Is the iPad Pro good for students

Macbook or iPad at university? What's right for students?

Jan Schaller

Soon it will be that time again: The semester is about to start. And even if almost everything has changed since Corona, the decision to buy a new computer is still at the top of the agenda for many.

EnlargeStudent using an iPad at the university library
© Fotolia / Proimagecontent

For many, starting their studies is a good milestone to get a new piece of equipment. If the decision has already been made that it should be an Apple product, we have a small selection guide here.

A fundamental decision: Macbook or iPad for university?

Before it comes to the question of a specific model, it is necessary to decide whether it should be a Macbook or an iPad. Not long ago, the discussion would have been over here quickly. An iPad is at best good enough to watch Netflix on the couch at home or to quickly look up a recipe ?! Those days are long gone. Apple's mobile chips are way ahead of the competition and the software has also made a significant leap forward in recent years. With the introduction of iPadOS 13 last year, this trend intensified noticeably, as the new multitasking system or Safari, for example, are much more convincing. This year there is not as much new as last year, but the new Scribble function, with which you can convert something written with the Apple Pencil into typescript, makes the iPad an even more organic device. In addition, support for mice and trackpads was significantly improved earlier this year. The input options become fluent, the flexibility increased.

The starting point is no longer so clear, although it must of course be said that some tasks can still only be processed meaningfully on a laptop and thus a Macbook - programming, for example. On the other hand, lecture notes are a big topic in most courses and what could be better than a digital document that you can edit to your heart's content with a pen? So here the iPad has the edge again.

We therefore generally recommend the following procedure: At the beginning there should be a needs analysis: What will be the most important tasks in the course? Am I studying something artistic? Thanks to professional apps like Procreate or, for some time now, Photoshop, the iPad and Pencil could be the perfect environment for creative work. Does the course of study require hundreds of pages of text to be read and edited? No doubt: it works much better on the tablet. But if I need a full-fledged development environment, the classic laptop will still be the better idea. Those who cannot yet fully assess what is in store for them can use the first weeks to inquire about higher semesters.

In summary, the following can be said: If you are looking for a computer that is at least made to cope with all situations, you should still rely on a Macbook. You won't have that much fun with it if you want to be creative or if you want to work on scripts in lectures. But you will be able to do whatever is necessary. Writing large (final) theses with many references still works better on a classic computer, although the lead is shrinking. But if you still have a laptop or desktop computer at home anyway and are primarily looking for a companion on the go, you should urgently take a close look at the current iPad models. For example, the author of these lines spends well over half of his working time in front of an iPad.

If, on the other hand, you have a slightly higher budget, you can even consider buying a Macbook and an iPad, as they of course complement each other perfectly. At the end I will take up again what an affordable configuration could look like.

The traditional solution: a Macbook

If you look into any lecture hall, you will see many, many Macbooks Air. That is no surprise either, as it was and still is Apple's cheapest laptop, and it has an iconic form factor. With its lightness, it was the ideal companion for everyday university life. In addition, it was usually below the psychologically important $ / € 1,000 limit.

In autumn 2018, Apple surprisingly re-issued the Air and we are now in the second iteration again, after an updated version came onto the market in March of this year. How is the latest version of this Mac classic doing? In the Macwelt test, this year's version of Apple's long-running hit pretty much cleared. The use of the new, old keyboard model is particularly positive. The longevity of the keyboard and the typing experience should benefit from this. And the Air does well in other respects too, especially when you are doing less computationally intensive tasks. Processor and graphics performance have improved compared to last year, the price has been reduced slightly and the entry-level SSD has been increased from 128 GB to 256 GB.

However, compromises still have to be accepted. In the Macwelt test, for example, the battery life turned out to be shorter than last year. In addition, there are still only two Thunderbolt 3 ports on board and of course you can't expect any miracles from the processor. If you need more power here, be it for video editing, mathematical simulations or the like, you should take a look at the MacBook Pro. For many others, the current Air can be the perfect study companion, which costs more than many Windows computers, but also lasts through the entire course.

The nice thing about the current season is that Apple has started its "Back to School" campaign again, which brings special offers with it. This year there are Airpods discounted when you buy a Macbook Air or Pro. This offer also applies to the iPad Pro.

As a student, you can also benefit from Apple's education prices, which are at least a little below the regular ones. In the Apple Education Store, the 2020 Macbook Air currently costs € 1,052 in the entry-level configuration. Here you get an i3 dual core processor, 8 GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD. Of course, this price rises quickly if you want a little more steam under the hood or more storage space. With an upgrade in all three points (i5 quad core processor, 16 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD) the Air costs a proud € 1,535.

With prices like this, you can at least consider grabbing a MacBook Pro straight away. For example, you could use a 13 inch Pro, equip it with an i5 quad core processor, 16 GB RAM and a 512 GB SSD and would cost € 1,754 in the education store. 219 € more, but there is also the Touch Bar and a better graphics chip. Certainly worth considering. When it comes to ports, both models don't take anything away. Meanwhile, there is hardly any difference in weight between the Air and Pro. The Air weighs 1290 grams, the Pro (13 ’’) 1400 grams - 110 grams difference, not exactly the world.

