2019 Back to School Buyers' Guide: Choosing the best Apple MacBook Air or MacBook Pro
We're well into the Back to School season and Apple's made some significant changes to its notebooks which have simplified some decisions — but made others harder.
If you're very organized and weeks ago bought an Apple notebook for your studies, or for the student in your life, don't read on. There's always a deal to be had, you know that, but this time as well as retailers offering various discounts and Apple throwing in things like headphones, Apple also reworked its whole lineup.
Even with specifications going up, prices going down, and certain machines simply disappearing, it's still possible to narrow down the range to your perfect notebook.
Price is a factor, of course and always, but what the machine costs can only be one part of your buying decision. Find the ideal notebook for what you're going to be doing in your studies, and then see how close you can get to that with your budget and our price comparison tools.
Right now, one result of Apple's recent reworking of its lineup is that you have just two types of notebook to pick from. Within the MacBook Air model, you have limited options about storage, and with the MacBook Pro you have more to consider regarding screen size.
But, very broadly, you have two options. Two Apple notebooks, both alike in dignity — but usually different in price and features. If they were always different, it might make choosing an easier job. Instead, think about each model and then about where the line between them is.
The new MacBook Air is the cheapest Mac notebook you can buy and that's obviously always appealing, but perhaps never more so than when you're starting studying and have countless other expenses.
It's not a poor choice, either. For $1,099 or, with student discount, $999, this is a very good Mac notebook, and Apple's recent changes have made it even better.
The old MacBook Air with its large bezels around the screen, and with that screen being noticeably low resolution, is gone. The new MacBook Air has a Retina display, a faster processor and it is now also the slimmest, lightest 13-inch notebook Apple makes.
Unless your course is going to require you to do video work or possibly very high-end complex music processing, the MacBook Air is going to be all you need.
Except for one thing. That $999 model comes with 128GB SSD storage and it's not enough.
Everyone tells you this and everyone is serious, yet you can't help see the price of a bigger SSD and reckon you'll be okay. Don't be a hero. We've done this and we've regretted it.
Plus, Apple has also reduced the cost of its SSD upgrades from painful to just sore. So if you buy a MacBook Air, get at least the 256GB version and pay $1,299.
That's obviously a price increase of $200, but there is also a 512GB version for another $200, and a 1TB SSD for yet another $200. That would make the MacBook Air $1,699 retail and you wouldn't thank us for that today. But the closer you can afford to get to that, the more you will thank us later.
There is a similar issue over RAM, in that by default the MacBook Air ships with 8GB and you can upgrade that to 16GB. The more RAM you have, the better, and also the longer your machine will last as a useful device. However, there is a further reason to at least consider increasing RAM now, and it's that you cannot later.
Whatever you get at order is what you're stuck with forever, and while we'd argue that 8GB is fine, there's no question but that 16GB is better.
Except of course the more you spend on a MacBook Air, the more you're heading into MacBook Pro territory. If you're going to spend more, it makes sense to at least look at the machine that will give you more beyond storage and RAM.
- Least powerful option
Target user: regular students and particularly ones who have to move around their campus a lot.
The best processor you can get for the MacBook Air, and therefore the greatest performance you'll see in the machine, is a dual-core Intel Core i5. With the MacBook Pro, the least you get is a quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5.
MacBook Pro will handle video editing so it will handle anything your studies can ask of it.
You have to handle the machine, though, and how it is noticeably bigger and heavier than a MacBook Air. We're careful to say noticeable there, rather than significant, because on paper the differences are small.
At its thickest, the MacBook Air is 0.61 inches tall, where the 15-inch MacBook is the same and the 13-inch model is 0.59 inches.
Where the MacBook Air weighs 2.75 pounds, the 13-inch MacBook is 3.02 pounds and the 15-inch model is 4.02 pounds.
Each of the machines is small and light, but you will notice these differences and it will affect where you lug the machine to each day. You're more likely to carry your MacBook Air in case you might need it, than you are to do the same with your 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Still, the MacBook Pro has far more options for you. The entry-level model comes with two Thunderbolt ports just as the MacBook Air does, but you could instead opt for a version of the 15-inch model that has four Thunderbolt ports.
Similarly, the MacBook Pro 15-inch can go up to 32GB RAM and 4TB SSD storage, both far in excess of the MacBook Air.
- Most powerful
- Touch Bar
- Most upgradeable (at time of ordering)
- Two screen size options, 13-inch and 15-inch
- Most expensive
- May be overkill for most student use
Target user: Students and academic staff looking to make the most of their Mac.
Blurring the lines
We've previously compared the new 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro in detail, but in summary there's just one particular area of price and features where they blur together.
If what you really need is a desktop Mac in a small package, if your workload as a student is going to pummel your MacBook, you have to choose a MacBook Pro. As expensive as that is — the 15-inch range starts at $2,399 retail, although deals can be had — you are also getting a machine that will outlast your studies and remain a strong working machine.
When you know that you don't need this power, you have to choose a MacBook Air.
It's in the middle where the difficulty lies.
Excluding any deals you can get or student offers, at retail price there is a $1,299 version of a MacBook Air and a $1,299 of a MacBook Pro.
In that case, the MacBook Pro has the edge with its greater processing power. However, the MacBook Air has the edge both in light portability — and storage. That $1,299 gets you the 256GB SSD version but the same price in MacBook Pro includes only 128GB.
We could and would make the same recommendations about bumping up to the next biggest amount of storage, but now we're just spending your money for you.
If it weren't for just one more thing, our summary would be to look at the MacBook Air for portability and the MacBook Pro for power. Then look at the best deals you can get for which one seems right for you.
There is one more thing, though
While Apple dropped it in the recent refresh, you can still get MacBooks. You'll even be able to get them via Apple and its refurb store, at least for a while. And if you hurry, there are startling deals to be had on MacBooks from retailers who are clearing inventory.
Don't buy a MacBook if you need the power of a MacBook Pro, but for regular studies, there is a huge amount to be said in favor of a MacBook instead of a MacBook Air. Especially if you can get a great price.
The price you pay and the machine you get are always the deciding factors, though. As nice as it is to get a free pair of headphones thrown in, for instance, don't let that sway which notebook you go for.
Deals on Apple hardware for everyone, not just students
Apple Authorized Resellers are running sales on Apple products, and many devices are eligible for promo code savings as well. It's worth checking out the Apple Price Guides for the latest discounts and product availability, many of which can save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. If you already know which Mac you want, here's where to find deals on the specific product line of your choice:
MacBook Air deals
13-inch MacBook Pro markdowns
15-inch MacBook Pro discounts