As we head into back-to-school season, students everywhere have been gathering the usual textbooks and supplies, which for most college students includes a laptop. But there’s nothing usual about going to college in the fall of 2020. Coursework in many schools is happening remotely, which affects what exactly qualifies as the best laptop for college students.
This year, your computer needs to be ready for a pandemic-influenced school season. Dr. Dave Bolman, Provost at the University of Advancing Technology, emphasizes that more than ever, laptops need to have a camera and microphone built-in. “These allow students to take part in interactive video conferences.” Portability may not be as critical if students aren’t carrying machines to class, but the camera and microphone definitely is.
Whether the classes are remote or in-person, you also need to consider the nuts and bolts of laptop shopping. Start with the critical question: Mac, PC, or Chromebook?
For most students, a PC — specifically, a laptop running Windows — is a good choice. Able to run all almost any software and relatively inexpensive, they’re utilitarian workhorses. Meanwhile, students in creative disciplines like graphic design or video production will benefit from having a Mac. And for students on a budget, there’s the Chromebook. Chromebooks are generally easy to use, trouble-free, and quite cheap, but only run web apps and online services (you can’t install desktop apps like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop).
If in doubt, talk to your school to find out what kind of hardware or software requirements there might be. Someone in a liberal arts degree program can get by just fine with a Chromebook, but if your school requires specific apps — like Microsoft Office or proprietary coursework apps — that may force you to choose a Windows laptop or Mac. Alex Beene, an instructor at University of Tennessee, says, “For my classes that mainly rely on research and using the school’s learning software, a Chromebook will get the job done, but for many other classes, it may not. The safest rule of thumb if funds are limited is to get a standard PC that can run programs like Microsoft Office.”
Of course, all the usual laptop shopping tips apply when looking for a laptop for school. The faster the processor, the better the laptop will perform. But except for creative subjects like architecture, engineering, and animation, students won’t need powerful CPUs or advanced graphics cards. So don’t worry much about the specs if the laptop is primarily used for coursework like research, writing reports, and creating presentations. F0r that, Dr. Bolman says, “most recently purchased laptops will be up to the task.” Few college tasks will tax a laptop’s capabilities, so you can save money by aiming for the budget end of the pricing spectrum.
- Best Overall Laptop: Dell Inspiron 14
- Best 2-in-1 Convertible Laptop: HP Envy x360
- Best Budget Mac: Apple MacBook Air 13
- Best Laptop for Creatives: Apple MacBook Pro
- Best Budget Chromebook: Asus Chromebook Flip C434
- Best Premium Chromebook: Google Pixelbook Go i5
- Best Budget Windows Laptop: Acer Swift 3
- Best Premium Windows Laptop: Dell XPS 13
- Best for Gaming After Class: ROG Zephyrus M
Best Overall Laptop
Dell Inspiron 14
The Inspiron 14 7000 is a textbook example (if you’ll excuse the pun) of all the right attributes for a laptop for college classes, and it clocks in well under $1000, adding up to a superb price/performance ratio. It’s a standard Windows 10 laptop with a 14-inch display that’s great size for students who may need to carry the laptop around, while still being large enough to multitask with multiple windows on screen. The magnesium-alloy chassis is thin and light (it weighs under three pounds), and equipped with an Intel Core i5, it’s more than speedy enough for typical coursework. The base model’s 256GB SSD drive is more than enough storage, especially since so much work will doubtless be completed and stored online.
While many students can get by with a more modest laptop, the Inspiron 14 has some welcome extras. It has a pair of standard USB-A ports along with a USB-C port, HDMI in case you need to connect this laptop to a projector or larger monitor, and a Micro SD card reader, which is handy for transferring files from a camera or other media device.
Best 2-in-1 Convertible Laptop
HP Envy x360
Your first instinct when preparing for the fall semester is to have a laptop at the ready, times are changing, and tablets are increasingly a formidable alternative. But until tablets evolve into full-blown laptop replacements, a better alternative is a 2-in-1 convertible laptop. The HP Envy x360 is the best of both worlds; it’s an Intel Core i7-powered laptop with a 512GB SSD for storage, but flip the screen all the way around, and it becomes a powerful Windows tablet instead. There’s even an intermediate mode — you can “tent” the laptop so it can be used to deliver group presentations.
