The best MacBooks for college students in 2022

MacBook Air M2 vs MacBook Air M1 composite image
(Image credit: Future)

Choosing the best MacBook for college students isn’t easy. Though there are only two MacBook lines right now — the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro — each contains a range of models. But depending on your needs, there's a MacBook that's perfect for you. We're here to help you pick the best one.

We’ve created a list that includes everything from relatively affordable machines suitable for most students to more expensive laptops for heavy workloads. While these MacBooks may serve different purposes, they all have excellent battery life – which is important when you’re running around campus all day.

All the laptops on this list also pack the powerful Apple M1 or M2 chips. And since even older MacBooks receive the latest macOS updates, the laptops we've listed should last you for the entirety of your college years.

Read on for our picks of the best MacBooks for college students.

Back to school laptops for students 

Why you can trust Tom's Guide Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.

We’re in the middle of summer which means it’s time to start thinking about back to school sales. Because of that, now is the best time to shop around for a MacBook. We’ve seen machines like the MacBook Air M1 drop in price, and it’s possible some of the new M2-powered laptops may see a small (but temporary) price dip. Because of that, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on sales.

To that end, be sure to follow our back to school guide for any MacBook sales – along with all the rest of your shopping needs this season.

What's the best MacBook for college students now? 

The MacBook Air M2 may hold the top spot in our best laptops and best MacBooks lists, but for this particular buying guide, the MacBook Air M1 reigns supreme. Though it runs on the older M1 chip, it's still a solid laptop with more than enough power and energy efficiency to suit your needs. Plus, it's the cheapest MacBook, making it ideal for college students.

But if you can afford it, the MacBook Air M2 makes an excellent choice. It's more powerful than its predecessor and boasts a redesigned chassis that's akin to 2021's MacBook Pros. Plus, it has MagSafe support for charging.

Speaking of power efficiency, no laptop we’ve tested outdoes the MacBook Pro M2, which lasted well over 18 hours in our testing. It’s the longest-lasting battery of any laptop on the market.

If you need a laptop with power to rival a workstation, you should consider the 2021 MacBook Pros. The MacBook Pro 14-inch and MacBook Pro 16-inch are the most expensive laptops on this list, but you get what you pay for as they deliver unprecedented power with remarkable performance thanks to their respective M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Again, they’re pricey but they will last you for the entirety of your college stint (and beyond).

The best MacBooks for college students you can buy today 

The best MacBook Air for those on a budget

Specifications

Display: 13.3 inches; 2,560 x 1,600
CPU: Apple M1
GPU: Integrated 8-core GPU
RAM: 8GB-16GB
Storage: 256GB-2TB SSD
Weight: 2.8 pounds

Reasons to buy

+
Super-fast performance
+
Incredibly long battery life
+
Comfortable keyboard

Reasons to avoid

-
Still has thick bezels
-
Light on ports

The MacBook Air M1 is still one of our favorite laptops even two years after its release. Though it's been somewhat overshadowed by its latest iteration, it's still a fine laptop. This is especially true for college students since this notebook is the most affordable MacBook out there.

Apple's decision to replace its Intel processors with its own Apple Silicon, starting with the M1 chip in the MacBook Air, was wise. This laptop's 14 hours and 41 minutes of battery life in the Tom's Guide battery test is astonishing.

The MacBook Air's webcam has also been upgraded, as the M1 chip provides signal processing tricks to improve clarity and color accuracy. And, of course, the Magic Keyboard is still here, which provides a comfy typing experience. Dolby Atmos audio support means that some movies and TV shows will sound even better than before. 

Though the MacBook Air M2 is our current favorite, the MacBook Air M1 is still an incredible laptop with an equally incredible price. The laptop normally retails for $999 but is currently available for $849 at Best Buy (opens in new tab).

Read our full MacBook Air with M1 review

The best overall MacBook for most people

Specifications

Display: 13.6 inches; 2560x1664
CPU: Apple M2
GPU: 8-core or 10-core GPU
RAM: 8GB-24GB
Storage: 256GB-2TB SSD
Weight: 2.7 pounds

Reasons to buy

+
Fast M2 performance
+
Brighter and bigger display
+
1080p webcam
+
Very long battery life 

Reasons to avoid

-
Notch distracting
-
Supports only one monitor

The MacBook Air M2 is arguably the best overall MacBook for most people. And we're not saying that the previous MacBook Air M1 wasn’t good — it helped introduce the world to the power of Apple silicon. It’s just that cramming revolutionary performance in the same old chassis didn’t feel (or look) like a leap forward.

