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Why You Shouldn’t Buy a MacBook With Only 256GB Storage

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When Apple unveiled the first MacBook Pro with Retina display in 2012, it shipped with 256GB of flash storage at a minimum. Nearly a decade later, in 2022, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro (as well as the MacBook Air) still only includes 256GB of storage, unless you upgrade it.

Meanwhile, in 2012, the iPhone 5 shipped in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB variants. 2021’s iPhone 13 is available with 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB (as well as 1TB for the iPhone 13 Pro) of space.

So why has Apple put the MacBook on a diet? And is 256GB of space enough for a MacBook? Let’s examine why you shouldn’t settle for the minimum storage when buying your next MacBook.

Why Hasn’t Apple Raised the Base Storage?

A lot of times, we expect the price of technology to fall as it becomes more prevalent. But in the case of components like memory and storage, that doesn’t always happen. Scarcity is one of the biggest drivers of price hikes in the tech space—think of how expensive video cards were during the cryptocurrency mining hype of 2017 and 2018, for example.

Though the price of SSD storage has fallen overall during the last decade, there have been some notable price hikes as well. Ongoing events like the supply chain issues and chip shortage that happened alongside the COVID-19 pandemic have an effect on this too.

Has Apple been hit by the volatile price of computer memory and SSDs? Sure. But the company has much more bargaining power with manufacturers than consumers and most retailers. This is likely why we’ve only seen small increases in the iPhone storage baseline (moving from 16GB to 32GB, then slowly to 64GB and now 128GB) rather than larger leaps in base storage for MacBooks (like moving to 512GB or even 1TB at a minimum).

It hasn’t been cheap to get more storage in your MacBook for a long time. Apple’s now-discontinued iMac Pro came with a 1TB solid-state drive as standard, but that machine started at a staggering $5,000. Even the top-tier Mac Pro, which starts at $5,999, only includes 512GB of storage by default.

Meanwhile, an upgrade to a 1TB SSD adds $400 to the $1,299 you’re already paying for a 13-inch MacBook Pro. That’s frustrating when you consider that you can buy a Samsung 980 Pro 1TB SSD for under $200.

Apple should still provide more than a measly 256GB in its flagship laptop, but likely hasn’t changed this because it makes a lot of money on upgrades. For now, we have to deal with this low minimum.

Is 256GB Enough for a MacBook?

If you’re buying any model of MacBook (whether it’s a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro) and plan to use it as your main machine, you should buy a model with more than 256GB of storage. Even if you only double the internal storage to 512GB, you’ll thank yourself in a few years. Constantly trying to free space up on your Mac is miserable.

Generally speaking, MacBooks tend to last a long time. Apart from aging internals and a lack of some newer fancy features, you can conceivably use a MacBook for the better part of a decade before you need to replace it. It obviously won’t perform as well as newer models, but your purchase will last you longer than many other tech items.

The flipside of the oft-lauded reliability of MacBooks is that you might have to live with your choice of machine for longer than you expect. If you don’t see the sense in replacing a perfectly serviceable laptop, you’re going to regret opting for the smaller-capacity model, especially since you can’t upgrade the storage on your own like you can with some other laptops.

As your main machine, your MacBook will host your photos, music, and other libraries. This is where all your iPhone photos and videos are stored (if you choose to sync them), plus any media managed or purchased through the App Store or iTunes. While it’s possible to store some macOS libraries remotely to save space, it’s inconvenient. You’ll have to rely on plugging in external drives or network drives on your local network.

If you don’t pay for iCloud storage and back up your mobile devices to the cloud, you should create regular local backups instead. These backups are stored on your Mac in the following folder:

~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup

Depending on the size of your device, these backups could be huge. Storing them elsewhere is one solution, but it also relies on external drives. Note that storing your backup on the same drive as your main disk is a bad idea, because you’ll lose the backup copy if the disk fails.

