Best Laptops for College Students 2018-2019-2020 Reviews & Buying Guide
Best Laptops for College Students 2018-2019--A laptop, often called a notebook or “notebook computer”, is a small, portable personal computer. When you’re shopping for a laptop computer, it’s important to remember that it’s more than just the size that counts. These compact, portable companions can pack a serious punch to match all but the most powerful desktop computers, if you have the budget for it. And you know what to look for. Whether you’re looking to play games, stream movies or stay connected while traveling, the latest laptops balance portability with the performance and power you need. Start your search for the perfect laptop with our overview of the most important features to consider.
Best Laptops for College Students 2018-2019 page .You need not worry about is finding your way to class on the first day of the semester.If you’re a student, a laptop is as essential as your textbooks and school ID. And it’s not just for school work. But You must know How to Use a Laptop Effectively As a Student .It should also be able to handle extracurricular activities, such as social networking, watching movies, listening to music, posting photos, gaming, video chatting with the ‘rents back home, and so on. And of course, the best laptops for college students need to last for the long haul, preferably through four years of undergrad and maybe a year of grad work
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- Best Laptops for College Students 2018-2019
- 1. Acer Chromebook 15
- 2. Apple MacBook Air 13-inch
- 3. Dell XPS 15
- 4. HP Spectre x360
- 5. MacBook Pro 13-inch
- 6. Dell XPS 13
- 7. Asus ZenBook UX303
- Best Overall: Acer Aspire E 15 E5-575G-57D4
- Best Budget: Asus F556UA-AB32
- Best for Portability: Apple MacBook Air 13.3-Inch Laptop
- Runner-Up, Best Budget: HP Stream 14-inch
- If you’re a film or photo student: Dell XPS 15 or 15-inch MacBook Pro
Best Laptops for College Students 2018-2019
These are the best school or college laptops you can buy, in order of preference.
1. Acer Chromebook 15
This Chrome OS laptop is an absolute bargain
CPU: Intel Celeron 3205U 1.5GHz (dual-core) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics | RAM: 4GB | Screen: 15.6-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels | Storage: 32GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 720p | Weight: 4.85 pounds | Dimensions: 15.08 x 9.65 x 0.95-inches
The Chromebook 15 is ridiculously cheap but very capable for the price. The hardware is in line with that price, with lower specs across the board, but the machine is running Chrome OS, so doesn’t seem to mind. And that screen is an absolute delight. Again, its speakers are poor, with flat treble and weak bass – but at this price, you can afford an iPod as well.
2. Apple MacBook Air 13-inch
The Ultrabook inspiration plods on
CPU: Intel Core i5 1.3GHz (dual-core, up to 2.6GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5000 | RAM: 4GB | Screen: 13.3-inch, 1440 x 900 pixels | Storage: 128GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: FaceTime HD | Weight: 2.96 pounds | Dimensions: 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.68-inches (W x D x H)
The Air may be in severe need of a redesign, like much of Apple’s range, but it’s still the machine that birthed the Ultrabook – slim-line with good core performance from a solid CPU and nippy storage. It’s a pity so much of this machine is second-rate these days – particularly the oddly low-spec screen – but we wouldn’t look anywhere else for reliability and customer support.
Read the full review: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch
3. Dell XPS 15
A portable 15-inch powerhouse
CPU: 2.6GHz Intel Core i7 6700HQ (quad-core, 6MB cache, up to 3.5GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M (with 2GB GDDR5) | RAM: 16GB Dual Channel DDR4 (2,133MHz; 8GB x 2) | Screen: 15.6-inch, 4K Ultra HD (3,840 x 2,160) InfinityEdge touch | Storage: 512GB PCIe SSD
Like its smaller sibling, the awesome XPS 13, Dell’s XPS 15 sports an almost bezel-less InfinityEdge display but is better for long hours of work because of the larger display. It brings the dual benefit of making whatever you’re doing on its gorgeous 15-inch ‘4K’ screen come to life while also lending it the dimensions of a 14-inch laptop. It’s bag-friendly to boot and comes packing the goods, including an Nvidia GTX 960M mobile graphics card that’s beefy enough to handle just about any game so long as you stick to 1080p. The XPS 15’s battery life is its main weakness, so don’t expect its runtimes to stretch into the double figures without taking a booster pack along for the ride.
Read the full review: Dell XPS 15
4. HP Spectre x360
Another Spectre that’s oddly brilliant
CPU: Intel Core i5 2.2 GHz | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5500 | RAM: 4GB | Screen: 13.3 inches 1920×1080 | Storage: 128GB SSD | Connectivity: 3x USB3 | Camera: HD | Weight: 1.48kg | Dimensions: 12.79 x 8.6 x 0.63 inches
There’s something oddly brilliant about HP’s Spectre range. Clearly intended to compete with Apple in terms of build quality, but priced just a tiny bit lower to gain some traction with potential buyers. The X360 is another convertible that allows you to fold the screen backwards to create a tablet-style device. This is ideal for Windows 10, although you’ll probably not use it much as a tablet because it’s still a laptop-weight device.
