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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The right Mac laptop to buy for a student

[Updated July 19, 2021.]

As a parent of children aged 19 and 16 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. Some of them have kids going off to college this fall, and others are buying a laptop for a new high-school student.

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:

Fortunately, there’s one right answer right now, and it’s the M1 MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air provides a great balance of size and functionality. This is still a small, light laptop, but it’s got two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports—which is especially important since you’ve got to use one of them when you need to charge your laptop.

If you used an older 13-inch Air, you’ll be surprised at how much smaller the new Retina models have gotten. Apple shaved off all the space that was taken up by bezels around the old, non-Retina screen. It’s a modern Mac through and through, with a Touch ID sensor and Apple’s own speedy and power efficient M1 processor. Battery life is excellent—the best Apple’s ever delivered in a laptop. The speakers sound good, with proper stereo separation. And the keyboard is Apple’s new Magic Keyboard, not the lousy Butterfly keyboard that populated many Mac laptops until 2020.

The MacBook Air starts at $999 ($899 in Education), which is the perfect price.

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 laptop. The base model, with 256GB of SSD storage and 8GB of memory, is perfectly usable. If your student is planning on doing a bunch of video editing or otherwise generating enormous media files, an upgrade to a larger SSD storage device might be called for. The $1249 model, which has 512GB of storage, is a solid upgrade choice if you want a little more computer and can spend the additional $250.

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.

(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.

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.

But if you do want to buy a student in your family a new MacBook, the choice is almost certainly the M1 MacBook Air.

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

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