What you're looking for in any used Mac laptop
First thing's first: whether you're getting it as a hand-me-down from a relative, finding it on eBay, or buying it from Apple's own Certified Refurbished store, you're going to want something from no further back than 2012 or 2013.
This is because if it's a MacBook Air from that time period, or a MacBook Pro with Retina display, which debuted in 2012, it will include SSD storage as standard. Speaking as someone who went to college with a laptop that used a spinning disk, you absolutely want an SSD in your MacBook. Don't get something old enough that it still uses a spinning hard drive.
Whatever you get, make sure it has an SSD, rather than a spinning hard drive.
Although you should be fine (depending on what kind of work you need to do) with a MacBook even several years old, try to get something as close to new as possible. That way, you should have access to software updates for at least a few years, and of course, a newer Mac will last for a longer period.
If you can, also try to get your hands on something that had reasonably high-powered components when it was initially released. Something with an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 will prove more capable for a longer than a lower-end Mac powered by a dual-core i3, and this is especially true if you've got a machine more than five years old. If you're planning on keeping your laptop as long as you can, and not get a new one as soon as you graduate, you'll want as fast a machine as you can find.
There's also a compelling reason to get an older, pre-2016 MacBook Pro or pre-2018 MacBook Air: MagSafe. For students, MagSafe might just be a lifesaver. When your roommate comes traipsing through the living room and accidentally kicks your power cord while you're working, you won't have to worry about your laptop going flying. Instead, the MagSafe connector will just pop right out, keeping your MacBook safe on its surface.
Who should get a used MacBook Pro?
Until very recently, I had been using a 2013 Retina MacBook Pro as my primary computer. It's only now really beginning to show it's age. It's still an excellent machine for browsing the web, researching, writing, and even photo editing (though that feels like it has slowed down). If I were to give or sell this MacBook Pro to a student today, they'd probably have a solid machine for their educational needs for the next few years.
MacBook Pros are flexible and great for a variety of tasks.
The MacBook Pro is a great series of Macs because it's the most flexible of Apple's lineup. Even the lower-end models provide ample power for most tasks, such as writing, web browsing, and photo editing. Higher-end models are great for more involved work, such as using complex scientific and engineering programs.
If your schoolwork involves using resource-intensive applications or video editing, you'll definitely want a MacBook Pro. But even if it doesn't, if you can find a used or refurbished MacBook Pro for a decent price, a MacBook Pro will still serve you well in less technically-intensive fields.
Who should get a MacBook Air?
The MacBook Air is a great option if you need something small and light. If you need something particularly small and light, you can still find some 11-inch MacBook Airs out there, even though it was discontinued in 2017.
The MacBook Air may prove challenging to use for those students who work with high-end scientific, engineering, or content creation applications. But most students, whether they're studying business administration, early childhood education, or English literature, should get everything they need out of a MacBook Air.
Whether you're lugging it around campus all day or winding down with some Netflix at night, you want something as light as can be in your bag or on your lap. The MacBook Air perfectly fits the needs of those who want something light for both work and play.
Go for a MacBook Air if you need something thin and light.
If you're getting a used MacBook Air, you might want to get a more recent one, given that the processors powering these machines tend to be slower pound-for-pound than those on MacBook Pros from the same era. The good news here is that you can find a MacBook Air from the last few years out there for well under $1,000. Through its refurbishment program, Apple even sells renewed versions of the 2018 MacBook Air with a Retina display for $850, and Amazon also has a wide selection of renewed devices.
Should you get a MacBook?
Apple's one-port, now-discontinued MacBook was a fairly thin and light laptop. It was also never that powerful. If you can get your hands on one at a sub-$700 price point, and don't need a machine with a lot of power, then it's certainly worth considering. But if you feel like you need a little performance headroom, it's probably better, in the long run, to spend a bit more money on a refurbished MacBook Air.
Where should you buy an older MacBook?
Unless someone you know is giving or selling you an older Mac, you'll need to do some shopping. Your safest bet when buying an older Mac is probably to get a refurbished unit from either Apple's Certified Refurbished store or Amazon. There are Macs available from those outlets at reasonable prices, and you shouldn't need to worry about scams.
Not weighed down
A solid thin-and-light Mac.
The 2017 MacBook Air should still perform well for most tasks, even if storage is on the small size for this particular model.
A plethora of ports and decent power.
The 2015 MacBook Pro still has MagSafe, along with two USB-A ports, Thunderbolt 2, and an SD card reader. It comes with macOS Mojave installed.
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