Read the full review: HP Spectre x360
5. MacBook Pro 13-inch
A class act
CPU: From Intel Core i5 2.0GHz | Graphics: Intel Iris Graphics 540 | RAM: From 8GB | Screen: 13.3- inch | Storage: From 128GB | Connectivity: USB-C | Weight: 1.37kg | Dimensions: 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.59-inches
The MacBook Pro is a larger, heavier machine than the MacBook Air we looked at above but it’s also the powerhouse of the range. Starting at £1,449 it’s not cheap, however.
You’ll get 10 hours out of the battery, in the ideal conditions, and the real keyboard makes for a pretty delightful user experience. Oh, and the trackpad – there’s simply nothing like it on any PC we’ve ever used, it’s a class act.
If you need Windows 10, that’s no problem either, just install with Apple’s Boot Camp.
6. Dell XPS 13
The most compact Windows laptop
CPU: 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 13.3-inch QHD+ (3,200 x 1,800) | Storage: 256GB SSD
If you’re looking for a Windows laptop, it’s hard to go wrong with the Dell XPS 13. While it’s more expensive than the Asus UX303 — particularly if you go for the QHD+ version — the XPS 13’s InfinityEdge display makes it worth the money. It’s surrounded by a bezel that’s just millimetres thick, lending the 13.3-inch laptop a body that’s closer to 11-inch laptops in size. It gives the XPS 13 excellent portability, and unlike the 12-inch MacBook Dell has done it without sacrificing ports or power. The XPS 13 packs Intel’s latest Skylake processors under the hood, and features both Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.0 ports.
Read the full review: Dell XPS 13
7. Asus ZenBook UX303
A slim and light metalhead
CPU: 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520 | RAM: 12GB (8GB DDR3L 1600MHz SDRAM, on-board memory 4GB | Screen: 13.3-inch IPS FHD (1,920 x 1,080) | Storage: 256GB SSD
Asus has upped the ante with the UX303, which takes everything we loved about the UX305 while adding a premium metal body and Intel’s full-fat Core i-series processors. If it’s power that you seek, the UX303 can be fitted with Intel’s Core i7-6500U, backed up by 8GB of RAM and a capacious 500GB hybrid solid state drive for a useful combination of capacity and speed. There’s the option of a touchscreen or non-touch 1080p display, and Asus reckons you’ll squeeze up to around seven hours of battery life out of the machine. It also wakes from sleep in just two seconds, putting an end to lengthy booting sessions.
After completing the painstaking process of choosing the right college, students are routinely confronted with yet another life-changing decision: “Which laptop do I buy?”
Unlike microwaves and twin-sized sheet sets, a computer is a deeply personal purchase—one that, for better or worse, you’re likely to be stuck with for the next four years. (‘Sup, super seniors.) So before making a final call, be sure to do your homework.
Take a moment to consult the school website for guidelines. University IT departments often provide a list of computer requirements (along with links to exclusive student discounts from manufacturers such as Dell, HP, and Lenovo). Business and engineering students, for example, may have to use Windows-based software that doesn’t work on an Apple computer unless they partition the hard drive. Those in creative fields such as film and design may find themselves in need of a Mac operating system.
Be careful, though. School requirement lists are not always up-to-date. Case in point: More than a few strongly recommend laptops with optical drives for CD/DVD use, even though that technology has largely vanished from laptops in recent years.
Below are a few models for your consideration from companies including Acer, Apple, Dell, HP, and Lenovo. All feature solid state drives, which tend to be more expensive. But they’re also speedier and more reliable than a traditional spinning hard drive.
Each laptop has at least 8GB of RAM. According to Antonette Asedillo, a Consumer Reports tester, you can get by with 4GB of memory for basic web browsing and word processing, but if you find yourself performing tasks beyond that, you’ll wish you had spent the money to upgrade. “Definitely err on the side of more,” she says, “because upgradable RAM is becoming rare.”
Best of all, these laptops come recommended by our testers, who have reviewed 50 new models this year, grading them on nearly 200 data points. To make sure each specimen is just like the one you might take home, we purchased every last model from a retailer.
With excellent performance, long battery life (11.7 hours), and a $700 price tag, this 11.6-inch Lenovo handily earned the top spot in CR’s 10- to 11-inch laptop ratings. The touch-screen display folds all the way back to serve as a tablet with the power of a premium laptop. At 2.3 pounds, the computer is very light, so you’ll barely notice it in your bag. However, our testers say that the display and sound quality are just okay, so those who want to stream a lot of movies or TV shows would be wise to look at the other options on this list. For a comparable laptop with a full-sized keyboard, consider the $900 Lenovo Yoga 720-13IKB.
