The Best MacBook For Students In 2020

By Tim Chesonis •  Updated: 03/26/20 •  16 min read

The Mac is an extremely popular computer for students, and for good reason. They are incredibly reliable, last much longer than PC laptops, and use the highest quality components. As a student, which MacBook should you purchase in 2020?

The best MacBook for students in 2020 is the MacBook that will meet your needs both now and 5 to 7 years in the future.  Asking the right questions from the right people will help you determine exactly how to custom build the right MacBook for you in order to provide the best experience possible.

It would be very easy to write an article comparing the specs of one MacBook to another MacBook.  That’s not what this article is all about.  We will compare three MacBooks, but the primary purpose of this article is to help you address the questions that you need to ask before buying a MacBook, so that you will be well informed in making the best decision in purchasing a MacBook that meets your needs both now, and 5 to 7 years in the future.

Do High School Students Use Computers Differently than College Students?

High school students and college students use their computers it very differently.  While the high school student views the computer as a convenient tool, the college student can’t afford that luxury because they depend on it for everything.

High School Students

It used to be that High School students would approach a computer with a “project” mentality.  For example, they might say, “I have to write this paper for this class”, or “I have to create a short movie for my XYZ class”. 

Long gone are the days were high school students would only take math science history and an elective or two. Today, they take classes that are geared towards the career that they would like to get into, just like college students do.  

However, high school students, (for the most part), do not use their MacBook near as much as college students do, primarily because the high school that they attend will provide a computer for them to use while at school.

College Students

College students use computers very differently than High School students.  To begin, they spend a LOT more time on their computers doing school work than High School students do.  They are responsible to write term papers, and exhaustive research.  In other words, they are far more dependent on their personal computer than high school students are.

For this reason, reliability is extremely important to the college student.  For example, if a high school student did not have access to his computer because it was in for repair, their teacher would probably make accommodations for them by either extending the due date or by providing access to a school computer for them to use.  The college student does not have that kind of support and is expected to take on that responsibility themselves.  For the college student, their MacBook is the lifeblood to their learning.  Without it, they are not able to function as a student.

Why Your Major Matters

Your major is school will help you determine which MacBook is better for your needs.  For example, if your major is in English Literature, you probably do not need a MacBook Pro, because you will primarily be writing and using the internet for research.  As such, a MacBook Air is more than sufficient for the job.

However, if your major is in Film Production, purchasing the base model of the MacBook Air is definitely not going to serve you well, because you will need the power that the MacBook Pro offers.

So, what is your major?  Putting aside the MacBook you want, what MacBook does your major require?  Do you really need a 16” MacBook Pro with an 8 Terabyte SSD drive, with 64 GB of RAM, and an 8GB graphics card to write papers and watch Netflix?  No.  On the other hand, if you are going to school to be an audio engineer or a movie producer, it might be wise to purchase that 16” MacBook Pro because your needs require it.

What Does Your Teacher Recommend?

You would be wise to ask your teacher what MacBook they would recommend.  Be sure to ask the following questions of your teacher to help you assess what MacBook would be a right fit for you.

It is important to note that your Teacher may recommend that you purchase more than you need, but there is a good reason why they might make this recommendation.  You would be wise to listen to what they have to say because their experience in their field of expertise can be very beneficial to you, saving you a lot of money in the long run.

In addition to asking your teacher what they recommend, you may want to ask an upperclassman what they recommend. As a Freshman, it’s probably not a good idea to ask your personal friends what they recommend, as they have no experience.  A junior or a senior, however, would have the experience you are looking to draw from. But don’t just inquire of one upperclassman. Inquire of four or five, and get their recommendations so that you can compare and get a general feel as to what you should purchase and why.  Just be sure to ask upperclassmen in the field of study that you are studying.

Buy More Than You Need Today

MacBooks last a long time.  In fact, it is not uncommon for one to replace their MacBook 5 to 7 years after the original purchase date.  Not because of mechanical failure, but rather, because in time, MacBooks require more power in order to accommodate the ever changing software requirements.

Because they last so long, you would do well to see your your MacBook as an investment, and not just an expense.  Considering that you will probably be using your MacBook for more than 5 years, if you are able to afford it, buy the laptop that you envision using in 5 years.  As such, that will necessarily mean that you purchase a MacBook that currently exceed your needs today.

