Making The Grade is a new weekly series from Bradley Chambers covering Apple in education. Bradley has been managing Apple devices in an education environment since 2009. Through his experience deploying and managing 100s of Macs and 100s of iPads, Bradley will highlight ways in which Apple’s products work at scale, stories from the trenches of IT management, and ways Apple could improve its products for students.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the Apple community lately about MacBook Pro vs. MacBook Air vs. MacBook. Each laptop has its pros and cons, but I want to consider which one makes the most sense in education.

I had to do this process two years ago when I was planning our technology refresh at our school. I came up with a list of guidelines that I considered to be important, and then let those guidelines help me determine what laptop was best for us.

  1. Compatibility with existing hardware (projectors, TVs, etc.)
  2. The maturity of hardware (for reliability)
  3. Price vs. function

While that may seem like a straightforward list, it contains some critical decisions that can impact the overall price significantly. When buying more than a couple of laptops, small equipment decisions can add tens of thousands of dollars to your quote.

Compatibility with existing hardware

One of the most significant differences between Apple’s laptop lineup is the ports they include. The MacBook and MacBook Pro rely heavily on USB-C where the MacBook Air still uses the MagSafe power adaptor and USB-A.

As a forward-thinking technology fan, I love the promise of USB-C. It’s “one cable to rule them all”, and the hope of it is incredible. The downside of USB-C is that we still have tons of USB-A needs. Desktop printers still use USB-A. iPads and iPhone even ship with USB-A cables. If I deploy laptops that use USB-C, I am going to have to provide at least one USB-A adaptor ($19). If I am buying 100 laptops, this will add $1,900 in cost to that price.

Another device I must consider is projectors/TVs. We have plenty of teachers who rely on these devices every single day. Like I mentioned earlier, the MacBook and MacBook Pro use USB-C for their only ports, and this means that I have to buy the USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter for HDMI at $69. While these would negate the need for the $19 USB-A adaptor, it would add $6,900 in cost to an order of 100 laptops. I have plenty of teachers who also use VGA projectors. So I would have to consider purchasing the USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter at $69.

If I wanted to provide teachers and staff members with each the HDMI and VGA adaptor, it would cost $13,800. The MacBook Air uses Thunderbolt 2, and I can buy a VGA adaptor for $29. While Amazon sells multiple versions of all of these cables for less, I usually buy directly from Apple on our initial orders so I can have everything inside my lease.

Maturity of hardware

There is an old saying among those who buy Apple hardware to avoid the first generation of any product. While the MacBook and MacBook Pro models aren’t new, they do suffer from issues relating to keyboard reliability. There is even an Apple Support document show how to clean the keyboard using compressed air.

When thinking about deploying a fleet of these, I struggle to recommend them when I know some of them will have keyboard problems in the future. I need reliability. Yes, the MacBook Air screen is old. Yes, it lacks a modern processor. However, it’s the most mature hardware in Apple’s laptop lineup.

There are no “gotchas” for IT Managers to work around. It contains reliable components that have been tested over many years in multiple variations. It might not be the best-looking computer, but it’s the one that will last the longest.

Price vs. function

If I am buying myself a new laptop today, I am probably going with a MacBook Pro. I personally love the Retina screen, and I love the power it provides. If I am buying 100 laptops, however, I just can’t justify the extra expense of the MacBook Pro or MacBook over the MacBook Air. At $849/$1049 (US education pricing), Apple’s MacBook Air is still a great value when deploying in mass. Both of the low-end MacBook and MacBook Pros are $1249 for schools.

Going back to our 100 laptop deployment model, the low-end MacBook Air would be $84,900. The low-end MacBook would be $124,900 (this is before any bulk discounts or accessory orders). Could you justify Retina screens and a slimmer profile at a $40,000 premium? I know that I couldn’t.

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About the Author

Bradley Chambers

Bradley lives in Chattanooga, TN.

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