The 13.3-inch Aspire S5—a CR Best Buy at $785—impressed our testers with its top-notch performance, handling even tough tasks like video editing and midrange gaming with admirable speed. And the 13.5 hours of battery life can carry students through a typical school day with enough juice left over for a library visit. Acer also offers a touch-screen model, but that one runs closer to $1,000.
The 13.3-inch HP Spectre x360 13t earned a spot near the top of our ratings with over 15 hours of battery life and high marks for portability and performance. Outfitted with 8GB of memory and a 256GB solid state hard drive, the $1,170 computer is among the fastest models we’ve seen. And thanks to convertible hinges, you can easily flip the screen around to use the device like a tablet.
This $1,290 laptop delivers nearly 14 hours of battery life, plus above-average speakers and an impressive (non-touch-screen) display. But the 128GB solid state drive is small, so if you’re working on bigger files, such as Photoshop images or video-editing projects, you may want to pay extra for more space. Another drawback: The computer features two USB Type C ports, which is an inconvenience for anyone with accessories—a mouse, an external hard drive, speakers, that sort of thing—that require the far more prevalent USB Type A wired connection. For those who have fully embraced the wireless world of Bluetooth technology, though, this may not pose a problem.
For most college students, a laptop serves double duty as a Netflix-streaming screen. In that case, you may want to consider the $785 Dell Inspiron 15 5000, which has a 15-inch touch screen, making it a solid choice for users who want a little more flexibility and a bit more real estate to work with. (Excel spreadsheets, anyone?) It will run an entire workday, too, with a tested battery life of more than 8 hours. However, weighing in at 4.6 pounds, this laptop won’t disappear into your bag like some ultraportable models do.
Best Overall: Acer Aspire E 15 E5-575G-57D4
The Acer Aspire E 15 sits at the crossroad between value and performance in a way that only a college student could truly appreciate. This device is half the price of some ultrabooks out there, but boasts really impressive specs that translate into the perfect campus laptop. An incoming freshmen can confidently coast on this device through their entire four years at school, and even take it to grad school after that.
First off, you get a 7th Generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, and a capable graphics card in the Nvidia 940MX that can run most games at a decent clip. That means that this laptop can handle intensive graphic design programs or other major-specific software that budget laptops stall on.
It’s a bit heavy at 5.27 pounds, but the extra weight is justified with a large 15.6” true HD screen, DVD drive and a six-cell battery that holds a 12-hour charge. It also comes with USB Type-C, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports, and the latest WiFi 802.11 ac. And the obsidian black case looks attractive, despite being made of plastic instead of metal.
Best Budget: Asus F556UA-AB32
Sometimes paying a little bit extra gets you a whole lot more. That’s the case with Asus’s best-selling “premium budget” F556UA-AB32. It is not the cheapest in the budget category, but it packs enough upgraded graphics and computing power to justify the purchase.
First, it is the cheapest laptop that offers Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution on a beautiful 15.6-Inch screen. If you ever plan on watching movies on your laptop (and you will, trust me), then this upgrade will make a world of difference. And its Intel Core i3 processor, 4 GB RAM, and 802.11ac WiFi will let you run those videos lag-free, which is more than can be said for other budget laptops.
The case sports a simple but stylish design of concentric matte black circles, and an ergonomically designed keyboard feels very comfortable. Sure, this device won’t play the latest games or stand toe-to-toe with devices like the Spin, but it will satisfy everything the normal user wants without breaking the bank.
Best 2-in-1: Acer Chromebook R 11 Convertible, 11.6-Inch HD Touch Screen
Every college student needs a laptop that can both handle homework, but also be there in the early morning hours when you’re five hours deep into a Netflix binge. The Acer Chromebook R 11 gets an A+ in both. With an Intel Celeron N3150 Quad-Core Processor 1.6GHz with Intel Burst Technology up to 2.08GHz combined with 4GB of onboard memory and 32GB of internal storage, it multitasks with ease. And once you’ve submitted that report, you can flip the screen all the way backward to enjoy your favorite games and shows in tablet mode on its 11.6-inch HD IPS touch display with 1366 x 768 resolution. The battery life is rated at about 10 hours, so it’ll last you through all your classes and then some, plus you get 100GB of free storage on Google Drive for two years.
Best for Portability: Apple MacBook Air 13.3-Inch Laptop
When you’re constantly dashing between your dorm room, the library and the lecture hall, you need a laptop that can keep up. And if its name is any indication, the MacBook Air is one of the most portable computers on the market. At .68 inches thin and 2.96 pounds light, it’s easy to toss into your backpack and won’t weigh you down as your trekking across campus.
But don’t let its small frame deceive you: The MacBook Air is remarkably powerful. It houses a 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 2.7 GHz) and has 8 GB of 1600 MHz LPDDR3 RAM to boot. Reviewers on Amazon agree that its 13.3-inch LED-backlit 1440 x 900 display is among the best and brightest out there, and they praise its backlit keyboard for helping them through late-night assignments. On top of that, it lasts up to 12 hours between charges, so you don’t have to tote around a clunky charger.
