2018 Back to School Buyers Guide: Choosing the best Apple MacBook or MacBook Pro

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in Current Mac Hardware edited August 2018
Back-to-school season is closing in fast. This means two things: retailers will be running some great deals on Macs and students will be looking to pick up some new laptops as they had back to class. AppleInsider discusses Apple's entire laptop line, and talks about who needs what, and why.

Apple MacBook laptops for education


Even on sale, a new laptop can be a significant investment, so it is really important to pick out the right model.

In practice you're going to be tempted to buy the cheapest because you've got all the other costs of being a student to consider. However, a cheap Mac that struggles to do what you need is no saving. AppleInsider examines your options to help you decide what's the best option to spend your money on, and how to save the most on that purchase with price comparison tools.

Take your time. When you first go on Apple's website, it looks like there are ten portables to try to pick from. In truth, it's really only four main models with some quite small extra options.

MacBook Air

Apple MacBook Air


This is the machine Steve Jobs famously pulled out of a regular inter-office mail envelope and wowed us all. That was ten years ago and today you'd struggle to find anyone who still uses those manila envelopes or is quite so wowed by the MacBook Air.

What was impossibly slim then now looks oddly old and not only when you put it next to a newer MacBook which is somehow even slimmer. Yet it's not as if the Air has swelled up into being thicker than it was and instead what's happened is that the price has come down.

True, this is a less powerful portable Mac than any of the other ones available but it's also the cheapest: even without any discounts you can get the MacBook Air from $999.

That is only just squeaking in under a grand and there is reason to spend more: if you pay retail $1,199 instead you get twice the storage space at 256GB SSD. Having an SSD instead of a traditional hard drive is what made the Air's slimness possible but these Solid State Drives are more expensive so they tend to be smaller.

Which means you'll have to be conscious of how much you store on your MacBook Air. It's not going to be roomy or powerful enough to do video editing, for instance.

Then there is the question of the display: it is the poorest of all Apple's current portable screens. It's the only one that isn't Retina quality.

That said, this is also the only model that has older hardware such as an SD card for photographers and familiar USB sockets. It's also the only remaining portable with the once-lauded MagSafe power connector that will simply disconnect instead of breaking when you accidentally knock it.

Of all the laptops, the MacBook Air also happens to have the longest battery life, reaching 12-13 hours. That is about 3 hours above the others. With current sale prices, anyone can get into an Air for as low as $829 if you shop around. If you're a student or working in education then Apple itself is selling the Air from $849.

Pros
Portable
Most Affordable
Greatest range of ports like USB
MagSafe
Longest Battery Life

Cons
Non-retina screen
Least powerful option

Target user: Students who want an affordable and portable Mac that is able to handle most tasks that they throw at it.

MacBook

Apple 12 inch MacBook


If portability is the most important, then Apple's 12-inch MacBook is a great choice. It is super slim, and has the smallest overall footprint. Even with its diminutive size, the screen is only an inch smaller than the 13" MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

This is probably the most ideal machine to tote around campus, easily fitting on undersized desks and in bags without adding much weight.

Apple paired a beautiful Retina Display with this miniaturized design, which is great to check out any photos you've taken with friends.

In order to achieve such a small, lightweight, and fan-free design, the processor and graphics power here is a bit lacking. It will still be able to easily handle any task targeted at a student but video editors should look elsewhere and gamers probably must. This isn't to say that it is slow, not by any means: it has quick flash memory paired with a Core M or i7 processor to make most tasks lightning fast.

As long as graphics-heavy applications aren't necessary, the MacBook is a solid option between super-svelt design and reasonable price, at least in the Apple world. Current discounts at Apple authorized resellers knock up to $150 off the base model, bringing the entry price down to $1,149.

Pros
Blend of affordability and portability
Super slim and lightweight
Beautiful display
USB-C

Cons
Not as much oomph as the MacBook Pro

Target user: Campus traversing students who like to always have their laptop with them (and not even notice), without sacrificing design or display.