The screen works as a touchscreen in both laptop and tablet mode, and you can use a stylus as well. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to secure the stylus when it’s not in use, so get used to losing it.) It has a couple of USB-A ports and one USB-C, as well as an an HDMI connection for projecting your work on a larger display and a Micro SD slot of reading media cards.
Specs aside, this computer works well as both a traditional laptop and a tablet and switches between them almost instantly. If taking notes by hand or sketching is a part of your learning process, there are few options better than this one.
Best Budget Mac
Apple MacBook Air 13
Windows laptops might rule the world — only one in 10 laptops sold is a Mac — but that statistic muddies the reality. Macs are a favorite among students because of its more user-friendly and elegant design, and in particular it’s the gold standard for creative studies like graphic design and video production. If you’re eyeing a Mac for school, the MacBook Air is the practical choice for most people because it’s relatively affordable, coming in right around the thousand-dollar mark.
Keep in mind that you’re paying for Apple’s engineering and design, not for horsepower. This model is equipped with a modest Intel Core i3 processor and a 256GB SSD. But the 13.3-inch Retina display is very sharp, has a wide color gamut, and is among the brightest displays you can buy — all important criteria for students working Photoshop or similar applications.
The laptop also has a dramatically improved keyboard (you might have heard that people hated last year’s “butterfly” keyboard) and nice touches like Touch ID for security.
Best Laptop for Creatives
Apple MacBook Pro
The MacBook Pro is clearly an object of desire, but priced at the top end of laptops on this list, it’s probably not an especially practical choice for most students. That said, if you have the funds and the need — specifically, you are engaged in creative coursework that has you doing photo manipulation, 3D design, graphics, architecture, music production, or similar disciplines — then this could be money well spent.
The MacBook Pro comes in 13-inch and 16-inch varieties, but the 16-inch display will pay dividends for creatives. This model is powered with a beefy Intel Core i7 and comes with a 512GB SSD, but the real appeal here is the stunning display that improves even on the one in the MacBook Air. There’s also the innovative Touch Bar positioned between the keyboard and display. It’s a touchscreen that displays a customizable set of shortcuts that can change depending upon what program you are running or what you’re doing on the desktop. Despite the laptop’s large screen, it can still muster an all-day battery, similar to what most of the other laptops on this list can do.
Best Budget Chromebook
Asus Chromebook Flip C434
You can certainly find less expensive Chromebooks, but even as if you’re searching for a budget machine, it’s a good idea to balance price against features, build quality, and overall specs. On these counts, the Asus Chromebook Flip C434 is an excellent low-cost Chromebook. It’s powered by an Intel Core m3 processor and has a generous 64GB of storage. But the 14-inch screen is the real star. It’s a touchscreen and has a full HD display, despite the fact that the whole laptop is sized like a 13-inch device. Asus manages to pack it into the smaller footprint by making the screen bezel so small.
Like the HP Envy x360, this is a 2-in-1 convertible; you can use it as a laptop or flip the screen around and turn it into a tablet. And just three pounds and 0.6 inches thick, it’s highly portable and feels natural in any mode.
Of course, this laptop runs Chrome OS, which means that you’re limited to online apps and services; you can’t install programs on the desktop like you can with Windows and Macs. There are a lot of advantages to this approach — the laptop is essentially immune to viruses and malware, it’s easy to maintain, turns on instantly, and more. If you’re not tech savvy, a Chromebook is a good option as long as your coursework can be done in Google Drive and similar online apps.
Best Premium Chromebook
Google Pixelbook Go i5
So you’re intrigued by the simplicity of a Chromebook and planning to take one to class in the fall, but you don’t want to hindered by sluggish performance. Well, the good news is that Chromebooks start at a lower price point, so you can step up to a higher model without breaking the bank. The Pixelbook Go i5 is perhaps the best premium Chromebook you can buy, and it is offered Google, the company the invented the Chromebook to begin with.
