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- > Mac laptop vs Mac desktop for college
- > MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro for college
- > What about the keyboard?
- > iMac vs Mac mini for college
- > How to save money on a new Mac for school or university
- > Which Mac should you get?
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 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.
We are updating this article in May 2020 for a couple of reasons: Firstly Apple has just updated the MacBook Pro with twice as much storage, a new keyboard, and new processors on certain models. Just a couple of months prior, Apple had updated the MacBook Air making that model an even more attractive option for students. In this article we will look into whether the 2020 MacBook Air or the 2020 MacBook Pro is a better choice for students.
We are also updating this article because we are aware that families are looking for computers to help them home school their children during the Coronovirus pandemic. 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.
If you are starting University you can benefit from Apple's Back To School deal - they are giving away a pair of AirPods.
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
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 you will probably want to consider the options, in which case the MacBook Air or Mac mini might appeal, 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
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 (or if you are still at school) 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 to visit the US Education Store.
From time to time Apple's Education Store offers a Back to School deal, usually during the summer months. This can be a great time to buy. For example, prior to 17 October 2019 Apple was giving away a free pair of Beats wireless headphones with certain Mac and iPad purchases. Shop the Apple Store for Education here. Speaking of iPads, if you are wondering what iPad to get for university or colleges, read this: Best iPad for Students.
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. We also have a round up of the best MacBook deals here, which sometimes include some great discounts on older models. We also discuss some of these options in more detail below.
If you're already at University, or have been offered your place, then you should ensure that you make use of Apple's educational discount. This scheme runs all year round and offers various price reductions for students or those working in education. Read about how to get a discount from Apple here.
Mac laptop vs Mac desktop for college
The 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 find an inexpensive screen, or even your TV, and connect that to your MacBook when you need a larger display. Then once you're done with the big screen, you still have your mobile powerhouse machine and all your files.
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.
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. (Or perhaps a 16in MacBook Pro if you don't mind buying an older 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.
Apple updated the entire MacBook Pro range in 2019. Here's what's on offer:
- 13in, 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 3.9GHz), 256GB or 512GB storage, Iris Plus 645 Graphics, 8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C 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 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
The 1.4GHz 13in MacBook Pro models are the ones most likely to appeal to students. They start at £1,299/$1,299, but of course you can get a discount as a student.
There are two versions of the 1.4GHz machine to choose from: one has 256GB of storage while the other has 512GB but costs an extra £200/$200. Prior to May 2020 the entry-level model had only 128GB of storage, which we didn't consider enough, so it's great news that Apple has doubled the storage and kept the price the same. The storage wasn't the only improvement in May 2020: the MacBook Pro gained an improved keyboard (since around 2016 Mac laptop keyboards have been plagued with problems). The MacBook Pro was the last Mac laptop to gain the new Magic Keyboard. Read about the keyboard problems here.
Other than those two changes Apple did nothing else to the enty-level models. The processors are still 8th generation quad-core, which may well be more than enough for your needs, but the other 13in MacBook Pro models have both gained 10th-generation processors, which may leave you wondering if it's worth spending a bit more. Another thing that these mid-range MacBook Pros offer is 16GB RAM as standard, to the entry-level model's 8GB. You probably won't need the extra power of these more expensive models, but it is worth considering them if you want to make sure your Mac will still be going strong a few years after you complete your course.
That entry-level MacBook Pro comes with two Thunderbolt 3 ports (which double up as USB-C). This is the only port you will find on any new Mac laptop. If you want the older 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 invest in wireless.
There are four Thunderbolt 3 ports on the two 13in 2.0GHz MacBook Pro and the 16in models. Of course there are many more differences between those machines, and you could simply buy a multi-port dock if you really needed the extra ports (here's our round up of the best USB C docks).
If you need a higher speced machine then you may want to consider the 2.0GHz 13in models, or 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.
You might assume that the MacBook Air is low-powered in comparison to the MacBook Pro, but since the MacBook Air was updated in March 2020 it actually compares very favourably to the MacBook Pro. In fact in many ways it is superior thanks to newer processors, better RAM, and double the storage. Plus the MacBook Air now offers Apple's magic keyboard, like the 16in MacBook Pro, and as of May 2020, the 13in 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: Apple dropped the price of the entry-level MacBook Air in March 2020 so it now starts at £999/$999.
Here's how the MacBook Air range looks:
- 13in, 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-gen Core i3 (Turbo Boost 3.2GHz), 256GB storage, Iris Iris Plus Graphics, 8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. From £999/$999
- 13in, 1.1GHz quad-core 10th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 3.5GHz), 512GB storage, Iris Iris Plus Graphics, 8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. From £999/$999
This MacBook Air is a far better laptop than the outdated model that was on sale prior to 2018 and the 2020 version is an improvement on the 2018 and 2019 models (which were practically identical). The pre-2017 MacBook Air model, which you may still find on sale, is much older than you might realise - the processor dates back to 2014. It might be powerful enough for you but it won't stand the test of time so we wouldn't recommend buying one unless you find a really amazing deal.
There are two MacBook Air models. A £999/$999 Air with a 1.1GHz Intel Core i3 10th gen dual-core chip, and a £1,299/$1,299 model with a 1.1GHz Intel Core i3 10th gen quad-core chip. 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 quad-core model, which will not only be more powerful, it will offer you half a terabyte of storage.
It's the comparison of these two £1,299/$1,299 MacBooks - the Air and the Pro - that really emphasises how little difference there is between the ranges right now. It looks like you can get what's sounds like a faster quad-core chip (1.4GHz compared to 1.1GHz) with the MacBook Pro, but that's an 8th generation processor rather than a 10th generation processor. Plus there's the extra storage on offer (256GB for the Pro, 512GB for the Air), and the fact that the 2020 MacBook Air also uses faster RAM (3733MHz LPDDR4X in the Air compared to 2133MHz LPDDR3 in the Pro).