MacBook Pro

2018 MacBook Pro Touch Bar


If price weren't an issue, this is what you'd get. It is heavier and thicker than either the MacBook or the MacBook Air but it's still light and thin. Plus while there is a little range in power and features, overall any model of the MacBook Pro is the fastest, most powerful and outright best Apple portable you can get. Plus as the flagship of the range, it has recently been updated.

It is, though, the one type of Apple portable that needs more consideration than the MacBook or MacBook Air because it comes both in two sizes and one major option. You can buy a MacBook Pro in 13-inch or 15-inch size -- and this is the only Apple portable you can get as 15-inch - and then you have to decide whether to get a version with Touch Bar and Touch ID.

The Touch Bar is particularly good for people new to Macs or who haven't dug into keyboard shortcuts yet: it shows features and options of your software especially clearly.

Touch ID brings the iPhone-style way of unlocking and of paying in online stores: it's hard to argue that you need it but it's very good when you've got it.

Just deciding to buy the Touch ID and Touch Bar versions adds $500 to the price but that comes with other benefits. The more expensive MacBook Pros come with a better screen: it's the same Retina-quality one but with True Tone which adjust display color and brightness to fit your surroundings.

Then while this requires even more money, it is only the Touch Bar models of the MacBook Pro that are capable of being expanded to have 32GB RAM and 4TB of SSD.

Anyone seeking pro-level graphics and processors will find a home in the Pro models, including gamers, video and photo editors, developers, and more. While the six-core i7 and i9 processors do run hot, the machines are still a nice boost from the 2017, and a bigger one still from the 2016.

We'll be diving very deep on the thermal situation further very soon and what use cases are impacted and which are not. But, even as it stands today, concerns about thermals shouldn't dissuade you from seeking the power that the six-core laptops deliver.

If you were looking for the latest and greatest, you've now found it. And even though 2018 models recently hit store shelves, shoppers can save an additional $150 to $250 when ordering online with AI's exclusive coupon compared to buying direct from Apple. Many Apple authorized resellers also will not collect sales tax in most states, potentially saving students up to $785 on the latest models.

Pros
Most powerful
Touch Bar and Touch ID
Thunderbolt 3
Most upgradable
13" and 15" options

Cons
Most expensive
May be overkill for student use

Target user: Academics looking to make the most of their Mac, not sacrificing speed or graphics for the larger size (and price). Perfect to make use for gaming, video editing, or coding.

Grab your gear

Apple MacBook back to school buyers guide


It can certainly be a daunting decision in picking out a new laptop, especially as Apple has increased their options over the years. Apple has now has an affordable model starting under a grand (MacBook Air), an insanely portable, though still capable model (MacBook), as well as two sizes of exceptionally capable professional level models (MacBook Pro), filling nearly any niche out there.

You now know enough, though, to make an informed decision based on what you've read about the models as well as what budget you already have. If you can, however, try a couple of models out in the Apple Store. Anecdotally, for instance, we know one heavy MacBook user who adores the keyboard on the 13-inch MacBook Pro but dislikes it on the 15-inch. It's the same keyboard. We've tried telling him.

Also, check out the screen quality on any machine you consider buying but remember that Apple sets the display to its highest resolution settings. That can be perfect for you or it can make everything seem too unworkably small.

This could be an issue with ageing eyes -- and you're a student so possibly you won't be all that bothered by it. Yet, if you do find the text or tools shown on a display to be uncomfortably small, remember that you can adjust the screen settings to suit you.

That all suggest you could spend quite some time trying things out in an Apple Store, but if you're in the market for a portable, don't delay.

Ways to save

Apple also just launched their annual Back to School program, which gives eligible shoppers a free pair of Beats Solo3 Wireless headphones, a nice touch for any student. It's also 20 percent off AppleCare insurance and currently up to $200 off a Mac - if you're an education user.

