Which Used Mac Laptop is Best for Students?

With the end of this school year looming I expect parents and students are already evaluating their needs for the future. Will that old laptop last one more year? Why is it so slow?! Should I upgrade? Questions for the ages!

We spend a lot of our time here at Olde Time Mac looking at the used Mac market, trying to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the various pre-owned models available. Some are clear winners, offering great value for money. Other choices lean towards those with more specialized needs. No Mac
is a truly bad choice, but which is best for the student in your life?

MacBook Pro 2010-2012 series

Leading off our contenders is the Pre-owned MacBook Pro (2010-2012). While these Macs are getting a bit older they are still a great value, offering the lowest prices of nearly any used Mac on the market. Couple that with reasonable performance, nearly unparalleled expandability and a good selection of built
in ports and you have a winner! Optical drives are also standard on this series of Macs. DVD Playback and CD Music compatibility allow the Pre-owned MacBook Pro (2010-2012) to to support both physical and streaming digital video and musical formats.

The RAM and HD storage subsystems can both be upgraded on these models. In fact, the hard drive can be replaced with an SSD drive for a significant performance boost down the road. More unconventional owners have even removed the optical drive and replaced it with a second hard drive /
SSD for additional storage.

If you’re looking for a variety of display sizes then the Used MacBook Pro (2010-2012) has a lot to offer in terms of choice. Common models feature the 13” and 15” LCD panels while the rarer and more coveted 17” MacBook Pro also sometimes makes an appearance on the pre-owned market.

Strengths:

  • GREAT PRICE
  • DVD/CD Optical drive built in
  • Expandable – upgrade the HD easily in the future to an SSD
  • SDRAM Memory upgradable to 16Gb
  • Great selection of ports including USB, Firewire, Ethernet, Audio Out, SD Memory Card Slot, and some
    models have Thunderbolt as well.
  • variety of LCD display sizes 13/15/17”
  • full size, natural keyboard
  • HDs available include 500Gb, 750Gb and 1Tb
  • very common machine means it is relatively easy to repair (even for battery replacement)

Weaknesses:

  • no retina display option
  • decent but not exceptional battery life (2.5-3 hrs of typical battery life)

Verdict:
This model is great choice for the budget conscious consumer with room to grow in the future!

MacBook Air 2010-2017 series

The thin and lightweight Pre-owned MacBook Air series is of great appeal to students! This Mac couples light weight with decent performance and a great variety of I/O ports. The used MacBook Air series offers two screen sizes to choose from. The most common model is the 13” while the rarer but more portable 11” MacBook Air appeals to those wanting to carry around their technology in a very small package.

The used MacBook Air really shines when we talk about battery life! Though Apple officially provides guidance of 8 hours or more on a single charge we’ve found estimates of 4-6 hours are more accurate when taking into account typical usage — still excellent endurance and within most people’s expectations! As a bonus, the battery is (relatively) easy and inexpensive to replace when it eventually begins to degrade over time.

Strengths:

  • LOW PRICE
  • Great Portability
  • SDRAM Memory upgradable to 16Gb
  • Great selection of ports including USB, Audio Out, SD Memory Card Slot, and some models have Thunderbolt as well.
  • variety of LCD display sizes 11/13”
  • full size, natural keyboard
  • very common machine means it is relatively easy to repair
  • low weight and thin design makes this easy to carry around
  • SSDs available include 128Gb, 256Gb and 512Gb

Weaknesses:

  • no retina display option
  • no DVD/CD Optical drive built in, though many external drives are available
  • difficult to upgrade SSD, impossible to upgrade SDRAM

Verdict:

  • Highly portable model that won’t break the bank. A student favourite!

MacBook 2015-2017 series

If you’re looking for the thinnest, lightest, most portable Mac ever made then this one is for you! The used MacBook clocks in at 2 Lbs and .52” thick (at maximum) making it extremely easy to pop into your backpack/briefcase. Decent performance and a Retina 12” display round out the stellar features of this
line of Macs.

The pre-owned MacBook touts 6-8 hours of real-world battery performance, putting it at the top of endurance charts for Mac laptops. Apple advertises 10+ hours on these models so you may find my estimate conservative!

As you might expect, there are a few trade-offs that accompany the ultra-portability of the MacBook series. The main drawback most people point to is a lack of I/O ports on the laptop. With one USB-C port and one Audio-Out port the MacBook is the least expandable Mac on the used market. In reality, most users rely on WiFi and streaming these days so many users may not be bothered by the minimal approach Apple has taken with the MacBook 2015-2017. In the end you’ll have to decide if this “weakness” really matters or not!

