Best Mac for Students: Should you buy a MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, MacBook, Mac mini or the new iMac

If you are starting college or university in the coming year, you may well be thinking about buying a Mac to help with your studies.

At first glance Macs might still seem expensive, especially when compared against the £300 laptops that you'll find on offer in Tescos and PC World, but while those cheaper machines are built down to a price, Apple believes firmly in creating devices that are powerful and meant to last.

A Mac you buy for university should quite happily see you through all the adventures of your course and still be something you'll want to carry on using for a few years afterwards. Then there's the added security of being able to walk into an Apple Store if you do have any problems, safe in the knowledge that someone will resolve the issue.

It's also worth noting that viruses are still incredibly rare on OS X, which isn't the case with Windows machines. So investing in a Mac means you won't have to worry about spending money on security software, or time dealing with the devastation malware can bring. Instead you can just concentrate on your course, knowing that your Mac will be there when you need it.

Find out more about the Mac mini in our Mac mini (Late 2014) 1.4 GHz review and Mac mini (Late 2014) 2.8GHz review.

Wondering which MacBook is best for you Read: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro comparison review, 13in Apple laptops compared

But deciding which Mac is the best for students can be tricky. Some of this depends on what type of student you are, and of course your budgetary arrangements will be a significant factor. To help you buy the right model we've gathered together all the facts you need to know and created a student's guide to buying a Mac. In this we'll consider what students are likely to need from their Mac, and what features you should pay more for. We then take a closer look at Apple's range of Macs and the built to order options available that might be useful. Plus, we've also collected together some accessories, software and services that could come in handy during your course.

Choosing the best Mac for education

Which Mac to choose depends on what your needs are as a student, and the course you are taking. If you're doing a degree in film and video, or music, or graphic design then it might make sense to also look at one of our other Best Mac For... guides for that subject area:

Best Mac for graphic design Best Mac for making music Best Mac for video editing Best Mac for app development

As the student life involves a far amount of mobility - travelling to lectures, libraries, the occasional coffee shop, and then possibly home for weekends and term breaks - it makes a good deal of sense to consider a laptop rather than a desktop device. While the screen sizes in MacBooks are smaller than iMacs, you can always find an inexpensive screen, or even your TV, and connect that to your MacBook when you need a larger display. Then once you're done with the big screen, you still have your mobile powerhouse machine and all your files.

One Mac that's easy to take off your shopping list is the Mac Pro (if you haven't done so already). At £2,499 it's simply overkill for nearly all student tasks and unless you really are involved in some heavy number crunching or professional-level video editing, you won't value its power. Even in a field like computer science or 3D animation you will get by on a high-end MacBook or iMac. Then there is also the unsavoury thought that the Mac Pro's high cost and small footprint make it a huge theft risk for student apartments. In the vast majority of cases you would be better served saving the money and opting for a cheaper model, especially when you consider that you'd need to buy a screen, keyboard and mouse for the Pro.

See: Best Mac to buy: every Mac compared Best Mac for gaming Best Apple gadgets for school How to get an education discount from Apple

Apple's MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and new MacBook range

The current MacBook range of laptops is truly impressive, and since Apple lowered the price point of its laptops back in 2014 you can get an incredibly advanced machine for a reasonable price. One we would warn against buying though is the non-Retina 13" MacBook Pro. It does have some advantages over its Retina brethren, mainly down to the fact that you can replace the battery, hard drive, and RAM yourself, thus prolonging the life of the machine and reducing the initial cost. It is also the only Mac left that has a CD/DVD drive built-in.

While these features are certainly useful, the fact is that the 13" MacBook Pro hasn't been updated since June 2012 and the low resolution 1280x800 screen is looking very dated now, especially when seen next to the gorgeous Retina displays. At £899 it's also too expensive.

In previous years we ruled out the MacBook Pro with Retina display due to its high price. But Apple has reduced its base model to £999, which is admittedly still a lot to pay for a laptop, but it's great value for what you get. With a 13-inch retina display, 2.7Ghz Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB RAM, 128GB flash storage, super sharp display and Force Touch technology, we think the MacBook Pro with Retina display is the best MacBook on the market for power users.

