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

by Brenna Icely (2020-08-21)

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With the back-to-school season in full tilt (whatever going back to school means to you), picking the right laptop for the fall semester is a top priority. While a lot of online school tasks can be accomplished with a simple Chromebook or cheap Windows laptop, a full-featured MacBook with its top-notch MacOS is still the first choice for many students in high school and college -- especially with some decent student discounts and extras available from Apple right now. But which is the best MacBook? MacBooks are among the most universally useful laptops you can buy, but it's not always easy to pick the right one. They range from $999 to $3,000 or more, even though they look and feel similar. I get a lot of reader questions about how to decide, especially when you're torn between, for example, a slightly upgraded MacBook Air and a similarly priced 13-inch MacBook Pro

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If you're buying a MacBook in the summer of 2020, there are three big considerations you keep in mind -- two that are great for decent student discounts and extras current MacBook shoppers, and one that may give you pause: All current MacBooks finally have the improved Magic Keyboard: It started with the 16-inch MacBook Pro last autumn, but Apple has since added the Magic Keyboard to all of its current MacBook models, including the 2020 Air and 13-inch Pro models. The result is a far more comfortable and reliable keyboard than the "butterfly" design that many MacBooks had been burdened with since 2015. Yes, it took Apple half a decade to backtrack on this issue, but the good news is that Mac laptop keyboards are finally good again.  Apple is currently offering a great back-to-school deal on MacBooks: Normally, the Apple Store is (ironically) not the best place to buy an Apple laptop (really, almost any Apple product) because sales are all but nonexistent. The big exception to the rule is Apple's annual back-to-school sales, which often include MacBook deals. For 2020, Apple is offering a $159 credit toward headphones with the purchase of most Mac or iPad models. That means you can get AirPods thrown in for free, or get $159 off the AirPods Pro. And that's on top of the $100 education discount that students, parents and educators can get buying directly through Apple, making it a great deal all around.

If you need something bigger and don't mind it being less than portable: Apple has recently updated its iMac line. The 21.5-inch iMac gets a small SSD upgrade, while the bigger 27-inch machine gets a full internal makeover, articalize including a webcam that's miles better than on any MacBook. 

All Macs will be transitioning to non-Intel chips over the next two years: It was the big news at Apple's WWDC show in June: All Macs will be getting new Apple-designed Arm chips, replacing the Intel CPUs they've had for years... eventually. At least one Apple silicon product should arrive by the end of 2020, but Intel will be a part of the mix for at least the next couple of years. So, should you buy a new MacBook now or wait for an Apple silicon version, coming sometime over the next two years? 

There are potential pluses and minuses to switching to an Arm-based MacBook. Battery life could improve, Macs apps will align more closely with iPad and iPhone apps, and some specialized software, like photo editing giant Photoshop, could be rewritten to take maximum advantage of the new platform. But, as we've seen with other Arm-powered laptops, compatibility with other apps can be a problem, as can raw performance. 

Read more: Best back to school gear under $250  

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Regardless, if you need a new MacBook now, then you're stuck with the current Intel choices in the MacBook lineup, which have all been excellent in our recent hands-on experience. The key question for current back-to-school shoppers is how to make sure you're not buying too little MacBook -- or too much. 

There's a concept we call line creep. It's what happens when brands keep adding iterations and subdivisions of popular product lines, until no one can tell which one to buy. Apple has usually avoided this trap by sticking to a handful of choices in each category, but things can still get confusing when you shop for a MacBook.