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By Jason Snell

The right Mac laptop to buy for a student

As a parent of children aged 15 and 12 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.

They 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, what I’ve told my friends is that right now there are two MacBook models I recommend.

The MacBook is not necessarily powerful enough for computer nerds, but for most uses it’s just fine. That 12-inch Retina display is beautiful, and at two pounds, it’s incredibly light for stuffing in a backpack. If you’re worried about power, a boost to an i5 or i7 processor is available, as is expansion to 16GB of RAM.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar weighs an extra pound (though I’ll remind you that it’s basically the same weight as the 13-inch MacBook Air—this is not a heavy computer), but the larger screen and more powerful processor options are serious compensations.

I think it’s fair to consider both of these laptops as successors to the MacBook Air—they’re literally the two paths the MacBook Air could have taken had it gone Retina. The 13-inch Pro keeps the size and power of the MacBook Air, while the 12-inch MacBook gives back some power in exchange for losing half its weight.

Some of my friends have kids who shoot and edit a lot of video for class projects (and sometimes for fun), as does my daughter. This sort of more intense use is probably enough to push me to recommend the MacBook Pro. One of my daughter’s classes is going to be making documentaries next year, so if I end up buying her a MacBook to replace her falling-apart Chromebook, it will probably be the Pro. (And not the base $1299 model, because 128GB storage is not going to go very far if you’re trying to edit HD video.)

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 two options are clear: The MacBook or the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar. And unless you have serious expectations that they’ll use the laptop for heavy-duty stuff like writing and compiling iOS apps or editing video projects, the MacBook will probably do just fine.

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

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