What MacBook Should I Buy for College in 2018?


So you got into college… Great! It’s time for big changes in your life - new people, new places, new experiences. It’s also a great time to buy a new laptop.

Choosing the right one can be hard, and you can end up spending thousands on a MacBook you won’t be 100% happy about. You should also consider few things before purchasing you may not be aware of yet. Let’s start!

Consider your curriculum and college requirements first

What you’ll study will have a huge impact on what you will need your laptop to do. Studying literature and film editing requires very different hardware.

Also, check with your college on specific requirements departments have on the software used in classes. Generally, you can see processor speed, RAM, and storage space suggestions. All modern MacBooks will certainly meet those criteria, but make sure you check for any exceptions or quirks. For example, there might be some specialized software that runs on Windows only. Sometimes files have to be in a certain format or extension unknown to a Mac. Any MacBook can run Windows system using virtual machines or Apple’s Boot Camp - you can bypass these requirements that way so it’s not a reason to dump the idea of a new MacBook.

If you’re already at a college or have been offered your place, don’t forget to use Apple’s educational discount. This runs an entire year and allows you to pay less if you’re a student or working at post-grad education. You will need to prove your identity and - depending on your country - provide additional information, but it’s worth your time. You’ll save hundreds.

What your MacBook should have regardless of what are you studying

Why Mac in the first place?

Everybody knows MacBooks are pretty, trendy, and many people have them, but you probably already asked yourself: is it worth it in the first place?

MacBooks are a good choice for college because of their low weight, high portability, stable and easy to use operating system, rich app offering, and the whole ecosystem of devices and apps that connect to your MacBook (like iPhone or hand-off feature).

Of course, there are other laptop brands out there, but it turns out if you’ll look for the same portability, sleek look and hardware of any MacBook, the price isn’t so much different. Plus, you’ll end up with Windows, which - although better with each version - still have its stability issues and quirks.

If portability is the most important thing…

People choose small or medium-sized laptops for college because they can move around carrying them with ease and use them whenever necessary for a long time. In college, you will move around the campus, change buildings daily, work in coffee shops, dorm rooms, common spaces, stairs, before classes. It means that for a general use laptop you most certainly would like to stick with 11” to 13” screen, sleek design and low weight. These characteristics also mean that your MacBook won’t be exceptionally fast and capable.

MacBook 12”

MacBook 12” is a light and handy device, ideal for general use: browsing the web, using office-type software (like free Pages, Numbers, and Keynote trio, or a free version of Office 365 for students) and checking emails. It has a Retina screen, which means above-HD pixel dimensions, sharper graphics and more room for apps. It also features 10-hour battery life (the longer the better), new keyboard (allegedly easier to type than the old one), and a force-touch touchpad, which means more functionalities in apps.

It is - however - a little pricey ($1299 for a basic model) given general use only and small screen. It also doesn’t have many ports (USB-C and a 3.5 mm headphone jack only), which can be a problem. Some students still use standard USB sticks to share data (so USB 2/3 port is handy), but it can also be arranged by a free, shared Dropbox account.

Recap: If portability is paramount, you don’t need standard USB ports and you need a laptop for general use, plus you’re not on a budget, MacBook 12” is a good choice.

MacBook Air 13”

MacBook Air 13

The 13-inch MacBook Air is a little cheaper (starting at $999), has a slightly bigger screen, lots of ports (2x USB 3, Thunderbolt, MagSafe 2, SDXC card reader, and 3.5 mm headphone jack), but it doesn’t have high-density Retina display and the hardware is little outdated. It is sleek and lightweight (but slightly heavier than MacBook 12”). It has the most long-lasting battery life of all MacBooks, up to 12 hours.

In my opinion, it is the perfect fit for a general use laptop and best money-to-value ratio. Be wary though of the cheaper version - it features 128 GB SSD drive, which is somewhat small these days. If you won’t be using external hard drive or online services like Dropbox or iCloud, this could be a problem.

Recap: Best money-to-value ratio. Longest battery life. Best general use, highly portable, inexpensive MacBook without fancy new features.

MacBook Pro 13”

MacBook Pro 13 from 2017

New MacBooks Pro with 13-inch screens are modern and powerful laptops packed with the newest features and technology. It comes with a price - basic model costs $1299 (and have its limitations). It features a big force-touch touchpad, no TouchBar (in my opinion you don’t really need it), high-density Retina display, and a powerful hardware. It is fast and you definitely won’t be waiting long for all those browser tabs to load and scroll. It has 4x Thunderbolt ports and nothing more, so prepare for buying dongles if necessary.

