MacBook for College Student?
August 3, 2013 9:05 AM   Subscribe

My friend's daughter is going off to college to major in media studies. What would be the best MacBook -- new or used -- for her? Ideally it would be able to handle video editing, while still being light. It needs to be as cheap as possible, but it should run Mountain Lion so she can get through most of her college career without having to replace it. What do you suggest? (NB The "Mac" part isn't negotiable.)
posted by lore to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What's your friend's price range? My MacBook Pro 13" from 2011 edits HD video without a problem. It's light enough. Very quick checking indicates that it goes for about $750ish on eBay.

You should check out the refurbished deals at Apple, too.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:16 AM on August 3, 2013

I suppose one way to answer this is by asking "Which 2013 Mac would you be comfortable owning in 2016?"

I'd say the new 13in Air makes most sense. It should be plenty unless she's doing hardcore video work, and it's fresher than the Pro line, which won't see hardware updates until the autumn. Last year's model is decent, but buying new and paying for AppleCare means that there's good warranty coverage for the bulk of her course. Also factor in insurance for potential theft.

She'd probably want an external drive (and perhaps a cloud backup plan) to archive video files.
posted by holgate at 9:17 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The price range is "as cheap as possible." I got my own personal MacBook (2008 15") for $400 used recently via Craigslist. I'm sure it would do for her needs in processor terms, but it's hell of heavy.
posted by lore at 9:25 AM on August 3, 2013

Hands-down a brand-new 13" Macbook Air.

Normally I'd be apt to recommend a refurb, but the very latest Airs have a new chipset ("Haswell") that provides enormously improved speed and battery life over the previous generation. And to get through as much time as possible, I'd be biased toward a brand-new laptop with a brand-new AppleCare. The 11" is cheaper and smaller, but the tiny screen will cause problems for anything media-ish, and a bit more power for video editing would probably be wise.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:26 AM on August 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

Nthing some flavor of 13" Mackbook Air. I edit video on mine all the time. It's not brilliant at it, but it easily does the job. The newer the better. I wouldn't get anything older than a Mid-2011 model. Battery life and performance in models before that would be disappointing.
posted by Ookseer at 9:33 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, be aware that many schools have special deals with computer sellers. Once she is officially a student she will be eligible to buy at a discount getting both cheap software and a lower cost computer.
posted by srboisvert at 9:39 AM on August 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

If the budget's really tight, then perhaps a 2011 (Sandy Bridge) 13in Pro -- which are coming onto the market as people upgrade to retina Pros or Airs. But as Sticherbeast notes, $700+ is a fair price for those machines, and the best way to extend their useful life is to replace the spinning HD with a SSD, which means spending another $150 or so. That gets you up towards the cost of a stock 13in Air, especially with the educational discount.
posted by holgate at 9:52 AM on August 3, 2013

A "cheap as possible" macbook isn't going to last 4 years and if it does you're hobbling this individual. I say splurge, get a decked out one and know it'll last the 4 years.

If this can't be afforded, then buy used and cycle through them every year.

I've managed fleet laptops for the last 20 years. I expect to get three years out of them when they are new and decked out to be future proof. I sometimes get four. Four years on a used laptop might be possible, but I know where I'll place my money on this bet, especially when you are talking video editing.

I could be wrong, but I think expectations are out of whack here, so the answers will be off as well.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:56 AM on August 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

Agreed with the folks saying that you won't get three or four years out of an older, used Macbook. I just sold my 2008 13" Macbook and got an 11" Macbook Air. My old Macbook was ridiculously slow and on its last legs. It was definitely still usable, but it could not do anything resource intensive like video editing.

I adore my new Macbook Air. It's super fast, extremely light, and just an overall pleasure to work on.
posted by anotheraccount at 9:59 AM on August 3, 2013

The limiting factor on most machines for video is the video card. If she's going to be using only iMovie, then the 13" Macbook air would be a totally capable machine for her academic run. While such a computer is capable of running Final Cut Pro, it probably would not be future proof for 4 years.

Her best bet may be to get a refurbished 15" or 13" Macbook Pro. The retina models, even refurb, are not going to fall into the "cheapest" category, but they will be the lightest, most powerful machine she can get. The non retina models are just as capable and less expensive, but heavier.

Having done a lot of video, the screen real estate is totally worthwhile for the 15", but as you noted, it can be a pain to lug around. The 13" Pro would weigh less, but in the long run, be hobbled (again) but the video processor.