As with the MacBook Pro, there are no USB-A ports here, just two USB-C and a headphone jack.
Battery life of the MacBook Air is the best offered by any Mac at 12 to 13 hours, depending on what you are doing. The MacBook Pro only claims 10 hours so this is a definite benefit of the Air if you are likely to be spending long days on campus without your power adaptor.
The other big difference between the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air is the dimensions and weight. The gap is a lot closer than it was in the past, but the Air's wedge-shaped design allows Apple to shave a decent amount of weight off the MacBook Air, so, while both the Pro and Air measure 30.41cm x 21.24cm, the Pro weighs 1.37kg compared to the Air at 1.25kg.
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 iTunes 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).
We'll mention this Mac laptop briefly because, although Apple no longer sells it, you may still be able to buy a MacBook.
The 12in MacBook was a fraction thinner and smaller than the post-2018 MacBook Air. There wasn't much else going for it though.
However, if you find a good deal you may be wondering whether to invest. The base model Apple was selling before July 2019 offered a dual-core 1.2GHz Intel Core m3 processor, 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM and Intel HD Graphics 615.
That spec is far below that of the post-2018 MacBook Air, let alone the MacBook Pro, and given the fact that the price was high it really didn't make a lot of sense to buy one.
We'd say that the same remains true today. Don't buy one even if you see one for sale.
Read our MacBook review.
Pre-2017 MacBook Air
We'll also quickly mention the old-style MacBook Air that is usually listed as the 2017 model although it actually has the same generation processor as the 2015 model. So it's essentially five years old. You might still see one for sale and think that at around £799 it sounds like a bargain. It definitely isn't a bargain. The only thing it might have in its favour is that it's got the old-fashioned USB A ports. But even if you are convinced you need them you probably don't really.
What about the keyboard?
You may have heard about issues with the butterfly keyboard. This keyboard was present on all Mac laptops since 2016 until Apple changed the keyboard design with the launch of the 16in MacBook Pro which arrived in November 2019. Then in March 2020 Apple added the new-style keyboard to the MacBook Air and in May 2020 to the MacBook Pro. The new Magic Keyboard is based on the keyboard that comes with the iMac. The new style keyboard doesn't seem to suffer from the problems associated with the old keyboard.
Essentially the problems with the older keyboards are related to dust and debris getting trapped under a key. This is unlikely to happen to you unless you happen to be using your laptop in particularly dirty and dusty conditions or on the beach. Should this happen Apple will replace the whole keyboard for you free of charge. We discuss the problems with the MacBook keyboard here.
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 iMac range in March 2019 - which is more than a year ago so we are expecting an update relatively soon - perhaps in May or June 2020. The current iMac has quad-core 8th-generation processors and Radeon Pro graphics. You'll also get faster memory and a gorgeous Retina display (4K or 5K).
There is one iMac that Apple hasn't updated for a number of years though. The entry-level model, which starts at £1,049/$1,099 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 and has 7th generation processors where most Macs have 8th gen processors, or even 9th gen processors.
So, we'd advise you to ignore the entry-level iMac for now. Which means that the iMac starts at £1,249/$1,299.
Here's how the models line up:
- 2.3GHz dual-core 7th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 3.6GHz), 1TB hard drive, Iris Plus 640 Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. No Retina display. Buy one from £1,049/$1,099
- 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i3 (no Turbo Boost), 1TB hard drive, Radeon Pro 555X Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £1,249/$1,299
- 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.1GHz), 1TB Fusion drive, Radeon Pro 560X Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £1,449/$1,499
- 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.1GHz), 1TB Fusion drive, Radeon Pro 570X Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £1,749/$1,799
- 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.3GHz), 1TB Fusion drive, Radeon Pro 575X Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £1,949/$1,999
- 3.7GHz six-core 9th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.6GHz), 2TB Fusion drive, Radeon Pro 580X Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £2,249/$2,299
The hard drive is the iMac's weakest point, as it slows down everything on the Mac. If the model you're looking at doesn't come with a Fusion Drive as standard, we suggest paying extra for one (it's a £90 build-to-order option) as it will greatly improve performance and make the iMac feel faster. An even better idea would be to opt for a build-to-order 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 £1,749/$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.
Like the MacBook Air the Mac mini received a much needed upgrade in 2018. Apple then made a minor update to the Mac mini in 2020 increasing the storage. While the Mac mini isn't as low-cost as it once was - starting at £799/$799 rather than £479/$499 it was a few years ago - it's still a great price for what you get though.
The 2018 update redefined the Mac mini as a powerful Mac. There is no compromise here - other than the lack of monitor and keyboard - and it's still the cheapest Mac going.
The entry model Mac mini is only £799/$799, which makes it the most affordable Mac by quite a distance. It houses a 3.6GHz quad-core 8th gen Intel i3 CPU, that feels perfectly fine for both everyday tasks and more taxing projects.
Here's what you get for your money:
- 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i3 (no Turbo Boost), 256GB SSD, Intel HUD 630 Graphics, multiple ports. Buy one from £799/$799
- 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.1GHz), 512GB SSD, Intel HUD 630 Graphics, multiple ports. Buy one from £1,099/$1,099
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.
Read our Mac mini 2018 review.
How to save money on a new Mac for school or university
We covered what you need to do to get an educational discount on a new Mac above, but there are other ways you can get money off a Mac.
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?
Our pick of the entire Mac range if you're a student is the 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 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 price is still low at £799/$799, although not as low as it once was. 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 last-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.