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Choosing the perfect MacBook for college seems like a simple task. After all, there aren’t that many models on the market. But this is a big decision that’s even more impactful than choosing the perfect dorm room decorations. After all, a great laptop is a crucial part of student life. It needs to function as a reliable, portable machine that can handle the workload of virtual and IRL classes while also serving as an entertainment center and social hub. We’ve studied Apple’s laptop lineup from its entry-level $999 model to upgraded, top-of-the-line rigs to find the best MacBooks for college students.

How we choose the best MacBooks for college students

At first glance, Apple’s laptop lineup seems like an A or B choice: Do you want a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro? Generally speaking, Air-series laptops prioritize portability and battery life. The Pro line offers upgraded computing power, screen resolution, and built-in cooling to handle the heat of heavy workloads. However, each line allows for processing power, storage, and display size upgrades. We’ve pulled from PopSci testing and reviews, extensive research, and our own experience buying laptops for students to choose the best.

The best MacBooks for college: Reviews & Recommendations

Sure, a MacBook will cost you a lot more than a cheap Chromebook, but you have the peace of mind that you get what you pay for when you invest in Apple. And try producing bops in between classes or DJing your next rent party on that budget laptop. 

Best overall: MacBook Air 13-inch M2

Stan Horaczek

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Specs

  • 13.6-inch Liquid Retina display
  • Apple M2 chip with 8-core CPU, 8-core or 10-core GPU, 16-core Neural engine
  • 8-24GB unified memory
  • 256GB-2TB SSD storage

Pros

  • Lightest MacBook
  • Good all-around performer
  • Sturdy body

Cons

  • Few ports
  • Base model starts with very little storage

When Apple introduced its house-made M-series chips, its laptops took a huge leap in terms of both power and battery life. The MacBook Air 13-inch M2, with a newer version of the Apple-specific chip, makes incremental improvements on its predecessor with a revamped body, slightly more screen space, and an immersive sound system. Those audio upgrades include improved microphones, which presented a slight sore spot for the previous generation. Our review called it “one of the best laptops you can buy right now, bar none.”

The MacBook Air 13-inch M2 is a portable powerhouse weighing only 2.7 pounds. At 11.3 millimeters thick, the svelte model easily slides into backpacks and is hard to beat in portability unless you opt for a tablet.

Apple seemed determined to squeeze just a little bit more into each feature compared to the previous model. A smaller bezel allows a 13.6-inch screen instead of a 13.3. The Liquid Retina display noticeably upgrades brightness and sharpness. The webcam’s resolution improved from 720p to 1080p. It’s a noticeable upgrade. The microphones are better, and just for fun, the laptop features an immersive sound system that supports spatial audio and Dolby Atmos. That’s important if your laptop also doubles as your entertainment center. The MagSafe charger makes both Thunderbolt ports available—yes, there are still only two—when the device needs juice.

Day-to-day work—like web browsing with too many tabs open, emails, and video conferencing—poses no challenges for the Air 13-inch M2. The machine also handled some gaming, basic video editing, and some photo editing, but performance noticeably drops as the fanless machine warms up. However, anyone doing more than resizing images or dealing with raw image files should opt for an option in the Pro line.

We recommend avoiding the 256GB base model, instead opting for the 10-core GPU and 512GB SSD storage. The upgrades bump the price up to about $500 but avoid underwhelming transfer speeds in the base model configuration. The investment hurts at first, but this machine can easily last an entire college run if well cared for.

Best battery life: MacBook Pro 16-inch M2 Pro

Stan Horaczek

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Specs

  • 16-inch Liquid Retina XDR display
  • Apple M2 Pro with 12‑core CPU, 19‑core GPU, 16‑core Neural Engine
  • 16-32GB unified memory
  • 512GB-8TB SSD storage

Pros

  • Can support two external monitors
  • Lots of ports

Cons

  • Heavy

A bigger laptop means room for batteries, and that’s important if you spend a lot of time working on the go. The MacBook Pro 16-inch M2 Pro is among the largest laptops Apple offers, and according to the company, it has the longest battery life ever in a Mac. The 16-inch version allows for 15 hours of wireless web browsing or 22 hours of video playback—long enough to get through all your lectures, write one hell of a first draft, or just put off assignments for a day. But this laptop is heavy by Apple standards, weighing 4.7 pounds.

