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- > iMac vs Mac mini for college
- > How to save money on a new Mac for school or university
- > Which Mac should you get for university?
Thinking of buying a Mac or MacBook for school, college or university work? Here, in our best Mac for students guide, we take a look at Apple's current Mac line-up to find out which Mac is best for students. We'll examine whether you should get a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro for college, or if another Mac might actually be a better choice.
If you're already at University, or have been offered your place, then you should ensure that you make use of Apple's student discount. You can save hundreds on a MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, iMac Pro or Mac mini at Apple Education Store, the US Education Store or the AU Education Store. Read about how to get a discount from Apple here.
If you're looking for stability, security and a reliable and easy to use operating system then Apple's Mac's come highly recommended. If might seem that Macs are expensive compared to their Windows alternatives, however the added premium is justified, and, as you will see if you read on, you don't have to break the bank to buy one.
Before we begin it's worth casting your eyes over what's available:
MacBook Air: November 2020 saw Apple update the MacBook Air with the first Apple silicon processors. There are two MacBook Air models with the M1 Chip: one offers a 7-core GPU and 8-core CPU, the other a 8-core GPU and 8-core CPU. The MacBook Air starts at £949/$949.
MacBook Pro: There are four 13in MacBook Pro models and two 16in MacBook Pro. It's likely that the 13in models would be sufficient for your needs. The two 2.0GHz models were introduced in May 2020 when they gained faster processors and 16GB RAM as standard. Then in November 2020 Apple updated the two entry level MacBook Pro with the M1 Chips mentioned above.
You might only be interested in a Mac laptop - and in this article we will look into whether the MacBook Air or the MacBook Pro is a better choice for students - but there are other Macs worthy of consideration.
iMac: Apple gave the 27in iMac a processor boost in August 2020. The 21.5in model didn't get a new processor, but it did get a significant change: Apple stopped shipping iMacs with hard drives, which means that all iMacs now come with at least a 256GB SSD - a much better option than a slow hard drive!
Mac mini: The Mac mini was also updated in November 2020 when it gained the M1 Chip like the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. There is still one Mac mini model on sale that offers an Intel processor.
We're sure that you are probably looking for a bargain Mac, and the best Mac bargains are usually on older models. If you see a good discount on an older Mac it's important to be aware of what the newer models offers so that you know what you are missing out on and can judge whether the deal is as good as it appears to be.
Speaking of getting a good deal, families looking for computers to help them home school their children during the Coronavirus pandemic will also be looking to get money off. In the light of that we will also make suggestions about options for renting Macs, buying second hand or refurbished, and other ways you can save money when buying a new Mac.
Best MacBook (or Mac) for college
Choosing the best Mac for college or university depends on what you are going to be studying as well as how much you have to spend.
We've created this student's guide to buying a Mac to help you choose the right Mac for college, school or university. We consider what students are likely to need from their Mac, what features are worth paying more for, and how students can save money on a new Mac.
We also take a look at Apple's range of Macs and the built to order options available that might be useful. Plus, we've collected together some accessories, software and services that could come in handy during your course.
Which Mac to choose depends on what your needs are as a student, and the course you are taking. If you're doing a degree in film and video, or music, or graphic design then it might make sense to also look at one of our other Best Mac For... guides for that subject area:
- Best Mac for graphic design
- Best Mac for making music
- Best Mac for video editing
- Best Mac for app development
- Best Mac for photo editing
We'll look at each Apple laptop option as well as the iMac and Mac mini below.
If you are looking for a Mac for your children to use for school work the MacBook Air or Mac mini might appeal as low cost options, but there are other ways that you might be able to get a more powerful Mac for less money, we'll explain your options below.
How to get a discount on a Mac for university or school
Before we guide you through the options we'll explain how you can save money. There's no avoiding the fact that Macs are an expensive choice for a student, especially when compared with the £300 laptops that you'll find on offer in Tesco and PC World, (or a few hundred dollars from BestBuy). But while those cheaper machines are built down to a price, Apple believes firmly in creating devices that are powerful and meant to last.
