Best MacBook for Students 2016: Air or Pro?

For college and high school students, parents are often wondering which Apple MacBook should they invest in: Is the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro better for school? And which model? The answers are easy, it turns out — here’s how to choose the best MacBook for students.

If you’re on a budget — and since most students are on tight budgets — you can narrow the MacBook options to five choices:

  • 11-inch MacBook Air
  • 13-inch MacBook Air
  • 12-inch MacBook with Retina display
  • 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display
  • 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro

Let’s take a closer look at each MacBook for students option.

MacBook Air for Portability

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The MacBook Air offers great portability and battery life. The 11-inch MacBook Air weighs just 2.36 pounds and has up to 9 hours of battery life for about $899 (often less at B&H). The 13-inch MacBook Air weighs 2.96 pounds and offers up to 12 hours of battery life for about $999 (often less at B&H). Both of these models contain essentially the same processing capabilities:

  • 4GB of memory
  • 128GB of storage
  • 1.4-to-1.6 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache

While the 11-inch MacBook Air costs less and is lighter, the 13-inch MacBook Air is more versatile — you get a bigger screen with more working space (handy when papers and projects are due), as well as an SDXC card slot (handy for importing photos and video from cameras). Plus, you get 3 more hours of battery usage (12 hrs), and every student I’ve ever seen can appreciate extra battery life. Both models, of course, can power an external monitor in addition to their own built-in screens.

Enter 12-inch MacBook with Retina Display

Apple just announced a new 12-inch MacBook with Retina display. It uses new energy efficient processors, has a new Force Touch trackpad that’s cool (but not particularly important to applications yet), and it comes with 256GB of storage and 8GB of memory for a starting price of $1,299. Basically, it’s a slightly smaller, slightly lighter 11-inch MacBook Air with a higher price . . . but with a super-sharp Retina screen. It only has one port for power, display, and storage, so you’ll likely end up buying adapters for your student for simple things like standard USB thumb drives. That said, it’s gorgeous and super ultra portable — but not more practical for students.

Recommendation: If you’re a student who’s really on-the-go and wants a super light Mac, the 13-inch MacBook Air is still the best buy — unless the previous generation ‘Early 2015’ MacBook is on a closeout sale and you want a Retina display.

Not So Fast: What About the MacBook Pro?

While the MacBook Air offers the best portability and battery life, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display offers the best blend of power, portability, and long-term usability. Why? For starters, the Retina display offers Apple’s next-generation display tech, and it creates a super-sharp viewing experience. Now, the standard screens are very good, but Retina is better. If you can afford it, Retina displays are tantalizing — particularly ones 13-inches and larger.

There’s more to like about the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, though, namely a faster processor (2.6 GHz or more) and more memory (8GB). These two features basically mean that a student has room to grow when it comes to computing power — and a faster processor with more memory will run faster in 3-to-4 years as applications become more complicated.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display offers 9 hours of battery life and it weighs just 3.46 pounds — so it’s almost as light and slim as a 13-inch MacBook Air. Plus, the very latest “early 2015” update to the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display includes Apple’s new Force Touch trackpad (which lets you do things like push harder to make a video fast forward faster).

Recommendation: All-in-all, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which costs about $1,299 (often less at B&H), offers the best overall value for most any student. If you can afford it, just get one and move on.

Meanwhile, what about the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display? For a laptop that flirts with the $2,000 mark, the 15-incher is hard to recommend for most students. Is it bigger and better? Oh yeah. Drool worthy for sure. But it’s also heavier and bulkier. Invest in this bad boy workhorse only for serious computer users.

The Dark Horse MacBook Pro

Apple still offers one of its previous generation 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pros — and the company just dropped the price by $100. The 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro is particularly popular among Windows switchers, who tend to appreciate its lower cost — $1,099 — and easily upgradable set of features. While this non-Retina MacBook Pro ships with 4GB of memory, you can easily upgrade to 8GB or even 16GB in the future (you can’t upgrade memory in MacBook Air or MacBook Pros with Retina displays, unfortunately). And the storage? The non-Retina MacBook Pro ships with a 500GB hard drive. While this hard drive is slow (the newer Macs use faster flash-based storage, a.k.a. SSDs) you can upgrade it easily, too, popping in a super-fast SSD drive for a couple hundred dollars . . . or even loading up on 960GB of flash-based storage.

Plus, the non-Retina MacBook Pro still has a DVD/CD SuperDrive, which is handy for some people (if you don’t want it, a student could replace the SuperDrive with a second hard drive for backups or additional storage space).

And the screen? The non-Retina MacBook Pro screen is pretty good, but it’s not Retina. Either way, it will still power an external display to give a student more working space. As for portability, it’s not bad — 4.5 pounds and up to 7 hours of battery life.

The 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro trades weight and a bulky form factor in favor of lots of storage and easily upgradeable flexibility. You can upgrade the hard drive to a faster SSD drive in a couple of years and beef up your memory, too. Out of the box, it competes well against the MacBook Airs, but once you upgrade it, it will blow them away with power and storage.

Still Can’t Decide Which MacBook Is Best for Your Student?

Here’s the bottom line recommendations for finding the best MacBook for students:

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display offers the best mix of Apple technology in an easily portable form factor. It costs a bit more, but that cost, over four years, isn’t too bad.

The 13-inch MacBook Air is best for students with basic computing needs who value super-light portability over long-term computing power. The price is right, too.

The 12-inch MacBook with Retina display is best for students who may need a super-sharp Retina screen in addition to ultimate portability.

The 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro is great for Windows switchers who want great power at a great price — and want the ability to upgrade their machine as their needs grow and change.

The important thing here is not to obsess over this decision — I’ve done the obsessing for you. Go with your budget and your gut and you’ll be fine. Each of these MacBooks feature the same Apple build quality. They all come with the same free applications, and they all will be eligible to upgrade to the next (free) generation of Apple’s operating system whenever Apple releases it. (And third-party case manufacturers build protective cases for all of them.)

There is really no wrong move here.

Check Pricing on MacBooks for Students:

Note: The “early 2015” models have been updated with faster storage and a slightly better graphics processor. The updates are nice, but frankly, most people won’t notice much of a difference. B&H still has some stacked 2014 models available with sweet discounts.

The iMac and Mac Mini Alternatives

While you can usually get into a Mac mini for $599 or less, you’ll need to bring along your own keyboard, mouse, and display. Only buy the Mac mini if you want a Mac for the least possible cost of entry. And the iMac? Get the affordable 21.5-inch iMac with Retina 4K Display. So why buy these instead of a MacBook for students? If your student plans to use an iPad for on-the-go computing, a stay-at-home Mac is a good choice, offering a great base for major homework, projects, and photo/video storage.


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About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.