The Pro model sports the M2 Pro, a more powerful version of the M2 chip, designed to deal with challenging workflows in photo editing, software development, graphic design, and 3D rendering. The base model starts at $2,499 and comes loaded with many features expected in high-end laptops.  The screen is sharp and smooth: The Liquid Retina XDR display is only 4 millimeters thick but supports 1 billion colors and a peak brightness of 1,600 nits, and ProMotion with refresh rates up to 120 Hz. Of course, you won’t want to use that to the max if you try to squeeze out the best battery life. Apple also packed a three-mic array and six-speaker sound system that supports three-dimensional sound when playing Dolby Atmos into this model. The Pro line also features more ports: three Thunderbolts, SDXC, HDMI, and a headphone jack. The 140W USB-C to MagSafe power adapter also helps quickly recharge when needed.

Best for video editing: MacBook Pro 16-inch M2 Max

Apple

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Specs

  • 16-inch Liquid Retina XDR display
  • Apple M2 Max with 12‑core CPU, 38‑core GPU, 16‑core Neural Engine
  • 32-96GB unified memory
  • 1-8TB SSD storage

Pros

  • Supports up to three external displays
  • All-flash storage architecture allows efficient operations
  • Lots of ports

Cons

  • Heavy
  • Pricey

If your major involves high-res video and high-stress deadlines, you don’t have time for rendering to render you helpless. The MacBook Pro 16-inch M2 Max features the same monster battery as the MacBook Pro 16-inch M2 Pro, but it comes packing double the graphics cores and twice the shared memory. That type of power makes it an obvious choice to tackle heavy-weight video-editing tasks.

The Pro M2 Max starts at $3,499 with an impressive 1TB of storage, but aspiring video editors can drop another $3,000 to max out the specs, attempting to future-proof the setup. The 16-inch screen is the largest in Apple’s lineup and supports the full coverage of the P3 color space. If you don’t know what that means, you can probably safely step down to the M2 Pro models without missing out on much.

This configuration weighs in at 4.7 pounds, but video editors are often desk-bound and rely on external media, so the weight of the Pro M2 Max seems less important than what could be plugged into the workspace. The HDMI port can support up to 8K, and the Thunderbolt plugs allow three additional displays. A PopSci roundup of the best laptops for video editing found the built-in SD card reader to be on the slow side but still useful for transferring files.

If you’re looking for a lighter option that can still crunch through RAW photos and videos, Apple offers the MacBook Pro 14-inch M2 Max, which trades some screen space to weigh in at 3.5 pounds.

Best design: MacBook Air 15-inch M2

Apple

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Specs

  • 15.3-inch Liquid Retina display
  • Apple M2 chip with 8-core CPU, 10-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine
  • 8-24GB unified memory
  • 256GB-2TB SSD storage

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Larger screen
  • Snappy operations

Cons

  • Base model starts with very little storage

The MacBook Air 15-inch M2 is a new addition to the Air line, offering students a larger option of an excellent everyday laptop without a steep price increase.

Expect the same fast web browsing, the same quick-opening apps, and a larger version of the excellent Liquid Retina display as the MacBook Air 13-inch M2. However, the base model 15-inch M2 is only $200 more than the base MacBook Air 13-inch M2 while starting with two more graphics cores. As recommended with the other Air models, it’s worth another $200 to increase the storage from 256GB to 512GB.

The larger Air manages to pack a lot into a relatively svelte package that’s less than a half-inch wide and weighs only 3.3 pounds. The sturdy, durable feeling body houses up the sound game with six speakers rather than four and a three-mic array for improved video chats. The battery lasts up to 18 hours but the 35W charger features a nice little bonus: Rather than a single USB-C adapter, there are two USB-C ports to support charging two devices.

Best budget: MacBook Air 13-inch M1

Stan Horaczek

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Specs

  • 13.3-inch Retina display
  • Apple M1 chip with 8‑core CPU, 7‑core GPU, 16‑core Neural Engine
  • 8-16GB unified memory
  • 256GB-2TB SSD storage

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Snappy web browsing
  • Fast to switch between tasks and open apps

Cons

  • Features only two Thunderbolt/USB-C ports and a headphone jack
  • USB-C charger occupies one port when charging
  • Lower resolution webcam
  • Too little storage in base model

When the MacBook Air 13-inch M1 first came out in 2020, the outside looked like Airs had for a while: a very thin metallic wedge. The insides, however, had been overhauled with the M1 chip to open apps faster, run more simultaneously, and generally allow for faster multitasking. At the time, PopSci’s review called it “the best overall laptop I’ve ever used,” noting the machine’s ability to stay cool without a fan while handling gaming and other more memory-hogging media editing. The Safari web browsing experience is snappy, even when dozens of open tabs.

What was once kicked off the new generation of MacBooks is now the most affordable laptop option in Apple’s lineup, starting at $999 for the base model with an 8-core CPU, 7-core GPU, 8GB of unified memory, and 256GB SSD storage. You can typically find it for well under that price, however. We’ve seen it as low as $799 from authorized retailers. The laptop will be able to handle most things the average student would throw at it, plus extra processing power when needed.