For a general use laptop, it is frankly an overkill though. You will get upgraded model of MacBook Air 13” for a lower price, longer battery life, and sleeker body. MacBook Pro (any size and model) will really shine when you do something more than browsing the web and checking email.

Recap: Too expensive and limited for high portability and general use. You’ll be way better with an upgraded model of MacBook Air 13”.

MacBook Pro Retina 13”

Available as refurbished only, the discontinued line of MacBook Pro (from early 2015) features Retina display, decent RAM and storage options and a wide array of ports (MagSafe 2, 2x Thunderbolt, 2x USB 3, HDMI, SDXC card reader and a 3.5 mm headphone jack).

It is the only MacBook in this article that has built-in HDMI port - great if you want to watch movies on a TV or external display. Despite the "Pro" mark, it is lightweight and highly portable with battery life up to 10 hours.

Recap: Great if you need the HDMI port and a high-quality display, but for the price of a refurbished model (if even available) you can get a new MacBook Air 13”.

MacBook Air 11”

You can’t beat MacBook Air 11” when it comes to size and weight. But with that comes big limitations. First things first, you won’t buy a new one from Apple - it is discontinued. You even can’t buy it on the refurbished Apple store. This MacBook also isn’t particularly fast or capable. The latest model (early 2015) doesn’t have a Retina screen. It features 4 GB of RAM only, 9-hour battery life and 2x USB 3, Thunderbolt and a MagSafe 2 port. Its touchpad is the smallest one from all MacBooks.

Recap: Portable, but not capable. Discontinued, therefore features outdated hardware. You can’t buy any new one or refurbished from Apple. For the price of refurbished MacBook Air 11", you can get a newer MacBook Air 13” instead.

MacBook Pro 15” (early 2015 and later)

15-inch MacBooks Pro are slightly too big and heavy to carry around all day. They can also be problematic when trying to put them into/out of a bag. If you really need a big screen, it’s way better to get a standalone display and plug it into your MacBook Pro 13”.

Recap: If portability is paramount, the size, weight, and price of MacBook Pro 15” is an overkill.

Conclusion

MacBook Portability Checklist

Considering a general use laptop, current MacBook Air 13” model (version with 256 GB SSD drive) has the best portability and functionality for a reasonable price. Overall it is the best MacBook for the most people going to college.

Best MacBook depending on your curriculum (when portability isn’t the most important)

Sometimes you need something more than just a sleek, lightweight laptop. Certain majors require better hardware or specialized features. MacBook Air 13” isn’t necessarily the best laptop for video production or working with Photoshop.

I chose several majors that would have different hardware requirements, higher than these for general use: graphic design, music production, video editing and programming/engineering. If you will study any of these, read on.

Best MacBook for graphic design

Best MacBook for graphic design

Graphic design is a wide subject and depending on what you will do specifically can mean different hardware requirements. 3D modeling/sculpting will require more RAM, processing power and storage than web design.

In general, laptops for graphic design should have at least 13-inch high-density screen (preferably 15” or in combination with external display). In MacBooks, it means a Retina IPS screen with high PPI (pixels per inch), available in current MacBook Pro models. Why it’s needed? Most graphic design apps are complex and take a lot of room on your screen. Working with Photoshop on a 12” or 13” screen can be uncomfortable.

Laptops for graphic design (or virtually any professional work) should offer exceptional stability. You can’t work efficiently when suddenly everything freezes or crashes, or if you need yet another library/driver for something to work. You can’t beat Mac OS X in conjunction with MacBook hardware when it comes to this. MacBooks are also traditionally widely used by creative people, so there is also a mature market of niche apps for design (such as Sketch).

Graphic design also needs lots of RAM. 8 GB is a minimum (preferably 16 GB). This size option is available in new MacBooks Air 13”, MacBooks Pro 13” and 15”. Remember that MacBooks aren’t easily upgradeable. If you choose 8 GB of RAM, a particular processor or storage option, you will stick with it. It is a good idea to choose something above your current needs - you will thank yourself in the future (each new version of an app or OS X is generally more demanding in terms of computing power).

Think about quad-core processor instead of duo-core. It will speed up your MacBook significantly and will use your increased RAM more efficiently.