To some extent the higher price may be acceptable given that the Mac you buy for school or university should quite happily see you through all the adventures of your course and still be something you'll want to carry on using for a few years afterwards.
But you don't have to pay the full price. If you are a registered student you'll be able to get a discount on a new Mac if you shop in Apple's Education Store. You can find out all about it in more detail in our Apple Education Store explainer, but in short it'll get you money off your Mac and it's well worth it! You can visit the Apple Education Store now by clicking here, but you'll need to have proof that you are a student in order to access it. If you are in the US click here for the US Education Store. There's also an Australian Education Store
Apple's Education Store usually offers a Back to School deal during the summer months. Between June and 29 October 2020 in the UK and US the company gave away a pair of Apple AirPods to students buying new Macs or iPads. Similarly in January 2021 Apple started to offer the same deal to students in Australia and New Zealand as they started their new school year - that deal will run out in March.
Despite it being named 'Back to School' this is not a deal open to school children. Apple's name for the sale event refers to university, which some Americans call school. Schools can shop in the Apple Education store, but parents shopping for Macs for their children cannot take advantage of the lower prices.
Luckily there are also other ways to save money on getting a new Mac to take to university including shopping in Apple's refurbished store or purchasing a Mac second hand. You can also see some great discounts on new and old models from Apple resellers - we have a round up of the best MacBook Pro deals here and some MacBook Air deals here.
Mac laptop vs Mac desktop for college
Student life normally involves a far amount of mobility - travelling to lectures, libraries, the occasional coffee shop, and then possibly home for weekends and term breaks - so it makes a good deal of sense to consider a laptop rather than a desktop Mac.
While the screen sizes in MacBooks are smaller than iMacs, you can always buy a cheap screen, or even your TV, and connect that to your MacBook when you need a larger display. Or, if you also have an iPad, you might be able to link your iPad to your Mac and use the iPad screen too (here's how to use your iPad as a second screen for your Mac).
However, there are some benefits to buying a Mac desktop. The Mac mini, for example, is Apple's cheapest Mac despite having some pretty impressive specs. And if you are looking for the most power for the lowest price then the iMac will generally beat the MacBook Pro. At a push you could use an iPad for taking notes when you are at lectures. Speaking of which, we have this guide to the best iPad for students.
What not to get
Two Macs that's easy to take off your shopping list are the Mac Pro and iMac Pro. These are more powerful (and more expensive) machines than the average student will need. Unless you really are involved in some heavy number crunching or professional-level video editing, you won't need the sort of power those machines provide. And, if you do, maybe your university has one in the lab.
In a field like 3D animation you maybe enticed by a high-end 16in MacBook Pro or 27in iMac (if portability isn't important to you). But in the vast majority of cases you can confidently opt for a cheaper model.
MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro for college
It's likely that this is the question you are hoping to get an answer to: should I buy a MacBook Air or the MacBook Pro? We compare the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro in detail here, but from the perspective of a student, here's what you'll want to keep in mind:
The MacBook Pro are more expensive and more powerful Mac laptops than the Air. If bought new, the range starts from £1,299/$1,299 for the 13in MacBook Pro and goes up to £2,799/$2,799 for the top-of-the-range 16in version.
Here's what's on offer right now:
- M1 MacBook Pro, 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 256GB or 512GB storage, 8GB RAM, two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports From £1,299/$1,299
- 13in, 2.0GHz quad-core 10th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.8GHz), 512GB or 1TB storage, Iris Plus Graphics, 16GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory, four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. From £1,799/$1,799
- 16in, 2.6GHz six-core 9th-gen Core i7 (Turbo Boost 4.5GHz), 512GB storage, Radeon Pro 555X Graphics, 16GB 2666MHz DDR4 memory, four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. From £2,399/$2,399
- 16in, 2.3GHz eight-core 9th-gen Core i9 (Turbo Boost 4.8GHz), 1TB storage, Radeon Pro 560X Graphics, 16GB 2666MHz DDR4 memory, four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. From £2,799/$2,799
Prior to November 2020 Apple was selling a 13in MacBook Pro with 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5, 256GB or 512GB storage, Iris Plus 645 Graphics, 8GB RAM and two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. You may still find this on sale. The new model is a lot more powerful, so unless it is a really good discount we would recommend buying the newer M1 model.
