The best MacBook for students 2021: all the Apple laptop options explained

Wondering what the best student MacBook is? We break down how the MacBook Air and Pro models differ, and what work they're best suited for

Best student MacBook 2021
(Image credit: TechRadar)

Apple's laptops have been massively popular with students for years, but if you're looking at the options today, you might be wondering how to pick the best student MacBook. Between the different sizes, Pro and Air names, and even the totally different types of processor used, it's easy to feel a bit lost.

Our guide to the best MacBook for students will break all that down, read for back-to-school season. We'll show which MacBooks are good for the majority of students, and which ones are good for some more niche types of work. Meanwhile, if you need some extra space, check out our comprehensive best external hard drives for Mac list.

We'll explain what things like the differences in the screens mean, and whether you need to think hard about getting a MacBook with Intel processors or the Apple M1 chip. You'll also find the current lowest prices on these machines right here, though we also have dedicated guides to the best cheap MacBook Air deals and best cheap MacBook Pro deals.

Apple definitely makes some of the best student laptops, which double as some of the best lightweight laptops – something that students will always appreciate as you're dragging your laptop to and from classrooms. But you can find alternatives from other manufacturers at those links if you want more options.

Are MacBooks worth it for students in 2021?

Apple products have long had a reputation for being high-priced, and while they're certainly not cheap, they're also not overpriced – a PC laptop that's similarly thin and light while also offering high performance and specs would cost just as much, or often more.

That's especially true of the latest MacBook Air, which offers as much performance as a desktop PC, yet in a tiny fanless design – nothing that runs Windows currently comes close to what it can do.

However, there is a hidden cost to consider: most of Apple's current laptops only use USB-C ports, which means you often need to buy adapters to attach regular USB hard drives or accessories. So that's an extra purchase – you'll need to factor in another £30/$30 to £100/$100 depending on how many ports you want this adapter to have (though students will generally be fine with a basic one).

On the flip side, though, there's something that adds a huge amount of value to Apple's machines: they're extremely reliable and easy to get repaired if anything does go wrong. Apple is the only big laptop maker with widespread stores that all have a repair presence, where you can literally take the laptop in a talk to someone employed by the same people who made the machine. In terms of speeds of repairs and peace of mind when deadlines are looming, the importance of this can't be overstated.

Do students get discounts on MacBooks?

Yes they do! The exact amount of discount depends on the model you choose, and it's not anything as simple as saying that it's 10% around the whole world or anything, but Apple's has a specific section of its online store for education buyers, so you can see what discounts you qualify for there when you look at the products.

Apple also runs 'Back to school' offers – the big one in the UK and US is that when you buy a Mac or iPad, you get a free pair of AirPods thrown in (as well as the cheaper price). You can actually choose to upgrade to the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro instead of regular AirPods – you'll have to pay a bit in that case, but you'll get a huge discount from the regular price.

You can also get 20% off AppleCare+ – which is an extended three-year warranty that also includes accidental damage protection. For students, who can struggle to get genuinely good contents insurance that covers laptops when out of the house, this can be an excellent buy. It doesn't cover theft, though.

In the UK, even browsing the Apple Education store online requires you to prove that you're a student using the UNiDAYS system.

Visit the Apple Education Store UK

In the US, you can simply browse the models and see all prices, and you generally don't need to show any proof of being a student when buying.

Visit the Apple Education Store US

In Australia, it's the same as the US – you can just browse all the prices.

Visit the Apple Education Store Australia

The best MacBooks for students 2021 – our picks

MacBook Air

(Image credit: Apple)

1. MacBook Air (M1, 2020)

The best student MacBook for the majority of people

Specifications
Screen size: 13 inches
Resolution: 2560x1440
Processor: Apple M1 8-core
Weight: 1.29kg
Reasons to buy
+Incredible power and speed+Thin and light+Silent, fanless design
Reasons to avoid
-Only two USB-C ports-Average screen quality

For the vast majority of students – with the exception of some specialisation that might need specific software or different specs than this offers – the MacBook Air is a slam-dunk buy.

In the past, the MacBook Air was tempting because it's the lightest and smallest MacBook – and so is less hassle to carry around with you – but it offered much less processing power than the pro option, so wasn't as flexible overall. That's not the case any more – the Apple M1 processor actually offers levels of performance on par with high-end gaming laptops, and graphics power equivalent to a budget dedicated graphics card. 

That means it's more than capable of handling simple coursework writing and so on, but it's actually powerful enough for a lot of more pro applications that students might start getting into at uni – it can handle 4K video editing, complex music production, raw photo editing and so on.

It comes with 8GB of RAM as standard, which is enough for regular document and internet use – creative students should opt for 16GB, though. It might be necessary right away, but if it's to last you for the whole course, it's wise to future-proof it.

One thing that's great is that it packs all this power into still a very thin design, but it doesn't even have any fans in, so it runs 100% silently, and doesn't blast hot air if you use your laptop on your actual lap.

And like all Apple laptops, it has huge battery life – around 15 hours in typical web browsing use. It doesn't come with much storage in the most basic model – again, that's kind of fine if you're using it for coursework and web-based stuff that doesn't need storage. For video work and so on, you'd need to increase the capacity.

The downsides to the MacBook Air are that the screen isn't as good as the MacBook Pro for creative work (though is no slouch), it only has two USB-C ports (and a 3.5mm audio jack) as its total connectivity, and that M1 processor can have compatibility issues with software.

