When your youngster runs home from school, dumps their school bag on the sofa and announces proudly, 'I need a MacBook!' it can be easy to be taken aback and make you wonder - 'do they really need a MacBook for school?'.
Education is becoming increasingly reliant on technology, and kids without access are being left behind. While many schools these days have computer labs or are provided easy access to laptops, it's still a good idea for students to have access to their own laptops or computers at home. If nothing else, it makes it far easier for high school students to take notes in class, work on assignments, study for tests, or even stay in touch with friends.
When I was at school, for the longest time I relied on a single desktop shared amongst the rest of the family, so I can say with certainty a laptop is a great option for students to do work at home. They can choose where to work comfortably, whether that's in their space or in family-shared areas like the kitchen. So a student needs a laptop, but that still begs the question - why a MacBook?
But why a MacBook?
MacBooks are a very good option for students. They're well built, and the lineup, from the $1,100 MacBook Air to the incredible powerhouse that is the 16-inch MacBook, will be extremely capable of completing any academic task.
One of the biggest reasons to opt for a Mac for students is the operating system - macOS. Apple makes sure that its operating system runs well on all the machines that it sends updates to, so you can be sure that it'll be supported for a reasonably long time. In fact, MacBooks are well known for their longevity - our own editor-in-chief has been using his MacBook Pro Retina model since 2012.
Software support on macOS is also excellent. You'll be able to use Microsoft's line of productivity software in Office 365, but in many cases, you might not want to. Apple's suite of productivity apps, known as 'iWork', is stellar, containing the personal favorite word processor of this writer, Pages, and her lesser-used but equally brilliant sister programs, Keynote, and Numbers.
There's also a host of third-party apps available for any need - there's Ulysses for creative writers, note-taking apps like Agenda, and unique calculators like Soulver. The built-in web browser, Safari, is a fast and solid option, but you can always install Google Chrome or Firefox if you're so inclined. Even Microsoft make a browser for Mac, Edge.
For those who need more niche app support, macOS is the platform of choice for some of the top music, video, and photo editing software. For budding music producers, Apple's Logic Pro is an industry-standard Digital Audio Workstation (you may hear it being called a DAW), and, of course, works brilliantly on Mac. Video editors can opt for Apple-made Final Cut Pro, but support for other powerful editors like Adobe Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve is also strong. Photo editors will love the more powerful version of Adobe Photoshop that Mac gets, although free options like GIMP run well too. Mac is the platform of choice for many in the creative space, and if your young student is looking to start their journeys in this sector, then a Mac is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best option.
Another key strength of Mac is its interconnectivity with the rest of the Apple ecosystem, called Continuity. For students who have an iPhone, they'll find they're able to work on their papers with mobile versions on Pages, and then pick up where they left off on their MacBook. You can receive messages from iMessage on your MacBook, so you don't have to keep your iPhone close by.
Remember as well that MacBooks can be bought with an education discount, so students and teachers can get a nice 10% off their purchase. On top of this, there's also the Apple back-to-school deal, which this year gives you a $150 gift voucher to spend on whatever you want on Apple's website.
Ok, so Mac is great. But which MacBook will be best for my student?
It's worth first making some ground rules as to what a student needs in a laptop, and how it fits with their needs. First off, it needs to be light and slim, so that it fits into one of the best laptop bags for back to school. It'll need to be sturdy so that it survives being tossed into said school bag. The screen should be at least 13-inches (diagonal), so there's ample space for research on multiple Chrome tabs and writing papers. As long as the MacBook fits these criteria, it'll be a great option for a student.
The first MacBook that fits these criteria almost perfectly is the now outgoing MacBook Air, which will be more than adequate for most students. 2020's MacBook Air blends power and portability in a lovely aluminum chassis, bringing a nicely sized 13-inch screen and solid keyboard to the table. In addition, it only weighs 2.75 pounds and is 0.63-inches at its thinnest - it's a laptop that will easily slip into any backpack.
While by no means the most powerful MacBook in Apple's lineup, it's plenty for most tasks students will encounter. The dual-core M1 processor is more than enough for writing papers, researching on the web, and messaging with friends. The 8GB of RAM in the base model is almost enough but to future-proof your student's computer that little bit more, it's well worth upgrading to 16GB to make all those chrome tabs run better.