This new Air lives up to its name by shrinking down the design 20% by volume and measuring just 0.44 inches thick. And it's quite light at 2.7 pounds. And yet the M2 chip inside this machine delivers power that outperforms most Windows laptops. It's a multitasking champ, and if you want more graphics might you can upgrade to a 10-core GPU.

We also really like the bright display on the new MacBook Air M2, which rivals the MacBook Pro M2, and it's now bigger at 13.6 inches with slimmer bezels. Other highlights include a sharp 1080p webcam, MagSafe charging and four color options.

Lasting over 14 hours on our web surfing battery test, the MacBook Air M2 should last you most of the day on a charge. The only strikes against this system are the somewhat distracting notch and support for only a single external display. 

Read our full Apple MacBook Air M2 (2022) review

The best MacBook for long battery life

Specifications

Display: 13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)
Processor: Apple M2 (8-core)
Graphics: Integrated 8-core M2 GPU | Integrated 10-core GPU
Memory: 8GB to 24GB
Storage: 256GB to 2TB
Weight: 3 pounds

Reasons to buy

+
Blazing-fast performance
+
Amazing battery life
+
Sharp, vibrant display
+
Comfortable keyboard

Reasons to avoid

-
Same old design
-
720p webcam
-
Limited ports

The 13-inch MacBook Pro 2022 was the first M2-powered Apple laptop to hit the market. While the design hasn't changed, it's a solid laptop with epic battery life.

And based on our tests, the M2 chip delivers, offering performance that destroys many competing Windows laptops. The M2 also beats the M1 chip by a significant margin in various benchmarks. Plus, the new MacBook Pro 2022 delivers among the longest battery life we've seen from a modern laptop, surpassing 18 hours of runtime.

However, while this notebook sports a new slice of Apple silicon, the design shows its age. You get the same form factor, same ports, same display and same webcam. Meanwhile, the new MacBook Air 2022 offers a larger display with thinner bezels, a 1080p webcam and a thinner, lighter design.

It would be easy to say the new MacBook Pro isn’t worthwhile and that it’s better to get the MacBook Air instead. There’s some truth to that sentiment, but it wouldn’t be wise to dismiss this product, which is still one of the best laptops for power users.

Read our full MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022) review.

The best MacBook for people who need more ports

Specifications

Display: 14.2 inches; 3024x1964 pixels
CPU: Apple M1 Pro or Max with 10-core CPU
GPU: 16-core to 32-core integrated GPU
RAM: 16GB to 64GB
Storage: 512GB to 8TB SSD
Weight: 3.5 pounds

Reasons to buy

+
Amazingly fast
+
Beautiful mini-LED display
+
Fantastic battery life

Reasons to avoid

-
No USB-A port
-
$1,299 model goes without update

The 14-inch MacBook Pro is the Mac to get if you have 1) the budget and 2) the need for more ports. Its Liquid Retina XDR display with a 120Hz refresh rate is gorgeous, so your favorite movies, and everything else, will simply look better. Oh, and the M1 Pro (and pricier M1 Max) chips deliver even more speed than ever before, while still enabling all-day battery life.

On top of that, Apple's brought MagSafe charging, HDMI-out and a SD memory reader back to the MacBook Pro. This means you won't need to bring a USB-C dongle to connect to a display or use external memory. That said, there's still no USB-A, which is something we're starting to realize Apple has no plans of bringing back.

Other notable changes include the death of the Touch Bar (which never proved its worth), which has been swapped out for physical F1-F12 keys. Apple's also bumped up the internal webcam to 1080p, from 720p. The MacBook Pro definitely feels like a Pro-level laptop again.

Read our full MacBook Pro (14-inch) review.

