The best MacBooks for college students in 2024

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’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 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.

The best MacBooks for college students you can buy today

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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 favorites despite being years old. 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, which is typically $999.

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.

The latest 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 15-inch MacBook

Specifications

Display: 15.3 inches (2880 x 1864)
CPU: Apple M2
GPU: Integrated 10-core GPU
RAM: 8GB - 24GB
Storage: 256GB - 2TB
Weight: 3.3 pounds

Reasons to buy

+
Bright and vivid 15-inch display
+
Sleek, elegant design
+
Extremely portable
+
Blazing-fast performance
+
Better speakers than 13-inch

Reasons to avoid

-
Skimpy port selection
-
Supports just one external monitor

The MacBook Air 15-inch M2 might be a bigger version of the 13-inch MacBook Air M2 released last year but it’s arguably the best 15-inch laptop for the money.

Like its smaller sibling, the MacBook Air 15-inch packs the powerful Apple M2 chip, a gorgeous Liquid Retina display and the sleek design introduced with the MacBook Pro line in 2021. Though it’s not as powerful as those Pro laptops, the 15-inch MacBook Air packs enough punch for most people. Despite its larger size, this is still one of the lightest and thinnest laptops out there. It also has excellent battery life, a hallmark of Apple silicon.

The MacBook Air 15-inch M2 offers a near-perfect mix of performance, display quality, portability and battery life.

Read our full MacBook Air 15-inch M2 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 with an M1 Pro chip originally cost $1,999. Now that its successor, the MacBook Pro 14-inch 2023 is out, some retailers are selling the previous-gen version at reduced prices. It's worth keeping an eye on if you need a MacBook with better performance than the entries listed above.

This laptop features a Liquid Retina XDR display with a 120Hz refresh rate, a still power M1 Pro chip, MagSafe charging, HDMI-out and an SD memory reader. 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. This is a Pro-level laptop.

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

Like the last-gen 14-inch MacBook Pro, the 16-inch 2021 notebook is also seeing reduced prices thanks to the arrival of the MacBook Pro 16-inch.

The beastly 16-inch MacBook Pro sports either M1 Pro or M1 Max chips, which still 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 2021 MacBook Pro 14-inch (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 X/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.