Best for Durability: ASUS Chromebook C202SA-YS02 11.6″
The ASUS Chromebook C202 is a rugged computer that’s capable of braving all the elements on the periodic table. It has a spill-resistant keyboard, a rubber bumper to protect it from bumps and scratches and nano-molding technology on its edges and corners to reduce impact of falls. It scored magnum cum laude on a drop test, capable of landing safely from up to 3.9 feet. The C202’s 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 display even comes equipped with anti-glare technology, so you can work while you catch some rays on the quad. On the inside, it packs an Intel Celeron N3060 Processor with 2M cache, up to 2.48 GHz and 16GB of flash storage. If that doesn’t earn it a spot on the honor roll, we don’t know what does.
Runner-Up, Best Budget: HP Stream 14-inch
College students have a plethora of laptop options to choose from in the space, but the combination of portability and budget-friendly pricing make the HP Stream 14-inch laptop a great choice. The 14-inch display combined with a 3.17-pound lightweight plastic frame makes it a perfect companion for backpacking to and from classes. Powered by an Intel Celeron 1.6GHz, dual-core processor, 4GB of RAM and a 32GB eMMC drive, this laptop is built with the student in mind. While the 32GB eMMC drive doesn’t offer a lot of storage, Microsoft bolsters storage with 1TB of OneDrive cloud space and Office 365 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook) free for one-year. Additionally, you can spring for a separately-purchased microSD card and triple your storage allotment for less than one-quarter of the laptop’s total price.
Ideally, a student would utilize the Stream 14 for classwork and Web browsing. You get the full power of Windows 10, a quick start up and shut down (thanks to the eMMC drive), as well as an aesthetically pleasing design available in both blue and purple.
Best for Creatives: Apple 15″ MacBook Pro, Retina, Touch Bar
Let’s face it: You rarely see a designer who isn’t using a Mac. That’s in large part due to the fact that Mac screens are so beautiful. And the 2017 reboot of Apple’s beloved MacBook Pro is no exception: It features a gorgeous 2,880 x 1,800-pixel, 500-nit Retina display. It also packs a powerful Radeon Pro discrete GPU that, when combined with 4GB of GDDR5 memory, delivers smooth real-time performance when carrying out tasks such as rendering 3D models in Autodesk Maya 2017.
Apple’s addition of the Touch Bar replaces those dusty function keys with an interactive bar that changes based on what you’re doing to show you relevant tools. In Final Cut Pro, for example, you can navigate through your project with an interactive display of your entire timeline, and in Adobe Photoshop, you can adjust your layers, pick a hue and control brush size. So whether you’re heading to Graphics 101 or beginning your senior capstone project, you won’t want to be caught using anything but this omnipotent laptop.
Best for Note-Taking: Microsoft Surface Book (Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB)
If our picks are too expensive and you’re willing to make some sacrifices for a cheaper computer that can still handle basic work, consider these budget options. Keep in mind that they all make serious trade-offs—shorter battery life, bulkier size, more-limited functionality, or an outdated design—to achieve their more-affordable price tags, and they’re not likely to last as long as our picks. Despite each budget option’s particular setbacks, however, each provides good-enough performance for less money than our main picks.
If you’re willing to sacrifice battery life and portability for $150, get the Acer Aspire E5-575G-57D4, which has a fast processor, plenty of memory, and a solid-state drive, as well as an Nvidia GeForce 940MX graphics card with 2 GB of dedicated memory. It’s by far the best Windows laptop you’ll find for the price. But we strongly recommend saving up for the ZenBook, which is only around $150 more and has longer battery life, is quite a bit smaller and lighter, and has a better keyboard, trackpad, and screen. To read more about the Acer, check out our review of the best cheap Windows laptops.
If you spend all of your time doing email, checking your social networks, and working in Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365, consider a Chromebook. Chromebooks are smaller and lighter than cheap Windows laptops, and they have longer battery life. The best ones have more-comfortable keyboards and trackpads. But Chromebooks run ChromeOS, which means that they can’t load certain desktop apps like Photoshop, which could be an issue if your coursework requires specific programs that won’t run on a Chromebook.
If you can complete all of your work in a web browser, we recommend the Asus Chromebook Flip 302CA. The Flip provides enough battery life for a full day of classes, and it has a compact body with a touchscreen, a 360-degree hinge, and a comfortable keyboard. It’s fast enough for tab-heavy browser work, too. To read more about the Flip or to check out other, even cheaper, options, check out our review of the best Chromebooks.
