About to start college or university and thinking about buying a Mac or MacBook? 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 your should get a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro for college, of if another Mac might actually be a better choice.
If you're looking for stability and a reliable operating system that won't crash each time you try and save your work, then Apple's Mac laptops come highly recommended. Given Apple's pricing strategy, it might seem like they 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.
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. 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.
How to get a discount on a Mac for university
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.
A Mac you buy for 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.
That said, if you are a registered student (or 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.
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. Prior to 17 October 2019 Apple was giving away a free pair of Beats wireless headphones with certain Mac and iPad purchases, for example. Shop the Apple Store for Education here. Speaking of iPads, if you are woindering what iPad to get for university or collges, 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.
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
As the student life involves a far amount of mobility - travelling to lectures, libraries, the occasional coffee shop, and then possibly home for weekends and term breaks - 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 15in 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 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 15in version.
Apple updated the entire MacBook Pro range in 2019. Here's what's on offer:
- 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 3.9GHz), 128GB or 256GB storage, Iris Plus 645 Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. From £1,299/$1,299
- 2.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.1GHz), 256GB or 512GB storage, Iris Plus 655 Graphics, Four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. From £1,799/$1,799
- 2.6GHz six-core 9th-gen Core i7 (Turbo Boost 4.5GHz), 256GB storage, Radeon Pro 555X Graphics, Four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. From £2,399/$2,399
- 2.3GHz eight-core 9th-gen Core i9 (Turbo Boost 4.8GHz), 512GB storage, Radeon Pro 560X Graphics, 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 128GB of storage while the other has 256GB but costs an extra £200/$200. Is the extra 128GB of storage worth the extra money? We don't think so. We'd recommend buying a separate hard drive for storing files on if you need the extra space, or paying for iCloud storage (here's how much iCloud storage costs).
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 2.4GHz MacBook Pro and the 15in 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 2.4GHz 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.
The MacBook Air might look somewhat low-powered in comparison to the MacBook Pro, but 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.
A new-look MacBook Air arrived back in October 2018 and this model was updated in July 2019. We say 'updated' but actually there's not much difference in terms of specs, what did change was the price: It's now £100/$100 cheaper than it was, starting at £1,099/$1,099, making it an even better deal for students.
This MacBook Air is a far better laptop than the outdated model that was on sale previously. The old 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.
The new MacBook Air has a 13in screen and a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 8th gen chip, you might think that sounds better than the 1.4GHz processor in the MacBook Pro but note that where the Air has a dual core processor, the Pro has a quad-core processor, and four 1.4GHz processors is better than two 1.6GHz processors.
Translation? More than adequate for the needs of a student, especially those who are predominantly writing essays and conducting research. It starts from £1,099/$1,099. Here's the spec:
- 1.6GHz dual-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 3.6GHz), 128GB or 256GB storage, Iris UHD 617 Graphics, Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. Buy one from £1,099/$1,099
As with the MacBook Pro you pay an extra £200/$200 if you want to move from 128GB to 256GB of storage and we don't think it's worth coughing up the extra cash when 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).
As with the MacBook Pro, there are no USB-A ports here, just two USB-C and a headphone jack.
One key difference between the pre-2018 and post 2018 MacBook Air is that the newer model gained a high-res Retina display. The MacBook Pro has had a Retina display for many years.
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.
Read our 2019 MacBook Air review.
We'll mention this Mac laotop 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.
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 is present on all Mac laptops since 2016 with the exception of the 16in MacBook Pro which arrived in November 2019. Over time Apple has made a few tweaks to it to try and avoid the issues that have been reported but it seems that the company has had to go back to the drawing board and completely change the keyboard to rectify the problem. It's expected that the new style keyboard will find its way into the MacBook Air and 13in MacBook Pro during 2020. 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.
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 so it now 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. While not as low-cost as it once was - starting at £799/$799 rather than £479/$499 now. 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.
It hasn't been updated since 2018 though, so we are hopeful for an update in 2020.
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), 128SSD, Intel HUD 630 Graphics, multiple ports. Buy one from £799/$799
- 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Core i5 (Turbo Boost 4.1GHz), 256SSD, 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.
Which Mac should you get for university?
Our pick of the entire Mac range if you're a student is the MacBook Air. Since the 2018 update it's light, fast, and at £1,099/$1,099 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 2018 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.