One area in which the Air M1 lags behind new models is in resolution: The laptop features a Retina display with 2560 by 1600 resolution, a step behind the Liquid Retina screens mentioned above. And for as much time as everyone has spent staring at the images of themselves in video chats, the 720p webcam will be noticeably less sharp than other offerings.

The Air M1 has port problems—or at least annoyances, depending on how many peripherals and accessories are in your rotation. The left side features two Thunderbolt ports, and the right has a headphone jack. That’s it. Plus, when the Air M1 needs to charge, the included USB-C charger will occupy one of the ports. This is a manageable issue for most, but toss a Yubikey and an external monitor into a setup, and which thing will get unplugged so you can power up? Or, just pony up for a USB-C hub.

Things to consider when buying MacBooks for college

Computing power

All MacBooks in this roundup operate on Apple’s in-house M-series chip. In 2020, the M1 system-on-a-chip debuted, combining the central processing unit, graphic processing unit, security enclave, neural engine, shared memory, and other essential functions into one piece of silicon. The company has since released the M2 series, which continues to improve power and energy efficiency.

To find that Goldilocks, “just right” device, consider the type of work your studies and play will entail. The student who largely browses the web, writes reports, and answers emails could comfortably opt for the Air line, while those in creative fields like computer-aided design, film, or music should seek more processing power and storage offered by the Pro models. Don’t forget to give yourself room to grow: Freshman projects will seem simple compared to higher-level classes.

If you’re worried that the shared memory (Mac’s equivalent to RAM) numbers seem low, consider that the shared memory works much more efficiently than typical random access memory. That means 16GB of shared memory on an M-series chip will outperform the same amount of RAM on a Windows machine. The downside, however, is that it’s impossible to upgrade the shared system memory after the fact because it’s integrated with the rest of the components. Opt for as much system memory as you can justify since you won’t be able to goose those stats later.

Storage

The time to decide on how much storage to have on your MacBook is when you purchase your MacBook. All laptops are less configurable than desktops, but tinkerers should know some MacBooks feature solid-state drives that are soldered onto the logic board. Cracking open a MacBook also voids the warranty. Generally speaking, 256GB will get filled up annoyingly quickly. 512GB is better, but we recommend 1TB to avoid annoying jam-ups. Also, grab a portable SSD or other external hard drive for storing your files.

Size

MacBooks range from a 13-inch variety to 16-inch, and this is one of those moments when every inch counts. A larger laptop is more to lug, but a larger screen is one way to boost your productivity or at least see more of a spreadsheet without scrolling. Can’t bear the extra weight while running around? Consider an external monitor for your dorm room.

FAQs

Q: Do MacBooks have compatibility issues?

Not usually. MacBooks work with many popular software suites like Microsoft 365, Adobe Creative Cloud, and Google Workspace. However, academic settings can offer unique challenges, such as antiquated software or secure browsers for test-taking that are only supported by a specific operating system. (My college-age kid encountered this for one class. The solution? The college computer lab.)

Q: Will my MacBook work with my other devices?

MacBooks work seamlessly with other Apple devices—like the iPhone, iPad, and AirPods Pro 2—which is often true of any family of products but is particularly auto-magical in this ecosystem. For other devices, the questions are whether there will be extra hassle during the initial setup or if special adapters are needed. Whether you like the minimalism or see it as stingy, MacBooks notoriously have fewer ports (and less variety) than many PC counterparts. But there should be enough for a wired or wireless mouse.

Q: Does Apple offer educational discounts?

College students (and their parents), educators, and staff can access special pricing directly on Apple’s education site. The MacBook Air and Pro models each start at $100 less, and qualified purchasers may receive a $150 gift card if they buy eligible products through Oct. 2 (and while supplies last).

Final thoughts on the best MacBooks for college students

Sure, there are more wallet-friendly options out there, but they’re often less user-friendly than Apple’s products. If you value reliability and are in your it-just-works era, there’s a MacBook for every college student’s computing needs, tastes, and budget.

Why trust us

Popular Science started writing about technology more than 150 years ago. There was no such thing as “gadget writing” when we published our first issue in 1872, but if there was, our mission to demystify the world of innovation for everyday readers means we would have been all over it. Here in the present, PopSci is fully committed to helping readers navigate the increasingly intimidating array of devices on the market right now.

Our writers and editors have combined decades of experience covering and reviewing consumer electronics. We each have our own obsessive specialties—from high-end audio to video games to cameras and beyond—but when we’re reviewing devices outside of our immediate wheelhouses, we do our best to seek out trustworthy voices and opinions to help guide people to the very best recommendations. We know we don’t know everything, but we’re excited to live through the analysis paralysis that internet shopping can spur so readers don’t have to.