If you need a Mac and absolutely can’t spend $300 more for the 2017 13-inch MacBook Pro, get a MacBook Air. Although it’s technically a current model, its design hasn’t been updated in years. Still, it offers up to 12 hours of battery life (according to Apple) in a thin, 3-pound body, with a great keyboard and solid selection of legacy ports. However, it has old Broadwell Core i5 and i7 processors and a 1440×900 display—that’s not even 1080p. The only reason to choose a MacBook Air is if you require macOS and it’s all your budget will allow.
What about an iPad?
Can an iPad or an iPad Pro replace your laptop? Simply put: If your school requires any Mac or Windows-only apps, then you can’t use an iPad in place of an actual laptop. But if all you need a laptop for is browsing the web, sending emails, and using Microsoft Office, then consider the 9.7-inch iPad (5th generation). Or, if you’re willing to spend around $320 more for a bigger screen, better performance, and support for Apple’s Pencil stylus, check out the 10.5-inch iPad Pro. Although a tablet doesn’t support desktop apps, both iPads will run longer on a charge than any of our picks and weigh less. Head over to our reviews of the best tablets and pro tablets to read more about these picks.
If you’re a film or photo student: Dell XPS 15 or 15-inch MacBook Pro
If you’re a film or photo student who needs a laptop for heavy video and image work, our main picks can’t handle your workload. Their screens aren’t high-resolution or high-quality enough, their processors are less powerful, and they don’t have the dedicated graphics card that a laptop needs to be able to handle graphics processing alongside other work. Get the Dell XPS 15 or the MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2017) instead.
The Dell XPS 15 is the best option for film or photo students because it has a powerful processor and graphics card, as well as the best out-of-the-box color accuracy and widest color gamut of any Windows laptop we tested. Plus it has fast 4K rendering speeds, all the essential ports, and a good keyboard and trackpad. It’s light and portable, too, which makes it easy to carry around campus.
Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro (2017) is the best Mac laptop for photo and video editing. The MacBook Pro’s 15.4-inch Retina display (2880×1800) is as color-accurate as the Dell XPS 15’s, and the MacBook Pro’s screen reproduces slightly more of the sRGB color gamut. Although it has the best screen and trackpad we’ve used on a laptop, the MacBook Pro has a shallow keyboard and it lacks legacy ports—it has four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone/mic jack instead. The 15-inch MacBook Pro also had much slower 4K rendering speeds in our Adobe Premiere Pro test than the Dell XPS 15 because Premiere Pro supports hardware acceleration on Windows but not macOS. (Adobe says it’s working on adding hardware acceleration to the Mac version.) If your school requires that you work with Adobe Premiere Pro or you already own a lot of USB-A peripherals, you may want to consider the Dell.
Check out our review of the best 15-inch laptops for photo and video editing for more detail on these picks.
If you play games: Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming
If you play video games in your spare time, our main picks won’t cut it—they don’t have dedicated graphics cards, and they don’t have effective cooling systems to manage noise and heat. Budget gaming laptops cost more than the ZenBook and tend to be a lot bulkier and heavier, but they’re the best option if you like to blow off steam in Overwatch.
The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming is the best option for students who need an affordable laptop that can last a full day of class and can also play games well. The Inspiron has incredible battery life that’s as good as our top pick’s—8 hours and 33 minutes. The Inspiron gets a little warm and loud playing games, as all gaming laptops do, but it’ll keep cool and quiet while you’re taking notes in class. And its snappy, responsive keyboard and trackpad are as good for playing games as they are for writing reports. The Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming weighs 5.8 pounds, almost 3 whole pounds heavier than the ZenBook, and it’s quite a bit bulkier, too: As a 15-inch laptop, the Dell measures 15.2 by 10.8 by 1 inches, compared to the ZenBook’s 12.7 by 8.7 by 0.5 inches.
Our favorite budget gaming laptop, the Lenovo Legion Y520, is about a half-pound lighter than the Dell, and it’s better at effectively managing heat and noise while gaming. But its battery lasts only around 3 hours, so we don’t think the Lenovo is the best option for college students. To read more about these two options, check out our review of the best budget gaming laptops.
If you’re a student who prefers to take notes by hand but then has trouble organizing them come exam time, consider purchasing Microsoft’s Surface Book. It’s a handy 2-in-1 laptop with a detachable screen that makes it easy to use like a notepad. It comes with a Surface Pen, which has 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity and an eraser on the other end. The fact that it runs Windows 10 means you’ll have access to a store full of apps designed to enhance the Pen’s usability, such as OneNote, Xodo and more.
The Surface Book’s 13.5-inch, 3:2-aspect-ratio PixelSense screen has a bright display and a superb resolution of 3,000 x 2,000, making viewing media a delight. It’s powered by a 6th-Generation Intel Core i5 or i7 processors with up to 16GB of memory and 1TB of storage. Its silver case looks and feels a lot like a MacBook, but when your Apple-addicted classmates see how versatile the Surface Book is, they’ll be begging to take notes for you.
