Best Mac for Students
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Best Mac for students overview
Students preparing to head back to school this fall or even embarking 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 August 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 with an M1 Pro or M1 Max processor is at the top of its class in terms of power and efficiency. While this laptop comes at a high price, it will serve any prospective student for years to come thanks to its premium design and years of guaranteed software updates.
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 3456-by-2234 native resolution, perfect for working in programs like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. The option to upgrade to a M1 Max processor and 64GB of RAM 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 16GB 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 32GB or 64GB of RAM at an additional cost.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro uses processors with integrated graphics systems made by Apple. The M1 Pro has a 16-core GPU while the M1 Max has a 32-core GPU. Upgrading to the M1 Max may be expensive, but it is worth it to cut production times on complex projects.
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.
The new 16-inch MacBook Pro with Apple Silicon has a host of new features that will benefit any user, especially students. The mini-LED backlit display means more accurate black levels. Plus, there's multiple port options like HDMI and an SD card slot for maximum compatibility.
Users who need Windows via Bootcamp or prefer multiple monitors will need an Intel-based MacBook Pro. Some retailers still carry Intel versions of the MacBook Pro, but those supplies are dwindling.
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: M1 MacBook Air
The M1 MacBook Air packs a serious punch and even competes with high-end Intel machines in single-core performace. 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: 14-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 14-inch MacBook Pro. It combines portability with more than enough power for any project most students will encounter.
The small size means it fits easily into most backpacks and laptop bags, but the 3024-by-1964 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 Liquid Retina XDR 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 1TB 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 2TB to be safe.
The M1 Pro and M1 Max are both powerful processor options that will outperform most laptops in the same price range. If price is a factor, however, the M1 in the 13-inch MacBook Pro is still top-of-the-line for most types of student work.
You can configure the 14-inch MacBook Pro with 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of RAM based on which processor is chosen. The thre Thunderbolt 4 ports paired with the HDMI port and SD card slot ensure your student won't be reaching for a dongle just to give a presentation.
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 Pro and M1 Max in a compact form factor
- Best combination of size vs performance
- High starting price when compared to 13-inch MacBook Pro
Best Desktop Mac: 24-inch iMac
The portability and versatility of a MacBook may be desirable for many, but nothing beats a dedicated desktop setup. The 24-inch iMac with M1 processor not only has a great design that will pop out of any workstation, but it is also powerful too.
As with the M1-based MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, the 24-inch iMac can run most applications effortlessly, even if they were built for Intel machines. You'll be lacking Windows virtualization through boot camp, but that should only be an issue for select students.
Apple's updated design makes this a perfect desktop for students. Set this up at your desk or bring it with you to a library since this thin desktop only weighs 9 pounds.
Customers who purchase the 24-inch iMac get color-matched accessories. Depending on the model chosen, the included Magic Keyboard may or may not include Touch ID. At checkout, customers can choose between either a Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad, but cannot get both.
Students who still rely on Intel-based applications and virtualization can also opt for older iMac models. The 21.5-inch iMac and 27-inch iMac both have older designs, but have some useful features like multiple external monitor support.
- Powerful M1 processor
- Thin and light design
- Color-matched accessories
- No option for larger display with redesign
- Attach only one external monitor due to M1
- Minimal port options with only two Thunderbolt ports
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
- Limited to two monitors, one HDMI and one Thunderbolt
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 Apple M1 chip delivers a similar experience to what is found on the pro models with the new flat-sided design. It includes an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU, both of which beef up the device considerably, putting it on par with the higher-end iPad models that are available.
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 Apple Silicon M1 chip, LiDAR camera — and in the case of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the new Liquid Retina XDR 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.
The 11-inch iPad Pro is $799, and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is $1,099 for 128GB of storage. This can be increased up to 1TB of storage in either for a $500 increase.
All 2021 iPad Pro models can be configured with cellular for a $200 price increase at purchase. New for 2021 is support for 5G.
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 new semester.