It's worth bearing in mind that a new MacBook Air is on the way, replacing the MacBook Pro 2020. The MacBook Air 2022 will feature Apple's latest silicon, the M2 chip. This chip looks to be even more powerful than the previous generation and completely redesigns the body. While the MacBook Air 2020 is a very proficient machine, there are a huge number of reasons that you may want to wait for the new version. In fact, we've already got a MacBook Air 2022 vs MacBook Air 2020 to give you an idea of which machine might be best for your student.
The outgoing MacBook Air is now Apple's most affordable laptop, costing $1,100 on Apple's website. If you're looking for something a little newer and more up-to-date, then Apple's latest MacBook Air M2 is just $100 more.
For that $100, you'll get a machine that will potentially last slightly longer, with its bang-up-to-date M2 chip, and a better-looking laptop. The M2 MacBook Air is more powerful than its predecessor, and students will find that it plows through everyday tasks with even more ease than the 2020 MacBook Air. In terms of specs, its well worth the extra, having all the same positives as the older model with some new strengths. For $1199, you can't really go wrong.
MacBook Air 2020 (opens in new tab)
The MacBook Air 2020 is an excellent machine in a very svelte package. It's slim, light, and powerful enough for most students, filling their needs as a portable computer. It is worth upgrading to 16GB of RAM, if not only for smooth Chrome browsing with multiple tabs.
My student says they need more power.
For some students, the MacBook Air might not be enough. Students studying video production, music creation, or photography will need a more powerful laptop and one that can take them to higher education. We should mention that we're going to get a little techy here, so feel free to jump ahead if you just want to know what kind of laptops these disciplines should go for.
Why do these subjects need more power? It's simple - the programs you need to edit photos and videos and create music are power-hungry apps. Let's look at the most demanding of these subjects - video production. One of the most used video editors in the industry is Adobe Premiere Pro, and its system requirements make the MacBook Air shake a little. At a minimum, it needs 8GB of RAM and, more importantly, 2GB of GPU RAM. In its simplest terms, GPU RAM (or Graphics RAM) is what the MacBook uses to process video. Even then, minimum requirements are just that - a minimum. For a smooth experience that will make working easier, a student will need more RAM and GPU RAM in their MacBook.
In this case, it is worth explaining the current Apple chip lineup - because looking at the recommended specs of the programs your student will be using and then lining them up with the specs of the MacBook lineup can be confusing. At the moment, MacBooks use Apple's in-house silicon, such as the M1, the M1 Pro, Max and Ultra, and the M2. These chips share the role of a traditional processor and graphics processor and the MacBook's RAM. So, at a minimum, a student studying video editing will need a MacBook with 16GB of RAM.
What MacBooks are better for a video editor?
Students studying video editing will need the most power they can get their hands on, and thankfully, there are some great options available. The MacBook Pro M2 is a great entry-level option, featuring Apple's latest M2 chip. It's a very powerful machine, and when equipped with 16GB of RAM will be more than capable of running all the video editing software that a student might need. In addition, if a student course needs the Final Cut Pro app, you can add that when configuring the laptop at Apple's website for a little extra.
College students majoring in video editing may need more power. In this case, the more expensive MacBook 2021 will be more than enough. The M1 Pro chip will handle video editing exceptionally well, the base model comes with 16GB of RAM. Upgrading to 32GB may be a good idea for students who know they'll also be doing 3D work, but the base model should suffice for most.
MacBook Pro 2022 (opens in new tab)
Video editing high schoolers need more than the Air, but not as much as some of Apple's more expensive MacBooks. The MacBook Pro M2 offers incredible performance and some great RAM options. 16GB would likely be the best option for a MacBook that will last.
MacBook Pro 2021 (opens in new tab)
In college or university, you will want an even more powerful MacBook. In this case, the MacBook Pro 2021 is a great choice. The M1 Pro is super powerful and comes with 16GB of RAM in its base configuration. The 14-inch is great for portability, but the 16-inch will give you the better screen - for a little extra cost.
Ok, how about photo editors?
