Getting a higher education is expensive, and there are bound to be even more unexpected expenses that creep up on you. If you want your kids to get the most out of their college experience, you’ll want to make the most of the money you have. You can consider this guide your enrollment cheat sheet, at least as far as finding a college computer is concerned.
Our diligent researchers have scoured the web and whittled down the results for the best laptops for college. We’ll run you through the highlights of each, but if you’d like a little more insight, we’ll also discuss the specs that are important for students, and what you can expect to find on the market in 2021.
Our Top 10 Laptops for College:
- Dell XPS 15
- Apple MacBook Pro 13″
- Acer Aspire 5 Slim Laptop
- Lenovo Yoga C930 2-in-1 13.9″ Laptop
- HP Envy x360 2-in-1 15.6″ Laptop
- ASUS ROG Zephyrus S 15.6” Laptop
- Acer Chromebook R 11 Convertible Laptop
- Microsoft Surface Pro 7
- Huawei MateBook X Pro 13.9″ Laptop
- Google Pixelbook Go Chromebook
1. Dell XPS 15
A Serious Machine for Serious Students
The Dell XPS 15 shows up a lot on our best-of lists for laptops, and it will probably continue to maintain a prominent position on our lists for some time to come. It's a bit on the expensive end, but it's a workhorse that's designed to accommodate the productivity heavy workloads of even the most serious students. This laptop for students sits at the cutting edge of processing technology thanks to the inclusion of a 10th gen Intel Core processor, but it still manages to offer an impressive battery life.
And despite the power at work in the Dell XPS 13, this is a highly portable model and one of the best student laptop models. The chassis here is thin and lightweight, and the thin bezels help keep the profile even smaller. And while it may only sport a 13-inch screen, the HDR support and Full HD resolution on the Dell XPS 15 ensure the best image quality.
2. Apple MacBook Pro 13″
Apple Continues to Impress
The MacBook Pro from Apple is known to be one of the most expensive laptops on the market, but it's also regarded as one of the best. The biggest appeal to students will be how intuitive the interface is and the fact that it will work in close conjunction with their existing iPhone or other Apple devices, and parents will love the fact that Apple generally offers a greater level of security and encryption than you'd find in a typical Windows 10 laptop.
The newest versions of this laptop offer some very cool ease of use features that make them one of the best laptops for students. Particular standouts are the Touch ID and Touch Bar that are designed to increase productivity, but when it's time for a student to take a break, they'll really love streaming movies on the bright and vibrant Retina display of this laptop.
3. Acer Aspire 5 Slim Laptop
Making the Most of a Tight Budget
The Acer Aspire 5 is a great deal right out of the box, and its value of price to specs makes it easily one of the best laptops for students. This may be a more budget-oriented laptop for college use, but it offers a lot of bang for your buck, and smart decisions have been made to make sure that a majority of the most important limitations can be overcome.
Both the hard drive and the memory can be upgraded or replaced easily, and that allows Acer to fit in better processors. They've made another smart budget-oriented choice by trading the traditional Intel chip architecture in favor of an AMD solution. The 5-hour battery life isn't the best around, but the small and lightweight frame makes it one of the best laptops for travel.
4. Lenovo Yoga C930 2-in-1 13.9″ Laptop
The Prodigal Two-in-One
2-in-1s are some of the best laptops for students, and there are few 2-in-1 laptops as well known as the Lenovo Yoga. The latest version combines the best aspects of both a tablet and a laptop while minimizing the limitations of each. In the former instance, it makes use of a relatively powerful 8th generation i7 processor. In the latter instance, the responsive touchscreen and bright display make operating it with your stylus a breeze.
But the coolest aspect of this laptop may be the sound system. The hinge on which the laptop rotates is actually a miniature sound bar, and that allows for better sonic performance than you'll find with just about any other laptop on the market. And since it runs the latest Dolby Atmos technology, you can count on it to provide great audio when listening to music, gaming, or streaming content.
5. HP Envy x360 2-in-1 15.6″ Laptop
Solid Performance with a Little Extra for Graphics
The HP Envy x360 is another two-in-one model, but it does something that few other convertible laptops can promise. It makes use of an accelerated processing unit instead of a discrete GPU and CPU, and that means a boost over the traditional integrated GPU you could expect to find in more traditional budget laptops for students. All told, this laptop offers a masterclass in how to make the most out of the resources you have.