If you intend to create animations or 3D graphics, invest in bigger storage, either internal or (better) external. Graphic design (or photography) generally uses lots of storage, so 256 GB SSD is an absolute minimum. You can use internal, fast storage for operating system and apps, and external storage for files.

You should also think about a better graphics card. Standard ones (made by Intel) don’t have much internal memory, so 3D rendering or animation uses your RAM instead. Only MacBook Pro 15” has a dual-card option for graphics processing. Basic Intel HD card is paired with a more powerful Radeon Pro with 2 or 4 GB of GDDR5 RAM. If you want to make 3D graphics for games, you should really consider a custom-built PC desktop or running Windows on a MacBook. For example, 3ds Max and most games and simulators run on Windows only.

I think the number one accessory you would need right away is a decent, wireless mouse. It’s way easier and faster to work in any complex design software using mouse and keyboard than keyboard and touchpad only.

If you are an artist and intend to draw or paint on your MacBook, external pen tablet is crucial at some point. Most of them are connected via standard USB cable, so you would also need a USB-C/USB dongle when using current MacBooks Pro. You can find cheap Apple substitutes on Amazon or eBay. Wacom is the de-facto industry standard for pen tablets ranging from $80 to thousands, but you can also find decent enough and cheaper ones from Ugee or Huion.

Recap: MacBook Pro 13” or 15” is your choice when it comes to graphic design. If you have some extra money to spend, choose 15-inch version. It has 16 GB of RAM, quad-core processor, and 256 GB SSD drive in basic configuration. Plus you have extra room for your apps and work. I think that basic MacBook Pro 15” at $3499 is a better choice in the long run than beefed-up MacBook Pro 13” at $2999.

If you need to make 3D graphic or complex animations, don’t think about the 13-inch version. If you’re on a budget and intend to process photos or do web design only, you can manage that with MacBook Air 13” with increased RAM and storage space.

Best MacBook for music production

Best MacBook for music production

Making music requires lots of processing power, screen space, RAM, and storage. It also needs a lot of external devices, mainly USB audio input, which allows you to connect studio equipment.

Choose a refurbished 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina, which features few standard USB ports, or choose a new MacBook Pro 15” and prepare yourself to use lots of dongles.

Music files take a lot of space, so buy an external storage device, either USB 3 or Thunderbolt-connected. Don’t try to choose bigger internal storage, because it’s very expensive and never enough.

MacBooks have wonderful audio software available to use, such as Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Sibelius and a free Garage Band.

16 GB of RAM is a minimum, especially since it’s not upgradeable. The fastest quad-core Intel i7 processors are worth considering. Also think about choosing the latest MacBook Pro 15” with Radeon Pro graphics cards, since they are heavily used in audio processing also.

If you’re on a budget, stick with the latest MacBook Air 13”, external USB 3 storage drive, decent USB audio input device, mic, and headphones.

Recap: MacBook Pro 15” or older MacBook Pro Retina 15” offers huge processing and memory power needed by music production. Prepare to buy dongles to connect external devices and audio equipment. If you don’t have so much cash, choose a MacBook Air 13”.

Best Mac for video editing

Video editing consumes lots of processing power, RAM, and storage (surprising, isn’t it?). It also needs a big screen, because video editing apps are probably the most complex ones, with hundreds of buttons, tools, and sliders. 16 GB of RAM is a minimum. Quad-core Intel i7 processor is a minimum. Fast, external storage drive is necessary. 4K footage takes gigabytes easily, so you could fill up your entire internal drive with a single project only.

You actually don’t have much choice but to pick MacBook Pro 15” or consider buying iMac 27” or iMac Pro. MacBook Pro 15” with Intel i7 3.1 gHz processor, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB SSD storage and a Final Cut Pro X software costs $3298. iMac 27” with Intel i7 3.8 gHz processor, 32 GB of RAM, 2 TB fusion drive and a Final Cut Pro X software will cost you $3198. It’s worth a try, but you will - of course -lose any portability.

Recap: If you’re serious about video editing, dump the MacBook and buy an iMac 27” instead. You’ll get a lot of power and huge screen. MacBook - in this case - will always be a compromise.

Best MacBook for programming and engineering

Best MacBook for programming, coding and engineering

Programming and engineering need a big screen to show all details and multiple app windows. It also needs lots of processing power and RAM to handle technical drawings, simulations and code compiling. Some of the IDEs are also very complex and needs lots of power to just run.