Inside, this laptop is definitely upgraded. It has am Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, and a generous 128GB of storage (that might be small for Windows or a Mac, but it’s as much as you’re likely to ever need in Chrome). Even so, it’s a featherweight at just two pounds.
This is a straightforward laptop — not a convertible — and features a full HD 13.3-inch touchscreen display. The keyboard is backlit for easier typing in dim rooms, and a pair of USB-C ports for connectivity. Perhaps the best news of all is the battery life, which is about 15 solid hours. That’s taking the concept of an “all day battery” to a new level. And if it’s running low, a 20-minute quick charge can give you about two hours of runtime.
Best Budget Windows Laptop
Acer Swift 3
An important thing to remember when laptop shopping is that you may need to spend a little more than the cheapest machines to get the best budget laptop. Yes, there are laptops you can find for less than the Acer Swift 3. But you probably wouldn’t want to use them for very long. Acer has engineered a superb low cost laptop in the Swift 3 for about $600, and it’s probably the one you should get if your priority is a low cost but solid Windows laptop.
The Acer Swift 3 is built on an Acer chipset, which helps to save a little money. It features a Ryzen 5 processor and 8GB RAM with a surprisingly spacious 128GB SSD. The display is a sharp and bright full HD 14-inch screen. You’ll even find a fingerprint reader on the deck in front of the backlit keyboard for secure logins.
Portability isn’t too much of a problem; the Swift 3 weighs in at about 2.6 pounds; it’s also little more than half an inch thick, yet Acer includes a generous array of ports. You get a pair of USB-A, one USB-C, and HDMI. One thing you won’t find, unfortunately, is a media card reader.
Best Premium Windows Laptop
Dell XPS 13
As a general rule, you probably don’t need to break the bank to get an acceptable laptop for school. If you are in a course of study that uses programs which tax your PC or require a lot of storage, though — engineering, the sciences, and graphics are a few that come to mind — then a more powerful computer might be called for. Dell’s Dell XPS 13 7390 is a premium laptop that delivers. Armed with a powerful Intel Core i7 CPU with 16GB of RAM, it has enough resources to multitask efficiently, not to mention perform advanced tasks like 3D model editing. A 512GB SSD should be enough storage for virtually any practical need short of gaming (and the next laptop in this list might be a better choice for that).
Perhaps the XPS 13’s most exciting feature, though, is the 4K display. Packing 3840 x 2160 pixels into the 13.3 inch display, this is a solid choice for creative coursework as well as after-class movie entertainment. After all, if you’re living with you laptop for four years, perhaps it’s worth making sure it can entertain you when studies are over.
You don’t get a wealth of ports in this laptop — there are just two USB-C ports and a Micro SD card reader slot. That’s a mixed bag; what you get is certainly valuable, but it’s surprising that Dell doesn’t include an HDMI or old-style USB-A port.
Best for Gaming After Class
ROG Zephyrus M
The ROG Zephyrus M is also a premium Windows laptop, but it has a different focus than the Dell XPS 13 7390. While the Dell is laser-focused on getting work done with high-performance components, this Zephyrus M is a gamer’s laptop. That doesn’t make it less well-suited to coursework. Quite the contrary; the Intel Core i7 CPU and 16GB RAM make it ideal for processor-intensive work, should you have any. But the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 graphics card makes this well-suited for gaming in the evenings or on the weekend when there are no midterms to prep for.
Paired with the Geforce RTXN 2070 is a spacious 15.6-inch display that runs at an insanely fast 240Hz. No, you don’t need a 240Hz response time for studies. But that makes this an excelling gaming system. And the 1TB hard drive is twice the size of any other laptop in this roundup, plenty of room for games (a single game can consume as much as 100MB of space, so gaming systems tend to need large SSDs).
The bottom line for the ROG Zephyrus M is that it can work hard and play hard, and it plays harder than most laptops. And because this laptop is frequently priced well under $2000, it’s not substantially more than other premium-priced Windows laptops.