If you absolutely need more onboard storage then you can go up to the 256GB version for an additional £200, but as all the other specs stay the same we'd advise buying a cheaper external drive instead.

There is of course a 15" MacBook Pro with Retina display, and it is a magnificent machine, but at £1,599 it's £600 more than the 13" model, and as such feels like it would be a little excessive for students. The Intel Iris Pro GPU is a definite step-up from the Intel Iris in the 13" MacBook Pro with Retina display in terms of graphics performance, so if this is an important factor for you then it's worth considering. However, it's worth mentioning that its processor isn't as good as that of the 13" model, at 2.2GHz compared to 2.7GHz. We'd still maintain that the 13" is the ideal model for students, and is a contender to be the one in which you should invest.

Of course if mobility really is top of your list then the MacBook Air seems a more obvious choice.

Starting at £749 for the 11" model equipped with a 1.6GHz Intel i5, 128GB of storage, and 4GB or RAM, it's a lot cheaper than other Macs while also being smaller and lighter. This makes it more practical for students to take to lectures.

It does have a slower processor than the Retina MacBook Pros, and 4GB RAM is becoming a little low these days if you want the machine to stay sharp for a few years. To remedy this, we recommend that you bump it up to 8GB at point of purchase if you can, but the flash drive is snappy so it's more than capable of most tasks - especially word processing and online research.

The 13" models start at £849, so if you find the 11" too small, or just want to bathe in the glory of the 13" model's twelve-hour battery life, it's not a huge leap financially and to prolonged study sessions it would be our MacBook Air of choice.

Along with the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, Apple brought back the original MacBook at its event in March. The 12" MacBook is actually thinner than the current generation MacBook Air and features a brand new design, which we think is gorgeous. But is it the right option for students

Starting at £1,049, the MacBook is more expensive than the MacBook Air (and even the base MacBook Pro) even though processor wise, it's the weakest of the three. The base model offers a dual-core 1.1GHz Intel Core M processor, 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM and Intel HD Graphics 5300. It does have its design going for it though, as its incredibly thin and lightweight, just 13.1mm at its thickest, which is 24 percent thinner than the MacBook Air.

The next model available costs a cool £1,299 and bumps the internal memory of the MacBook up from 256GB to 512GB, a more suitable option for students (especially those doing creative courses). Its processor is also given a slight bump up to 1.2GHz from 1.1GHz, but everything else (including its 12" screen) stays the same.

The MacBook is the first Apple laptop to feature the new USB-C standard, which can handle data transfer, video input and power transfer in a single port. This means that the MacBook features only USB-C ports, and only a single one at that. The fact that you'll have to buy an adaptor to use any external hard drives, USB sticks, or even a wired internet connection with your MacBook, and the fact that there are more powerful (and cheaper) laptops available, we wouldn't recommend the MacBook for university studies.

Also read: Mac mini or MacBook Air: the best low-cost Mac for your money

Apple's iMac: be careful of the new low-cost iMac

We're going to out on a limb and recommend you stay away from Apple's new low-cost (£899) iMac. On the surface it looks ideal: the price is reasonable at £899 and it has a larger screen than any laptop. But it comes fitted with the same 1.4GHz processor as the one used in the 2014 MacBook Air and the Mac Mini, which is somewhat slow and, unlike on the MacBook Air, isn't twinned with a flash hard drive. The combo of slow processor and slow hard-drive in the low-cost iMac makes it an awkward experience. We think you'd be better off with a Mac mini, unless you upgrade your £899 iMac with a Turbo Drive, which will offer the benefit of increasing the speed at which your iMac runs, and will cost you just £200 more (that's £1,099). Read why we think the iMac with a Turbo Drive is a good idea here.

The slightly more expensive iMac (£1,049) is a much different proposition. It has a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel CPU, 8GB RAM and a 1TB hard drive (we'd still recommend a Fusion Drive update if you can afford the extra £200). It's a great Mac for graphic designers and video editors alike, as it combines a lot of storage (handy for large files) with a good processor and the screen is excellent.