There are two versions of the M1 MacBook Pro to choose from: one has 256GB of storage while the other has 512GB but costs an extra £200/$200.
There are also two other 13in MacBook Pro models - these have 10th-generation Intel processors. Another thing that these mid-range MacBook Pros offer is 16GB RAM as standard, to the entry-level model's 8GB. You could of course increase the RAM in the entry level - a build-to-order option that will add £200/$200 to the price.
As we discuss in our comparison of the M1 and Intel MacBook Pro and based on our tests - in which the M1 models actually prove themselves faster than the Intel models - we would recommend the M1 MacBook Pro over the 2.0GHz Intel models, unless you really need to stick with Intel. For advice read: Should I buy an Intel Mac and Should I buy an M1 Mac.
Another benefit that the M1 MacBook Pro boasts is the best battery life for any Mac laptop at 20 hours. This beats the MacBook Air by 2 hours, and leaves the older models behind. The 2.0GHz MacBook Pro only claims 10 hours so this is a definite if you are likely to be spending long days on campus without your power adaptor.
That entry-level MacBook Pro comes with two Thunderbolt 3 ports (which double up as USB 4) while the 2.0GHz MacBook Pro has four Thunderbolt /USB-C ports). You won't find the older USB-A port on any new Mac laptop. If you want USB-A ports you would have to consider a second-hand Mac laptop, or a desktop Mac, get an adaptor, or just get rid of your old mouse and keyboard and go wireless. Here's our round up of the best USB C docks.
If you need a higher speced machine then you might want to consider the 16in MacBook Pro, but for most, the entry-level model should be a decent enough spec to get your work done without any issues. One thing to bear in mind: Apple is expected to upgrade the 2.0GHz MacBook Pro in the first half of 2021. We could see a new 14in MacBook Pro with a next generation M1 Chip.
The entry-level M1 MacBook Pro starts at £1,299 / $1,299 / AU$1,999, here are the best deals right now:
Here are the deals for 2020 M1 MacBook Pro (RRP: £1,499 / $1,499)
The 2020 13in 2.0GHz MacBook Pro starts at £1,799 / $1,799 / AU$2,999
You might assume that the MacBook Air is low-powered in comparison to the MacBook Pro, but since the MacBook Air gained the M1 Chip in November 2020, just like the MacBook Pro, it actually compares very favourably to the entry-level MacBook Pro.
If you're looking for a MacBook that doesn't break the bank and offers the ultimate in portability and great battery life, then the MacBook Air might be the perfect fit.
And the best bit: the MacBook Air starts at £999/$999.
Here's how the MacBook Air range looks:
- M1 MacBook Air, 8-core CPU, 7-core GPU, 256GB storage, 8GB RAM, two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports £999/$999
- M1 MacBook Air, 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 512GB storage, 8GB RAM, two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports £1,249/$1,249
Prior to November 2020 Apple was selling a MacBook Air with 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-gen Core i5 and Iris Plus Graphics. You may still find this on sale. The new model is a lot more powerful, so unless it is a really good discount we would recommend buying the newer M1 model.
Assuming you are looking to spend as little as possible to get a new Mac you might be considering the £999/$999 model and we think that would be a good choice. But we do recommend taking a look at the other model, which will not only be more capable due to the extra graphics core, it will offer you much more storage. However, if you are really likely to be utilising this extra graphics core the MacBook Pro might be a better option for you on the basis that it includes a fan and therefore may be better suited to graphics intensive work.
