Recommended Mac Hardware 2023

Updated for January 2023 Mac Announcements from Apple. Versions of this article originally appeared on dslrbodies.com, but I’ve moved the article to bythom.com as it is more generally useful.

bythom apple macbook

These days I’m a Macintosh-only user. For a long time, I maintained both Windows and Mac systems, but something had to go to simplify my updating life, and that turned out to be things with Microsoft written on them. 

As a note, this is my 40th year using Macs (yes, that means I was using one before it was announced in 1984, as I was one of the original evangelized developers who got to know Guy Kawasaki quite well). I’ve had at least one Macintosh model continuously since then, and often more (currently four, as I keep two older machines to run software that can’t be run on the current macOS versions).

I regularly help others with Mac system recommendations, and I try to keep up with everything happening the in the Mac world. Here are my current thoughts.

  • First and foremost, if you’re considering any upgrade from a base model, stuff it with RAM first. Now that we’re in the Apple Silicon era, RAM comes only on the main chip and can not be added later. While Apple is now using a function in macOS very similar to the RAM Doubler product I helped launch in the 90’s, that only modestly improves congested memory situations (through compression and virtual swapping), it is not a true replacement for physical memory. For a photographer, you want at least 16GB of RAM in your Mac, and preferably 24GB or 32GB. The longer you expect to keep your computer, the more memory you should opt for. Apple now ties >24GB options to the Pro and Max chips, so opting for 64GB now often means you’re paying for more CPU/GPU, too. The good news is that this “unified memory” is exceptionally fast, generally faster than the RAM chips you can add to the Intel machines.
  • CPU’s and clock speeds aren’t really important. Any M1 or M2 should be fine for most photographic work. If you want to upgrade the computing horsepower to your new Mac, pay close attention to the cores. A base machine might feature 8 CPU cores (4 performance, 4 energy-efficient) and 10 GPU cores, but you can push that all the way up to 20 CPU and 64 GPU cores (plus 32 Neural Engine cores and as many as four ProRes encode/decode engines). Not all software will take advantage of all those GPUs with extra RAM, but software that does tends to perform far better in photographic (and especially video) tasks on enhanced machines than they do on the base M1/M2 chip. In Apple-speak, we now have M1/M2, M1/M2 Pro, M1/M2 Max, and M1/M2 Ultra chips at the heart of the computer. That creates an enormous range of capability, but for basic photographic work, even the base M1 works really well (with enough memory). 
  • The introduction of Apple Silicon (M1/M2 processors, currently) was a significant change. While a lot of older Intel software can run on the Apple chips via a free emulator that’s supplied, the real issue now is that Apple is only providing macOS updates for a few Intel-based machines these days. Only about the last three versions of macOS are kept updated on about the last five to seven years worth of machines. What that currently means is that you should be running macOS Big Sur, Monterey, or Ventura. With an M1/M2 Mac, you need to run one of those, and which one is determined by when the machine was introduced. The original M1 Macs came with Big Sur. The most recently introduced M2 Macs use only Ventura. Before upgrading to one of the new machines make sure that the application software you’re using will make the upgrade with you. As I noted earlier, I keep two older Intel-based machines around because of software that won’t run on the newest macOS.

Apple has now moved fully away from hard drives. This causes another issue: the SSDs Apple uses cannot be upgraded. Thus, you also have to make a decision about drive size when you purchase any Mac. Make this decision carefully, as just adding external drives are not always the answer.

Apple’s “base machines” now tend to be M1 or M2 with 8 cores, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of SSD. Yes, the M2 is a bit faster and more efficient than the M1, but not enough so to rule out an M1. 

I’m going to suggest right up front that you pay the Apple Tax and consider only 16G RAM and 512GB SSD as a solid machine minimum with Apple Silicon models. The reason has to do with the way macOS works. While you can run the OS and a big app in a minimal machine, two things start to slow up as you stress it: (1) the memory compression and virtual spooling starts to take CPU cycles; and (2) you pretty much need 10% free space on a drive with macOS or everything begins to bog down. 8GB RAM isn’t really enough for a photo editing program on big raw files these days, particularly if you’re leaving multiples open and running big AI plug-ins, and 256GB of drive space disappears rapidly, even if you only put the macOS and your applications on it (I tend to suggest that you put all user data files on a removable drive these days, not the internal one). 

