Since I wrote about Apple’s ongoing MacBook disaster last week, and then offered a bunch of alternatives to the current MacBook lineup, several readers got in touch to ask which — if any — older MacBooks we’d recommend. I haven’t bought a MacBook in years, so I did a little research, and asked around the Cult of Mac crew.
So, let’s find out which is the best (old) MacBook you can buy today.
Best old MacBook to buy today
While pretty much any older MacBook will have a better — or at least more reliable — keyboard than the current lineup, that doesn’t mean you’ll be happy with something so old. Likewise, almost any CPU will still be up to basic tasks. You really only need to worry about the MacBook’s processor if you have a particular, CPU-intensive job in mind.
When I asked my Cult of Mac colleagues about the biggest differences between old and new MacBooks, it came down to these features:
SSD, not HDD
This is the most important spec of any modern computer because a traditional hard drive is so slow in comparison to a solid state drive. In fact, simply swapping an SSD into an old MacBook in place of its HDD will make it seem like a new machine. I bang on about my 2010 iMac, and how it’s still running great, but that’s because it really is a miracle machine. And that’s almost 100% down to the SSD I installed.
Bluetooth LE if you want to use Handoff
Handoff is Apple’s umbrella term for inter-device communication. It requires a Mac with Bluetooth LE (low energy) to work. Handoff features include:
- Handoff (obviously)
- AirDrop to iOS devices
- Universal clipboard
- Unlocking your Mac with Apple Watch
So, if you want any of those features (and you probably do), then you’ll need something of recent-enough vintage.
Can it run macOS Catalina?
It’s also important that any Mac you buy can run macOS Catalina. You might not care about upgrading right now due to some ongoing bugginess. But as the operating system improves, you won’t want to be left behind. Just because you’re buying an older, used Mac doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also try to future-proof it.
Which Macs are in the running?
For my concerns, the main criterion is that the laptop have an old-style scissor keyboard rather than the troublesome Butterfly keyboard. The now-discontinued 12-inch MacBook, introduced in 2015, was the first model to use Apple’s Butterfly keyboard. Therefore, you should avoid all 12-inch MacBooks. Some older Mac notebooks shared the MacBook name, but they’re way too old to consider.
The MacBook Pro got the butterfly keyboard the following year. The higher-end MacBook Pros from 2016 on are easy to spot because they have the Touch Bar. So, ideally, you should look for the latest version of the previous model, which was called the Retina MacBook Pro. This is currently the newest MacBook that comes with a proper keyboard. Apple manufactured this model from 2012 through 2015. These are the ones you want.
Retina MacBook Pro 2015 advantages
Apart from the keyboard, there are several other advantages to these older MacBook Pros. For starters, you can upgrade their storage. The internal SSD isn’t designed to be user-replaceable, but it’s a straightforward job if you’re handy with a Torx screwdriver and a spudger.
For a complete list of the pros and cons of the 2015 Retina MacBook Pro, check out the excellent EveryMac page on the subject. The highlights are that the older MacBook Pro still has a MagSafe 2 power adapter, two full-size USB-3 ports, two Thunderbolt Ports (the old shape, not the USB-C shape), plus an HDMI port and an SD card reader.
This Mac also supports Continuity features like auto-unlock using the Apple Watch.
Retina MacBook Pro 2015 disadvantages
Disadvantages include a lack of user-upgradeable RAM, non-replaceable battery, no Touch Bar, a smaller (non-haptic) trackpad and shorter battery life (likely even shorter now, thanks to it being a 4-year-old computer).
Plus, buying any used computer can be a bit of a crapshoot.
Should I buy an old MacBook?
So, with all these caveats in mind, if you need a MacBook today, should you buy an old 2015 Retina MacBook Pro?
Yes, if you really, really want a reliable keyboard, and can’t bear to use an external keyboard. And yes, if you can get a really good deal on one, and you can be sure that it still works perfectly. Remember, these old Macs can break and require repair, too. Yes, if you want HDMI or MagSafe.
No, if you don’t rely on the keyboard. If you don’t write for a living, you might be OK with a Butterfly keyboard. And also, even though there’s a real problem with Apple’s current keyboards, it doesn’t affect every MacBook sold. You might get lucky. No, if you want the best battery life. And no, if you prefer the bigger haptic trackpad. And a big no if you don’t want to shop for a used Mac, because the pre-2016 MacBook Pros are not available as certified refurbished units from Apple.
The very best option is to wait for the rumored new 16-inch MacBook with a better keyboard. But who knows when that will arrive — or how much it will cost? (It could land as early as this week.)
In the meantime, you could always consider buying the cheapest MacBook Air to tide you over, and then save your money and wait.