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By Jason Snell

The right Mac laptop to buy for a student

[Updated March 27, 2019.]

As a parent of children aged 17 and 14 who writes and talks about technology all day, all of a sudden I find myself being asked all the time by fellow parents for advice about buying laptops for their kids. Some of them have kids going off to college this fall, and others are buying a laptop for a new high-school student. (This year, I’m the one with a student going off to college!)

Parents are often apologetic about asking me, which is sweet. “This is what I do for a living,” I say. I’m happy to help friends out. 1 So here’s what I tell them:

As with every single technology buying decision you’ll make, there is no one right answer. It’s all about the person is who is going to use the computer, and what they need. That said, today there is a clear default choice for most Mac laptop buyers, and it’s the 13-inch MacBook Air.

Unlike the 12-inch MacBook, which prioritized lightness over functionality, the MacBook Air released in 2018 provides a better balance of size and functionality. This is still a small, light laptop, but it’s got two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports (instead of the MacBook’s one)—which is especially important since you’ve got to use one of them when you need to charge your laptop. The Intel i5 processor powering it is more capable than the MacBook’s, and because this laptop has a built-in cooling system (rather than the MacBook’s air cooling), that means it can keep on cranking on difficult computing tasks without having to slow itself down for thermal reasons.

If you used the old 13-inch Air, you’ll be surprised at how much smaller this model is. Apple’s shaved off all the space that was taken up by bezels around the old, non-Retina screen. This laptop is almost an inch narrower and half an inch less deep. It’s not as tiny as the MacBook, but it’s tiny.

The MacBook Air is a modern Mac through and through, with a Touch ID sensor and T2 processor for security—good news if you’re toting a laptop around a college campus. The display is bright and high-resolution. The speakers sound good, with proper stereo separation. And the keyboard? Well, it’s the same keyboard that Apple’s shipping on all its other laptops right now. My own teenagers don’t seem to mind it, but you might want to ship them off to school with a can of compressed air just in case a key gets stuck.

I don’t love that this MacBook Air lists for $1199, which is $200 more than the old 13-inch Air. Fortunately, if you watch Amazon for sales you will find that it’s frequently available for $999, which is the perfect price.

The MacBook is not necessarily powerful enough for computer nerds, but for most uses it’s just fine. Unfortunately, as of this writing it hasn’t been updated in quite a while. At two pounds, it’s incredibly light for stuffing in a backpack, but the MacBook Air is close enough, and it’s got two ports instead of one. If the MacBook gets an update soon, it’ll be a contender for students who prioritize size and weight above all else, but the MacBook Air has made it a much less appealing choice.

Similarly, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with two Thunderbolt 3 ports has had its thunder stolen by the MacBook Air. It’s nice, but hasn’t been updated in ages. I want Apple to make a more powerful and customizable laptop for students who need those features, and while this MacBook Pro sort of fits the bill, the lack of recent updates make me feel a little queasy.

A word about upgrades: If you’re going to invest in an upgrade in storage or memory from the base model, I’d consider what your student plans on doing with the MacBook. The base model, with 256GB of SSD storage and 8GB of memory, is best suited for most people. If they’re planning on doing more heavy lifting with the laptop, upgrading the RAM or storage is fine, but I’m skeptical that most college students will need more than the base model. Buy an external USB-C SSD for them if you’re worried about them running out of storage.

For friends who are excited about buying their kids a MacBook but who are put off by the price tags, I will often point them to the Apple Refurbished Mac page, which features deals on refurbished Mac models. You can save $200 or more with a refurbished machine, and they all come with a one-year warranty.

(An aside about dongles: Your kids might need them, though it’s not a sure thing. We grown-ups are more likely to be obsessed with connecting all of our old peripherals via an assortment of adapters, but your kids may not care. I know you might feel better sending your kid off to school with a bag full of white Apple USB-C adapters, but they might be better off buying them as they need them.)

Finally, does any kid need a new laptop for school? Certainly not. I tend to roll my technology down through the family, which extends the life of our laptops and iPads for several years. If you’ve got a family laptop, that might do the trick. Used laptops can also be had for bargains and can serve students quite well—I installed new RAM and an SSD in my mother’s old MacBook Pro and sold it for a few hundred dollars to a local community college student, who should be able to use it for several years.

And as always, it depends on a student’s needs. If typing in Google Docs is all that’s necessary, the system requirements are awfully low. (And yes, you could buy them a Chromebook in that case—though my daughter is finally showing signs of frustration that she can’t run real apps on her Chromebook. I’m so proud.) There are plenty of options out there depending on a student’s needs and your budget.

But if you do want to buy a student in your family a new MacBook, I think the choice is clear: The MacBook Air.

  1. And, apparently, to use their questions as fodder for Six Colors posts. ↩

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