Apple computers have played an important role in many people’s education for many years. In recent years, that emphasis has grown to include digital offerings like iTunes U —complete university courses offered through an app— and iBook textbooks for the iPad. Despite the advances in providing educationally focused digital content, Apple’s computers remain at the heart of its offerings. With so many choices, how do you know which one is the right choice for you? Should you pick an iPad or a MacPro? I will walk you through the options to help you buy the right Apple computer for your needs this year.

While most people are familiar with iconic Apple gear like the iPad or MacBook Air, the company offers a wide range of computers. I’ll discuss each of the major categories and point out the type of student it’s most likely to be appropriate for. I’ll mention it again later, but if you have a specific question that I fail to address here, please ask me in the comment section.

iPad

Many school boards have been adopting iPads for use in the classroom and with good reason. Compared to a PC, an iPad is inexpensive, light and easy for small hands to hold. There are multiple models, sizes and price ranges, making it easy to find on that fits your needs and budget.

The battery is good for 10 hours or so —more than enough for a school day– and it can be used as a writing and drawing slate.

Besides the digital textbooks and courses available from Apple, the iPad enjoys a huge app library and a wide range of accessories, including covers, Bluetooth keyboards, styluses and stands. Apple’s free Pages, Numbers and Keynote apps provide Office-compatible productivity software, or Microsoft offers an iPad-optimized version of Word as part of its Office 265 subscription.

The iPad makes a great education tool for elementary and secondary school students and it can be equipped to serve as a laptop alternative. At the college and university level, it’s great for taking notes, research and accessing digital textbooks.

Of course, it’s also popular as an entertainment device.

iMac

The iMac is Apple’s all-in-one desktop PC, a great choice for a student who needs a big display and the power to run any software, but needs something with a small footprint.

Apple offers iMacs in two sizes —a 21.5-inch display and a 27-inch display— a range of Intel 4th generation Core CPUs and with various storage and video card options. All versions include a built-in FaceTime HD webcam, a Bluetooth keyboard and wireless Apple Magic Mouse or Magic TrackPad.

My elementary-school age kids have iMacs in their rooms for doing homework (with iPads as their mobile devices) and I have a 27-inch iMac in my office, which I use for photo editing, video encoding and as an external monitor for my laptop.

Because of the big, high resolution display, built-in speakers and small footprint, an iMac is also a great choice for student living away from home in a dorm room or an apartment —it’s a natural entertainment centre.

Just be sure to pick your configuration with an eye to the future —other than RAM, upgrading an iMac is a job for professionals.

MacBook Air

If you have a student who needs a laptop to carry to classes, the MacBook Air is one of the better choices available.

Even in it’s largest, 13.3-inch form factor, this is still an amazingly svelte laptop (just 1.35 kg and 0.3 to 1.7 cm thick) and when you move to the 11-inch model the weight drops to just 1.08kg.

I use an 11-inch MacBook Air as my primary computer (it’s hooked up to an external monitor) and the model I own —equipped with a Core i7 CPU and 8GB of RAM— is more than powerful enough to run any software I need to. Battery life is rated at up to 9 hours to 12 hours meaning students who take a MacBook Air to school don’t need to lug a power adapter as well. It’s tough to beat for portability and anyone already having to carry a backpack full of heavy textbooks will appreciate how light and compact it is.

The 13-inch MacBook Air made it to the list of top 5 laptops as chosen by BestBuy customers, with an average rating of 4.7/5 stars.

Two things to be aware of with the MacBook Air. There’s no standalone video card, so you’re not going to want one for anything more than casual gaming. This laptop is also pretty much a sealed unit, so buy the configuration you want now because upgrading later isn’t really an option.

MacBook Pro

The MacBook Pro is the Apple laptop for the student who needs more power. It’s still a compact machine and the unibody aluminum body makes it a sturdy portable, but the MacBook Pro line is where Apple laptops gain more advanced options like Intel Iris Pro graphics and Retina displays.

Display size is either 13.3-inches or 15.4-inches, CPUs are Intel Haswells ranging from a dual-core Core i5 to a quad-core Core i7 and storage ranges from a traditional 500 GB hard drive to a lightning-fast 500GB Flash drive.

Most students will be fine with any of the MacBook Pro models —all offer the power, portability and battery life to handle pretty much anything you care to throw at them.

But for applications where more processing power or more pixels would be better (editing high resolution photos or HD animation, for example), then a MacBook Pro with a Retina Display is called for. The 13.3-inch model —another standout among  BestBuy customer picks— has over 4 million pixels while the 15.4-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display boasts over 5 million pixels.

Mac Mini

Already have a bunch of PC peripherals like a keyboard, mouse and monitor you’d like to put to use? The Mac Mini is a great option for parents who want to recycle some existing gear while transitioning their student to OSX. It’s also a real space saver, measuring just 19.7 cm square and 3.6 cm tall.

The Mac Mini is offered with a range of Intel Core CPUs, offers a full complement of ports, dual RAM slots (don’t worry, the models at Best Buy all come with at least 4GB of RAM pre-installed) and various storage options.

If you want a Mac for back-to-school, the Mac Mini is the most affordable option.

Mac Pro

When would any student need a Mac Pro, the most powerful Mac ever released and one of the most high performance computer workstations on the market?

It certainly wouldn’t be for anything offered in elementary school.

But the cylindrical black aluminum Mac Pro would be a welcome addition to the desktop for students in a program that pushes the limits of most PCs. Computer animation classes where rendering is a time-consuming affair or film studies where editing 4K video requires huge amounts of horsepower and the ability to drive multiple Ultra HD monitors, for example.

Even the entry level Mac Pro offered at Best Buy features a quad-core Intel Xeon CPU, 12GB of RAM, Dual AMD FirePro 300 graphics cards, 256 GB of Flash storage and six Thunderbolt ports. Definitely overkill for most students, but the Mac Pro also makes for a killer gaming PC…

Whichever Mac you choose for your student, you can count on the power of the latest Intel CPUs, Apple’s OSX operating system (with the option to run Windows in emulation or direct-boot from Bootcamp), energy efficiency and solid design where aluminum figures prominently.

Macs, MacBooks and iPads also include free downloads of Apple’s productivity apps (Pages, Numbers and Keynote), very useful parental controls (for parents of younger kids) and have the ability to access great educational feature like iBooks e-textbooks, making them a popular choice for students.

I hope this helps you understand a litlle more about Apple technology. I look forward to your comments.

Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. I have been writing about technology for several decades for a wide range of outlets including Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, MSN, About.com, Kiplinger, and GeekDad. I’m in my 10th year as a senior contributor for Forbes with a focus on reviewing music-related tech, Apple gear, battery power stations and other consumer electronics. My day job is with the Malware Research Center at AI-native cybersecurity pioneer CrowdStrike.