For students, a laptop is as essential as textbooks and a school ID—and not just for taking notes and doing homework. It should also be able to handle your big extracurricular activities: keeping up with your social networks, streaming movies, listening to music, posting photos, gaming, video chatting with the ‘rents back home.
Laptops are even more essential for students this year, as many colleges and universities implement a mix of in-person and remote learning to meet social distancing requirements made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic. If you’re learning from home a few days a week and heading to campus the rest of the time, a laptop you can use wherever you are is essential.
And especially in these trying times, the best laptops for college students need to respect your budget while lasting for the long haul, preferably through four years of undergrad and maybe a year of grad work. Lucky for you, we have a bunch of recommended models that fit that description perfectly—and since most of them are below $1,000, they won’t drain your savings account.
Here are the basics you should keep in mind while looking for a laptop for college.
The first, and most important, thing to do is check with your school for specific system requirements. They may have hard-and-fast hardware recommendations. (Or not.)
Some colleges and universities want their students equipped with Windows-based laptops, to cut down on software incompatibility issues or to keep technical support concentrated on one platform. Others don’t care which operating system you use, whether it’s Windows, macOS, or even Linux if you’re a hard-core type. Some institutions have on-site computer repair centers that service only laptops purchased from the university or an affiliated computer store on campus; using one of these facilities, the turn-around time will be much quicker than if you were to send it overnight to the original manufacturer.
Also note that most schools offer price breaks for particular vendors and include extensive software bundles, which can shave off a good amount from your laptop purchase. So you might want to look into the campus store as a first shopping destination, before you hit your local superstore or favorite online seller.
Not every student will agree, but depending on how far you’ll haul it every day, a big-screen notebook may not be such a good idea.
It’s nice to have a mini home theater in your dorm room or play the latest games in big-screen 1080p glory, but a 6-pound-plus laptop with a 15-inch or 17-inch screen will be a chore to haul across campus while you’re running from class to class. You’re better off with something that’s light: If screen size matters less to you than convenience, a super-thin ultraportable might be the way to go.
For most people, a maximum 13- or 14-inch widescreen panel is ideal, as it will make room for other items in your backpack and minimize the weight burden. Depending on your tolerance level, a smaller display works as long as you understand that full web pages and productivity applications will involve more scrolling, and fonts will appear smaller than they do on larger screens, assuming the same resolution and zoom level.
keyboard you can keep at home or in the dorm for when you need to do a lot of typing. A desktop monitor you attach via HDMI could be a nice complement, too.
Laptops offer a wide selection of processors across both budgets and usage cases—you can choose one that maximizes performance, or one that favors battery life. Or you can select one that plays to both strengths: Intel’s latest 10th Generation Core CPUs (code-named “Comet Lake” and “Ice Lake,” depending on the specific chip model) confer the benefits of both power and battery efficiency.
gaming laptop. Most general-purpose machines, especially at under-$800 prices, won’t have the kind of discrete graphics chip (GPU) necessary to make the hottest AAA game titles look good and play smoothly. But if you hunt around a little, you can find gaming laptops these days starting at around $700 with a decent Nvidia GeForce GTX or (less commonly) AMD Radeon RX GPU for playing games at 1080p and moderate or better settings. (See our guide to the best cheap gaming laptops for lots more about budget GPUs, and about how to buy just enough gaming machine for your needs.) A powerful GPU can also help in certain high-end and scientific applications that can benefit from GPU acceleration, but, like a high-powered processor, they also feast on the battery.
Storage Solutions: SSDs Are Tops
With the increasing prevalence of cloud storage and web applications, having plentiful local storage space is somewhat less vital now than it used to be, but you should still make sure that your laptop meets your needs. If you plan to install a lot of programs or want to hang on to lots of large media files, you’ll need 500GB of space or more. If you don’t foresee needing all that local storage, or are content with leaving a lot of your work online, you can get by with a laptop with less space.
external hard drive into one of your laptop’s USB ports, you can add more space whenever you need it. Although you probably won’t have to do this unless you’re a video junkie or an aspiring filmmaker, it’s a good option to have.
Gamers may want to take an altogether different view. With many AAA game installations topping 40GB or 50GB each, a small SSD can get eaten up fast. You’ll want to think about that before you buy a machine, say, with a 256GB SSD alone, or at least be prepared to swap games on and off the drive as you complete them.
A sizable battery can be your biggest ally on a day filled with classes and extracurricular activities. A few school-oriented laptops come with multiple battery options. Most, though, have only one—and it’s not removable.