The M1 processor is made very differently to Intel processors, and software has to be converted to work with it. The Mac will actually do this on the fly with software that hasn't been specifically configured to work with the M1, but this can cause compatibility quirks with some obscure software.

We doubt many uni students will have issues with this – it's only really likely to be a problem in some specific creative cases, such as music suite plugins. Web-based software is no problem at all, and other big apps – from MS Office to Adobe Creative Cloud – mostly already support the M1, or work great through the Mac's built-in conversion. But someone planning to use niche engineering software or something like that should read up on compatibility before buying.

MacBook Pro 16-inch

(Image credit: Apple)

2. MacBook Pro 16-inch (2019)

The best student MacBook for creative power and flexibility

Specifications
Screen size: 16 inches
Resolution: 3072x1920
Processor: Intel Core i7 6-core or Core i9 8-core
Weight: 2kg
Reasons to buy
+Lots of power available+Highly configurable specs+Beautiful large screen
Reasons to avoid
-Still only USB-C ports-Big and heavy

If the MacBook Air doesn't enough power for your studies, then what you almost certainly need instead is the MacBook Pro 16-inch. This still runs on Intel chips, and offers roughly the same level of processor performance as the MacBook Air, but offers much more graphics power, and the ability to include higher amounts of RAM and storage.

If your studies will involve 3D work or requires colossal amounts of memory, this lets you throw pretty much whatever you need at the problem. This makes it bulkier and heavier, though still very svelte for the kind of laptop it is.

The other big addition here is the 16-inch screen of course. It's not just larger than the MacBook Air, but also higher resolution, and brighter by around 25%. If your studies will require seeing images and photos in the best possible light, it may be the Mac worth getting (though the MacBook Air's screen is actually much better than average anyway).

The big MacBook Pro also offers four USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 connections ports instead of two, though still lacks regular USB ports or HDMI or other handy connections. Because this model uses Intel processors, it has no issues with compatibility – any Mac software will work on it. 

Obviously, one downside is that it's much more expensive than the MacBook Air, and adding extra power would boost the price even further. But we also need to point out that it hasn't had a major upgrade since 2019, so it's not using the very latest parts. A new version is reportedly coming later in 2021, but that's actually expected to use Apple-made processors as well, rather than Intel ones, so won't be a straight replacement to this. And anyway, if you need a laptop in September and that doesn't come out until November, you'll still need to buy something.

MacBook Pro 13

(Image credit: Apple)

3. MacBook Pro 13-inch (Intel, 2020)

The best student MacBook for small size and flexible specs

Specifications
Screen size: 13 inches
Resolution: 2560x1600
Processor: Intel Core i5 4-core
Weight: 1.4kg
Reasons to buy
+Great RAM and storage options+Four ports+Bright and sharp screen
Reasons to avoid
-Weaker than M1 machines-Not as good value as M1

In our opinion, the MacBook Air and 16-inch MacBook should cover off just about everyone. There will be some stragglers, though: for example, those who don't want the size and expense of the 16-inch MacBook Pro but need its spec flexibility or its Intel compatibility guarantees. Or even just more than two ports to plug into.

Enter, the MacBook Pro 13-inch with Intel processor. You can customise it with up to 32GB of RAM or 4TB of storage, which the MacBook Air doesn't offer. It has two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports on each side, which adds a useful amount of extra flexibility. It also has the same screen brightness as the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

However, when it comes to processor and graphics performance, it's actually weaker than the MacBook Air's M1 chip, and is more expensive at the same time. This is basically for people who have some quite specific concerns about the specs of the MacBook Air, or who want whatever's closest to the MacBook Air but with an Intel processor so that it can run really obscure apps or plugins.

MacBook Pro 13 M1

(Image credit: Apple)

4. MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020)

The best student MacBook for screen quality at a small size

Specifications
Screen size: 13 inches
Resolution: 2560x1600
Processor: Apple M1
Weight: 1.4kg
Reasons to buy
+Great screen quality+Powerful
Reasons to avoid
-Not many real improvements over MacBook Air

This machine isn't last on our list because it's bad – it's just that for students, we think it offers the least reason to specifically choose it compared to the other options here. It uses the same M1 chip as the MacBook Air, but is more expensive. 

The extra money gets you a brighter screen (again, the same brightness as the 16-inch MacBook Pro) which is great for photos and video, but not strictly necessary otherwise. It also gets you Apple's Touch Bar second screen – this a context-sensitive touchscreen above the keyboard, which can show useful shortcuts and extra tools. We find it to be not especially useful in practice, meaning that this machine isn't really worth the extra cost for students.

It's also a little heavier and larger than the MacBook Air, though only by a small amount, and is still very portable overall. It's a great machine, we just think students are better off spending the money elsewhere.

Matthew Bolton
Matthew Bolton

Matt is T3's master of all things audiovisual, running our TV, speakers and headphones coverage. He also handles smart home products and large appliances, as well as our toys and games articles. He's the only one on the team who can explain both what Dolby Vision IQ is and why the Lego you're building doesn't fit together the way the instructions say, so is truly invaluable.

Matt has worked for tech publications for over 10 years, in print and online, including running T3's print magazine and launching its most recent redesign. He's also contributed to a huge number of tech and gaming titles over the years. Say hello if you see him roaming the halls at CES, IFA or Toy Fair.