These are the features that you should look for in a laptop for college, but the order will vary depending on the work you do with it:
- Price and value: College is expensive—students have to pay for tuition, housing, textbooks, and other miscellaneous fees and costs—so a laptop’s price-to-performance ratio is the most important factor. Students should get the least expensive laptop that will handle their coursework and last through all of college.
- Battery life: Because students rarely work in a single location, the longer the laptop’s battery life, the better. A laptop should last a full day of classes, so you can concentrate on taking notes and doing your homework instead of worrying about finding an outlet.
- Size and weight: You don’t want a massive laptop weighing down your backpack as you sprint across campus to class. A 13-inch laptop that weighs around three pounds or less provides the best balance of screen real estate and portability for most college students. A 15-inch laptop isn’t necessary unless you plan on using your laptop to play games or edit video or photos.
- Keyboard and trackpad: Your laptop’s keyboard and touchpad should be comfortable to use for long periods of time and accurate and responsive to your touch.
- Processor: An Intel Skylake or Kaby Lake Core i5 processor or better will be powerful enough for most coursework. If you plan to use your laptop for gaming or film and photo assignments, we recommend a more powerful quad-core processor.
- Memory: We recommend 8 GB as a minimum for browsing the web, sending emails, and writing research papers, and 16 GB for students who have a more demanding workload.
- Graphics card: You need a dedicated graphics card only if you’re a gamer, or a film or photography student.
- Storage: Solid-state drives are much faster than hard drives, and they’re affordable in all our picks. We recommend that most college students get 128 GB of storage, relying on cloud storage or an external hard drive if you need more room. Gamers, as well as students enrolled in photo and film programs, are probably better off spending more for at least 256 GB of built-in storage.
- Display: You should get a laptop with at least a 1920×1080 IPS display, since you’ll be staring at your computer screen every day. Photo and film students should invest in a higher-quality, higher-resolution IPS screen.
- Ports: While a lack of ports didn’t disqualify any of our contenders, we prefer to see at least a couple USB 3.0 Type-A ports, as well as a Thunderbolt 3 port for future-proofing. An SD card slot is useful if you’re in a photo or film program.
Why buy a laptop?
Total computing portability is enticing enough, but what other benefits can a laptop offer?
Laptops typically use much less power than a desktop PC. They have a low annual running cost.
A laptop will take up much less space in your home or office than a desktop PC.
There are several categories of laptop, to suit a variety of needs, though these categories are not clearly defined. Generally speaking you have ultraportables, all-rounders, multimedia powerhouses, student/budget and gaming laptops.
Many laptops can match the power of mid-range desktop computers, even in the ultraportable category. Key factors for performance include:
- CPU (central processing unit) brand and family (e.g. Intel Core i7, or AMD A-Series)
- CPU frequency (known generally as speed, measured in gigahertz, e.g. 3.2GHz)
- storage type – SSD (solid-state drive) is the fastest kind of drive. Unlike a HDD (hard disk drive) it has no moving parts. It is sometimes referred to as Flash storage. As with hard drives, the capacity and speed of SSDs can vary greatly.
- memory – RAM, or random access memory, is the temporary storage used by programs when they’re running. Generally, 4GB (gigabytes) of RAM is considered the starting point for a laptop or desktop computer, but these days 8GB is becoming more common. Tablets and other mobile devices may use much less if they’re running on mobile operating systems such as Android or iOS. For laptops, adding more memory may be useful for programs that can make use of larger amounts or memory, or for running more programs at the same time.
- GPU (graphics processing unit) – this handles much of the computational load in creating and displaying images, reducing the load on the main CPU. Some larger laptops will have a separate (discrete) graphics processor or card, while others will have a graphics chip incorporated on the motherboard with the CPU.
Laptops come with a screen, keyboard and trackpad built in, though you can usually plug in external devices to use the laptop as a desktop computer. Desktop PCs don’t always come with these, so adding them on could incur extra costs. If may also want to regularly use your laptop as a desktop PC by plugging in an external display monitor plus keyboard and mouse.
Laptops can run full Windows, macOS (formerly OS X) or Linux, giving you access to all the mainstream programs you need. Most tablets run iOS or Android, which may not include your preferred programs, while Microsoft’s Surface tablet range runs the full Windows OS.
So, a slim and powerful laptop that you can take anywhere sounds about perfect, right? Well there’s one notable drawback. Upgrading most laptop components is difficult and for the average person this may be impossible, as the slim body of a laptop leaves no room for adding extra components and many parts are built in permanently and not designed to be replaced. Apart from RAM, usually the only way to upgrade/expand the capabilities of a laptop is to add devices to it externally, such as extra storage, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi plug-ins.
What types of laptops are available?