In this case, figure out where battery life ranks in the grand scheme of things. If removable batteries are an option (most of the time, they are not, alas), it might be a good idea to get a second one, or a larger “extended” one if available, at the time of purchase. The more “cells” the battery contains within a given model line, the better the battery life, all else being equal.
What About Chromebooks?
In the past several years, we have seen a strong push by Chromebook manufacturers into the education market. Chromebooks themselves have gone from being glorified netbooks running the Chrome OS to laptops that are still web-centric but have a relatively full feature set. If, like many schools, the one you’re attending puts its coursework in the cloud, a Chromebook can offer you much of the functionality of a regular laptop, and it may deliver longer battery life.
It will also likely cost you a lot less than other types of notebooks. Prices for basic Chromebook models typically run between $200 and $400 (although higher-end models can go for as much as $1,000). Just be sure you have ready access to constant, stable Wi-Fi, as there is scant local storage on these systems, and you have to plan ahead to use them effectively offline.
In recent years, a new category of laptop has emerged. Hybrids, also known as 2-in-1s, are capable of functioning as traditional clamshell-style laptops when you need them to, but can transform into tablets when that’s a more convenient form for what you’re doing. Some (generally called convertibles) sport a folding design that flips the keyboard out of the way, usually by rotating all the way around its hinge. Others (“detachables”) allow you to dock a tablet/screen portion of the PC with an accessory keyboard for laptop-like functionality.
A budget 2-in-1 might be just what you need to fill a number of roles. One thing to be mindful of: If you are considering a detachable 2-in-1 design, make sure the keyboard base is included in the price. In some cases, it is; in others, it is an added-cost accessory that will bump up the price, sometimes by more than you’d expect. (See how we test laptops.)
You probably won’t run across Windows 10 S Mode in your shopping travels, but it’s good to know what it is, since it’s most often encountered in education environs.
Microsoft’s student-centric version of its operating system is a locked-down version of Windows 10, aimed at preventing malware from being inadvertently downloaded. It’s compatible with any app in the Windows Store, but it doesn’t allow third-party Windows programs unless you convert your laptop to full Windows 10 Home or Pro. You can easily switch to the full version of Windows 10 using the Microsoft Store app, but a fee may apply, depending on your device, and you won’t be able to go back to Windows 10 S once you convert. Also, this version of the OS supports only the Edge browser.
Almost every laptop you might buy today is backed by at least a one-year warranty on parts and labor. Extended warranties are also available, but whether they’re worth it depends on who you are as a user.
For starters, know that the standard warranty doesn’t cover accidents that stem from a spilled drink or a drop on concrete. Most manufacturers sell accident coverage as a separate plan, on top of extended warranties that supplement a standard one, so you might end up spending close to $300 for three years of coverage. Apple offers a maximum extended warranty of three years ($250), while some makers of Windows laptops will offer up to four years.
So, Which Laptop to Buy for College?
True, there are ever more choices on the market today, and slogging through them can be daunting. No worries, though: We did the work for you. Scroll or swipe down to check out the hottest laptops to grace the dorm room, college classroom, and campus quad for this school year.
For more general factors to look for when shopping, check out our overall top laptop picks, as well as our favorite budget notebooks. And for more shopping advice for school, visit our Back-to-School Tech Guide.
The Best For Seekers of a Large Screen, Colorful Design
Asus VivoBook S15 (S533)
The Best For Good Value in a Slick, Premium Laptop
Dell Inspiron 14 7000 (7490)
The Best For Mainstream Use, Occasional Multimedia Editing
Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5 14
The Best For Studies in Creative and Graphical Fields
Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2020)
The Best For Schlepping Around Campus
HP Envy x360 13 (2020)
The Best For Dollar-Strapped Students on the Go
Lenovo Chromebook Duet
The Best For Pen-Centric Note Takers, Presenters
Microsoft Surface Pro 7
The Best For Gamers on a Budget
MSI Bravo 15
The Best For Extreme Weight Savings on a Budget
Acer Swift 5 (14-Inch)
The Best For Basic Productivity for macOS Fans
Apple MacBook Air (2020)
Pros: Great value for feature set
Snappy performance for the price
Stylish, slim design with multiple color options
Long battery life
Strong port selection and useful extras (fingerprint reader, microSD slot)
Cons: One component configuration only
Bottom Line: The Asus VivoBook S15 is not only an excellent value for the price, but an excellent laptop all around. We found lots to love about this sleek, affordable notebook for everyday users.
