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 $999.99, 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 base model comes with the M1 chip with 8-core CPU 7-core GPU and 256 GB of SSD storage.
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.
After the MacBook Air, the next cheapest laptops are the $1,299.99 base model of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, providing the M1 chip with 8-core CPU 8-core GPU and 256 GB of SSD storage. In comparing this to the MacBook Air, it's important to note the 8-core GPU which generates up to 5x faster graphics for graphics-intensive apps and games. The 13-inch MacBook Pro also includes 2 Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports for charging and accessories.
If price is less important than performance, consider the 16-inch MacBook Pro. These computers have 2.6GHz 6-core 9th generation Intel Core i7 with 512GB of SSD storage and 16GH of memory. Plus it features a huge Retina display with True Tone, as well as 4 Thunderbolt 3 ports for charging and accessories. The standard 16-inch MacBook Pro starts at $2,399.99 with a high-end option starting at $2,799.99.
Weighing in at just 2.8 pounds, the MacBook Air wins the portability contest. If weight is your key criteria, you won’t mind the trade-offs that come with this laptop, such as its smaller screen, or the fact that its fastest available CPU still can’t match up to those in the MacBook Pros.
The runner-up in the portability contest is the 13-inch MacBook Pro, weighing just 3 pounds (only a tiny bit heavier than the MacBook Air). This computer is just as portable as the Air, but has much more capabilities.
Overall, the 13-inch and 16-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. Both the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro feature 2 Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports. Meanwhile the 16-inch MacBook Pro has 4 Thunderbolt 3 ports.
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 16-inch MacBook Pro. And for those who favor the ultimate in portability or need to keep costs down, the MacBook Air is worth a look, despite its slower performance.
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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! At Simply Mac, our passion is to bring the Apple experience right to your neighborhood. As an Apple Premier Partner, we can offer you the same products, same prices, same warranties, and same expertise. We house a professionally trained staff who can give our customers expert advice and personalized service. With 45 locations nationwide, each with their own Apple Certified Specialists, we’re only a click or call away. Find your local Simply Mac today!