A Mac laptop makes a great graduation gift—it’s both glamorous and practical, and sure to be appreciated by any high school student heading off to college. A chart at the end of the article shows the differences at a glance, and we’ll help you pick the perfect model by laying out your options in three ways: price, portability, and features.
For price-conscious shoppers, the MacBook Air is the obvious pick. Starting at $999, it has the longest battery life of all the Mac laptops on offer and is fairly light at 3 pounds. The MacBook Air also has a MagSafe power adapter, which makes the power cable pop out harmlessly if it catches on something. (The older 15-inch MacBook Pro also features MagSafe; all other models use USB-C for charging.) The base model comes with 128 GB of SSD storage and 8 GB of RAM.
Of course, by paying less, you get less, and a downside of the MacBook Air is its older screen technology—Retina displays make Apple’s other laptops sharper and easier to read. Plus, the MacBook Air has an older CPU than the more expensive MacBook Pros, so it isn’t ideal for computationally intensive work or for keeping current with future versions of macOS. If you can afford another $150, consider configuring the MacBook Air with an Intel Core i7 CPU instead of the base model’s i5.
After the MacBook Air, the next cheapest laptops are the $1299 base models of the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, with the base MacBook providing 256 GB of SSD storage and the base MacBook Pro 128 GB. In comparing these base models, note that the 12-inch MacBook has only an m3 CPU. It’s the oldest and slowest processor available—an m3-equipped MacBook will be the first to fall off the list of models that work with upcoming versions of macOS. Spending an extra $300 to bump the MacBook up to the i5 CPU is a smart move—and because of the configuration choices available, that $300 will get you 512 GB of storage as well.
If price is less important than performance, go for a tricked-out 13-inch MacBook Pro or a 15-inch MacBook Pro (base price $1999). These computers have faster CPUs and can be equipped with more storage. Plus, if more screen space is important, the 13-inch MacBook Pro beats out the 12-inch MacBook, and the 15-inch MacBook Pro is the go-to choice.
Weighing in at just 2 pounds, the MacBook wins the portability contest. If weight is your key criteria, you won’t mind the trade-offs that come with this svelte laptop, such as its single USB-C port or small screen, or the fact that even its fastest available CPU, a 1.4 GHz dual-core i7, can’t match up to those in the MacBook Pros.
The two runners-up in the portability contest, the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, aren’t exactly heavyweights, with each weighing about 3 pounds.
The least portable model is the 15-inch MacBook Pro, with the Touch Bar model weighing about 4 pounds and the older non-Touch Bar model about 4.5 pounds. For that extra weight, however, you get a much larger screen.
Overall, the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro are the most capable, thanks to having the fastest processors, the most storage, and a Touch Bar in some models. The Touch Bar replaces the function keys on the keyboard with a high-resolution screen that dynamically displays buttons and sliders that change depending on which app is active. The Touch Bar also offers a Touch ID sensor so you can log in with a tap of a finger. For more details, read our article So What Is the MacBook Pro Touch Bar Good For?
All these laptops have a Force Touch trackpad, except for the MacBook Air, which has a Multi-Touch trackpad. The differences are minor. Both support gestures like two-finger scrolling, but with a Force Touch trackpad, you can click with extra force to invoke additional features. For example, on any Mac, you can select a file in the Finder and press Space bar to preview the file with Quick Look. With a Force Touch trackpad, you can also click hard on the icon to see the preview.
The ports of Apple’s laptop models are all over the map. The MacBook Air and older model of the 15-inch MacBook Pro feature legacy ports like USB-A, Thunderbolt 2, and MagSafe. The 12-inch MacBook has only a single USB-C port for both charging and connecting peripherals, so you’ll need a hub to, for instance, charge the laptop while making a nightly backup to an external drive. And the new MacBook Pro models come with either two or four Thunderbolt 3 ports for both charging and connecting devices.
If you’ll be buying new peripherals—such as a backup drive, wired mouse, scanner, or external monitor—the faster and more up-to-date Thunderbolt 3 port should work well, but if your graduate already has older peripherals, they may prefer a laptop that supports those peripherals without extra adapters. We can provide expert advice about your specific situation.
All in all, the sweet spot between price, portability, and features for a college student is the 13-inch MacBook Pro. If a large screen is paramount, consider adding an external display or moving to the 15-inch MacBook Pro. And for those who favor the ultimate in portability or need to keep costs down, the MacBook and MacBook Air are worth a look, despite their slower performance.
The pros and cons of these models are best evaluated in person, so feel free to visit one of our stores to see the difference between the Retina and non-Retina displays and to check out the size and weight of the different models. We’re happy to help you think through the options and make the best choice.