At the moment, however, you should think twice about whether you can't wait to buy a Macbook. Apple has already announced that the first Macbook with the in-house Apple Silicon processor will come before the end of the year and the rumors suggest that this could possibly be a cheap entry-level Macbook, but that the battery values ​​are very good due to the new processor should still have decent computing power. Of course all fishing is still in the dark and the time “before the end of the year” can be 31.12 in extreme cases. - but caution is advised so that you don't end up annoyed because you have just spent a four-digit sum and Apple is introducing a new generation Macbook.

The alternative solution: iPad with keyboard and Apple Pencil

Given this initial situation - high price, new Macs in a few weeks or months - one can also ponder whether the Mac is the right platform at all. It is true that the Mac is still the perfect all-rounder, but it cannot do certain things at all and that is met with increasing misunderstanding, especially among younger users. You are still looking for a touch screen in vain, which of course also means that you cannot write or draw with the Apple Pencil. So should we take a closer look at the iPads after all? We think so!

When it comes to hardware, Apple has three models in its portfolio (with the exception of the iPad Mini), all of which have received an update this year and thus still have many years of service life ahead of them: the iPad (8th Gen), the iPad Air (4th Gen). Gen) and the iPad Pro (4th Gen). For students, the normal iPad and Air are most likely to be considered, as the Pro is quite expensive. A few sentences on this follow below. First, let's look at the two cheaper options.

The iPad (8th Gen) without any additional name is the entry-level iPad and in and of itself a rather boring device - which is good in this case. It still has the old design that we have known from iPads for years: a relatively thick frame at the top, also at the bottom, plus a Touch ID button. The dusty design shouldn't hide the inner values. The A12 Bionic Chip is a processor that is only two years old and has plenty of power. It is also compatible with the Smart Keyboard and the first generation Apple Pencil. And of course, third-party Bluetooth keyboards can also be used to save costs. The normal iPad could thus become the ideal device for many, as it is a top tablet at a low price. A small calculation example (again with educational prices): the iPad with 128 GB of storage costs € 446.60. Plus the Apple Pencil for € 87 and the Logitech Combo Touch Keyboard Case for € 146.17, which even comes with a touch pad. This brings us to a total price of just under € 680. Not a bargain, but a very, very good package. Alternatively, you can also consider buying the iPad and Pencil as a complement to a laptop in order to have the best of both worlds. A combination of Macbook Air and the iPad without a name extension can be an exciting package here.

Then there is also the iPad Air, which received a massive update at this year's September event and is even an alternative to the current iPad Pro. It got the iPad Pro design with flat edges and thin screen bezels, as well as the brand new A14 Bionic Chip as the first iPad ever. And the Air suddenly cuts a really good figure in other ways too. The Air has a USB-C port, supports the second generation Apple Pencil and even has the option of being used with Apple's high-end keyboard, the Magic Keyboard. Of course that costs more, but if you are thinking of using the iPad as the only device and not needing the larger 12.9 ’’ display from the large iPad Pro, you might be in good hands here. The Air has a screen diagonal of 10.9 ’’ and is therefore practically the same size as the small Pro (11 ’’). If you buy the Air with 256 GB of storage, you have to pay € 750 with an education discount. Then there would be the costs for the pencil and a keyboard. But we still have to wait. The iPad Air won't appear until October.

One more word about the iPad Pro: Although the Pro received an update this year, it currently doesn't differ enough from the Air to justify the high price difference. I think that it is only an option for those who want the large display with 12.9 ’’. Even with an educational discount, that costs € 1,018 with just 128 GB of storage. For an upgrade to 256 GB you have to pay a good 100 € more. If, on the other hand, you are also satisfied with the smaller model, you should choose the Air and save a lot of money.

Conclusion: be careful with the Macs, Air models have caught up

After the Air models weakened last year, they have caught up significantly this year. The Macbook Air is again a good buy that you can't go wrong with. The decision whether Pro or Air has to be made on a case-by-case basis. But if you can still wait, you should at least be able to assess what the new Apple Silicon Macs will bring.

With the iPads you have two really good options. The normal iPad can either be a companion or even an exciting entry-level device, provided it is combined with a pencil and keyboard. If you want more and can do without the very large display, you should definitely take a look at the iPad Air. Here Apple has done almost more than was necessary.

Whether you buy an iPad at all or stick to the classic Macbook (or even buy both) must be made on a case-by-case basis. The fact is, however, that it is a lot of fun to annotate the slides in the lecture directly on the screen.

And of course we also want to point out that - especially as a student - you don't necessarily have to pay Apple's prices. Here is an article that shows how to get Apple hardware cheaper.