If you use cloud storage to sync your files from other machines, that data could take up a lot of space too. It’s easier to have instant access to everything instead of constantly adjusting what you sync, but you need free space to do that.

Don’t forget to make room for your apps. If you’re a student who spends half your digital life in a web browser and the other half in a word processor, this might not be an issue. But if you’re a photographer with an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, you’ll likely want to get your money’s worth by installing the apps you need. Apps like Premiere Pro CC and Lightroom can take up several gigabytes each.

Finally, you’ll want space for the projects you’re currently working on. This could be your Lightroom library or somewhere to dump your video files while editing. If you’re working with high-bitrate video or another medium that relies on fast read-write performance, you’ll likely need to keep your source files on your SSD rather than an old external drive.

It’s Better to Buy Big: 256GB vs. 512GB and Beyond

It’s always better to buy more storage than you need at the start, instead of trying to upgrade at a later date. While you can increase your storage by replacing the drive on older models, most modern MacBooks (from 2016 and later) are not user-upgradeable.

The latest MacBook Pro models include soldered RAM, a glued-down battery, and a proprietary solid-state drive which Apple does not make available outside its own channels. It’s possible we’ll eventually see compatible SSDs hit the gray market, but they likely won’t be cheap when they do. You also need to perform the upgrade yourself, which is risky if you aren’t comfortable with such tasks.

You can currently only buy SSD upgrades for MacBook Pro models made in 2015 or earlier. While this is a great option that’s cost-effective if you have an older compatible machine, it has its own drawbacks. It obviously won’t be viable in a few years once these machines don’t run modern macOS versions and are thus too old to use reliably.

Beyond that, performing an upgrade like this yourself will invalidate your warranty and any AppleCare plans you’ve purchased. You could look at other methods of adding storage to your MacBook, but those incur additional costs and some are inconvenient.

If you’re buying a MacBook today, we’d recommend that you get at least 512GB of storage. If you have lots of large videos or similar, 1TB is better. It’s not cheap, but you owe it to yourself to make your main computer as usable as possible.

A small step in the right direction here is that the 2021 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models have an SD card reader. This was the previous go-to method for adding a chunk of storage to your laptop’s capacity, so it’s nice to see the slot return. Just remember that an SD card won’t be as fast as your computer’s built-in storage.

Apple Pushes iCloud

Starting with macOS Sierra, Apple introduced a feature called Store in iCloud. This automatically uploads files to iCloud, then when you run low on storage, keeps only recently opened files on your system so you can access them locally.

This only works if you have enough free iCloud storage space; you can enable it by going to the Apple menu > About This Mac > Storage > Manage > Store in iCloud.

Similarly, iCloud Photos stores your high-resolution photos in the cloud, allowing you to optimize local space with lower-quality copies. Subscribing to Apple Music provides streaming access to millions of songs, while iCloud Music Library makes them available on all your devices. However, you’ll need a data connection to stream them.

The main reason most people buy more iCloud storage is to have enough space for cloud backups. This removes the strain of storing all your backup data locally. Apple’s 5GB free storage allotment has not increased since it introduced the service in 2011, despite the company pushing customers further toward cloud solutions. You’ll need to upgrade your iCloud plan to fully enjoy many of these options.

But even if iCloud is meant to pick up the slack, we’re still in dire need of more local storage.

When Smaller Is Better for MacBooks

If you already have a desktop or other primary computer, MacBook storage is much less of a concern. Not keeping personal Photos and iTunes purchases around might even boost your productivity. You can save money by opting for a MacBook with just 256GB of space, while relying on your main machine for storage-intensive tasks.

For everyone else wondering how much storage they need for their MacBook: consider how long you expect to use your machine and your storage requirements before you buy. 512GB of space is decent if you don’t plan to install big apps or keep huge photo and video libraries around. If you do, get at least 1TB. Otherwise, you’ll have to add more MacBook space by relying on external drives, the cloud, and network storage.

Meanwhile, the low storage isn’t the only reason to avoid modern base model MacBooks.

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