With that in mind, when purchasing a MacBook, don’t skimp on your investment, otherwise, you will find that you will need to replace that MacBook in 2 to 3 years.  In other words, you will save money in the long run if you invest in higher end specs now, than if you bought a MacBook with the intention of just getting by.  If you take the latter approach, you will have to upgrade sooner, and again, you’ll end up spending more money in the long run.

The MacBook Air vs the MacBook Pro

Rather than copying all of the specs from Apple’s website showing you a side-by-side view comparing the 13” MacBook Air, 13” MacBook Pro, and the 16” MacBook Pro, I’m going to provide you with a direct link to Apple’s website that provides the complete side-by-side comparison.

There are some notable differences that I would like to bring to your attention, however.  These differences may make it easier for you to decide which MacBook is right for you and your needs.

To begin with the comparison, let’s first note that with the release of the new MacBook Air, the differences between the MacBook Air and the 13” MacBook Pro just became a little less distinguishable.  The 16” MacBook Pro is a powerful work-horse that is capable of running almost anything you throw at it.  It truly is a desktop replacement, without question.

There is one huge feature that the MacBook Air now offers that its predecessor did not, and that is the scissors keyboard.  The MacBook Air used to house the butterfly keyboard. Thankfully, Apple has decided to bring back the scissors keyboard and implement it in all of its upcoming MacBook models.  This is huge because the implementation of the scissors keyboard is far more reliable than the butterfly keyboard ever was. It also feels way better than the butterfly keyboard when typing. When using it, you’ll notice that there is an obvious difference between the butterfly keyboard and the scissors keyboard.  Apple hit a homerun on this one. 

All three displays on each MacBook offer a Retina display, making each pixel imperceptible from the naked eye.  The MacBook Air offers 400 nits brightness, while both the 13” MacBook Pro and the 16” MacBook Pro offer 500 nits brightness for sharper contrasts.

While the processor in the MacBook Air and the 13” MacBook Pro both offer up to an Intel quad-core i7 processor, the the 16” MacBook Pro can bd outfitted with an 8-Core Intel i9 processor.

When it comes to memory and storage, both the MacBook Air and the 13” MacBook Pro allow for up to 16 gigabytes of RAM and 2 terabytes of storage, while the 16” MacBook Pro allows for up to 64 gigabytes of RAM and 8 terabytes of storage!  That’s just one obnoxiously fast and powerful machine! 

Ironically, the new MacBook Air offers up to 11 hours of battery life, (matching the 16” MacBook Pro), while the 13” MacBook Pro only offers up to 10 hours of battery life.  That’s not a huge deal but it is a distinguishable difference.  What makes this more surprising is that the MacBook Air comes with an integrated 49.9-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery, while the 13” MacBook Pro comes with an integrated 58.2-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery.  The 16” MacBook Pro comes with an integrated 100-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery, but that is expected given how much horsepower it provides.

Another notable difference is that the MacBook Air comes with “F” keys (function keys), above the number keys, while both the 13” and 16” MacBook Pro offers the Touch Bar.  But there is one very nice distinguishable feature of the new MacBook Air, and that is the addition of the touch ID key.  Now, regardless of which MacBook you on, you are able to unlock your MacBook by simply placing your finger and the touch ID key. Gotta love it.

The MacBook Air weighs in at 2.8 pounds, while the 13 MacBook Pro weighs only 3.02 pounds, but the 16′ MacBook Pro is a hefty 4.3 pounds.  If mobility is very important to you, you will definitely want to take this into consideration.

All three laptops offer a 720p FaceTime HD camera, so you can easily FaceTime with Mom and Dad or your friends in great detail while at school. 

Long gone are the days where the sound coming out of your MacBook was wanting. The sound that comes out of all three of these machines is astonishing. You really need to experience the stereo sound that comes out of them in order to appreciate it. You can easily stream a movie on Netflix without needing to use headphones in order to get a great experience. 

Finally, it should be noted that both of the MacBook Air and the 13” MacBook Pro only offer 2 Thunderbolt USB-C ports, while the 16” MacBook offers 4 Thunderbolt USB-C ports.  I personally would have loved to see 4 thunderbolt USB-C ports on all three MacBooks, but unfortunately that is not the case.  Perhaps next year, hopefully?  One can always hope. 

So, Which MacBook Should I Get?

Focus on what you need a computer to do for you both now and what you expect your needs to be 5 to 7 years from now.  Both teachers and students will love the MacBook Air, as it is lightweight, powerful enough for most students, and offers tremendous bang for your buck. 