In terms of productivity, the HP Envy hits all the marks. Multitasking is a breeze for more intensive study sessions, and the extended battery life means that you don't have to worry about your battery running out just because you can't find a free electrical outlet at the library. And the inclusion of a webcam kill switch also means less need to worry about your privacy being compromised.
6. ASUS ROG Zephyrus S 15.6” Laptop
ROG is short for "Republic of Gamers", so you can probably guess what sort of specs this laptop prioritizes. But the same specs that make a great laptop for gaming are also specs that can improve performance for just about everything. We won't avoid the elephant in the room. This is an expensive laptop for college use, but the juiced-up processors should be suitable for more resource-demanding programs like engineering or graphic design.
And no matter how far you push that hardware, you can depend on it to provide you with reliable performance throughout its life. The fans are powerful, the cooling system engineering is smart, and easy keyboard shortcuts give users access to three different cooling levels. Those that like to fully tweak their machine will find this to be one of the best laptops for college. And there are plenty of outlets, so it's readily compatible with practically any device.
7. Acer Chromebook R 11 Convertible Laptop
Looking for the best laptops for student use but working on a somewhat more limited budget? The Acer Chromebook R11 comes in at a fraction of the price of many of the laptops in this list, but the nimble Chrome operating system this laptop uses offers incredibly fast performance when performing fundamental college tasks like searching the web and working in a word processor, and the closed, browser-based nature of the platform means security risks aren't really a thing.
As far as Chromebook specs go, this laptop is one of the better contenders we've seen - at least at this price range. And in addition to being a Chromebook, this laptop is also a two-in-one. Both the screen and the touchpad can be used to navigate your screen, and it can swap seamlessly from notebook to tablet - so you can seamlessly move from browsing to taking notes.
8. Microsoft Surface Pro 7
The Microsoft Surface series is one of the coolest laptop lines to come around in the past few years, and the Surface Pro 7 builds upon an already solid formula to provide some of the best performance for students. Transitioning from laptop to tablet mode is incredibly fun, and the ultra-thin design and compact panel find the perfect line between the fundamentals of a tablet and a conventional laptop.
The battery can last nearly half a day, but this laptop still makes use of an Intel Core processor. In other words, this is a lot more than just a souped-up tablet. The inclusion of both USB-A and USB-C ports can be used for everything from hooking up peripherals to charging your other devices. This entire laptop weighs in at less than two pounds.
9. Huawei MateBook X Pro 13.9″ Laptop
Huawei enters the mid-range laptop market with the MateBook X Pro, and it's one of the best laptops for students in this price range. There are no gimmicks or tricks here: just solid hardware specs somehow packed into a razor-thin frame. It might be a bit of an investment compared to some of the other laptops for college on this list, but this laptop can comfortably last students their entire education without becoming too outdated.
And when it's time to take a break from studying, this is a laptop that can deliver. The 3K display is better than practically all of the best student laptops, and the speakers come backed by Dolby Atmos technology for a fully encompassing aural experience. This laptop is also incredibly fast to boot up, and a single one-touch design helps you get up and running from rest mode as easily as possible.
10. Google Pixelbook Go Chromebook
The Chromebook market has really exploded in the past few years, but no one understands the benefits of the Chrome OS quite like Google. If you want to get your student a Chromebook, the Pixelbook Go is your best choice. The biggest sign that Google is doing something different here is the fact that this laptop comes with a true Core processor, so it will be able to handle all of a student's needs now and will be pretty well future-proofed too.
Combine that with the substantial amount of RAM, meaning having multiple tabs open during a late-night study session isn't going to have a dramatic impact on performance. The GPU has been similarly beefed up. While you won't be using it to play the latest games, this is a surprisingly solid laptop for students that want to do some light gaming between classes.
Our Guide to Buying a Laptop for College
When looking for the best laptops, students have their own set of needs that make the search for the best student laptop a bit different than the search for an office or gaming laptop. While our guide to the best laptop models in 2021 can provide you with some in-depth information, this guide will instead focus on the sort of things a student should look for when seeking out the best college laptops.
Traditional or Convertible Laptops
Convertible laptops are sometimes discounted as little more than toys or gimmicks that fail at being both a tablet and a laptop – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Models like Microsoft’s Surface Pro are demonstrating that convertible models can stand shoulder to shoulder with their more traditional brethren.
