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2018 Back to School Buyers Guide: Choosing the best Apple MacBook or MacBook Pro

Back-to-school season is closing in fast. This means two things: retailers will be running some great deals on Macs and students will be looking to pick up some new laptops as they had back to class. AppleInsider discusses Apple's entire laptop line, and talks about who needs what, and why.

Even on sale, a new laptop can be a significant investment, so it is really important to pick out the right model.

In practice you're going to be tempted to buy the cheapest because you've got all the other costs of being a student to consider. However, a cheap Mac that struggles to do what you need is no saving. AppleInsider examines your options to help you decide what's the best option to spend your money on, and how to save the most on that purchase with price comparison tools.

Take your time. When you first go on Apple's website, it looks like there are ten portables to try to pick from. In truth, it's really only four main models with some quite small extra options.

MacBook Air

Apple MacBook Air

This is the machine Steve Jobs famously pulled out of a regular inter-office mail envelope and wowed us all. That was ten years ago and today you'd struggle to find anyone who still uses those manila envelopes or is quite so wowed by the MacBook Air.

What was impossibly slim then now looks oddly old and not only when you put it next to a newer MacBook which is somehow even slimmer. Yet it's not as if the Air has swelled up into being thicker than it was and instead what's happened is that the price has come down.

True, this is a less powerful portable Mac than any of the other ones available but it's also the cheapest: even without any discounts you can get the MacBook Air from $999.

That is only just squeaking in under a grand and there is reason to spend more: if you pay retail $1,199 instead you get twice the storage space at 256GB SSD. Having an SSD instead of a traditional hard drive is what made the Air's slimness possible but these Solid State Drives are more expensive so they tend to be smaller.

Which means you'll have to be conscious of how much you store on your MacBook Air. It's not going to be roomy or powerful enough to do video editing, for instance.

Then there is the question of the display: it is the poorest of all Apple's current portable screens. It's the only one that isn't Retina quality.

That said, this is also the only model that has older hardware such as an SD card for photographers and familiar USB sockets. It's also the only remaining portable with the once-lauded MagSafe power connector that will simply disconnect instead of breaking when you accidentally knock it.

Of all the laptops, the MacBook Air also happens to have the longest battery life, reaching 12-13 hours. That is about 3 hours above the others. With current sale prices, anyone can get into an Air for as low as $829 if you shop around. If you're a student or working in education then Apple itself is selling the Air from $849.



Most Affordable

Greatest range of ports like USB


Longest Battery Life


Non-retina screen

Least powerful option

Target user: Students who want an affordable and portable Mac that is able to handle most tasks that they throw at it.


Apple 12 inch MacBook

If portability is the most important, then Apple's 12-inch MacBook is a great choice. It is super slim, and has the smallest overall footprint. Even with its diminutive size, the screen is only an inch smaller than the 13" MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

This is probably the most ideal machine to tote around campus, easily fitting on undersized desks and in bags without adding much weight.

Apple paired a beautiful Retina Display with this miniaturized design, which is great to check out any photos you've taken with friends.

In order to achieve such a small, lightweight, and fan-free design, the processor and graphics power here is a bit lacking. It will still be able to easily handle any task targeted at a student but video editors should look elsewhere and gamers probably must. This isn't to say that it is slow, not by any means: it has quick flash memory paired with a Core M or i7 processor to make most tasks lightning fast.

As long as graphics-heavy applications aren't necessary, the MacBook is a solid option between super-svelt design and reasonable price, at least in the Apple world. Current discounts at Apple authorized resellers knock up to $150 off the base model, bringing the entry price down to $1,149.


Blend of affordability and portability

Super slim and lightweight

Beautiful display



Not as much oomph as the MacBook Pro

Target user: Campus traversing students who like to always have their laptop with them (and not even notice), without sacrificing design or display.

MacBook Pro

2018 MacBook Pro Touch Bar

If price weren't an issue, this is what you'd get. It is heavier and thicker than either the MacBook or the MacBook Air but it's still light and thin. Plus while there is a little range in power and features, overall any model of the MacBook Pro is the fastest, most powerful and outright best Apple portable you can get. Plus as the flagship of the range, it has recently been updated.