The 13 inch MacBook Pro offers a little more than the MacBook Air but probably not enough extra punch to warrant the cost, especially given that the 13 inch MacBook Pro still utilizes the butterfly keyboard.  The 16 inch MacBook Pro is in a class in and of itself as it delivers incredible power and is capable of 64 GB of RAM and 8 TB of disk storage.  It is truly a powerhouse, and was specifically designed for power users, such as film producers and audio engineers. You will pay a lot for the 16″ MacBook Pro, but you also get a whole heck for what you are paying for.

Again, you have to honestly determine what your needs are now and what your needs will be 5 to 7 years from now before you are able to confidently make a decision as to which MacBook you should purchase. If you are getting into an industry that requires a lot of horsepower, where are you are running multiple power-hungry programs at the same time, you may seriously want to consider getting the 16″ MacBook Pro. 

If however, if you are not running multiple power-hungry programs throughout the day, you may want to consider purchasing the MacBook Air, or perhaps the 13” MacBook Pro.  Frankly, at this point in time, it is my opinion that the MacBook Air is a better buy, given that the default storage is 256 GB, and it comes with the phenomenal time-tested scissors keyboard.  But that’s just my opinion.

What Case Should You Use to Protect Your MacBook?

Protecting your new MacBook is very important. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen college students place there naked MacBook in their backpack, only to drop it on the floor when they go to class or get back to their dorm room.  High school students are no different.

It is my recommendation that you protect your MacBook by placing it in a padded zippered case, and then placing that padded zippered case in a backpack or other carrying bag to protect it from the elements and potential physical damage.

Purchasing AppleCare+ is Absolutely Essential

AppleCare is a service offered by Apple where are you can either call their Support Team, (or have them call you at a specified time), to answer any questions that you may have regarding your MacBook. Think of it as having your very own Apple technician who is available to you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Not only will they answer any questions you may have and how to operate your MacBook, but they will also help you resolve any issues that you may encounter.

AppleCare+ also Serves as an Insurance Policy 

Not only will an Apple technician help resolve any software related issues that you may experience, but AppleCare+ also covers any hardware issues you may experience within three years of the date of your purchase.  As with any insurance policy, there is a deductible, however, that deductible is far less than it would cost to repair any MacBook component for any reason.

To purchase AppleCare+ for the MacBook Air, it would cost $249 for three years of coverage.  If you were to purchase AppleCare for the 13” MacBook Pro, it would cost you $269 for three years of coverage.  Finally, if you were to purchase AppleCare+ for the 16”  MacBook Pro it would cost you $379 for three years of coverage.  

Regardless of any upgrades to the base models of each MacBook, AppleCare+ costs the same.  For easy reference, I’ve listed them for you below.

MacBook Air = $249
13” MacBook Pro = $269
16” MacBook Pro = $379

Additionally, there is a $300 deductible for each instance that AppleCare is utilized on your MacBook, and you are only allowed two instances within the three-year time period.  Incidentally, did you know that the minimal out-of-pocket expense for any repair on a MacBook that is not covered by AppleCare is around $800?  Go to your local Apple Store and ask an Apple Genius what the minimum repair cost is for a MacBook, and they will tell you the same . . . that’s what I did.

AppleCare+ is expensive . . . and worth every penny.  If you will, give me a minute and I will show you the value of AppleCare+, and why it is worth every penny.

Assuming you have purchased AppleCare+:

Again, If you add the cost of AppleCare+, Plus the deductible required should you need to have your MacBook serviced for any reason, is less money than the minimal repair would cost you. 

Finally, if you can’t afford to buy AppleCare+ at the time of purchase, wait to purchase your MacBook until you can afford to purchase AppleCare+ with it.  Granted, you do have 60 days to make that decision, but in all likelihood, if you do not purchase AppleCare+ at the time of purchase, you probably never will. But if you accidentally damage your MacBook, you definitely will regret not having purchased it.

Closing Thoughts

The best MacBook you could purchase is the one that will meet your needs both now and 5 to 7 years in the future.  Asking the right questions from your teacher and several upperclassman will help you determine exactly how to custom build the right MacBook for you in order to provide the best experience possible.

Tim Chesonis

Tim has been helping people with computers needs for several years, and he loves to help people succeed. He brings a wealth of wisdom and insight from an entrepreneur's perspective and enjoys freelance writing. In fact, when he's not writing an article, you might find him binge-watching Suits or formatting his computer . . . again, just for fun. To learn more about Tim, click here.