Pros: Packs 14-inch screen in 13-inch chassis.
Thin and light magnesium alloy enclosure.
Intel “Comet Lake” CPU is powerful and efficient.
Nearly around-the-clock battery life.
Cons: Screen could be brighter.
Touchpad a bit noisy when clicked.
Bottom Line: The Dell Inspiron 14 7000’s enviable blend of performance, screen size, and portability unseats the company’s near-legendary XPS 13 as our favorite ultraportable.
Pros: Robust computing performance
Soft-touch, durable chassis
Screen supports touch input
Webcam privacy shutter
Two USB Type-A ports
Cons: Relatively heavy for a 14-inch ultraportable
Dim 250-nit display
Bottom Line: Thanks to a brand-new AMD Ryzen processor, Lenovo’s IdeaPad Flex 5 14 offers an extraordinary blend of performance and value for money, making it one of the best popularly priced 2-in-1 convertibles we’ve tested.
Pros: Thin, light, and affordable.
Ideal for classrooms and small offices.
Good selection of ports.
Decent performance and battery life.
Cons: No SD card reader.
Screen lid and power jack feel weak.
Bottom Line: The latest Acer Swift 5 is an impressive 14-inch ultraportable that gives you ample power for a low $999.99. It’s a solid option if you don’t need workstation- or gaming-class performance or MIL-STD rugged construction.
Pros: Improved keyboard action and feel
Sleek, lightweight design
Multiple color options
Long battery life
Reasonably priced, for a Mac
Cons: As ever, no touch screen
Limited port selection
Lackluster raw computing performance
No support for Wi-Fi 6
Bottom Line: If you’re a macOS fan who primarily uses a laptop to write and browse the web, the 2020 Apple MacBook Air’s redesigned keyboard and lower price make it easy to recommend.
Pros: Improved keyboard comfort
Excellent Retina display
Four Thunderbolt 3 ports
Long battery life
Good graphics and computing performance
Cons: Expensive as configured
Limited port variety
No support for Wi-Fi 6
Bottom Line: A tweaked keyboard and the option for a 10th Generation Intel “Ice Lake” CPU bring typing comfort and better performance to Apple’s already-excellent 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Pros: Thin, light, and spiffy-looking
Nifty automatic camera shutter
Aggressive pricing, given components and build quality
Cons: Cramped touchpad
Bottom Line: This Ryzen-powered version of HP’s classy Envy x360 13 offers fast performance, a slick chassis, nifty features, and a palatable price. It’s an excellent midrange 2-in-1 convertible laptop.
Pros: Low price includes keyboard
Handy tablet gestures and Android phone integration
Good battery life
Cons: Tepid performance
Only one USB port and no headphone jack
No memory card slot
Bottom Line: Budget-strapped consumers and students with light computing needs will be captivated by Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet, a detachable 2-in-1 that tops better-known 2-in-1 tablets on value.
Pros: Snappy new Intel “Ice Lake” processor.
Robust battery life.
Finally includes USB-C.
Cons: Keyboard still sold separately.
Just two ports, and no Thunderbolt 3 support.
Bottom Line: The Surface Pro 7 is another solid iteration of Microsoft’s flagship Windows-tablet 2-in-1, elevated this time by worthy upgrades in the form of a USB-C port and peppy Ice Lake CPUs.
Pros: Solid 1080p gaming performance
High-refresh (120Hz) display with support for AMD FreeSync
Potent Ryzen 4000 series processor
16GB of RAM in under-$1000 test configuration
Good battery life and speakers
Wi-Fi 6 support
Cons: Single-color keyboard, versus RGB keyboard of the Alpha 15
CPU runs hot under load
Can’t quite match gaming frame rates of GeForce GTX 1660 Ti notebooks
Bottom Line: MSI’s all-AMD Bravo 15 is a value-focused gaming notebook that, thanks to a Ryzen 4000 series processor, delivers admirable 1080p frame rates and features for the money.
Matthew Murray got his humble start leading a technology-sensitive life in elementary school, where he struggled to satisfy his ravenous hunger for computers, computer games, and writing book reports in Integer BASIC. He earned his B.A. in Dramatic Writing at Western Washington University, where he also minored in Web design and German. He has been building computers for himself and others for more than 20 years, and he spent several years working in IT and helpdesk capacities before escaping into the far more exciting world of journalism. Currently the managing editor of Hardware for PCMag, Matthew has fulfilled a number of other positions at Ziff Davis, including lead analyst of … See Full Bio