Depending on the timeframe for buying, as holgate noted, there are educational discounts ($100 off). And this weekend, Best Buy has a sale $200 off Macbook pros. If she can add on the edu discount now, she could fetch a new machine for $300 off.
posted by tip120 at 10:16 AM on August 3, 2013

For video editing, she'd be better-off with a Macbook Pro.
Apple currently has a refurbished 13" MBP for $999
posted by Thorzdad at 10:45 AM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hi, it seems like a lot of the posters above have raised some good points. I can't speak to a MacBook Pro, but I do own a nice MacBook Air. Here are some thoughts:

1. How negotiable is the weight of the MacBook? I am a small woman (<100lbs), and I can tell you that I could not carry around a MacBook. I own a 11" MacBook Air, which is small enough and light enough that it fits in my purse (no backpack!) and I can bring it with me almost anywhere.

I feel like a laptop is only really as useful as it is portable -- otherwise, why not get a desktop, which will be more powerful for the same price?

2. If she is majoring in Media Studies, she will likely have access to the super powerful machines in the school editing labs. The MacBook Air may be incapable of running Final Cut Pro, but perhaps the MacBook Pro won't be as fast as the lab machines, either -- in which case, perhaps it will be better if she did most of the film editing work in the lab, and reserve the laptop for light work.

My brother completed a game design degree recently, for which he had to work with 3D design systems such as Unity. He was tired of working from the school editing studio, so he set up a $1000 desktop system, decked out with the best graphics card that he could afford (i.e., more powerful than an equivalently-priced laptop). Well, it turned out to be nowhere near as good as the school systems. He could still use it, of course, but the home computer was not a productivity booster that he hoped it would be.

(One caveat is that his computer was a PC, not a Mac, but I feel like this point is important enough to mention. Also, technically, my parents paid for it, but whatever.)

3. Have you considered getting a 13" MacBook Pro and just buying a large monitor on the side? This way, she would have some decent processing power, but also the screen real-estate for graphics work.

As you can see, I am very much biased towards having a lightweight laptop and relying on a good (school-provided) desktop for work. I spent the first half to three-quarters of my undergraduate career with a giant laptop (maybe 15"~17"?). I almost never carried it around with me, and standing on the bus with the laptop was a terrible strain on my back. Eventually, my parents ended up buying me a new, smaller laptop so that I could actually get some use out of it.

I don't know anything about film, but I do know something about heavy-duty scientific computing -- and I can tell you first-hand that no laptop will be able to beat a desktop that the school has outfitted specifically for that purpose. Your friend's daughter should keep this in mind when she picks out her computer.

(Also, writing this up, I realized just how much money my parents invested in my and my brother's education -- I owe them a big thanks. I am embarrassed to say that, at the time, I did not realize what privilege it was.)
posted by tickingclock at 11:06 AM on August 3, 2013

If you are planning on an Air (or even a pro) she may need an external harddrive, especially if she's editing and storing a lot of video or media. That takes up a ton of storage. Maybe you could get her an external harddrive instead of the computer and coordinate with someone who is getting the computer? This may be especially good for you if you don't have a full macbook budget. A large external harddrive is definitely in the lower price range.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:21 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

For video editing, she'd be better-off with a Macbook Pro.

Traditionally, yes. But that refurb Mid-2012 13in MBP has 1280x800 resolution vs the Air's 1440x900 and integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics vs the Air's Intel HD 5000. So, while you're getting a faster CPU, it's with a lower-rez panel, a slow mechanical hard drive, and the previous generation of integrated graphics. (Only the 15in MBP and the retina models have a discrete GPU.)

The non-retina 13in MBP isn't really a "pro laptop" these days. And I say that as a 13in MBP owner.
posted by holgate at 11:46 AM on August 3, 2013

If she is editing video, I would probably recommend a MacBook Pro Retina over the Air. I got a refurb 2012 13-inch retina model that is working out well for me: it has the power to crunch video (altho compressing h.264 is a little slow), and is portable enough to use in the field. The only major downside is the small SSD (Video takes up a shedload of space), but I dealt with that by adding an external USB 3.0 drive. It can also drive an external monitor and whatnot for use when at home/dorm room.
posted by baggers at 11:47 AM on August 3, 2013

I agree that she would be better off with a Macbook Pro for video editing.

The bigger the screen the better, too. BTDT
posted by jgirl at 11:58 AM on August 3, 2013

Another vote for the 2013 13" MacBook Air - - though I'd pony up the extra $200 for the 256GB SSD - - the 128GB is manageable, but tight.

(Also, Apple's running their $100 App Store gift card promotion for education buyers until September 6th.)
posted by fairmettle at 12:26 PM on August 3, 2013

I do fairly heavy video editing on a 2009 15" MacBook Pro, with little trouble.

