While there’s been no shortage of media coverage for Apple’s new OS X Lion release, the company also quietly refreshed a few of their lower end computers as well.

It’s no secret that Apple enjoys widespread popularity on most college campuses, and the fact that they updated two entry level machines in the MacBook Air and Mac Mini, and killed off the popular white plastic MacBook, makes this product refresh more interesting than most. 

The Mac Mini, for the unitiated, is Apple’s cheapest computer offering, starting at $599. As a desktop computer, it’s certainly not a first choice for most students, but I have seen them in computer labs and in the occasional dorm room, so they aren’t unheard of on campus. The new models get the upgrades you’d expect, notably a Thunderbolt port, and Sandy Bridge i5 and i7 processors, but lose the CD/DVD drive. You can still pick up an external drive from Apple for $79 if you need it, and you probably should. I probably only use my drive two or three times per year, but when I do, it’s because I really need it. The added speed and cheap price should make this a very appealing option for any college students still interested in a desktop computer. 

More important than the Mac Mini upgrade, however, are Apple’s notebook offerings. The legacy white plastic MacBook of yore is officially dead, and for this, we should shed a tear. This has been the iconic computer of my generation of college students, and in an instant, it has disappeared from the Earth, with nary an acknowledgement by Apple. As far as Apple products go, it was a lot of computer for your money, especially with a student discount, and it came with everything the average student could want in a laptop. It may not have been the prettiest computer Apple’s designed, but it was a worthy king of campus.

Students now have two options for an entry-level Mac laptop; the MacBook Pro 13″, and the MacBook Air 11″. For a $200 premium over the old MacBook, you can pick up a baseline 13″ MacBook Pro, which isn’t a bad deal. It’s basically the old MacBook with extra RAM, backlit keyboard, and aluminum chassis, so the $200 isn’t too tough a pill to swallow.

For students looking to stay under $1000 though, the only option is now the 11″ MacBook Air. The entire Air line received Thunderbolt ports and updated processors today, but they’re still niche devices. The Air is undeniably sexy, and it would be an absolute joy to carry between classes, but I don’t think it will please as many people as the dependable old MacBook. For $999 (less with a student discount) you only get 64GB of hard drive space, albeit in a speedy solid state drive, meaning your music and photo collections will have to be pawned off to external drives. The next cheapest option is actually the same price as the low-end MacBook Pro mentioned above, but still only offers 128GB of hard drive space in addition to an extra 2GB of RAM.  

The identically-priced Pro sports a larger hard drive, faster processor, CD/DVD Superdrive, larger screen, Firewire port, and SD card reader. That’s not to say that the Air is a bad computer, or that every student should care about these missing features, but I have to imagine most students will miss at least one of them. Whether it’s Firewire for film class, the faster processor and SD card slot for editing photos, or the Superdrive for watching DVD’s, everyone who chooses an Air over the Pro will be sacrificing a feature they use semi-regularly in exchange for portability. The MacBook Pro has taken the mantle as my student laptop of choice, but it sucks that students have to pay a 20% premium to get the speed and storage space of the old MacBook. I’m sure students will ultimately be happy with either entry-level machine, but it’s tough to not feel a sense of loss the reasonably-priced, feature-rich MacBook. 

Are you an incoming freshman looking to buy a Mac? If the white MacBook was still available, would you choose it over the MacBook Air of MacBook Pro? Do you think you could get through school with just a MacBook Air?