If you’re coding for the web, and don’t have lots of cash, choose MacBook Air 13” with upgraded RAM and processor.

If your code needs to be compiled, or you’re coding for Mac OS X/iOS, choose MacBook Pro 13” or 15” with 16 GB of RAM.

Either way, consider buying larger external display and wireless mouse (for example when using CAD software) because it’s a lot easier and comfortable to work this way.

Recap: Any MacBook Pro or Air 13” with extra RAM and processing power will be great. Consider buying an external display for technical/engineering work.

Desktop computers to consider instead of MacBook

iMac

If portability isn’t an issue, and you need a lot of power/storage, in many cases iMacs are better and cheaper than maxed-out MacBooks. Plus you’ll get a wireless mouse in a package, which increases productivity (comparing to using MacBook’s touchpad only).

I wouldn’t seriously consider any of Mac mini models, because of their outdated hardware and poor processing power. For example, you can’t have a Mac mini with a quad-core processor or more than 16 GBs of RAM. Most MacBook Pro configurations are simply faster and better.

Cool MacBook accessories you should consider

You will need to carry your MacBook around and protect it from the environment. A wide range of sleeves, plastic cases, and vinyl MacBook skins exist.

Probably the best sleeves you can get are made from neoprene, which is a soft, flexible fabric. It will isolate your MacBook from cold air, water, vapor, things in your bag, and occasional bump against a wall or other people. If you get a decent brand (like the Italy-based Tucano), the zipper won’t jam so easily. It won’t necessarily protect your MacBook from falling on a concrete ground, but it’s a good choice if you carry your laptop a lot in a temperate or chilly climate. The downside is a poor range of colors or artworks available. At most, you will find black plus few basic colors.

Plastic MacBook cases are trendy right now and are available in different solid colors or transparent only. They are sold by multiple brands, although almost exclusively made in China. They protect your MacBook from scratches. Some plastic cases also tend to heat up devices, which can be a problem in a warmer climate or in the summer. You can also get MacBook case from Keyshorts, which has vent holes for air circulation and can be combined with colorful skins.

Keyshorts MacBook skins

MacBook skins are made of soft vinyl and are glued to the surface. Good skins brands (like Keyshorts) use adjustable, bubble-free and removable adhesives, so the skin won’t damage your MacBook and won’t leave any residue when removed. Plus, these skins can have colorful artworks printed on them, which can amazingly beautify and personalize your MacBook. MacBook skins also protect your laptop from dust and scratches. They don’t thicken up your laptop and don’t overheat it like plastic cases.

If you will work with complex software, consider buying editing stickers with keyboard shortcuts and icons for most used tools. It can greatly increase your speed in given software, and you'll learn a few tricks, which will help you in your future work.

Useful accessories you most certainly will need

An external storage device is a must in some cases. Graphic design, music production, and video editing require huge storages you simply can’t buy with MacBook. Seagate and Western Digital are two major brands. You can get cheap and reliable storage with USB 3 cable for a general use. If you need speed, invest in more expensive SSD options.

An external display is worth considering if you make virtually anything more than browsing the web and checking email. Screen size in laptops is expensive, and in some cases, it’s a better deal to choose smaller MacBook and connect it to a big external display. Nec and LG make good displays for a reasonable price. All of them connects via HDMI, so you will also need Thunderbolt/HDMI dongle.

A wireless mouse is worth considering if you move your cursor around a lot, and/or if you switch between keyboard and cursor often. You can’t beat the speed of keyboard plus mouse with keyboard plus touchpad duo. Apple Magic Mouse is sleek and features gestures, but it isn’t cheap. Truth told, any decent wireless mouse capable of connecting to your MacBook through Bluetooth will do the trick.

Conclusion

If you need a laptop for general use, like writing, browsing the web or checking email - MacBook Air 13” or MacBook 12” are the best options for 2018.

If you intend to do more than basic stuff, you most likely would want to choose MacBook Pro 13” without TouchBar or MacBook Pro 15”, with a budget option of MacBook Air 13”.

If you have some questions or thoughts you would like to share, make sure to leave a comment below. If this article was useful to you, please share it! :D


Sebastian Kończak
Sebastian Konczak

Multi-discipline man and co-founder at Keyshorts and order management software Ordee. I write about working from home, productivity hacks, e-commerce, keyboards, and Adobe tutorials.


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