Photo editors won't need as much power as video editing students, but they'll still likely need more than the Air. These students will be editing large image files with adobe Photoshop which doesn't need as much graphics power, but Adobe recommends at least 16GB of RAM. Much like the video editing student, the photo editor will need the MacBook Pro M2. It's also worth grabbing an extra monitor on the side as well - especially one of the best USB C monitors, or even an option from the best 4K monitors for Mac. An extra monitor will give you some extra screen real estate over the 13-inch screen in the MacBook, making close-up photo editing that much easier. We'd go with 27-inch for the best mix of screen size and space efficiency.
MacBook Pro 2022 (opens in new tab)
The M2 MacBook Pro is an excellent option, but for a different reason to the video editors. Again, you'll need the extra oomph of the M2 chip, and it's worth opting for 16GB of RAM. If you're editing massive files, then going for the 24GB RAM may be an idea - but you'll also have to pay for it.
Music production students, what will they need?
Music-producing students will unlikely need much graphics processing but will need more on the RAM front. For high school students editing music, 16GB of RAM will suffice, but college students and their multi-layered production numbers will need even more. For both, the M2 MacBook Pro will more than suffice, although college students will want to max out the RAM option to 24GB.
MacBook Pro M2 (opens in new tab)
To run your DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation), you will need a mighty amount of RAM. For most, the M2 MacBook pro with 16GB should be enough, but if your music timeline looks a lot busier, then a jump-up to the 24GB option might be better.
Will these machines last?
MacBooks last a long time - I am currently typing this out on my five-year-old MacBook Pro, which I am only now considering upgrading. Apple has supported its machines for a long time with software updates, and the excellent build quality of these machines means they stick around longer than something made of plastic. So a MacBook will not only last a student through years of high school but likely long into the rest of their academic career. To discuss my MacBook experience again, my high school MacBook Pro from 2011 lasted me through three years of high school and then a further four at university. So while a MacBook is not for life, they stay beyond the wildest dreams of its competitors.
Ah, so you've just looked up the prices of the MacBook lineup. There is no getting around the issue - MacBooks are expensive. If you're looking to get a MacBook for a student and want to save a little money, it may be worth looking at an Apple refurbished machine.
They may not be the most recent models, but they are slightly less expensive than something newer. So while you might be able to save some more by going on eBay and buying a second-hand laptop, when you buy from Apple, you're going to get a 'like new' experience at a bit of a discount.
Refurbished items arrive with complete documentation, and every unit has been rigorously inspected to meet Apple's quality standards. Getting a refurbished Mac is a lot like getting one brand new. If you're so inclined, you can get an AppleCare protection plan with an extended warranty, just as you can with a new Mac.
Apple refurbished MacBooks (opens in new tab)
You might not get the latest and greatest machine, but you'll save some money and still get the same 'as new' experience as a brand-new model. You can also rest easy knowing that it's been looked over by Apple, so there won't be any issues with your laptop.
A MacBook can be an important tool for any student, even over standard laptops. They may be expensive, but these are machines that could last not only through high school but through college and beyond.
A MacBook is the whole package - unlike a tablet, you won't have to grab a keyboard case to add in a physical typing surface, and you'll generally get something more powerful than your average iPad or competing tablet. They may not be as portable, or potentially as flexible as something with a touchscreen and Apple Pencil support, but the power and increased screen size you get in return are well worth investing in, particularly for students looking for something they can type up research papers and do research for homework.
Hopefully, we've answered all your questions, and you can make an informed decision on whether to buy a MacBook for your student. If you're looking to create a comfortable space for your student, then make sure you take a look at our best dorm room desks and grab them a chair from our budget chairs and where to buy them list.
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As the Buying Guides and Deals writer for iMore, Tammy puts over a decade of experience in finding the best prices of Apple products to work, helping you save money on the equipment that you want. An audiophile at heart, she loves all things audio and visual, but you’ll also find her drooling over the latest Macs and MacBooks. With a Masters in screenwriting, Tammy likes to spend her free time writing feature-length and TV screenplays or driving digital cars around virtual circuits, to varying degrees of success. Just don't ask her about AirPods Max - you probably won't like her answer.
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