At the top of the tree is the beautiful new iMac with 5K Retina display, which is hugely powerful, elegant, and costs £1,599, which isn't bad when you consider it cost £1,999 when it was first released. It offers the highest spec too, with a 3.3GHz processor, 1TB storage, 8GB of RAM and an AMD Radeon R9 M290 with 2GB memory. The trade-off is, or course, portability. While the iMac isn't heavy, it is still a desktop computer, so it'll stay in the house while you go to lectures. If you are on a design course this may not matter so much, but it does tie you to one location, whereas the MacBooks can go pretty much anywhere.

There is a build to order option in the low-cost iMac that might get you a better deal. As we explain in our review of the budget iMac with a Fusion Drive, by adding a combined SSD (flash) set up with a hard drive things speed up and that might actually make that model a better deal than the one above it, which would lack the Fusion Drive, which is a £200 upgrade when you buy it.

Read: iMac versus MacBook Air

Apple's Mac mini: cheap and powerful

We have mixed feelings about the Mac mini. On the one hand it remains an excellent low cost Mac, while on the other hand the recent upgrade has taken away some of the things that made it such an attractive Mac.

Still, the entry model Mac mini is only £399, which makes it the most affordable Mac by quite a distance. It houses a 1.4GHz Intel i5 CPU, just like the entry level iMac, that feels perfectly fine for everyday tasks. One of the major disappointments though is that in previous models you were able to manually replace the RAM and hard drive with very little effort, but this new release has the RAM soldered onto the motherboard and therefore can't be upgraded at all. Even the hard drive is harder to replace as Apple has fitted a grill that requires specialist screwdrivers to remove. If you never had any intention of upgrading parts yourself then this will have little bearing on your decision, but we would advise using the built to order process on the Apple site to increase the RAM from 4GB to 8GB.

If you are on a real budget this is the way to go. Get an entry-level Mac Mini and ask around for an old keyboard, mouse and monitor. You may be using second-hand accessories but your Mac will sit at the heart of it all. You could also plug the Mac mini into your TV, although we wouldn't recommend writing your dissertation on a TV screen.

Read: Mac mini versus MacBook Air, which Mac is best value

Apple Education discount

If you're already at University, or have been offered your place, then you should ensure that you make use of Apple's educational discount. This scheme runs all year round and offers various price reductions for students or those working in education.

Read about how to get a discount from Apple here.

Which Mac should you get for university

Last year the best all-round choice for students was the MacBook Air. It's light, fast, and at £749 for the entry model it offer good value for an excellent machine.

This year things have become somewhat more complicated. Our preferred Air model is the 13-inch (£849) as the extra screen size is a blessing during long study sessions. We always recommend upgrading the RAM in Airs to 8GB due to the fact that you can't do it later, and this brings the final price to £929.

Now, for only seventy pounds more you can buy the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, with the gorgeous screen that is well worth the extra spend. So, as is so often the case when buying tech, it really boils down to what you regard as the most important factors.

If you want a machine that you can throw in your backpack and carry all day, and you're focused on design over power, then the 12-inch MacBook is the easy option. If that screen is too small, well, then it's a hard choice. You could always plug it into a separate display to use when you are at your desk.

The 13-inch MacBook Air is a brilliant blend of power and portability, but we can't help thinking that if Apple ever releases a Retina MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Air would still be solid and reliable, but your mind would drift back to the moment when you could have bought the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, and regret that you didn't.

Sound good Take a closer look in our MacBook reviews:

MacBook Air 2015, 13in reviewMacBook 2015, 12in reviewMacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review

Read our MacBook Pro reviews:

Retina MacBook Pro review (15in, 2015)Retina MacBook Pro review (13in, 2015)

Best Apple Mac accessories for students

If decide to buy a Mac mini, then we think getting an Apple Wireless keyboard and Apple Trackpad would be helpful for working on both devices. See:

Apple Wireless Keyboard reviewApple Trackpad tips

Mac media solutions for students

Another good accessory to consider is the Apple TV. For £79 this enables you to connect your Mac wirelessly to a HDMI television so you can stream video, and music through your television. It's a great alternative to watching media on your Mac screen.

See: Apple TV review


Martyn Casserly

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