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Is the MacBook Air Good for Students?

The MacBook Air is definitely a laptop that's long in the tooth. Apple hasn't introduced a new model in two years, and it killed off the 11-inch Air in 2016. The company could phase out the  13-inch laptop in the not-too-distant future in favor of the thinner and more expensive 12-inch MacBook. However, as long as the MacBook Air remains available, it's a worthwhile choice for high school and college students.

Here are the pros and cons.

Why the MacBook Air Is a Good Student Laptop

Great Value (for a Mac): Most students and their families aren't sweating $100 bills while they bask in the sun. If you want an Apple laptop, and you don't want to spend at least $1,299 for a 12-inch MacBook or 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Air is your only choice.  The entry-level Air carries a $999 MSRP, but you can easily find it for $899 at third-party retailers, or even $799 on sale. However, you probably will want to pay another $200 for a configuration with a 256GB SSD, rather than the 128GB you get on the base model.

Epic Battery Life: Students need a laptop they can carry around campus all day long, without needing to recharge. The MacBook Air lasted an amazing 14 hours on a charge during the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. Its endurance is 6 hours longer than the average ultraportable laptop and way ahead of the MacBook 12-inch (9:38), the MacBook Pro 13-inch (9:50) and the MacBook Pro 15-inch (10:32). Only a handful of PC laptops offer 14 hours of battery life or more.

Thin and Light: While the MacBook 12-inch and some PC notebooks are even svelter, the MacBook Air is still one of the more portable notebooks on the market, at just 0.68 inches thick and 2.96 pounds. When you have to fit your laptop into a backpack that's filled with heavy books, you don't want it weighing you down.

Best MacBook Keyboard: Whether they're taking notes or writing a term paper, students have to do a lot of typing. The MacBook Pro and the MacBook 12-inch have shallow "butterfly" keyboards that offer  a measly 0.5mm of vertical space below each key, compared with a more-reasonable 1mm on the Air. While some like the new thin keyboards, others have trouble getting used to them.

Regular USB Ports: Nobody likes carrying dongles with them everywhere they go, especially not students. The MacBook Air is the only MacBook with regular USB 3.0 ports, the most common type. So, if you need to  pop in a flash drive, attach an external hard drive or use a wireless mouse that has a dongle, you'll really appreciate the Air's pair of standard USB ports.

Why You Might Not Want a MacBook Air

Outdated CPU: A college freshman buying a new laptop should expect it to last at least through graduation. The MacBook Air is from early 2015 and uses an Intel 5th Generation Core Series processor, whereas, in 2017, the latest PC laptops are on a 7th-Generation Core.To be fair, if your main computer activities are surfing the web, editing documents, sending emails and updating social media, you'll probably be able to get by with the old processor in the Air four or five years from now. But don't expect great performance from 2022-era software.

Some PCs Offer Better Value: If you don't have your heart set on a MacBook, you can find a more powerful PC ultraportable for around the same price as the Air. For example, the 2.68-pound Asus UX330UA costs just $699, $100 less than the best sale price for a MacBook Air, but it comes with a 1080p screen, a 256GB SSD and the latest 7th Gen Core i5 processor. The HP Spectre x360 13-inch, our favorite 2-in-1, starts at just over $1,000, and can be found on sale for under $1,000 with the new Core i5 CPU, a 256GB SSD and a touch screen.

Lackluster Screen: The 1440 x 900 display on the MacBook Air isn't as sharp as those on other MacBooks and competing PCs. By contrast, the MacBook 12-inch and MacBook Pro 13-inch have panels that output at 2304 x 1440 and 2560 x 1600, respectively. The Dell XPS 13, our favorite consumer laptop, is available with a 1920 x 1080 or 3200 x 1800 display that can reproduce either 93.6 or 105.7 percent of the sRGB color gamut. By contrast, the Air's screen can  show only 66 percent of the gamut, which means duller images.

No Touch Screen: If you want both a laptop for writing papers and a tablet for taking notes in class or watching movies in bed, you'll need to buy both a MacBook Air and an iPad. However, if you're willing to consider a PC, you can get a 2-in-1 that serves as both a slate and a full-fledged laptop for around the same price as the Air, or just a little more. The HP Spectre x360, a bendback 2-in-1, is often available for under $1,000, while slightly heavier hybrids, like the Lenovo Yoga 710 or the Dell Inspiron 13 5000, start at well under $800.

No USB Type-C / Thunderbolt 3 Ports: While the MacBook Air's standard USB Type-A ports give it an advantage today, its lack of a Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 port makes it anything but future-proof. USB Type-C ports allow you to charge the laptop, send data to peripherals and output to multiple monitors over a single wire. Thunderbolt 3 ports are USB Type-C ports that have added speed and the ability to power dual 4K monitors over a single connection. In 2017, having one of these newer ports lets you connect to a single docking station that will charge your laptop and connect to external displays with a single cable. In the years ahead, more and more peripherals, from hard drives to head phones, will come with USB Type-C connectors that won't work with the Air. By contrast, the Dell XPS 13 has both a Thunderbolt 3 port and multiple USB Type-A connectors, and the ThinkPad 13, another of our top choices, comes with Type-C and Type-A ports.

Bottom Line

The MacBook Air is a good choice for school, as long as you're willing to tolerate its trade-offs. You get great battery life and decent mainstream performance in a premium, lightweight design. If you want a Mac, can spend hundreds more, and can live with a shallower keyboard, the MacBook Pro 13-inch (without Touch Bar) is a better choice. If you're willing to consider a Windows 10 PC, you can get a more powerful system for the same price or less than the Air. However, if you can work with its low-res screen and prior-generation CPU, the Air is definitely worth considering.

Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.