Best back-to-school MacBook for 2020: MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro

With the back-to-school season in full tilt (no matter going again to highschool means to you), choosing the right laptop computer for the autumn semester is a high precedence. Whereas a variety of on-line college duties might be completed with a easy Chromebook or low cost Home windows laptop computer, a full-featured MacBook with its top-notch MacOS continues to be the primary selection for a lot of college students in highschool and faculty — particularly with some first rate scholar reductions and extras out there from Apple proper now.

However which is the very best MacBook? MacBooks are among the many most universally helpful laptops you should buy, but it surely’s not all the time simple to select the best one. They vary from $999 to $3,000 or extra, despite the fact that they feel and appear comparable. I get a variety of reader questions on how one can determine, particularly once you’re torn between, for instance, a barely upgraded MacBook Air and a equally priced 13-inch MacBook Pro

In case you’re shopping for a MacBook in the summertime of 2020, there are three large issues you take note — two which might be nice for decent student discounts and extras present MacBook buyers, and one that will provide you with pause:

All present MacBooks lastly have the improved Magic Keyboard: It began with the 16-inch MacBook Professional final autumn, however Apple has since added the Magic Keyboard to all of its present MacBook fashions, together with the 2020 Air and 13-inch Professional fashions. The result’s a much more snug and dependable keyboard than the “butterfly” design that many MacBooks had been burdened with since 2015. Sure, it took Apple half a decade to backtrack on this difficulty, however the excellent news is that Mac laptop computer keyboards are lastly good once more. 

Apple is presently providing an important back-to-school deal on MacBooks: Usually, the Apple Retailer is (satirically) not the very best place to purchase an Apple laptop computer (actually, virtually any Apple product) as a result of gross sales are all however nonexistent. The large exception to the rule is Apple’s annual back-to-school gross sales, which frequently embody MacBook offers. For 2020, Apple is offering a $159 credit toward headphones with the purchase of most Mac or iPad models. Which means you may get AirPods thrown in without cost, or get $159 off the AirPods Professional. And that is on high of the $100 schooling low cost that college students, dad and mom and educators can get shopping for immediately by way of Apple, making it an important deal throughout.

In case you want one thing greater and do not thoughts it being lower than transportable: Apple has recently updated its iMac line. The 21.5-inch iMac will get a small SSD improve, whereas the bigger 27-inch machine gets a full internal makeover, together with a webcam that is miles higher than on any MacBook. 

All Macs will likely be transitioning to non-Intel chips over the following two years: It was the massive information at Apple’s WWDC present in June: All Macs will likely be getting new Apple-designed Arm chips, changing the Intel CPUs they’ve had for years… finally. A minimum of one Apple silicon product ought to arrive by the top of 2020, however Intel will be a part of the mix for at the least the following couple of years. So, should you buy a new MacBook now or wait for an Apple silicon version, coming someday over the following two years? 

There are potential pluses and minuses to switching to an Arm-based MacBook. Battery life might enhance, Macs apps will align extra carefully with iPad and iPhone apps, and a few specialised software program, like picture modifying big Photoshop, might be rewritten to take most benefit of the brand new platform. However, as we have seen with different Arm-powered laptops, compatibility with different apps could be a drawback, as can uncooked efficiency. 

Learn extra: Best back to school gear under $250  

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Regardless, in case you want a brand new MacBook now, you then’re caught with the present Intel selections within the MacBook lineup, which have all been glorious in our current hands-on expertise. The important thing query for present back-to-school buyers is how one can ensure you’re not shopping for too little MacBook — or an excessive amount of. 

There is a idea we name line creep. It is what occurs when manufacturers maintain including iterations and subdivisions of fashionable product strains, till nobody can inform which one to purchase. Apple has often averted this entice by sticking to a handful of selections in every class, however issues can nonetheless get complicated once you store for a MacBook. 

For a couple of years, you might select a 12-inch MacBook, a 13-inch MacBook Air, a 13-inch MacBook Professional and not using a Contact Bar, a 13-inch Professional with a Contact Bar or a 15-inch Professional. And years earlier than that, you had each white and black versions of the 13-inch polycarbonate MacBook and even 11-inch and 13-inch variations of the Air. 

Now it is again to fundamentals for Apple. There’s the 13-inch MacBook Air and each 13-inch and 16-inch MacBook Professional fashions. That is it. Sure, this cuts out some potential just-right-for-you choices, but it surely additionally makes it a lot simpler to determine which camp you fall into, particularly since these three fashions are totally different sufficient that you will naturally gravitate towards one over the others. 

MacBook 2020 beginning configurations

Mannequin MacBook Air MacBook Professional (13-inch) MacBook Professional (16-inch)
Beginning value $999, £999, AU$1,599 $1,299, £1,299, AU$1,999 $2,399, £2,399, AU$3,799
CPU 1.1GHz dual-core 10th-gen Intel Core i3 processor 1.4GHz quad-core Eighth-gen Intel Core i5 processor 2.6GHz six-core Ninth-gen Intel Core i7 processor (plus AMD Radeon Professional 5300M)
RAM 8GB 3,733MHz LPDDR4X 8GB 2,133MHz LPDDR3 16GB 2,666MHz DDR4 reminiscence
Storage 256GB SSD storage 256GB SSD storage 512GB SSD storage
Ports 2x Thunderbolt Three ports 2x Thunderbolt Three ports 4x Thunderbolt Three ports

Dan Ackerman/CNET

For a few years, this was everybody’s favourite laptop computer: moderately cheap. Skinny and light-weight. Constructed like a tank. It might final for years and take numerous fall and bumps. For any faculty scholar or espresso store artistic kind, $999 would get you sorted. 

