College students need laptops that can handle a lot: casual gaming with friends, intense web browsing, and word processing to finish homework assignments. Look for a mix of portability and power to make sure the laptop you choose can handle your years in academia.
What to Consider
The first and most important thing you should do before purchasing a laptop is check with your college. Many institutions have specific requirements for computers, including processor speed. Also, some colleges suggest either a Mac or a Windows computer.
Budget is a top consideration for many college students, so choose wisely. It’s easy to overspend on a laptop, so make sure you’ll need all the features that are advertised. For example, maybe you won’t actually want a big screen and the weight that comes with it if you’ll spend a lot of time carrying the laptop between classes.
There is a wide range of processors available, but don’t let the plethora of choices scare you. Middle-of-the-road options offer the best mix of performance and value and should work fine for most students. Look for Intel’s Core i5 processors and AMD’s Ryzen 5 mobile processors. However, majors like graphic design rely on programs that need powerful processors and graphics cards. In that case, choose the AMD Ryzen 9 processor or something similar and graphics cards like the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070.
If you anticipate spending a lot of time just browsing the web or doing some word processing, consider getting a Chromebook. These laptops that run Google’s Chrome operating system offer great battery life and are fairly speedy but can’t run all programs. They also have smaller hard drives, so anticipate saving files to the Cloud frequently.
For most students, portability is key. You’ll often be lugging that laptop around campus, so try to find a laptop that weighs under 4 pounds. To keep the size and weight down, look for a laptop that offers a screen of about 13 inches. Students who don’t plan to travel very far or frequently with their computers in tow might prefer screens between 15 and 17 inches.
Battery life is also important. Finding a place to get power isn’t always possible on campus or in classes, so make sure that whichever laptop you choose gets at least six hours of battery life.
How We Selected
I’m a longtime journalist specializing in consumer technology. My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and many other places. To compile this list, I spent a dozen hours reviewing the specifications of the latest laptops. I considered each model’s screen size, processor, weight, and cost. Read on to see which laptops are ready for class.
Display: 15.6 in. HD touch screen | RAM: 16 GB | Processor: AMD Ryzen 5 | Hard Drive: 256 GB SSD
HP positions its Envy x360 laptop as a business machine, but don’t let that fool you. It might not be the most stylish-looking machine, but with a bright, full-HD screen, this laptop works equally well on campus as it does in the corporate world. The relatively light 4.2-pound weight and up to 13 hours of battery are perfect for long study sessions and commutes between dorms. The x360 is a convertible, so the keyboard flips around to the back when you want to turn it into a tablet.
Display: 13.3 in. Retina | RAM: 16 GB | Processor: Apple M1 | Hard Drive: 256 GB
The MacBook Air might just be the perfect mix of portability and power. For its reasonable price tag, the Air exudes class with its aluminum case, besting rivals who offer up plastic at the same price point. The new M1 processor is speedy, and applications launch almost instantly. The 13.3-inch Retina display is crystal clear but not quite as bright as its big brother, the Macbook Pro. But the Air weighs less than the Pro at only 2.8 pounds, making it perfect for students on the go.
Display: 13.4 in. HD | RAM: 8 GB | Processor: Intel Core i7 | Hard Drive: 256 GB SSD
Boasting solid performance and a terrific display, the XPS 13 is among the best all-around Windows laptop for students. The Intel Core i7 processor provides enough power to handle any programs you’ll be using for college, while the 13 hours of battery life will keep you going while pulling all-nighters. The XPS13 looks great, too. It’s got an anodized aluminum finish called Frost White and a trim build that’s only 2.9 pounds and 0.56 inches thick. The embedded fingerprint reader in the power button allows easy logins, too.
Display: 13.3 in. HD touch screen | RAM: 4 GB | Processor: Intel Core i3 | Hard Drive: 64 GB DDR
The Chromebook Flex 5 can do a little bit of everything as long as you don’t mind some compromises. Still, it’s a good value for the money. As a two-in-one device, you can switch from a laptop to a tablet by turning the hinge. The clear, bright screen and the full-size keyboard are great for keeping up with school assignments. However, keep in mind that this laptop runs the Chrome operating system, which doesn’t run many Mac and Windows applications.
Display: 13.3 in. Retina | RAM: 8 GB | Processor: Apple M1 | Hard Drive: 256 GB
Students looking for a portable Mac that’s got some oomph should consider the MacBook Pro. At 3 pounds, it weighs a bit more than the Air, but you get a bunch of goodies, including a brighter screen and Apple’s Touch Bar, which makes launching and controlling apps easy. The 8-core GPU runs fast and can give you the edge when frantically preparing that overdue paper.
Display: 13.3 in. | RAM: 8 GB | Processor: Intel Core m3 | Hard Drive: 64 GB SSD
The Pixelbook Go might be the ultimate go-everywhere student laptop for those who can get used to Google’s stripped-down Chrome operating system. Unlike some other Chromebooks, the Pixelbook Go oozes quality with its carefully contoured case and comfortable keyboard. It’s also incredibly light at about two pounds, which should help boost your early morning sprint to classes. The full HD display pops with accurate color.
Display: 12.3 in. touch screen | RAM: 8 GB | Processor: Intel Core i5 | Hard Drive: 256 GB SSD
A great way to take notes in class is with a digital pen, and the Surface Pro 7 offers that capability. This tablet is great for casual web browsing and transforms into a notebook with a surprisingly functional optional keyboard. The Pro 7 weighs only 1.7 pounds and boasts up to 10.5 hours of battery life for easy use in any setting. You can add accessories with the included USB-C and USB-A ports. The clever stand that unfolds from the back is perfect for propping up the Pro 7 on your desk or bed.
Display: 16 in. Retina | RAM: 16 GB | Processor: Intel Core i9 | Hard Drive: 1 TB SSD
This top-of-the-line Apple laptop offers a large, glare-free screen with sharp, 3072-by-1920 native resolution and a comfortable keyboard. Although it’s not a tiny laptop by current standards, the MacBook Pro is reasonably light at just 4.3 pounds and fits easily into a backpack. It’s got plenty of runtime with up to 11 hours of battery life. Keep in mind that the MacBook comes only with USB-C-style Thunderbolt 3 ports, so you’ll need to tote adaptors to connect an HDMI display or use SD memory cards.