Laptops tend to be classified into several groups. The terms ‘laptop’ and ‘notebook’ tend to be used interchangeably as a general description, but you can break these down into smaller categories, though they’re not always mutually exclusive – for example, an ultraportable can also be convertible:
- Notebook (aka laptop): The general term for a full-sized laptop that strikes a balance between portability and functionality. These can vary greatly in overall size and specification – processor speed, storage capacity, memory (RAM) and screen size. They can vary greatly in price from low-cost budget models to high-performance productivity and gaming laptops.
- Ultraportable: Thin, light laptops designed for mobility. Maintaining a super-slim profile means they have to cut out some features such as built-in CD/DVD drive and reduce the number of connection ports. The smallest models weigh about a kilogram. An Ultrabook (note the capital U) is a specific type of ultraportable, which meets specifications set down by Intel. Among their strong points is strong security and anti-theft protection built in at the hardware level. Although the MacBook Air is regarded as the inspiration for the Ultrabook class, it’s not actually an Ultrabook.
- Netbook: Small, inexpensive laptops that run off the low-powered Intel Atom processor. These have been largely phased out, to be replaced by tablets, Ultrabooks and ultraportables.
- Chromebook: A notebook or ultraportable laptop that runs Google’s unique operating system called Chrome. Chrome OS looks like the Chrome web browser and can only run apps downloaded from the Chrome Store.
- MacBook: Apple’s laptop computers come in three families – the ultra-thin MacBook and MacBook Air models, and the high-performance MacBook Pro in 13-inch and 15-inch sizes.
- Convertible: These combine the features of a laptop and a tablet. They’re also known as hybrid or 2-in-1 laptops. They can quickly switch between touchscreen tablet mode and traditional keyboard mode, transforming in a variety of ways, including detaching, sliding, twisting and fold-back mechanisms. Most models now use the foldback or detachable screen mechanisms.
So which one should you buy?
Within each brand’s laptop family are usually several similar models that vary in power, capacity and a range of other features. Picking one that suits your needs can be a bit of a pain though. Do you go for a budget unit with limited capabilities, a high-powered top-end laptop that can play the latest games without breaking a sweat, or something in between?
That’s a question only you can answer, but first it’s a good idea to narrow down how you intend to use your laptop. If you want to take it with you on-the-go a lot, you’ll want something thin, light and easy to carry – an ultraportable. If you want something to give you all the power of a desktop computer while being transportable with relative ease, go for a multimedia powerhouse such as a gaming machine. Most other laptops fall somewhere in between. Here’s a broad guide to entry-level, mid-range and high-end models:
- Entry level: These low-cost laptops are relatively low-powered, but quite capable of most general computing tasks like web browsing, email and general word processing. They can handle most basic multimedia tasks – like video streaming – and are best suited to casual users and younger students.
- Mid-range: Aimed at regular computer users, families, students and business people. Mid-range computers can run most software and games, but may struggle a bit with high-end functions like video editing and games that require fast graphics processing.
- High-end: For serious computer types that like to push their systems with intensive computing tasks like editing video and audio, 3D rendering and high-end games, these are obviously the ones to go for.
Windows, Mac or Linux?
Ask a room of techies whether you should go with a Windows, Mac or Linux laptop and you’ll start a heated debate that no-one will win. All three systems have their good and bad points, but it’s important for you to choose a side before you start, because it affects your software choices and possibly your hardware decisions too. This is definitely the case with macOS (formerly called OS X), which only runs on Apple’s Mac family.
Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each:
- Windows software has the lion’s share of the market, with the widest range of programs available. Though Windows 7 is still popular on older PCs, new Windows computers will come with Windows 10, which is designed to work across a wide range of devices including tablets and which comes with touchscreen support built-in.
- macOS is designed to work specifically with Apple hardware, providing tight integration that offers advantages in ease of use and consistency across programs. Many programs for Windows have macOS versions and many macOS-only programs offer file-format compatibility with Windows programs. You can install Windows on Macs using macOS’s built-in installer utility called Boot Camp. This will let you run Windows natively on the Mac hardware without any software emulation, to give you full performance. You can also run Windows OS and programs using virtualisation software such as Parallels Desktop for Mac, VMware’s Fusion or Oracle’s Virtual Box. These programs let you install other operating systems such as Linux. Whether you use Boot Camp or a virtualisation program, you’ll need to purchase the Windows operating system separately.
- Linux is generally free, as are most Linux programs, and it can run on a wide range of PCs as an alternative to Windows. There are many flavours of Linux, with the most popular being Ubuntu.
In some cases, you may have to side with a particular system to use specific programs. It’s a good idea to look into each alternative and spend some time with them all before deciding.
What to look for
CPU (central processing unit)
This is the brain of your computer. The number of cores, processing power and price range is a good indicator of the overall level of CPU power on offer. Laptops generally use low-power-consumption CPUs for better battery life. Be careful in comparing the Intel family of CPUs with those from AMD – their main competitor – as quoted speed figures aren’t directly comparable. Likewise with the sub-families of each brand – for example, Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 are increasingly high performance even at the same quoted figure in GHz; likewise with the new M series processors.