Pretty much any M1/M2 Mac these days can run Photoshop decently, though at the bottom end of the lineup you might find yourself getting noticeably slower processing with lots of big files open, as I just noted. That makes things easier for me in recommending models, as I think there’s a minimum bar you should get above: 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD. 

Here’s where I think you should spend most of your time thinking about Macs:

bythom apple macbookair
  • MacBook Air. This 13" machine was completely revised with the December 2020 release of an Apple Silicon model (M1 processor), and then again with the late 2022 M2 version. Intel processor versions are no longer available new from Apple. That’s good, because it was near impossible to recommend the Intel version with its outdated, non-Retina display to a photographer for a number of reasons. All my complaints about the Intel MacBook Airs go away with the latest Apple Silicon models. The MacBook Air is now the low end portable in Apple's lineup, and surprisingly, even the US$999 model is competent for photographers (though I recommend you get more memory). 

    The big claim to fame for the Air has always been "all day battery life." Apple is still advertising that, but be aware that to Apple that means about 18 hours of regular desktop type use. Start running the CPU aggressively with something like Photoshop CC and some AI plug-ins and that number will go down.

    The base model is US$999 and features a M1 CPU, 8GB RAM, and 256GB of SSD. That's not really sufficient for serious photography use, in my opinion. The M2 version is US$200 more than the M1 version. You can't upgrade the processor, but you can opt for 16GB of RAM and 512GB of SSD storage, which would be my minimal configuration to recommend. Price for that in an M1 is US$1399, in an M2 it’s US$1599. Basically any 16GB/512GB or better Air is a solid portable these days, and should handle moderate Photoshop use just fine. Note that the Air gets discounted fairly regularly from many sources at times. As I wrote this, a US$100 discount was available on both M1 and M2 base models. At times I’ve seen very aggressive discounts on the base M1 model: I was able to pick one up for US$599 on a one-day discount. 

    So, M1 or M2? The M2 base gets a few more GPU cores and the ability to bump RAM to 24GB (as opposed to 16GB). The M2 has ProRes encoder/decoders. The M2 has a bit brighter and better display, has a 1080P camera (instead of 720P), and is a smidgen (0.05kg) lighter. The M1 is just fine if you’re opting for an Air, though. All the MacBooks now have P3-sized color gamut Retina display. B&H Link [advertiser link]
bythom apple macbookpro
  • 13” , 14”, or 16” MacBook Pro. The MBPs have long been many photographers’ go to portable machines. The most recent changes and additions add wrinkles that caused some controversy, but the bottom line is still the same: these are great machines when configured correctly. Perhaps exceptionally great if you stuff them with tech (disclosure: I use a 14” M1 Max, 64GB RAM, 2TB SSD MacBook Pro). All have a wide display gamut (P3) that’s bright, and all are Retina displays.   

    All MBP models are now M2 based, running from 8/10 core to a 12/38 core M2 chips, with max memory on the 13” being 24GB, and 96GB on the others. The 13” only can get up to a 2TB SSD, but the 14/16” models can add up to 8TB. Unless you’re doing video on your MBP, the base M2 is fine, but you’ll want to opt for more memory. 

    I recommend all the MBP models. Which you get should be dictated by how far you go beyond Photoshop CC in terms of taxing the system. Video editor, CAD program, or other workstation type software? Go higher in the lineup and skip the 13” with it’s more limited M2. Note that the 13” is, as you’d expect, the lightest of the bunch, and by a significant amount (half pound, or about 15%).  The M1 models have been off and on discounts recently, with the highest I’ve seen being US$400 for one of the more advanced models. 
    B&H link [advertiser link] 
bythom apple macmini
  • Mac Mini. Returning with a total M2 CPU refresh in early 2023 is the Mac Mini. For most folk, this model is highly worth looking at for a basic desktop computer. Just be careful of one thing: by the time you add a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, you can upgrade a Mini to iMac price levels. Still, Apple is now packing a ton of power in a small box that's just shy of three pounds, and that is highly welcome. 

    Like the other M2 models, you're limited to a choice of 8GB to 24GB of RAM for the base chip. Always get at least 16GB. SSD storage comes in 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB options; get as much as you can afford. 