For the greatest savings, though, Apple authorized resellers are knocking up to $250 off 2018 MacBook Pros and up to $1,600 off closeout models, regardless of whether you're a student or faculty member. Sales tax incentives are also available at B&H Photo and Adorama, as both retailers will not collect sales tax on orders shipped outside New York and New Jersey*. For discounts on additional Mac models, including coupon savings on Apple's 12-inch MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Air, please visit our Price Guides shown below.

Be sure to also check out our desktop back-to-school buyers guide and our Mac vs. iPad back-to-school guide for additional hardware options.

Mac Price Guides

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 13
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 900member
    My daughter is starting college soon. My choice for her? My 2011 13” MacBook Air. She’s going to be a freshman and not studying engineering; all she needs to do is write papers, access her class web pages and similar activities. Honestly, any of the choices listed above are overkill for the vast majority of freshmen, and college is the perfect place to have a $2k laptop stolen. Later on, if she needs something better we can take a look once she has a better idea what she needs.

    Before buying anything, check with your kid’s school. Many provide discounts - if we buy a computer for our daughter through the on-campus bookstore, we get the standard Apple Ed discount and the profits from the sale go to the university. More importantly, check what the software needs are going to be. Many schools recommend a PC because of specific software that may not be available for a Mac.
    edited July 2018
  • Reply 2 of 13
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 1,709member
    Best(Back-to-school) 2018 13" Macbook Pro suppose to be updated/upgraded Function Keys like it's counterpart with TouchBar.. But where is it ?
    edited July 2018
  • Reply 3 of 13
    Would love to know your thoughts on a maxed out 13” MBP vs base 15” MBP.  About the same price. 13” more portable.  Performance difference?
  • Reply 4 of 13
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,431member
    Pros
    Portable
    Most Affordable
    Greatest range of ports like USB
    MagSafe
    Longest Battery Life
    Cons
    Non-retina screen
    Least powerful option
    it would be all pros if Apple actually updated this with a HD screen and a current processor.  Best Apple computer ever for schools.
  • Reply 5 of 13
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,893administrator
    Would love to know your thoughts on a maxed out 13” MBP vs base 15” MBP.  About the same price. 13” more portable.  Performance difference?
    This is a really complicated question and depends a great deal on use case. If most of what the student uses is single-core or low-core utilization, it won't matter much, if at all. The larger screen is compelling from a usage standpoint, but marginally less portable.
  • Reply 6 of 13
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,431member
    You were kind to the MacBook. you forgot the complete cons of 
    one port
    price.

    The MBA even with its low res screen and  previous generation processor is still a much more flexible choice for education.  The MacBook was Ived out of usefulness before it left the drafting table.

    Edit: I bet the out of date MBA still outsells the MB.
    edited July 2018
  • Reply 7 of 13
    dewmedewme Posts: 1,864member
    The 13" MacBook Air is such a joy to use. The keyboard and trackpad are second to none. I haven't tried the newer MacBook but I suspect its keyboard isn't quite as nice as the Air's. I would have zero concerns about an Air standing up to 4 (or 6, 8, or whatever) years of student life. A Retina display on the Air would be nice but students should have to feel a little pain for motivational sake, especially if they are still being supported by mom and dad. Want a MacBook Pro? Earn it.
    radarthekatM.PaulCezannelamboaudi4
  • Reply 8 of 13
    jdwjdw Posts: 663member
    The MacBook Air is hands down the best for students and is why I bought two 2017 units (256GB storage) recently from B&H (where there was a $200 discount on each).  Consider the merits:

