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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The right Mac laptop to buy for a student

As a parent of a college student and a recent college graduate who writes and talks about technology all day, I find myself being asked all the time by fellow parents for advice about buying laptops for their kids.

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

Apple currently makes three different excellent and affordable laptops that are perfect for college students. Which one is best depends on your budget and your student’s preferences.

For the budget-conscious: M1 MacBook Air

Perhaps the best deal in Apple’s entire line-up is the M1 MacBook Air, which lists for for $999 but is frequently discounted. (As I write this, it’s available on Amazon for $749.)

Yes, it’s been around for nearly three years now, so I can see how you might be worried about investing in older hardware. But as the first generation of Macs running on Apple’s own processors, it was actually way ahead of its time, and its M1 processor is more than powerful enough to run anything most students will throw at it.

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 $150 or more with a refurbished machine, and they all come with a one-year warranty.

The safe pick: 13-inch M2 MacBook Air

The 13-inch M2 MacBook Air is clearly a better computer than the M1 model. It starts at $1099 (only $999 on Apple’s education store, which is available to anyone who is a higher-education student or parent—and yes, admitted students who haven’t yet enrolled count).

The M2 Air offers an updated design and a dedicated MagSafe charging port, as well as a slightly larger screen. It feels very much like the smaller cousin of Apple’s top-of-the-line laptops. The M2 processor is even faster than the M1, which was itself easily able to handle anything most people will ever want to do on their laptops.

Supersize me: 15-inch MacBook Air

If your student would prefer a bigger screen, even if it makes the laptop they’re carrying bigger and heavier (ask them!), there’s now an even better option: the 15-inch M2 MacBook Air. It’s exactly the same computer as the 13-inch M2 Air, but with a bigger screen. That’s it. You’ll pay an extra $200 for the privilege of the larger screen—and actually, if you’re not buying the base model but choosing to upgrade some of the specs, the 15-inch Air ends up being only a $100 premium to the 13-inch model.

It’s really down to choice. A little more money for a larger (and heavier) laptop. What does your student prioritize? If they’re not planning to carry their laptop around campus, a larger screen might tip the balance.

Final notes

What about accessories? Your kids might need some adapters and dongles, 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, especially if they’re footloose and fancy free and living out of a handful of boxes while eating dorm food. I know you might feel better sending your kid off to school with a bag full of Apple 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.

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. There are plenty of options out there depending on a student’s needs and your budget.

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

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