Strengths:

  • Best Portability of any Mac
  • excellent 12” Retina Display
  • huge trackpad
  • SSDs available include 256Gb and 512Gb
  • great battery life

Weaknesses:

  • 12” Display may be too small for some
  • no DVD/CD Optical drive built in, though many external drives are available
  • impossible to upgrade SDRAM and SSD
  • minimal I/O ports means this Mac relies on WiFi like no other!

Verdict:
Not for everyone but some will choose the MacBook for the great portability and superior battery life

MacBook Pro Retina 2012-2018 series

The Pre-owned MacBook Pro Retina series offers ultimate performance and a superior variety of I/O ports.

Choosing the 13” MacBook Pro Retina will allow you to keep an eye on your pocketbook while indulging in great performance and capability. Going with the 15” MacBook Pro Retina affords users the fastest, most able portable Mac ever made.

If you’re looking for the best displays available in a Mac laptop then you’ll be choosing one of these used MacBook Pro Retina 2012-2018 models. The difficulty comes in making a choice of screen size! Both the 13” and the 15” are very sharp with excellent color and sharpness! In the end, the decision you make needs will take into account the cost, portability and the other performance oriented features that differentiate the 13” and the 15” models.

The used MacBook Pro Retina series affords users great battery life. Though Apple officially provides guidance of 8 hours or more on a single charge we’ve found estimates of 3-5 hours are more accurate when taking into account typical daily usage.

Strengths:

  • Portability
  • Great selection of ports including USB, Audio Out, SD Memory Card Slot, Thunderbolt.
  • variety of LCD display sizes 13/15”
  • full size, natural keyboard
  • highest performing Macs on the pre-owned market
  • SSDs available include 128Gb, 256Gb, 512Gb, 768Gb and 1Tb

Weaknesses:

  • no DVD/CD Optical drive built in, though many external drives are available
  • difficult to upgrade SSD, impossible to upgrade SDRAM
  • not as inexpensive as the MacBook Pro 2010-2012 and MacBook Air Series

Verdict:

Great performance, reasonable battery life, excellent expandability make the MacBook Pro Retina 2012-2018 a great choice for many students!

So Which Mac Laptop is best?

There is a “Best Mac” for everyone! Each of the 4 broad models of Macintosh laptop has a variety of strengths and weaknesses which will appeal to some and turn off others. I’ll break my final analysis down by cost factors, coming up with a best “low-cost” and “higher-cost” model of each category.

Best “low-cost” model

The candidates for this category include the used MacBook Pro 2010-2012 series and the pre-owned MacBook Air 2010-2017 series. Both contenders offer great value for money with most options around or under the $1000 CDN price points.

The greatest value proposition is offered by the used MacBook Pro 2010-2012. With low cost, excellent expandability and superior feature set its easy to see why this model has been our most popular used model over the past 2 years! Keep in mind that as we approach back-to school times these MacBook
Pros will disappear from store shelves quickly! In fact, we ran out of them last year at several points during the run up to September so please keep the notion of “poor supply” in mind when deciding on your purchase!

Dissenting voices in this category will no doubt point to the greater portability of the pre-owned MacBook Air 2010-2017 series, which is a fair point! In the end you’ll have to decide which factors are more important to you!

Best “higher-cost” model

The choices in this category include the used MacBook 2015-2017 series and the used MacBook Pro
Retina 2012-2018 series. These models start at or above the $1000 CDN price point.

Because of the extreme differences between these Macs there is no true “winner”. The pre-owned
MacBook 2015-2017 series is a bit of an outlier, appealing to those looking for ultimate portability. This
model is also a favourite of those needing a laptop while already owning a powerful iMac or Mac Pro at
home (second Mac syndrome). It is easy to see how the MacBook fits this niche.

It is easy to see how the used MacBook Pro Retina 2012-2018 series is a hugely popular choice for
back-to-school. Excellent performance and a superior feature set make this a great choice for students
and teachers alike! Science and engineering students love the stupendous processing power the

MacBook Pro Retina models bring to the table and its hard to argue that as a result owners don’t have to
be as concerned about upgrading as frequently when they buy in “at the top” of the pre-owned market.

Parting Words

I hope this has been helpful when considering which laptop might be the best choice for the student in
your life. Above all, remember: there is a “best” used Mac for everyone… make a good choice for your
circumstances and enjoy it for many years to come!