Best Mac for Students
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Students preparing to head back to school for the spring semester or even embark on a new college journey can benefit from having the right technology at their fingertips. Between desktop Macs, MacBook Pro laptops, and even iPads, choosing the perfect device for school can mean sorting through hundreds of different configurations.
AppleInsider is breaking down your list of options to find the best MacBook for students, whether you're a college student heading off to campus this fall or the parent of a child in elementary school needing a budget-friendly Apple computer for remote learning. From the longest battery life to the lowest Apple prices on machines that offer best-in-class performance, we've got you covered.
Best Performance Laptop: 16-inch MacBook Pro
The 16-inch MacBook Pro still has Intel processors, and when configured with higher-end processors and graphics, it remains the fastest Mac laptop in most cases. Users who want an M-series processor in the big-screen MacBook Pro will have to wait a little longer.
Students who need a bit more power, such as artists and designers, can easily find it here. The large, 16-inch screen provides ample working space at a 3072-by-1920 native resolution, perfect for working in programs like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. The option to upgrade to a Core i9 processor means you'll always have power to spare, regardless of the project.
Depending on what programs students will be running, they have several memory and graphics options available to them. For general use, the base 16 gigabytes of memory will be more than enough for most students and has the added benefit of saving them money. If a student plans on doing extensive video editing or 3D modeling, they can upgrade to either 32 or 64 gigabytes of RAM at an additional cost.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro has a variety of options when it comes to graphics, as well. The base model features an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M card with 4GB of GDDR6 memory, which is sufficient for most users. However, power users may find that upgrading to the AMD Radeon Pro 5600M option gives them better results when working in programs like Maya or AutoCad.
For students in creative majors, such as digital arts and design, we suggest upgrading storage to at least 1TB, if not more. That assures that you won't be butting up against storage caps during finals week. For multi-device users, an iCloud account is recommended, especially for students who like to split between working on a MacBook Pro and an iPad.
Users who need Windows via Bootcamp or prefer multiple monitors will need an Intel-based MacBook Pro. This is still the best overall choice for users who need the biggest portable display, most versatility, and more external monitor support.
As always, it's suggested that prospective students speak to their academic advisors about what sort of computer may best suit their needs.
- High performance
- Long battery life
- Big screen
- Huge footprint
Best Budget-friendly Notebook: 2020 MacBook Air
The MacBook Air with an M1 processor packs a serious punch and even competes with Apple's 16-inch MacBook Pro for single-core performance. You can get a new baseline MacBook Air for $899 with a student discount. The 13.3-inch retina display will display your notes and video in brilliant colors at a high 2560-by-1600 resolution.
There are two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the side, which means you can charge your device and connect an external drive or peripheral at the same time. The M1 processor limits this laptop to connecting to a single external display up to 6K.
Because it weighs in at only 2.8 pounds, your back will thank you as you move about the campus during the day. Customers can configure the Apple Silicon based MacBook Air with 8GB or 16GB of RAM and between 256GB and 2TB of internal storage.
The MacBook Air has no fan, has a slim and light chassis, and remains one of the best MacBooks for the money. The M1 also gives users an extended battery life of up to 20 hours on a single charge, so no matter how long the school day you'll have plenty of battery left.
- Low price
- Small form factor
- Only two ports
- Fanless design limits peak processing
Best Portable Computer: 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro
Whether you're a commuter, living in a dorm, or simply want the option to take your MacBook Pro to class, the best all-around choice is the new 13-inch MacBook Pro. It combines portability with enough power for nearly any project most students will encounter.
The small size means it fits easily into most backpacks and laptop bags, but the 2560-by-1600 native resolution allows for ample working space. This makes it ideal for writing papers or working in your college's course management system, and the gorgeous retina display is ideal for streaming your favorite Apple TV+ shows.
This MacBook has several different storage options to choose from. We suggest that students upgrade to the one terabyte storage option, which allows them to store papers, projects, and pictures without fear of butting up against the storage capacity. For users who save a lot of music or video files, we suggest at least two terabytes to be safe.
The introduction of the M1 processor changes how students should choose their MacBooks. The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a fan, which means the M1 can run longer at higher loads without throttling, and has 8-cores instead of 7 for better multi-core performance. What this means is that students designing games or editing film will be able to process larger projects faster over time than what the fanless MacBook Air can handle.
You can configure the 13-inch MacBook Pro with 8GB or 16GB of RAM and between 256GB and 2TB of internal storage. There are only two Thunderbolt 3 ports and you can only connect a single external monitor up to 6K.
Users who need more monitors, external GPUs, or Windows emulation should look to the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
If you're not sure what upgrades you should pick, your academic advisor or a professor in your major should be able to help point you in the right direction.
- Smaller size
- M1 runs without limits with a fan
- Best combination of size vs performance
- High starting price when compared to similar MacBook Air
- Only one external monitor
Best Desktop Mac: 27-inch iMac 5K
We might all want a MacBook Pro, but if you can live without the portability, then invariably –– invariably –– a desktop computer will give you more performance, more power, and more storage than a laptop for the same price. Plus, no MacBook Pro can match the screen of a 27-inch iMac.