The 13"ers are nice and light. And the newest generation has made huge improvements in battery life (my 2009 MBP can only edit video for about an hour away from power). But just about any MBP made in the last 5 years will work.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:20 PM on August 3, 2013

I have the last pre-retina MBP, and I do fairly high-end graphics work in Adobe After Effects and editing in Camtasia and Premiere Pro. During rendering for AE, my entire computer shuts down. I can't even change a webpage. And when I make tons of cuts/edits, Camtasia and Premiere Pro slow down tremendously. I've also run out of disk space twice (total of 1 Tb) and now am on my second external drive.

If I had known all of that a year ago when I bought it, I would have upgraded everything to the highest possible level. More memory, faster processor, more storage...etc. I have the 13" and I carry it around in a custom Timbuktu bag everywhere I go, and it's not all that heavy. I also LOVE having a CD drive. But YMMV on that one. I don't use it all the time, but I have a huge CD collection and a lot of software still comes with CDs to install.

It is my fifth Mac laptop in eleven years. To be fair though, two were stolen while still (mostly) working, one is with my ex-husband, and two I still have. The 2008 17" MBP works, but really only as an internet/word processing/watching DVDs computer. However, that's 5 years old and runs fine. So if the goal is to make it last to do those things, get whatever. But if the goal is high-end video editing, she'll need a new computer in two years probably. I can't edit on the other one worth a crap. And maybe if her goal is video editing, she should get a desktop Mac that has more of everything in a few years.

Good luck!
posted by guster4lovers at 4:18 PM on August 3, 2013

Actually, one caveat to the "anything will work" advice... RAM matters a lot. An old machine with maxed-out RAM will often beat a newer machine with less RAM. And RAM is relatively cheap, so make sure you get as much of it as possible. MacBooks often have very specific RAM requirements, so make sure you get the right kind in the right arrangement.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:00 PM on August 3, 2013

Listen to thatfuzzybastard, they're on the right track. The people saying you need the latest possible machine for it to hold up doing this are wrong. I'm editing 1080p video on a 2007 imac right now, which has very very similar specs(and the same CPU) as a macbook pro from that era. It's six years old and still kicks both cheeks of the ass at this kind of stuff.

I'd be looking at 2009-ish 15in macbook pros. Why 15in? dedicated GPU, which premiere or FCP will leverage. The difference between my 2009 17in and my 2010 13in was BIG, and in favor of the 17in.

You're not going to get a smaller or lighter machine for cheaper that will handle this work. And the pre-unibody macbook pros are so unreliable due to the perpetually failing nvidia graphics chips that they aren't even worth buying.

What do you think people used for years to do this kind of work, at current resolutions, with no issues? These machines. And they run this stuff a LOT faster than the 13in models.

You can get a good 2009 15in macbook pro for something like $500-600 now. Go forth and craigslist.

The only upgrade i'd bother with is maxing out the ram to 8gb. No SSD you could afford(or honestly, that would be worth dropping the money on) will have enough space to render out/be scratch for a meaningful amount of HD video. You could maybe get away with having a 256gb one and using an external hard drive for basically everything that wasn't your current project, but meh.

And more, if you upgrade the ram AND get an ssd you're getting in to, yea, 13in macbook air territory with the price. I'd maybe go out and price 256gb variations of the air on craigslist, but to get a new one that would actually be nice for this type of work you'd want the bigger drive and maxed ram, which really jacks up the price. I've seen 13in 2012 airs go for $800 before though...

The 15in may be the best for the price, but the 13in air is probably more the machine you want. It does not need to be the latest and greatest model, but i'd rather have an old macbook pro with 8gb of ram than an air with 4gb for this kind of work. My old imac is stuck at 4gb, and that is the only issue i have with it for this kind of work. I absolutely would not edit on a machine with less than 8gb of i could avoid it.
posted by emptythought at 11:18 PM on August 3, 2013

Couple thoughts on buying cheap:
The refurbished section of the Apple store is great - I always save a few hundred dollars and get a pristine product.
The best trick I've ever done though: buy the previous generation from your campus bookstore. If they still have it, they will be trying to clear it at a deep discount.

As for the model - I would go for the most portable (smallest, lightest) laptop with a nice big LCD monitor (19"+) for the dorm room. This will allow her to easily take notes in class, carry to study sessions, and hook up for clear video editing. She'll be able to work on detailed video anywhere she can find a monitor to hook up to.
posted by jander03 at 8:20 AM on August 4, 2013

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