Convertible designs are an especially good choice for college students because of the dramatically improved versatility they offer. With double the input options and a generally more lightweight design, a convertible can offer something that few computers can: a truly reliable and personal study companion. But traditional models have their advantages, too. For the most part, there’s still something of a gap between these two designs in terms of sheer performance.
We’d never recommend a Chromebook for gaming, and we’d rarely recommend it for work, but the Chrome OS is actually one of the best choices for students. The platform is cloud-based rather than platform-based, and that allows for quick startup and loading, nimble performance, and a higher level of security. And while Chromebooks were once treated as just light and inexpensive alternatives to traditional models, manufacturers are now starting to put together more complex specs that run on Chrome OS.
Chromebooks will be fine for the average student, but certain programs like engineering, programming, and architectural work will require a more serious solution. Windows 10 continues to be the primary platform of choice. It’s familiar to most users, and it provides a lot more flexibility than you’d find with Chrome OS. And for students in computer science programs, replacing Windows 10 with Linux (or setting up a dual boot system) is a pretty easy process.
If you want Mac OS, you’re going to have to get your hands on an Apple MacBook like the Apple MacBook Pro or the Apple MacBook Air. Apple is very proprietary about its tech, and it’s a fairly expensive ecosystem to buy into. But an Apple MacBook Air or something similar could be a wise investment for students working towards a creative arts degree.
When shopping for the best student laptops, you’ll have to make a decision between a laptop with a discrete graphics card or one with an integrated graphics card. The latter tend to be less expensive because they combine the CPU and GPU together into a single unit. While that means much lower production costs, it also means that the CPU is sharing both the processing demands and the memory of the GPU. By contrast, a discrete graphics card is produced by another manufacturer (most often NVIDIA GeForce) and has its own RAM.
But how much should the advantages of a discrete graphics card matter to college students? Hypothetically, not much at all. These types of graphics cards are most commonly a benefit for gamers because they can offer significantly better gaming performance, but a discrete card is also the best choice for college students involved in photo or video editing. And the fact that they’re great for gaming and can provide smoother streaming is not to be overlooked either.
Memory and Storage
We’ll tell college students what we tell just about anyone when they express concern about underwhelming memory or storage: Deal with it later. While these are both critical components of the best student laptop, they’re also cheap components and much easier to replace than core hardware like the CPU or motherboard. Get enough RAM and a large enough hard drive to meet your immediate needs, but if it’s not quite to your specifications, you can always upgrade it later. Just make sure that you pick a laptop with relatively easy access to those parts.
SSDs are the preferred choice for hard drives because of their durability and more lightweight design. More budget-based models – Chromebooks almost exclusively – will use flash memory in place of an SSD. That doesn’t immediately have to be a deal-breaker, though, as they usually offer cloud storage to compensate.
Almost all laptop models are going to come with an Intel Core i5 processor. The next step down – the Intel Core i3 – is suitable for watching movies and browsing the web but not much else. The Intel Core i7 is usually reserved for serious gamers. The Core i5 is the perfect middle ground when looking for the best student laptop, at least for the majority of students.
How big is your laptop? How heavy is it? Will it hold together? If you want a laptop to last all four years of your degree, having strong build quality is going to be important. Pay attention to the materials the case is made from, but also pay special attention to the hinges and the keyboard, as they can be a frustrating hassle if they fail.
If you want to use your laptop on the go, battery performance is going to be a top consideration. Fortunately, the battery life of student laptop models doesn’t vary all that greatly. You can expect a battery life of about 8 hours on average, but some of the best models offer a battery life of half a day or even more.
A Full HD display is the way to go for almost any student. 720p is practically archaic, and while 4K is the new standard for TV, it’s much more expensive to get a laptop that supports 4K and will offer diminishing returns on a traditional 15.6-inch or smaller display.
With the many majors that college students could be pursuing, it’s a Sisyphean task to identify the one best student laptop. Instead, we’ve tried to provide you with as wide of a cross-section as possible. Our guide should help you set your expectations and understand what you should be looking for. And it’s important to remember that the best student laptop is the best laptop for you as a student in particular. Whether you should get an Apple MacBook Air or a Microsoft Surface Pro will largely come down to your individual needs, so we recommend you test out models in person.If you liked our article on laptops for college, please share and comment below what your favorite product is.