RAM (random access memory)
A lack of RAM will slow your computer when performing multiple or labour-intensive tasks, like image processing. Look for a minimum of 4GB (gigabytes) even in a budget system, but ideally aim for 8GB for most general-use laptops.
A small screen means a smaller laptop that’s generally going to be lighter, but large screens are better for graphics, gaming or watching movies. More laptops aimed at the high-end market have high-resolution screens.
Don’t underestimate how much space you’ll need. Make sure you have enough room for all your current programs and files, as well as the fast-growing collection of videos and music that most people now tend to accumulate.
If you want a lot of onboard storage, look for a best laptop with a hard disk drive (HDD), with s 1TB (terabyte) hard drive as a starting point, but preferably double that. However, you may want to sacrifice storage space for speed and go with a built-in solid-state drive (SSD) if you want higher performance. An SSD is much faster than a hard drive and having one can lift the overall performance of a laptop considerably, and thus extend its useful working life. If you need extra storage, you can always plug in a portable hard drive or a high-capacity external hard drive.
Many laptops, especially slimline ultraportable models, come with either a 128GB or 256GB SSD, though we consider 256GB the better starting point for a laptop these days. A major selling point of ultraportables is they are slim and light, which means it’s best not to skimp on RAM (memory) or storage capacity upfront, because you can’t usually upgrade later. Look for upgrade options at time of ordering and spend a bit extra upfront to give the laptop a longer useful lifetime.
Computer components can run hot, especially within the confines of a compact laptop case. Check for hot spots under the laptop after it’s been on for a while, especially when working hard. These hot spots can get annoying if you’re using your laptop where the name would suggest.
Many laptops will have the graphics processor built into the motherboard (called “on-board graphics”), rather than on a separate (“dedicated”) graphics card. High-end models may have a dedicated graphics card which has its own video RAM.
Often called “the brick”, this is the block and cord that you use to plug your laptop into a standard wall socket. If you have to take this with you for recharging, it can add considerably to your overall weight.
Having a long working time between charges is particularly important for an ultraportable. After all, they lose portability points if you have to also carry the power supply unit and cable with you to charge it. Ideally you want to have a full day of working on-the-go without having to plug it in, but this will depend on what else you have plugged into the laptop drawing power from it.
You really don’t want to have to to carry the external power supply unit and cable with you. Our battery life tests look at both light-usage and heavy-usage scenarios, to give you an idea of the best and worst results you are likely to get, though for most people the average daily use will be somewhere in between.
If you intend to be mobile much of the time then a long battery life and quick recharge time is important, so we also record two charging times for each laptop, with the laptop switched on – up to 80% capacity and to 100% capacity. It’s useful to note that charging speed usually drops considerably once you get past 80%. In some cases it can take as long or longer to get the extra 20% top-up as it does to get to 80%.
These days the Wi-Fi speed is important because fewer laptops come with a built-in ethernet port for plugging into your local wired network. If this is the case, you may be able to purchase a USB-to-ethernet adapter of the same brand or a third-party alternative. In either case, look for a laptop that supports the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac. This is backwards-compatible with previous standards including the previously most popular 802.11n but is much faster.
Connectivity on laptops these days is all about USB-C, the new low-profile standard that is becoming common on more models. A USB-C plug is slimline and easy to use (there’s no ‘right way up’), but it’s appearance can be deceptive, as the same-shaped plug is used for several different standards – USB 3.1 Gen-1 and Gen-2 and Thunderbolt 3.
Most common USB-C ports you encounter will be either USB 3.1 Gen-1 which is rated at 5Gbps (gigabits per second) the same speed as USB 3.0, or USB 3.1 Gen-1 (10Gbps). But then there’s the blazingly fast Thunderbolt 3 standard, which is nominally eight times faster at 40Gbps.
Most models will have the slower USB-C ports but high-performance laptops may have Thunderbolt 3 ports. You can plug a plain old USB-C device into a Thunderbolt 3 port but don’t expect any increase in speed. Plug in a Thunderbolt 3 device, such as an external SSD, and you have the fastest connection in town.
Even if you don’t have the Thunderbolt 3 version of this connection, USB-C is still a good thing to have, rather than just the old USB 3.0, because it’s becoming widely adopted on computers and plug-in devices and expected to soon become the dominant connection port, eventually replacing USB 3.0.
One of the keys to USB-C’s swift adoption is its versatility – the same port can transfer both power and data at the same time and it’s quite versatile. You can mimic a whole range of other ports – including USB 2.0/3.0, SD card, HDMI, ethernet and more – using a USB-C adapter.
However, try to stick with the manufacturer’s cables where possible and avoid cheap third-party cables and chargers or you may risk damaging your computer and peripherals. Use only certified USB-C (see usb.org) and Thunderbolt 3 (intel.com.au) cables.