That clearly makes this machine a perfect buy for arts, graphics, or media students. However, you don't need to be running Photoshop or Final Cut Pro X to appreciate the benefits of an exceptional screen.
Plus, the way the 27-inch iMac 5K is effectively a slim screen with a computer hidden inside it, means that it's a great buy for a small dorm. You could do with a good lock on that dorm, but you couldn't do better than this iMac.
The same iMac range does include a 21-inch model, with a screen that is optionally 4K, but it isn't recommended. The 27-inch version doesn't just come with six more inches of screen diagonally, it comes with higher resolution, and processors up to 8-core Intel Core i9.
The 21.5-inch iMac can have up to six cores and Intel Core i7. The non-Retina edition has only two cores and an Intel Core i5 processor. The 27-inch model easily beats both of these with its graphics processor options, too.
- Large high-resolution displays
- Highly configurable and upgradable
- Choose your own mouse and keyboard
- Not portable
- Still ships with slow HDD or Fusion Drives in lower-tier models
- Old design that might be changed in next update
Best Desktop Mac on a Budget: Mac mini
The Mac mini is officially a desktop, but it's small enough that you could move it around easily. You wouldn't take it to class, and you couldn't do much with it once you got there, but when you need to move where you set up your work, its small size is convenient. And it belies just how powerful the tiny Mac for students can be.
You do have to buy a separate screen, keyboard, and mouse or trackpad, however. And while the entry-level version now comes with 256GB of SSD storage, that's still not excessive.
This may be the cheapest Mac on the market, but because it has an M1 processor, it rivals even the high-end 16-inch MacBook Pro. Due to having an additional HDMI port, you can connect two monitors to this Apple Silicon based Mac.
- Semi-portable in small casing
- Choose your own monitor, keyboard, and mouse
- Many ports
- 256GB at entry model is untenable
- Less ports than Intel variant
iPad Pro, the Mac Alternative for Education
If your coursework can be accomplished via a web app or you do not need any specific desktop-based applications, you may want to try an iPad for school. If you're using an iPad for schoolwork, you'll likely want a keyboard and trackpad as well, which does add to the overall cost.
Of course, there is also the option of buying the iPad as an add-on device and use it as a small note-taking tablet with Apple Pencil or as an extended display for your Mac with SideCar. However, should you decide to take advantage of the iPad, the device can significantly enhance any workflow.
As a reminder, the iPad can only run apps from the App Store, so you'll need to ensure you can perform your classwork from the iPad before purchasing the device.
The 10.2-inch iPad has a retina display and lacks some of the more pro-level features to drive the price down. It supports the first-generation Apple Pencil and Apple's Smart Keyboard. The current iPad has an A10 Fusion chip that is still supported by iPadOS and can easily run modern applications.
This is the perfect device for a young student just starting out, and Apple pushes this device for education markets. The base model has 32GB of storage for $329, but it is recommended you upgrade to the 128GB option for $100 more.
The iPad Air is Apple's best iPad that still has Touch ID. It has a laminated 10.9-inch display and supports the second-generation Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard. Its A14 Bionic chip delivers a similar experience to what is found on the pro models with the new flat-sided design.
You'll likely want the iPad Air if you don't want to spend more on the pro models or just want to use it as a secondary computer. The iPad Air starts at $599 with 64GB of storage, but as with the base iPad, it might be wise to upgrade the memory to the next tier. The 256GB model is $749.
The iPad mini is essentially the iPad Air crammed into a 7.9-inch display. There is no Smart Keyboard, but the first-generation Apple Pencil is compatible. The $399 price gets you 64GB, and upgrade to 256GB for $549. The A12 Bionic is used in this model and excels in the smaller display.
The iPad mini is a versatile device. You can attach a keyboard and use it as a miniature computer, or carry it in your pocket with the Pencil and have a portable-digital notepad.
The iPad Pro is Apple's flagship tablet, and the company promotes it as a fully capable Mac alternative. You could use it as a second display or notepad like with the other models, but as these devices cost as much as a MacBook Air or Mac mini, you'll likely want it for more.
The A12Z Bionic, LiDAR camera and full-screen 120Hz display set the iPad Pro apart. Apple also offers a unique keyboard called the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro, and it features scissor-switch keys and a trackpad on a thin-designed case. Combine this with the second-generation Apple Pencil, and you'll have a laptop/tablet combo that takes whatever shape you need on the fly.
All iPad models can be configured with cellular for a $150 price increase at purchase.
Best Mac for students depends on individual needs
Ultimately, the best MacBook for students — or even iMac or iPad Pro — is dependent on each person's particular needs, including grade level, college major, learning environment (remote vs in-person) and budget. To all the students out there, we wish you the best of luck as you hit the books for the spring semester.