    The current Mini loses the SD slot, but has Headphone, Ethernet, two Thunderbolt 4 (!) (USB-C 3.1 Gen 2), HDMI 2.0, and two USB 3.1 (old Type A style, up to 5Gbps) connections on the back. The little box can drive as many as three external monitors (one via HDMI, two via Thunderbolt). 

    I’d hazard a guess that for a desktop computer, most of you would get by just fine with a 24GB/512GB Mini. That’s a reasonable—for Apple—US$1199. I’d strongly suggest opting for the 1TB version at US$1399. If you need more expansion, the OWC miniStack STX is an excellent choice. B&H link [advertiser link]

    Note: Intel-based Mac Minis still are available, as they were overproduced to demand and remain in stock at many vendors as I write this. Given how good the M2 version is and its somewhat more reasonable pricing, I’d suggest an M1/M2 Mini over an Intel one unless you need to run a pre-Big Sur macOS version. 
bythom apple imac21
  • iMac 24” (M1). This was a very welcome iMac option (bonus: it comes in different colors). Apple finally moved many of their recent capabilities into the lower end of the iMac lineup, including the M1 chip, and that has produced a very good compromise with a more modest price than usual for Apple. Again, I wouldn’t go below 16GB/512GB, which lists for US$1699. The top of the line, 16GB/2TB with some additional ports, Ethernet, and a keyboard with Touch ID maxes out at US$2499. B&H link [advertiser link]


  • Mac Studio (M1). When it came out in early 2022, the Studio turned a lot of heads. It looks a bit like a Mini on steroids, and to some degree, it is. Thing is, Apple has loaded up a lot of options on the Studio, so you can quickly find yourself paying huge amounts of money for something that’s likely more than you need today. Future proofing your gear is a good idea, but be very careful when configuring a Mac Studio, as you can get carried away and start specifying machines you probably don’t really need. I’d say that the “sweet spot” right now for Mac Studio is in the base (US$1999 with 32GB/512GB) to low-range (US$2799 with 64GB/1TB).

    You’ll note that Apple took the 5K iMac Retina and iMac Pro off the market. The reason is that a Mac Studio with the Apple 27” display is a better computer, though not all-in-one like many prefer. Given the small size of the Studio “box”, I’d say that wanting an all-in-one is now a bit overkill. Apple tempts you to over configure a Studio with lots of additional core/memory/SSD options, some of which change the front USB-C ports to Thunderbolt, and so on. Again, be careful not to get sucked into that if you don’t absolutely need it now (or in the foreseeable future).

    So, strongly consider a Mini. If for some reason a Mini doesn’t quite reach the level of what you think you need, then the lower Studio levels are where you should look next.  B&H link [advertiser link]

What, no top end Mac Studio or Mac Pro? No. Maybe for a video producer, but the MBPs tend to be a better choice for a photographer if stocked with enough RAM, and both the Mini and 24” iMac are solidly functional desktop machines at reasonable—again for Apple—prices. Buying into the higher end Macs these days can put you squarely into new car price territory, and you really need a good reason to go there.

I’d only get a Studio model now if I was doing serious video editing that involved a lot of transcoding or final encoding, or if I were trying to fully max out a current M1 computer in order to get more life span out of it long term. But that can add up in dollars quickly. Even a base Studio M1 Max with 64GB/2TB is US$2999 (and you still need a monitor). The model that sat in my Checkout Bag for a long, long time while I went to the Apple Store and played with it, was priced at US$4999. I eventually decided that the little 14” MacBook Pro reasonably maxed out was a better value for me. 

If you really need more steering: 

  1. It’s hard to beat the maxed out iMac 24”. It’s what I bought my mom, and it hasn’t balked at anything she (or I) have thrown at it. At US$2499, I consider it a bargain. Yeah, I know it’s not a 5K Retina display (it’s only 4.5K, boo hoo). 
  2. For portable use, a maxed out MacBook Air (24GB/2TB) is also US$2499, and tough to beat. I’ve hammered on my M2 Air and it holds its own, despite being a base model. True, my nearly maxed out 14” MBP can clearly beat it for serious batch processing sessions, video encoding, and a host of other CPU/GPU intensive tasks, but I’ve been surprised at how well the M2 Air holds it own in some basic Lightroom and Photoshop work, even in base form. If you’re using something simpler for your images, such as Apple Photos, consider this advice doubled.

