September 19, 2022

Article
7 min

6 Best MacBooks for College

In this article, we’ll touch on the six best MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops for college students, curated by CDW IT professionals.

What's Inside

Determining the best MacBook for college students will depend on your major—for instance, graphic design majors stand to benefit from the increased display resolution and color accuracy  of the MacBook Pro, but for a pre-education student, a MacBook Air may be the better choice due to its lighter weight and slimmer chassis for carrying to and from classroom observations.

In this article, we’ll touch on the six best MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops, curated by CDW IT professionals. Read our article for a direct comparison of MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro if you don’t understand the differences between the two types of laptop or you’re having trouble deciding. Whichever MacBook you end up choosing for college, you’ll find it to be a reliable companion to get through your studies -- and take a needed break from your books.

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If you’re looking to turn heads when you walk in the classroom, the M2 MacBook Air may be the laptop for you. It features a fresh design, shedding the wedge shape of previous MacBook Air models in favor of a flat chassis, like the MacBook Pro M1.

You’ll have no problem slipping the Air into your bookbag since it’s only about 0.43” thick and 2.7 lbs—even smaller than its M1 predecessor. If you plan on carrying your MacBook across campus often, the Air is an ideal choice.

If you have USB-A accessories, make sure you purchase a USB-C to USB-A dongle—the M2 MacBook Air features two Thunderbolt-enabled USB-C ports on the left side and a headphone jack on the right.

If you’re often video calling for class or with family, it’s worth noting the M2 MacBook Air features a 1080p FaceTime webcam; the M1 MacBook Air had a 720p. You’ll notice a significant boost in the image quality of the webcam, not to mention the three-microphone array to capture your voice faithfully.

The base model of the M2 MacBook Air comes with the traditional 30W MagSafe charger, but the advanced configurations feature a 35W charger with 2 USB-C ports and a juiced-up 65W brick that can charge the Air to 50% in about 30 minutes. Also notable, for the first time, you can choose to charge your MacBook Air via Thunderbolt.

This quick-charging feature on top of the M2 Air’s extraordinary 18-hour battery life helps you have the freedom to sit where you want within the classroom and not worry about tethering yourself to an outlet.

Quick Tech Specs
  • Chip: M2
  • OS: macOS
  • Storage: 512 GB SSD
  • Display:  13.6” IPS, Liquid Retina
  • Resolution: 2560 x 1664 px
  • RAM: 8 GB
  • Weight: 2.7 lbs
  • Battery life: ~18 hours

This configuration of the M2 MacBook Air has double the RAM of the last model we covered. If you’re big on running multiple apps at once or can’t stand to close any browser tabs when you’re doing research, you may want to consider this model over the last. Read our RAM vs. CPU article for a comprehensive look at how additional RAM and CPU power can be helpful.

Film, design and programming students may also notice their memory-intensive apps load faster and run smoother. Students with these majors should really consider the MacBook Pro with the M1 or M2 chip, however – the Air can handle light video editing, 3D rendering and compiling but may not be up-to-snuff for 300- to 400-level classes.

You may notice when running the M2 MacBook Air that it doesn’t make a sound—unlike the MacBook Pro, the Air has no fan. Instead, the Air’s unibody chassis technology diffuses heat from its CPU.

This is great for working in complete peace and quiet, but also becomes a limiting factor in the performance of the M2 Air vs M2 Pro, since the M2 Air will slow down to keep its temperature in check. If you try to push the M2 Air too much, you’ll notice the bottom does get warm but not unusually so.

The M2 MacBook Pro, on the other hand, has a fan to keep its internal temperature in check and can therefore handle heavier workloads with ease. However, this won’t be an issue for most M2 MacBook Air users even with its thermal limitations.

Quick Tech Specs
  • Chip: M2
  • OS: macOS
  • Storage: 512 GB SSD
  • Display: 13.6” IPS, Liquid Retina
  • Resolution: 2560 x 1664 px
  • RAM: 16 GB
  • Weight: 2.7 lbs
  • Battery life: ~18 hours

Books are expensive. If you need to save a bit of cash, you could opt for a MacBook Air with less storage. Apple iCloud gives you an additional 5 GB of cloud storage completely free, and you could always use an external SSD to store the memories of your school days. If you’re not in a major where you’re creating big video files or Photoshop files, you should be able to get away with less built-in data storage.

Speaking more on the performance level, the M2 MacBook Air can outpace the M1 MacBook Pro for some workloads and has stronger single-threaded performance and smaller tasks. This includes most of what the average student would be doing—most applications only need to use one thread including Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, running code, browsing the web and web development.

However, if you plan on rendering 4K video, 3D rendering, compiling large amounts of code or frequently exporting large files, you should consider either the M1 or M2 MacBook Pro. It’s not that the M2 MacBook Air can’t do these tasks, it just takes a significantly longer time to and puts more stress on the chip than the M1 or M2 MacBook Pro. Most students will find the performance of the M2 MacBook Air more than capable to handle whatever their classes can throw at them.

Quick Tech Specs
  • Chip: M2
  • OS: macOS
  • Storage: 256 GB SSD
  • Display: 13.6” IPS, Liquid Retina
  • Resolution: 2560 x 1664 px
  • RAM: 16 GB
  • Weight: 2.7lbs
  • Battery life: ~18 hours

If you’re a film or design student and want to future-proof your machine for well into the future, the latest iteration of the MacBook Pro should be one of your top considerations.

