2018 Back to School Buyers Guide: Should you pick Apple's iPad or Mac for college?

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You're going back to school this fall, and you need a new computer. If you've chosen Apple, you've got a few options for what to buy: You can get a Mac, or an iPad. AppleInsider discusses which is the right device for you.

All of those choices have advantages and disadvantages, but with either one, you'll have the advantage of portability, as well as not needing to depend on a large, bulky desktop computer, as previous generations were.

Apple has attempted to dominate the education market for computers for most of its existence, and deals it made with elementary and secondary schools were a big part of the company's growth in the early 1980s. When the Macintosh arrived, Apple reached agreements with numerous universities to get that product into college classrooms.

Apple, however, began losing its education advantage as time passed, and by 2017, had fallen to third place in the education marketplace behind Google and Microsoft, who offer cheaper devices.

The company, as of earlier this year, has begun a push to get back its mojo in that regard, starting with a March "Field Trip" event in Chicago, where it both emphasized its education efforts and introduced a new, $329 iPad aimed at the educational market.

"For 40 years, Apple has helped teachers unleash the creative potential in every student," Apple's education website states. "And today, we do that in more ways than ever. Not only with powerful products, but also with tools, inspiration, and curricula to help you create magical learning experiences."

This is the first full school year since Apple's renewed education push, so let's take a look at the pros and cons of each option.

The case for iPad

The advantages of an iPad for educational use begin with portability, and cost.

You can, of course, carry an iPad with you everywhere you want, with relative ease, whether home or to class. The iPad, no matter what size, is light and doesn't take up a lot of space.

2018 iPad

The iPad starts at $329, for the new 2018 version, with Wi-Fi only and 32GB of storage. The iPad mini starts at $399 for the 128GB Wi-Fi version, while the least expensive, 10.5-inch iPad Pro starts at $649 for the 64GB Wi-Fi edition. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro starts at $799, also for 64GB.

However, with Apple's student discounts, the iPad starts at $309, the iPad mini 4 at $379 and the iPad Pro at $629. The greatest savings, though, can be found at Apple authorized resellers thanks to cash discounts and tax incentives, regardless of whether you're a student, teacher or staff member.

Apple's latest 2018 iPad is periodically on sale for as low as $299, while the iPad Pro is routinely discounted by up to $250 off. Many resellers do not collect sales tax on most orders with free shipping as well. For a large number of students and parents, this can equate to an additional $25 to $100 in savings compared to buying from Apple.

If you're using the iPad as your primary device, a keyboard is a must. All of the latest models work with Bluetooth keyboards, most of which run around $100, while both iPad Pro models are compatible with smart keyboards ($159 and $169, for the two sizes). Additionally, the new 2018 iPad is compatible with the Apple Pencil ($99), as well as with all apps that support that accessory.

Brydge Bluetooth Keyboard for Apple's 10.5 inch iPad Pro
Brydge Bluetooth Keyboard for Apple's 10.5" iPad Pro

But beyond that, as time goes on, there are more and more things that students can do with iPads. At the March event, Apple unveiled an updated iWork suite, a new version of Garage Band and debuted the new Digital Books app.

It's very clear that Apple is highly committed to pushing the iPad for education. On Apple's education homepage, nearly every photo contains an iPad, and there are no photos included of any other Apple device. So if you're going by Apple's priorities, that's a clue.

As demonstrated by this AppleInsider video from last August, the latest iPad Pro can be had for $1,167, if you choose the $799 256GB edition and toss in a $99 Apple Pencil and $169 Smart Keyboard — less than a 12-inch MacBook. It also marked the first iPad to ever beat out a MacBook in Geekbench benchmark performance:

The Case for Mac

Macbook Pro original hands-on

When it comes to the Mac, the advantage starts with power, and features. Macs, in most cases, offer a better processor, a bigger and higher-resolution screen, considerably more RAM and storage, and more ports.

For all that, though, you'll be paying a lot more. The least expensive MacBook is the 13-inch MacBook Air, which starts at $999 MSRP, but can be found on sale for as low as $799. The standard MacBook starts at $1,299, as does the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the latter which offers a beefier dual-core 7th-generation processor and multiple USB-C ports. Both the MacBook and the MacBook Pro are on sale now, with the 13-inch Pro priced as low as $1,149 for a limited time. For most users, this makes it a better buy than the 12-inch MacBook at this point in the back-to-school shopping season.

As for desktop iMacs, the 21.5-inch model starts at $1,099, with the 27-inch model beginning at $1,799. The 27-inch version offers, in addition to the larger screen, a Retina 5K display, better processors and a Fusion Drive of up to 3TB. With back-to-school discounts in effect at Apple authorized resellers, students can get into a 2017 iMac for as low as $999.

The more expensive iMac Pro retails for much higher than the iMac HD and 5K, with a starting price of $4,999. Overall, iMacs sacrifice portability, but add a great deal of computing power in exchange. If you're not going into a computationally demanding curriculum, it's hard to recommend the iMac Pro for back to school. It is a lot of power, but it is also total overkill for 99 percent of Mac users. However, if you do need more than four cores, AppleInsider partner Adorama is offering AI readers up to $500 off every single iMac Pro with no interest financing when paid in full within 12 months.

Apple's Mac Pro and Mac mini are also still available, but unless something changes dramatically, we can't really recommend them to anybody for educational purposes. Neither the Mac mini nor the Mac Pro are current, and both haven't seen an update in years.

How to save money as a student

Apple's advertised student discounts

With Apple's student discounts, the cheapest MacBook Air begins at $849, with the MacBook and MacBook Pro at $1,249, the iMac at $1,049 and iMac Pro at $4,599.

According to Apple, student discounts are "available to current and newly accepted college students and their parents, as well as faculty, staff, and homeschool teachers of all grade levels."

However, as mentioned above, additional savings can be found at Apple authorized resellers — and the discounts are valid for everyone, not just college students and faculty. These retailers, which sell the same factory sealed systems as Apple, offer a variety of incentives from instant rebates to sales tax that's collected in only a handful of states. It pays to shop around and compare prices in the AppleInsider Price Guide for deals on every current Mac and a variety of closeout configs. Supplies are growing increasingly limited on 2015 iMacs and 2016 MacBook Pros, but many configs still remain with discounts of up to $1,600 off. For students on a budget, this can free up cash for textbooks, tuition and more.


When it comes to deciding which is better for you, iPad or Mac, a lot of depends on what you most value. If you prefer power and features, the Mac is your best choice. If portability, and affordability is more important, than you're better off choosing the iPad.

You can almost certainly do more with a Mac, but Apple's latest iPad and iPad Pro are great for annotating and note-taking, especially when paired with the Apple Pencil.

Where to buy

If you're shopping for a new Mac or iPad for high school or college, be sure to check out our Price Guides linked below to find the best deals and lowest prices on Apple hardware. Updated throughout the day, shoppers can redeem exclusive coupon discounts, as well as instant rebates on current and closeout models at Apple authorized resellers. Many retailers also only collect sales tax in a handful of states and tack on free expedited shipping to a number of products, further adding to the benefits of shopping online.

Need help redeeming an offer? Send us a note at [email protected] and we will do our best to assist.

iPad Price Guides

MacBook Price Guides

iMac Price Guides