The best for the most students
The MacBook Air is no longer Apple's lightest and thinnest notebook, but it is still a great all-around choice for students. The latest Airs are affordable (relatively speaking) and powerful machines with portable builds and two screen sizes to choose from.
The 13-inch model is the safer bet. Its screen is 38 percent bigger than the 11-inch model's, and it also gives you the longest battery life of any current MacBook.
Unlike the smaller model, the 13-incher also has an SD card slot (if you take a photography class, this could save you the hassle of buying and lugging around an adapter). You can also use this slot to expand your storage, using an accessory like the Transcend JetDrive Lite.
The biggest (maybe only) compromise with the MacBook Air is its screen resolution, which looks very dated by today's standards. Its overall display quality is good, but going from any of the Retina MacBooks to the Air's 128 PPI (13-inch) or 135 PPI (11-inch) resolution is pretty jarring.
With Apple's Education Pricing, the 11-inch MacBook Air starts at US$849, while the 13-inch model starts at $949. Entry-level models of both machines give you 128 GB storage and 4 GB RAM.
The best, period
Apple's best all-around notebook is the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. The latest model keeps its ultra-sharp screen (77 percent sharper than the display on the same-sized MacBook Air), while upgrading its battery life and performance.
The Retina MacBook Pro also has the best series of ports: two USB 3.0, SD, HDMI and two Thunderbolt.
On the other hand, it is a little beefier than the MacBook Air (17 percent heavier), and every ounce can make a difference in a college backpack that also includes bulky textbooks. It's also $250 more expensive than the 13-inch MacBook Air, so you're paying for that extra horsepower and superior display.
There's also a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, but unless you're training to be a video editor, it's hard to see many students needing a machine that big, heavy or expensive (starting at $1,899 for students).
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display starts at $1,199 (with Apple's Education discount) for 128 GB of storage and 8 GB RAM.
The sexiest, but least practical
Instead of updating the MacBook Air with a Retina Display, Apple rebooted its notebook lineup this year with the new 12-inch MacBook. It's a machine that's lighter and thinner than the Air, with a display that looks just as sharp as the Retina MacBook Pro's. Wouldn't that make the new MacBook the cream of the crop?
Well, not exactly. For starters, its student pricing starts at $1,249, and that's with raw horsepower that lags far behind the MacBook Air's and even farther behind the Retina MacBook Pro's.
But the real kicker is that Apple only put one port on the new MacBook — and it's a new standard (USB Type C) that not many accessory-makers are using yet.
Much of our computing has moved to the cloud, so Apple's strategy with this machine kinda makes sense. But since that lone port also doubles as its charging port, you can forget about juicing up your machine while using any wired accessories — that is, without the help of a $79 adapter. And anything that uses the USB 2.0 or 3.0 standards (that's most of them) will require an adapter as well.
The new MacBook is a sexy machine and will feel the lightest in a backpack, but its combination of cost and impracticality make it hard to recommend to many students. Maybe in a couple of years, with a lower price, but not today.
The 12-inch MacBook's Education Pricing starts at $1,249 for 256 GB storage and 8 GB RAM.
It's almost easy to forget that Apple still sells the non-Retina MacBook Pro, a remnant of its pre-2012 lineup.
By today's standards, this ancient machine is incredibly thick and heavy (it's 52 percent heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Air), with even lower display resolution than the MacBook Air. Its biggest advantage is that it gives you the most storage bang-for-your-buck out of any MacBook (though in the entry level models, it's an HDD, rather than a speedy solid-state drive).
It also has an optical drive, in case any of your professors are just as dated as this machine, and still expecting you to use CDs or DVDs. Just remember that, in this case, you could also grab an external DVD drive for $15 or so to use with the other models.
The non-Retina MacBook Pro's discount pricing starts at $999 for a 500 GB hard drive and 4 GB RAM.
The best place to shop?
After signing up with an .edu email address, Best Buy will send you a coupon that cuts $100 off any model's standard retail price (at the time of publication). The best part is that the store will honor that discount on top of other sale prices. So be sure to check both Apple's and Best Buy's current prices before making your decision.