 You’ll be able to multitask, edit 8K video and breeze through some of the heaviest workloads with ease. Apple claims 18% faster CPU, 35% more powerful GPU and 40% faster Neural Engine with the M2 MacBook Pro over the already outstanding M1 MacBook Pro. The thicker chassis of the M2 Pro allows for it to have an internal fan to keep its internal components cool during big lifts and a performance benefit over the thinner and lighter M2 Air.

The design of the M2 MacBook Pro will look familiar to owners of the previous two generations of MacBook Pro laptops, including the Touch Bar. One notable design difference between the M2 Pro and M2 Air is the M2 Pro lacks the MagSafe charger, opting for the minimalist approach of 2 Thunderbolt ports/USB-C connectors on the left side and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right.

Not to mention the battery—you won’t have to worry about forgetting your charger in your dorm with about 20 hours of battery life. This is especially impressive considering this is basically Apple’s workstation laptop and edges out the less power-hungry M2 MacBook Air. It’s light, too, relative to how much power it has—three pounds won’t tack too much more weight on your shoulders getting across campus.

Quick Tech Specs
  • Chip: M2
  • OS: macOS
  • Storage: 512 GB SSD
  • Display: 13.3” IPS, Retina
  • Resolution: 2560 x 1600 px
  • RAM: 8 GB
  • Weight: 3.0 lbs
  • Battery life: ~20 hours

While the MacBook Pro with M1 Pro chip is last year’s model, it’s worthy of your consideration for several reasons.

You may see the “1” in “M1” and think it must not be as powerful as the M2 chip, but this is in fact the “M1 Pro” chip. The M1 Pro chip has 33.7 billion transistors vs. 20 billion for the M2 chip, two more CPU cores (10 total), and six more GPU cores (16 total). Creatives running big workloads or GPU-intensive applications will notice a difference, although for casual MacBook users they may not. |

If you’re trying to compare some of the models mentioned here in detail, Apple has a useful MacBook comparison tool you should check out.

The M2 MacBook Pro does get the edge in battery life and price point, however. The M1 Pro MacBook Pro hovers around 17 hours of battery life, depending on what you’re using it for, while the M2 MacBook Pro can reach 20 hours. The performance comes at an increased cost, but if you’re a computer science major doing some serious compiling or a film/media major needing to edit 4K video and do other tasks simultaneously, getting the M1 Pro may make more sense.

The M1 Pro MacBook Pro has three USB-C ports, a MagSafe charging port, a headphone jack, and an ever-helpful SDXC card slot and HDMI port, while the M2 MacBook Pro has no MagSafe charger, SD slot or HDMI port. For those students often wanting to transfer files via SD card or easily connect to an external display, this can be a nice plus.

Another differentiator with this model is the display—it is the highest resolution display mentioned in this article so far. For designers and artists in need of pinpoint color accuracy and detail, the M1 Pro MacBook Pro will surely deliver.

Quick Tech Specs
  • Chip: M1 Pro
  • OS: macOS
  • Storage: 512 GB SSD
  • Display: 14.2” IPS, Liquid Retina XDR
  • Resolution: 3024 x 1964 px @ 120 Hz
  • RAM: 16 GB
  • Weight: 3.53 lbs
  • Battery life: ~17 hours

Compared to the 14.2” M1 Pro MacBook Pro we just mentioned, this model provides 2 more inches of screen real estate, a Liquid Retina display with nearly 4K screen resolution and even greater battery life. If you’re looking for the biggest and best MacBook in terms of most specs, you get it with the 16” M1 Pro MacBook Pro.

You get a lot of the niceties with the M1 Pro MacBook Pro, like a 1080p webcam, 3 built-in, studio-quality microphones, big comfy keyboard and responsive touchpad.

You’ll be the envy of your classmates with this MacBook—it’s one of the best laptops you can buy for GPU-intensive work such as video editing, 3D rendering, gaming (after class, of course!) and 4K+ photo editing. The Touch Bar is replaced with function keys in this model but it does have the MagSafe charger.

The ports are the same as the smaller M1 Pro MacBook, with three USB-C ports (two on the left, one on the right), headphone jack, HDMI and SDXC slot.

You do pay for the level of luxury that M1 Pro MacBook Pro provides—it starts north of $2,500. The bigger 16.2” display also means a larger laptop—it comes in a full two pounds heavier than the M2 MacBook Air. The Liquid Retina XDR display is sure to stun, as well as the thin top and bottom bezels.

For the dedicated creative design majors, hardcore computer science majors compiling large amounts of code, or media majors creating 4K video content on the go, it’s hard to top this MacBook.

Quick Tech Specs
  • Chip: M1 Pro
  • OS: macOS
  • Storage: 512 GB SSD
  • Display: 16.2” IPS, Liquid Retina XDR
  • Resolution: 3456 x 2245 px
  • RAM: 16 GB
  • Weight: 4.7 lbs
  • Battery life: ~21 hours

Summary

Any college student looking to enter a field where 4K content creation or 3D rendering will be a major part of their job, buying a MacBook Pro should be high on their wish lists. The MacBook Air should cover most other majors where GPU-intensive tasks aren’t as commonplace. No matter which MacBook laptop you choose, you won’t be disappointed.