It is, though, the one type of Apple portable that needs more consideration than the MacBook or MacBook Air because it comes both in two sizes and one major option. You can buy a MacBook Pro in 13-inch or 15-inch size — and this is the only Apple portable you can get as 15-inch - and then you have to decide whether to get a version with Touch Bar and Touch ID.

The Touch Bar is particularly good for people new to Macs or who haven't dug into keyboard shortcuts yet: it shows features and options of your software especially clearly.

Touch ID brings the iPhone-style way of unlocking and of paying in online stores: it's hard to argue that you need it but it's very good when you've got it.

Just deciding to buy the Touch ID and Touch Bar versions adds $500 to the price but that comes with other benefits. The more expensive MacBook Pros come with a better screen: it's the same Retina-quality one but with True Tone which adjust display color and brightness to fit your surroundings.

Then while this requires even more money, it is only the Touch Bar models of the MacBook Pro that are capable of being expanded to have 32GB RAM and 4TB of SSD.

Anyone seeking pro-level graphics and processors will find a home in the Pro models, including gamers, video and photo editors, developers, and more. While the six-core i7 and i9 processors do run hot, the machines are still a nice boost from the 2017, and a bigger one still from the 2016.

We'll be diving very deep on the thermal situation further very soon and what use cases are impacted and which are not. But, even as it stands today, concerns about thermals shouldn't dissuade you from seeking the power that the six-core laptops deliver.

If you were looking for the latest and greatest, you've now found it. And even though 2018 models recently hit store shelves, shoppers can save an additional $150 to $250 when ordering online with AI's exclusive coupon compared to buying direct from Apple. Many Apple authorized resellers also will not collect sales tax in most states, potentially saving students up to $785 on the latest models.


Most powerful

Touch Bar and Touch ID

Thunderbolt 3

Most upgradable

13" and 15" options


Most expensive

May be overkill for student use

Target user: Academics looking to make the most of their Mac, not sacrificing speed or graphics for the larger size (and price). Perfect to make use for gaming, video editing, or coding.

Grab your gear

Apple MacBook back to school buyers guide

It can certainly be a daunting decision in picking out a new laptop, especially as Apple has increased their options over the years. Apple has now has an affordable model starting under a grand (MacBook Air), an insanely portable, though still capable model (MacBook), as well as two sizes of exceptionally capable professional level models (MacBook Pro), filling nearly any niche out there.

You now know enough, though, to make an informed decision based on what you've read about the models as well as what budget you already have. If you can, however, try a couple of models out in the Apple Store. Anecdotally, for instance, we know one heavy MacBook user who adores the keyboard on the 13-inch MacBook Pro but dislikes it on the 15-inch. It's the same keyboard. We've tried telling him.

Also, check out the screen quality on any machine you consider buying but remember that Apple sets the display to its highest resolution settings. That can be perfect for you or it can make everything seem too unworkably small.

This could be an issue with ageing eyes — and you're a student so possibly you won't be all that bothered by it. Yet, if you do find the text or tools shown on a display to be uncomfortably small, remember that you can adjust the screen settings to suit you.

That all suggest you could spend quite some time trying things out in an Apple Store, but if you're in the market for a portable, don't delay.

Ways to save

Apple also just launched their annual Back to School program, which gives eligible shoppers a free pair of Beats Solo3 Wireless headphones, a nice touch for any student. It's also 20 percent off AppleCare insurance and currently up to $200 off a Mac - if you're an education user.

For the greatest savings, though, Apple authorized resellers are knocking up to $250 off 2018 MacBook Pros and up to $1,600 off closeout models, regardless of whether you're a student or faculty member. Sales tax incentives are also available at B&H Photo and Adorama, as both retailers will not collect sales tax on orders shipped outside New York and New Jersey*. For discounts on additional Mac models, including coupon savings on Apple's 12-inch MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Air, please visit our Price Guides shown below.

Be sure to also check out our desktop back-to-school buyers guide and our Mac vs. iPad back-to-school guide for additional hardware options.

Mac Price Guides