks come Black Friday – we certainly witnessed a good number of MacBook deals last year. But we must also bear in mind that sometimes retailers can try to sell off older models (or weaker configurations) with what look like tasty prices on the face of it, but in reality aren’t such hot deals at all.
Fortunately, TechRadar is on hand to help. We will, of course, be picking out all the best deals as they pop up on Black Friday, but in this article, we’re going to strengthen your bargain-hunting hand by highlighting the key points to look out for when it comes to spotting the best MacBook deals, and avoiding the duff discounts.
The features to look out for
Apple makes three different flavors of its famous notebooks: the standard MacBook (12-inch), MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. They are all broadly similar (naturally), but at a fundamental level, the right machine for you will obviously depend on your exact needs and budget.
The MacBook Air is the entry-level Apple notebook, with the vanilla MacBook playing a mid-range trump card in portability (and style). The MacBook Pro, as ever, is for the power users out there with deeper pockets (creative pros, major multi-taskers, or indeed Mac gamers).
Do you carry your laptop everywhere, and thus want a nicely portable machine? Then you need the MacBook Air, which is all ‘airy’ and lightweight, right? Nope. Wrong.
The vanilla MacBook (with 12-inch screen) is 13.1mm at its thickest point and weighs 920g, compared to the MacBook Air 13-inch – the only model now on sale since the smaller 11-inch flavor was discontinued – which is 17mm at its thickest and weighs 1.35kg.
So if it’s an Apple laptop boasting the ultimate in portability that you want at a knockdown price, go for the svelte MacBook. That said, the MacBook Air is still a compact enough notebook, and it’s a fair bit cheaper; speaking of which…
Air on a shoestring
Yes, if you want a Black Friday bargain that keeps any damage to your wallet to a minimum, set your sights on the MacBook Air, which is the cheapest Apple offering by far. It starts at £949 (this is Apple ‘cheap’, after all), compared to the MacBook and MacBook Pro which both start at a minimum of £1,249. So if we’re talking pure economy, the MacBook Air is where it’s at.
Processor and power
If you want some real grunt under the bonnet, then the MacBook Pro will be your preferred laptop.
As the entry-level option, the MacBook Air isn’t particularly powerful, and moreover, it hasn’t been updated in over two years save for a small bump to the processor speed (from 1.6GHz to 1.8GHz). Indeed, it still uses Intel’s Broadwell CPUs, which is the generation that preceded both Skylake and its successor Kaby Lake.
All contemporary MacBooks now on sale use Kaby Lake (7th-generation – note that Intel is now on 8th-gen) processors, except the MacBook Air, so it’s two generations behind the rest of the Apple pack. So remember, if you see a MacBook or MacBook Pro without a Kaby Lake CPU, it’s an older (pre-2017) model (last year’s models used Skylake).
While the vanilla MacBook might rock Kaby Lake, it’s hardly what you’d describe as a powerful machine. At least with its CPU upgrade this notebook doesn’t stutter running the operating system, as was the case with the initial (2015) incarnation of the MacBook. The better processor, plus faster RAM and storage, mean that this notebook now runs smoothly enough in terms of general operation.
But it’s hardly a powerhouse, and if you want power the only real option is the MacBook Pro, which has much beefier, faster clocked Kaby Lake processors, and indeed quad-core CPUs (as opposed to dual-core) in the 15-inch model. The newest Touch Bar variants of the 15-inch MacBook Pro also offer a discrete GPU (Radeon Pro 555 or 560 with 2GB or 4GB of video memory respectively) for extra oomph when it comes to pixel shifting.
Bear in mind that the base MacBook Air only has 128GB of SSD storage, which isn’t a huge amount of space if you’re going for the absolute cheapest model. The MacBook Pro 13-inch non-Touch Bar also starts at 128GB.
All other MacBook models start at a roomier 256GB – but these 128GB baseline offerings are likely a compromise worth making, given how much cheaper they are. As mentioned earlier, you’ll pay £949 for the MacBook Air 128GB, but doubling the size of the drive will cost you an extra £150. With the MacBook Pro 13-inch non-Touch Bar, doubling the drive to 256GB will cost you £200 extra (to put this in perspective, remember that you can get a 1TB SSD for less than £250 these days).
Some discipline and judicial use of external storage at home could go a long way to help you save a bit of money, particularly with a good Black Friday deal on these entry-level machines.
Storm in a USB cup
If you’re eyeing MacBook deals with a view to what you can hook up to the machine, there’s a bone of connectivity contention with the current vanilla MacBook – it only has a single USB-C port. You can use an adapter, but that’s an extra expense, and a somewhat clunky solution, too. This is the price of such a thin-and-light machine.
With the MacBook Air, you do get three ports, but note that these are older (legacy) ports, which means USB 3.0 rather than USB-C (you get a pair of USB 3.0 connectors, and a Thunderbolt 2 port, as well as an SD card slot). So it’s hardly future-proof in terms of ports, but you’ve got the numbers, and a big plus for many when it comes to the MacBook Air is that it still has the much-loved MagSafe 2 power port.
Finally, bear in mind with the MacBook Pro models that the 13-inch non-Touch Bar offering only has two ports (USB-C) where the rest of the range has four connectors.
Battery and display
The MacBook Air is the only MacBook which doesn’t have a Retina Display, sticking with a 1440 x 900-resolution screen instead. However, this likely helps the laptop do well in the battery department: this machine offers excellent battery longevity which we applauded in our review.
As a final observation, when it comes to the MacBook Pro models with or without a Touch Bar, Apple claims they both have the same battery life. However, in our testing at TechRadar, we’ve found the addition of the Touch Bar exacted a fair toll on battery longevity. In that light, considering the cost the context-sensitive bar adds to the asking price, we’d only go for it if you’re really keen to have that functionality.
For some more general observations on elements to look out for with notebooks specs, also have a read of our guide on how to get a good laptop deal come Black Friday.
Our deal predictions
When it comes to MacBook discounts, we’ll probably see them across the entire range of Apple laptops, as we did last year. However, we’re guessing the real attention is likely to be focused on either end of the cost spectrum: cheap and expensive.
Our bet is that we’ll see some money off the base (£949) MacBook Air, to make for a really compelling price tag that will tempt folks to become a MacBook owner without breaking the bank.
And at the other end of the scale, we wouldn’t be surprised to see some price-cutting on those super-expensive MacBook Pro with Touch Bar models, simply because that will make for some strong headline ‘multiple hundreds of pounds off’ deals to grab folks’ interest.
There’s certainly plenty of room to chop some money off here, particularly in the case of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Touch Bar variant of which bumps the price up £500 compared to the non-Touch machine, without making much difference to the overall spec otherwise – so it arguably could really use to be made more tempting price-wise. (At least its 15-inch Touch Bar-toting sibling does a bit more to make its case versus the non-Touch model, adding the likes of a discrete GPU alongside the bar).
Hopefully the fact that Apple is now selling refurbished MacBook Pro with Touch Bar notebooks (the company only just started flogging 15-inch models) with 15% off might just apply a bit more pressure to force some more compelling Black Friday deals.