The MacBook Air is undoubtedly better value for money, though, so if that's what is important to you it's the one to buy. It's also fractionally lighter thanks to its tapered edge, so better for carting around to lectures.
As with the MacBook Pro, there are no USB-A ports on the MacBook Air, just two USB-C and a headphone jack.
As we mentioned in the MacBook Pro section, the MacBook Air offers 18 hours battery life, according to Apple. This is two hours less than the M1 MacBook Pro's 20 hour, but bound to be more than enough to get you through a day and an all-nighter at university.
We'd say that you can confidently buy either 2020 MacBook Air as they are more than adequate for the needs of a student, especially those who are predominantly writing essays and conducting research. The fact that they start from £999/$999 is a real bonus.
If you need more storage you may find external storage or even iCloud storage can work out cheaper. (If you have a big Music library, for example, pay for iTunes Match so you can keep your music in the cloud. If you have a big photo library turn on iCloud Photos and subscribe for additional iCloud Storage).
You can buy the MacBook Air in the Apple Store but resellers often offer good discounts. You will see the best deals listed below:
M1 MacBook Air, 8-core CPU/7-core GPU, £999/$999:
M1 MacBook Air, 8-core CPU/8-core GPU, £1,249/$1,249:
iMac vs Mac mini for college
While we appreciate that there are plenty of benefits associated with choosing a laptop for university, you may be better off with a desktop. As we have already ruled out the Mac Pro and iMac Pro as over powered you have the choice of the Mac mini or the iMac.
The iMac might be one for consideration for a student - but it's a non-portable Mac, which might deter many students from purchasing one. You won't be able to take it with you to lectures - or cart it home on a train for the holidays - but you will be able to work more efficiently through its bigger 21.5in or 27in screen.
Apple updated the 27in iMac in August 2020, but the 21.5in iMac was essentially untouched bar the removal of the hard drive storage option - all iMacs now ship with SSDs as standard (which is excellent news - don't buy a iMac with a hard drive if you see one for sale, it will be slow!)
Since it's unlikely that you'll be looking at the 27in iMac we'll focus on the 21.5in model here. There are three 21.5in iMacs. Two offer quad-core 8th-generation processors and a 4K Retina display, the other has a low price but lacks the Retina display and has older 7th-generation processors.
We generally advise against buying the entry-level model. At £1,049/$1,099 it might look attractively priced, but its specs are very poor. It doesn't even have a Retina display! That model hasn't been updated since 2017 - although thankfully Apple did switch to SSDs as standard in that model in August 2020. If you find this model for sale with a hard drive don't buy it!
Another thing to note - we expect that Apple will update the smaller iMac in the first half of 2021. Along with a M1 Chip the new iMac is widely expected to get a redesign. Read about that here: New iMac redesign.
Here's how the iMac models line up at the time of writing though:
- 2.3GHz dual-core 7th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 3.6GHz), 256GB SSD, Iris Plus 640 Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. No Retina display. Buy one from £1,099/$1,099
- 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i3 (no Turbo Boost), 256GB SSD, Radeon Pro 555X Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £1,299/$1,299
- 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.1GHz), 256GB SSD, Radeon Pro 560X Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £1,499/$1,499
- 3.1GHz six-core 10th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.5GHz), 256GB SSD, Radeon Pro 5300 Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £1,799/$1,799
- 3.3GHz six-core 10th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.8GHz), 512GB SSD, Radeon Pro 5300 Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £1,999/$1,999
- 3.8GHz eight-core 10th-gen Core i7 (Turbo Boost 5.0GHz), 512GB SSD, Radeon Pro 5500 XT Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £2,299/$2,299
The hard drive was undoubtedly the iMac's weakest point so it's great that Apple has removed this and the Fusion drive options. The standard models are no longer scuppered by slow parts.
If you find a deal on one of the older iMacs with a hard drive our advise would be to avoid it. If you find a deal on a model with a Fusion Drive as standard that won't be quite as limiting (a Fusion Drive combines a large hard drive with a small SSD so your Mac can access information quickly). However, we'd still suggest that you choose an option that has a SSD. If you really need the storage space we think an external hard drive is a much better idea.
