It's crunch time for students choosing which laptop to get before going back to school or heading off to uni, and it's easy to get confused about what's out there, and what to prioritise. Our guide to the best student laptops has lots of picks at different budgets to make it easy, but there's one aspect that people rarely think about, but they really should, and it heavily steers what I personally recommend to people.
My personal pick for the best laptop for students is the latest MacBook Air (M1, 2020). I know, I know, it's such a controversial and brave choice. Students have been asking their parents for Apple laptops for as long as I've been working in tech – starting back in the pre-iPhone days.
But my reason is not because Apple laptops are cool and Windows laptops are dull (or, at least, perceived that way – Windows laptops actually tend to offer the funkier options). It's because Apple offers the boring, necessary reliability that you don't really get from other brands – at least, not in the same way.
Partly it's the reliability of the actual machines, where Apple always rates really highly (though it's not alone in that). And the MacBook Air is great in that regard because it uses Apple's new M1 processor that runs so cool that it doesn't require a fan – that means one fewer key part that could fail.
But the really key thing is the network of Apple Stores and Authorised Service Providers. If your HP laptop fails two days before all your work is due in, where do you go? To whatever the nearest generic computer store is, in the hope that someone who may never have seen your laptop's design before can fix it quickly? Will you warranty cover that, or will you have to post it back to the company for who-knows-how-long?
If your MacBook fails two days before your work is due in, you can go and see either Apple itself, or repair people who are certified as trained by Apple, who know exactly how that machine is built. They're all over the country – if you're in a university town, there's almost certainly one within easy driving/public transport distance. You can also get Apple to pick it up, but the nice thing is that you don't need to. You can see a person from Apple to talk about it, and then you can go and bug that person in the future.
Don't underestimate this! Accidents happen and failures happen, and they do their level best to happen at the world possible moment. Knowing exactly where to take your laptop, and that the place isn't run by cowboys, is really valuable for students.
One for the future
The MacBook Air is also a good investment as a student laptop, though, as something to last you for years of use. It's easy to buy a laptop early on, and then realise that it's actually not the right option once you start your course. I know this because it's exactly what happened to me.
The MacBook Air is wildly more powerful than any equivalent Windows laptop – it's actually closer to those huge and expensive gaming laptops for processing power – and that's the trick to it being future-proofed. You might not need all that power, but there's no downside to having it – the MacBook Air isn't priced any higher than thin-and-light Windows machines, and it's no thicker or heavier for it. And it still gets long battery life.
If you get a year into your course and decide you want to try your hand at something quite intense, it can almost certainly handle it. 4K video editing? Podcasting? Compiling programs? No sweat – like I say, this has desktop levels of performance.
The potential downside is the custom Apple M1 processor in the MacBook Air can have compatibility issues in rare cases (I talk about this more in our guide to the best MacBook for students) – and this Mac can't run Windows, so if you need to use software that runs on Windows then… well, don't get it.
But for most students, the MacBook Air is a great buy in terms of general usability, and I think that the fact that you know what to do if anything goes wrong makes it the smart choice over much of competition.