Then time handed the Air by. Its low-res show and the thick bezel across the display screen fell behind even common Home windows laptops. The elements have been not often up to date. Luckily, the Air acquired an enormous refresh a few years in the past, and now seems to be and really feel very very like a MacBook Professional. 

Most significantly, it is again right down to that magic $999 beginning value, although there is a catch. That is for an Intel Core i3 processor, so you are going to need to spend an additional $100 and get the Core i5 model. That is actually my solely actual knock in opposition to the brand new Air, that there is a secret $100 Core i5 tax. Even the $999 model begins with a 256GB SSD, which is sweet. 

There are three fundamental belongings you’re lacking by going with the Air over the Professional. Your CPU choices aren’t as sturdy; you solely get two USB-C ports, not 4; and there is not any Contact Bar, which to most individuals is not actually a giant deal. 

In case you’re a school scholar, a would-be entrepreneur, a author or simply in search of an all-around laptop computer on the excessive finish of informal, it is powerful to go fallacious with the MacBook Air. It will rightly be the default start line for lots of people. 

Read our Apple MacBook Air 2020 review.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Essentially the most just lately up to date MacBook is the 13-inch Professional. The 2020 model performs catch-up in a variety of methods, including 10th-gen Intel CPU choices, however solely within the dearer configurations. It additionally doubles the storage of the 2019 model and provides the brand new Magic Keyboard, making it the ultimate MacBook to get the brand new keyboard design. 

All Execs now have the Apple Contact Bar, which is not as helpful as Apple would have you ever imagine however not as ineffective as everybody else thinks. I take advantage of it on a regular basis for display screen brightness, quantity management and some different contextual buttons, like when utilizing the calculator app. 

Since they’re shut in value, you may be tempted to get the cheaper Air over the Professional — in spite of everything, they feel and appear comparable and share a variety of the identical options. And for many individuals, that is the best name. However in case you’re working with extra power-hungry apps reminiscent of Photoshop or Premiere, needless to say the Air makes use of lower-power Y-series Intel chips, whereas the Professional makes use of extra mainstream U-series chips. 

For internet browsing, social media and film streaming, you are not going to note the distinction. For CPU-intensive duties, you’ll. It is particularly noticeable as a result of the Professional’s bigger physique is healthier designed for the warmth generated by heavier workloads, so it is much less prone to throttle down. 

My different caveat concerning the 13-inch Professional is that it’s essential step as much as a dearer configuration to get the newer 10th-gen CPUs and to get the 4 USB-C ports as a substitute of two. 

Read more.

This is a more in-depth have a look at two $1,299 MacBook configurations: 

What does $1,299 get you in a MacBook?

Mannequin MacBook Air MacBook Professional (13-inch)
Value $1,299 $1,299
CPU 1.1GHz quad-core 10th-gen Intel Core i5 (Y-series) processor 1.4GHz quad-core eighth-gen Intel Core i5 (U-series) processor
RAM 8GB 3,733MHz LPDDR4X 8GB 2,133MHz LPDDR3
Storage 512GB SSD storage 256GB SSD storage
Ports Two Thunderbolt Three ports Two Thunderbolt Three ports

Sarah Tew/CNET

Laptops are sometimes about cramming as a lot as potential into the thinnest, lightest, smallest package deal potential. However typically greater is healthier. Individuals nonetheless lament the late, nice 17-inch MacBook Professional, which was discontinued again in 2012. 

Apple lastly resurrected it, in a way, with the brand new 16-inch MacBook Professional, on the identical time killing the longstanding 15-inch model. It is large, at the least in contrast with the 13-inch MacBooks, however nonetheless extra transportable than many of the 15-inch Home windows laptops I’ve seen.

The principle promoting level is, in fact, all that display screen actual property, which is what you want in case you’re a designer or perhaps a quantity cruncher and must maintain a variety of issues in entrance of you.

Just like the outdated 15-inch Professional, the 16-inch MacBook is ridiculously costly, beginning at $2,399 and going up from there. But when that is your all-day, every-day, work-from-home display screen, it might be value it. 

The opposite large promoting level of the 16-inch Professional is that it consists of discrete graphics, with a few AMD Radeon choices. No, Macs are nonetheless not gaming machines, however in case you’re modifying 4K video or doing 3D modeling, having a GPU is necessary. The opposite Macs embody Intel Iris graphics, which is at the least a step up from commonplace off-the-shelf laptop computer graphics.

Read our Apple MacBook Pro (16-inch, 2019) review.

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Which MacBook should I buy?

My TL;DR advice is as follows:

If you need a MacBook for everyday schoolwork, web surfing, movies and light creativity, go with the MacBook Air. Specifically the $1,099 Core i5 version. For most people, this is a good default starting point. 

Need some more CPU muscle, or extra USB-C ports, or for some reason you really love the Touch Bar? Go with the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but keep in mind that 10th-gen CPUs and the extra USB-C ports are only in the higher-priced versions. 

The 16-inch MacBook Pro is basically a desktop replacement. If you’re thinking of getting an iMac but want to carry it around sometimes, or if you definitely need a discrete GPU, then splurge on the 16-inch MacBook Pro. It’s painfully expensive, but it’s a real joy to use, and frankly it’s tough to go back to a 13-inch screen after using the 16-inch for a while. 

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Dan Ackerman