So, a few things I've glossed over:

  • Pricing. Apple's pricing used to be something people complained about ("you can find a PC that's cheaper"). Apple has always been a high-quality provider (in pretty much every way), but the change to Apple Silicon processors has actually had an interesting effect: Macs got cheaper, yet they got clearly better than more expensive Intel models! Having now used M1- and M2-based Macs for awhile, I can say this: my 14” is a far better laptop than the maxed out MacBook Pro 15" it replaced, and it cost less. Moreover, you might have noticed that places like B&H actively tend to discount various models (usually for short periods, but this is becoming more prevalent; if you have patience, wait for a discount to appear). I generally regard the M1 and M2 Macs as good return for cost these days, as long as you don’t try to max them out with the insane Max and Ultra chips that the TSMC is producing for Apple these days.
  • M1 or M2 processor. Yes, both are fast and noticeably so. And low power (which makes the MacBooks run for insane periods for a lot of work). And sophisticated (built in multiple GPUs and machine learning components speed up a lot of work beyond the CPU itself). The real benefit the Apple Silicon has, though, is that it doesn't have to talk to external RAM (RAM is built into each processor, and it talks to the processor faster). There's no external bus controller getting in the way of fetching memory. This makes the M1/M2 Macs really fast when the memory being worked on is in the processor (the reason why I suggest that you max memory first and foremost). That, coupled with very fast SSD means that even virtual memory—which you're almost sure to trigger with lots of huge photo files open at once—seems fast. There are a few minor differences other than speed/cores/RAM between the M1 and M2 Macs. For instance, the M2 Macs tend to support Wi-Fi 6 while the M1 ones are still Wi-Fi 5. Some M2 Macs support as many as three external monitors, while all the M1 Macs seem to be limited to two. I wouldn’t put too much weight into those smaller things, though.

The other thing that sometimes holds up potential Apple Mac updaters is the retirement of Firewire (and now Thunderbolt 2, Thunderbolt 3, and the old style USB-A ports on the portables), coupled with the need for high-speed external drives if you need lots of storage. Most of us photographers need plenty of drive space. 

Don't fear moving from Thunderbolt 2 to 3 or 4: it's a cable dongle. And at this point, Firewire drives are becoming harder and harder to find, and certainly don't perform at the levels of Thunderbolt 3 or 4, but it's still just coupling two cable dongles together. 

The typical hard drive answer for both Mac desktop and laptop is a USB 3.2 or Thunderbolt RAID. Or two. Or four. The temptation is to cheap out and just buy one external enclosure and mirror the drives in it. I say no. If you’re going for performance, buy two external enclosures and mirror one on the other. You can then also choose between RAID 0 (performance) or RAID 1 (additional mirroring) depending upon your paranoia level. How did I get to four RAIDs? Paranoia and video, in combination. 

I've been using RAIDs from a number of companies. The best of the bunch so far is the one that Apple themselves sell: the Pegasus (comes in four, six, and eight bay configurations). B&H sells the two larger capacity Pegasus options [advertiser link]

On my work Mac I've tended to have two main RAIDs: one running in RAID 1 (mirror) for application and photo data, and the other running RAID 1 for video, though I'm in the midst of changing that as I upgrade gear. The RAIDs are automatically backed up by Carbon Copy Cloner, but each individual RAID with data is also a mirrored setup to another RAID pair, so it’s a redundant backup. Plus, of course, I have a Time Machine drive and a backup of the SSD, plus off-site backups. Yep, a lot of cables, and a lot of copying going on in the background (mostly done automatically in the office overnight thanks to Carbon Copy Cloner). 

The good news is that with the Thunderbolt the latest iMacs and MacBook Pros use, it can be daisy chained between drives, so that cable situation is well under control. The real issue is all the power cables for the RAIDs, all of which have to go to a UPS, which in turn is plugged into a whole office surge protection system. 

I sure miss all those internal drive bays of the old Mac Pro (seven if you use third party tools to create them). 

I hope this helped you with your Mac decisions.

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