The 27in iMacs with 5K Retina display, are hugely powerful, elegant, and costs upwards of £1,799/$1,799, which isn't bad for what you get, but we feel this is above the budget and overkill for a lot of students.
The main issue here is that the iMac is not portable so may not suit your needs on that basis alone.
You can buy the iMac in the Apple Store or check out these deals below:
The entry-level model starts at £1,299 / $1,299 / AU$1,999, here are the best deals right now:
Like the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro the Mac mini received a M1 Chip upgrade in November 2020.In November 2020 the Mac mini also saw a price drop from £799/$799 to £699/$699, although it isn't as low-cost as it once was - a few years ago it cost £479/$499. It's still a great price for what you get though. The cheapest Mac going. The only compromise here is the lack of monitor and keyboard.
There are three Mac mini models. Two have the M1 Chip and one remains with an Intel 8th generation 6-core processor. Here's how the Mac mini models line up at the time of writing:
- M1 Mac mini, 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 256GB storage, 8GB RAM £699/$699
- M1 Mac mini, 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 512GB storage, 8GB RAM £899/$899
- Mac mini, 3.0GHz quad-core, Intel UHD Graphics 630, 512GB storage, 8GB RAM £1,099/$1,099
The Intel model that's still on sale probably isn't going to be the one for you. That model is still on sale to appease those who need an Intel option, perhaps because the Mac needs to fit in an Intel set-up. We'd advise that you pick one of the M1 options.
Weighing in at 1.3kg, it's about as portable as a desktop Mac gets. You could, in theory, take it home on the train, as long as you had a spare monitor waiting for you when you got there, for example.
If you are on a budget this is the way to go. Get an entry-level Mac mini and ask around for an old keyboard, mouse and monitor. You may be using second-hand accessories, but your Mac will sit at the heart of it all. You could even plug the Mac mini into your TV, although we wouldn't recommend writing your dissertation on a TV screen.
You can buy the Mac mini in the Apple Store but you may get a good deal from one of these resellers:
This model usually starts at £799 / $799 / AU$1,299, here are the best deals right now:
Mac mini, M1, 8‑Core CPU / 8‑Core GPU, 256GB, RRP: £699/$699:
Mac mini, M1, 8‑Core CPU / 8‑Core GPU, 512GB, RRP: £899/$899:
How to save money on a new Mac for school or university
We mentioned that you can get an educational discount on a new Mac earlier in this article, but there are other ways you can get money off a Mac too.
For example, many Mac resellers often offer discounts on older Macs, we regularly track these so you can quickly find out who has the best offer right now.
- Check out our best MacBook Air deals here.
- We also have the best MacBook Pro deals here.
- Here are the best Mac mini deals.
- And the best iMac deals.
Another place to look is Apple's refurbished store where you will often find previous generation Macs at a discount. These are usually Macs that have been returned pretty much unused to Apple, although some might have had a fault. You needn't worry that there will be a problem with them though as Apple will have run tests and rectified any issues.
- Here's a guide to how to buy a refurbished Mac
- We also look at why you should buy a refurbished Mac here
Another option is renting a Mac if you only need it for a short time.
Which Mac should you get for university?
Our pick of the entire Mac range if you're a student is the M1 MacBook Air. It's light, fast, and at £999/$999 for the entry model it offers great value for an excellent machine. It's the all-rounder here.
If you don't need portability, then the M1 Mac mini is also a very good option (it is considerably more portable than an iMac, so at least transporting it home shouldn't be too problematic). It's powerful and the low price of £699/$699 is very attractive - you just need a monitor, mouse and keyboard.
If you're looking to save a few pounds then keep an eye on the Apple Refurb Store. Apple often offers previous-generation Macs with decent specs for less than their newer counterparts, so it's worth a look. Refurbished Mac models are fully checked and come with a one-year guarantee.