Best MacBook for editing video

Specifications

Display: 16.2 inches; 3456x2244 pixels
CPU: M1 Pro (10-core CPU) | M1 Max (10-core CPU)
GPU: 16-core to 32-core integrated GPU
RAM: 16GB to 64GB
Storage: 512GB - 8TB
Weight: 4.7 pounds (M1 Pro) | 4.8 pounds (M1 Max)

Reasons to buy

+
Beautiful Liquid Retina XDR display
+
Incredible performance trounces competition
+
Outstanding battery life

Reasons to avoid

-
Display still isn't 4K 
-
Expensive with M1 Max

Want it all? Then you may be looking for the beastly 16-inch MacBook Pro, which sports either M1 Pro or M1 Max chips, that deliver shocking amounts of performance. An upgrade over the previous intel-based model, this laptop features thinner bezels to give more space to the gorgeous mini-LED Liquid Retina XDR displays. Once you get over the notch, you'll be wowed by its contrast and smoothness, especially with its 120Hz refresh rate.

On top of that, you get the return of the ports that pros demand. That's not just the safety-focused MagSafe 3 charging port, but HDMI-out for connecting to displays and an SD memory reader for connecting memory cards for real-deal cameras. Oh, and don't think MagSafe will take USB-C charging out of the picture: the MacBook Pro's trio of Thunderbolt 4/USB4 ports also draw power. On top of that, you've got a 1080p webcam, a trio of improved microphones and a stellar six-point speaker system.

Read our full MacBook Pro (16-inch) review.

How to choose the best college laptop for you 

Performance: If you know you don't push your laptops to their limits, get the MacBook Air M1 and get the entry-level model. Its 8-core M1 chip and 8GB of RAM are going to surprise you with their speed. Upgrade that RAM to 16GB if you keep a lot of applications open at once. Those who work with more demanding applications will either want to get the M1 MacBook Pro (check with your favorite applications to see if they're updated for Apple silicon) with 16GB of RAM, or consider getting an Intel-based MacBook with 32GB of RAM. Storage is fast up and down the lineup. The new M2-powered MacBooks provide somewhat of a middle-ground between the original M1 MacBooks and the M1 Pro and M1 Max laptops.

Graphics and gaming: For M1-based MacBooks, you either get a 7-core or 8-core integrated GPU, and we've seen amazing results on the 8-core version. The M2-powered MacBook Pro comes with 10 GPU cores as standard. So upgrade if you want to game on your Mac. Yes, you can play serious video games on the Mac now. It's impressive.

Size and weight: The 13-inch MacBook Air and Pro are only distinguished by the Air's wedge shape and slightly lighter weight. The MacBook Pro (3.0 pounds for M1, 3.1 pounds for Intel) is 0.2 – 0.3 pounds heavier than the 2.8-pound MacBook Air. Unsurprisingly, the 16-inch MacBook Pro — which is a heavier 4.3 pounds — is best for those who either don't mind the heft in their bag or don't move around as often.

Battery life: The 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro is the longest-lasting MacBook there is, posting a Tom's Guide battery test time of 18:20. This beats the M1 Air (14:41) and the 16-inch MacBook Pro 2021 (15:31) by a solid margin.

How we test the best college laptops

To find the best MacBook, we run each through our gauntlet of benchmarks and real-world tests, and then use them as our main computer for as well. Only then are we comfortable recommending them (or not) for your purchase.

We use a Klein K-10A colorimeter to test each MacBook's screen to find its average brightness and color quality (so we don't just assume Apple's ratings are correct). When it comes to general performance, we use the Geekbench 5 (CPU performance) benchmark, and time how long the Macs will take to transcode a 4K video to 1080p.

We also run the BlackMagic storage speeds test to see how fast these MacBooks' SSDs are (spoiler alert: they're all pretty fast). Then, we run our custom battery test to see how long each MacBook (at 150 nits of brightness) can last browsing the web over Wi-Fi until it runs out of juice.

We've also tested various computer games on MacBooks, with Civilization VI: Gathering Storm being one of our current favorites to run because it runs well on both macOS and Windows, giving us a good point of comparison.

For more information, check out our how we test page for Tom's Guide.


No matter which Apple MacBook you buy, be sure to read our guide on how to clean a MacBook screen to keep it looking its best. Also, check out our best MacBook accessories and best MacBook carrying cases.

Tony Polanco
Computing Writer

Tony is a computing writer at Tom’s Guide covering laptops, tablets, Windows, and iOS. During his off-hours, Tony enjoys reading comic books, playing video games, reading speculative fiction novels, and spending too much time on Twitter. His non-nerdy pursuits involve attending Hard Rock/Heavy Metal concerts and going to NYC bars with friends and colleagues. His work has appeared in publications such as Laptop Mag, PC Mag, and various independent gaming sites.