    1. It's the most cost effective MacBook for parents (my children have not yet graduated high school but still need a notebook or tablet at school).
    2. It's the last MacBook with a good keyboard (good key travel that is less likely to cause carpal tunnel)
    3. It's the last MacBook with a USB-A port, which is important even now in 2018 where USB-A is still ubiquitous.
    4. It has MagSafe, which is important for all all, but especially younger people who don't always mind the cords!
    5. Even the base model i5 CPU has a higher GeekBench single-core score that my late 2009 QuadCore i7 27" iMac.
    6. Internal SD card slot, which can be used for supplementary storage when needed.
    7. While note as thin and light overall as the MacBook, it comes close and is extremely portable.
    8. Includes the extension power cord, which is more useful than you can imagine!
    9. Still has the iconic glowing Apple logo on back, which looks a lot cooler than the boring logo on newer models. My kids agree with me on this.
    10. Still has the longest battery life of any Apple notebook currently sold.

    If it had a retina display, it would be ideal, even without any other changes.  But the current screen is satisfactory for students.

    I personally have zero interest in the MacBook and MacBook pro (late 2016 and newer) due to that horrid Butterfly keyboard.  They day Apple kills off that thing for a better keyboard with more key travel is the day my interest in Apple's entire notebook line will be renewed and my faith in Apple restored.

    By the way, "student discounts" is a rather deceptive phrase in that the English word "student" encompasses K-12 and college and anyone who studies, yet Apple restricts its meaning primarily to college students, and then adds school faculty and staff.  The only way K-12 students (or rather, their parents) would get a discount is if they were home schooled and the home schooling parent buys a machine.  But that isn't most of us.  Understandably, it is more difficult to confirm K-12 students are students if they lack *.edu email addresses, but we are in modern times now, and some schools require computing devices of some sort yet don't provide them for students, private schools especially.  For now, we parents can enjoy B&H, assuming we time it right to get the best discounts. A discount of $200 isn't bad at all.
    edited July 2018 entropys
  • Reply 9 of 13
    dewme said:
    The 13" MacBook Air is such a joy to use. The keyboard and trackpad are second to none. I haven't tried the newer MacBook but I suspect its keyboard isn't quite as nice as the Air's. I would have zero concerns about an Air standing up to 4 (or 6, 8, or whatever) years of student life. A Retina display on the Air would be nice but students should have to feel a little pain for motivational sake, especially if they are still being supported by mom and dad. Want a MacBook Pro? Earn it.
    Most definitely. Although I certainly have no complaints about the display - I came from an infinitely worse 15" PC with a 1440x900 resolution! shudder

    Easily lasts 4 years - I wonder how much longer mine would last.
  • Reply 10 of 13
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,893administrator
    jdw said:


    By the way, "student discounts" is a rather deceptive phrase in that the English word "student" encompasses K-12 and college and anyone who studies, yet Apple restricts its meaning primarily to college students, and then adds school faculty and staff.  The only way K-12 students (or rather, their parents) would get a discount is if they were home schooled and the home schooling parent buys a machine.  But that isn't most of us.  Understandably, it is more difficult to confirm K-12 students are students if they lack *.edu email addresses, but we are in modern times now, and some schools require computing devices of some sort yet don't provide them for students, private schools especially.  For now, we parents can enjoy B&H, assuming we time it right to get the best discounts. A discount of $200 isn't bad at all.
    B&H and Adorama discounts are often better than what Apple offers to students.
    jdw
  • Reply 11 of 13
    On budget? Try out a Chrome Book as an alternative.
  • Reply 12 of 13
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 6,268member
    On budget? Try out a Chrome Book as an alternative.
    Gross. Talk about disposable tech.
    edited July 2018 jdw
  • Reply 13 of 13
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 1,709member
    If Apple wants to sell lots of MAC laptops to back to school kids than create 13" and 15" Macbook that is light like current 12" version with 13" 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Retina display, 3-4 USB-C ports, 8th gen processor for around $1199. If it is Macbook Pro than same spec Function keys 13" MBP for $1299. In order to expand MAC ecosystem, Apple needs to offer reasonable Go To laptop in each MAC category to keep feeding bottom with high school,college students, casual,small business users.

    edited August 2018
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