If you’re ready to trade your cap and gown in for business-casual (or sweatpants and slippers, for those of you planning on working at home), one of the biggest questions you might be asking yourself is, “Which laptop should I get?” As you embark on the first leg of your professional journey, it pays to be properly equipped, so we looked at several of the top graduating majors and the technical needs for each.
Simply asking “What’s the best laptop for a college graduate?” doesn’t narrow things down very much, though. According to college advising website MyMajors.com(Opens in a new window), the list of common college majors has more than 1,800 different areas of study, from Agriculture to Visual and Performing Arts.
So we turn to data, not only to see the most popular majors and professions, but how many find themselves wondering what’s the best laptop for their type of work. According to both graduation statistics and search volume, here are the seven most popular fields that require computers tailored to their specific needs.
The Grads Who Need the Right Laptop the Most
In our research, the top most-sought-after recommendations come from media creators working with video and music, photographers and graphic designers, a mix of office workers and home-office workers, programmers, engineers, stock traders, and writers.
(Image: René Ramos, Molly Flores, Zlata Ivleva)
While these different categories may have some overlap in often-recommended laptops, each has a distinct set of requirements, with use-specific software, a unique mix of hardware, and performance demands.
How to Pick the Best Laptop for Your Career: The Basics
Though the specifics may differ depending on what you need to use your laptop for, the basics are pretty consistent across the board. You want something that’s comfortable to use, durable enough to last, and powerful enough for your most demanding projects. However, the specific needs of your job will bring some features to the forefront. Here’s the condensed version of our laptop buying advice.
If a laptop is like a car, the central processing unit (CPU) is the engine that makes it go, handling all of the actual computing tasks. From the operating system to the individual programs you use, the processor makes it work.
For an in-depth look at CPU selection, our guide How to Choose the Best Laptop Processor offers plenty of detailed advice, but for our purposes, it’s pretty simple. Generally, you’ll want to stick to Intel, AMD, and Apple options for professional use, since they offer not only the most variety, they also have the widest compatibility with various programs. The specific processor name will tell you the series (such as Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 7) as well as the generation of chip, or how recent the design is. A higher series will generally denote better performance, while the latest chips will have the most up-to-date capabilities.
There’s not much need to go into the specifics of RAM functionality and format here. Random Access Memory (RAM) is the short-term, working memory for your computer, holding the data for the apps and files that are currently running. It’s fast and immediate, but if you don’t have enough memory, it can become a bottleneck that slows your laptop’s overall performance.
While there is plenty of specific advice we could give for choosing the right RAM, the simple guideline is that more is better. We suggest a minimum of 8GB of RAM for pretty much all uses, but more demanding systems should be equipped with 16GB or 32GB—or even more, for mobile workstations.
Integrated vs. Discrete Graphics
Most laptops rely on the CPU to handle the graphical demands, using what’s called integrated graphics. More demanding visuals, such as those delivered by gaming laptops and workstations will instead use a discrete graphics processor—a secondary piece of processing hardware that’s devoted entirely to graphics.
Laptop manufacturers don’t give shoppers the same range of choices for mobile GPUs, but if you expect to do photo and video editing, 3D rendering, or anything else that’s similarly demanding, look into laptops that have a discrete GPU instead of integrated graphics.
Mobile workstations, meanwhile, are practically defined by the GPU—in addition to high-powered graphics processing, workstation systems are also guaranteed to offer rock solid reliability for the most demanding programs. Look for Independent Software Vendor (ISV) certification, and make sure your professional program is properly supported.
You have two main concerns when it comes to storage: capacity and speed. Capacity has to do with storage space, whether it’s a small 128GB drive or a massive 2 terabyte (2TB) drive. Larger drives are more expensive, but they are invaluable if you routinely work with large project files. Writers may not need much storage for documents, but media and complex renderings will take up a lot more space.
Speed is the other concern. The biggest differentiator here is between hard disk drives and solid state drives (SSD). Traditionally, a platter-based hard drive offered more storage space at a better price per dollar, but SSDs deliver much faster performance. Thankfully, in recent years, SSDs have become the standard rather than the exception, and prices have made them very reasonable for all users.
When in doubt, you always want a longer lasting battery. Longer battery life lets you use your laptop longer between charges, and it gives you the option of leaving the power adapter at home, making even an ultraportable laptop that much easier to carry with you. Whenever possible, we recommend checking out the battery test results in our review, and if all else is equal, opting for systems that offer longer battery life.
But battery life has an inverse relationship with processing and graphics prowess, which demand more power to handle more complex tasks. Media machines and mobile workstations may not offer the same long battery life of a thin ultraportable, but when you need horsepower, you accept the lower gas mileage.
The standard laptop design will be fine for most users, in most situations. But there are two major considerations to keep in mind when selecting your next PC. The first is portability, with thin and light ultraportables making it that much easier to tote around your work machine. They’re a bit more expensive, but if you expect to take your laptop on the go, you definitely want one of these featherweight systems.
The other is touch capability. While you can get touchscreens in a standard laptop design, users may want something more hands on, especially for digital art and graphic design. In these instances, we recommend 2-in-1 laptop designs, which combine the notebook form factor with tablet functionality. Whether the machine flips, folds, or detaches, having a tablet option for drawing and note-taking on the screen can be a game changer.
With such a wide variety of professions and majors available for college students to choose from, it’s worth remembering one core concept. The best laptop for you starts with knowing what you need to do with it. For digital artists, that means running Photoshop or drawing on screen. But if you’re a day trader or engineer, you need something different, like high-end 3D rendering or super-fast number crunching.
To find the best laptops for our seven professional categories, we looked at the actual demands for each profession, and what sort of hardware and performance was needed to support it.
The Best Laptops for Film School and Audio Production Grads
“Media” can be a broad category, but video editing and music production are the largest. And with the unique demands of scrubbing through hours of footage or finessing layer upon layer to create the perfect track, video and audio production have similar equipment needs.
When it comes to the best laptop for video editing or any other kind of media work, the standout choice is the Apple MacBook Pro 14-inch, which delivers professional-level processing and tools for video work, but also is compact enough to take to a shoot for editing onsite.
Dell XPS 15 OLED (9510)
(Photo: Molly Flores)
If you aren’t big on Apple, or just want an OLED display, then we also recommend the Dell XPS 15 OLED (9510), which combines features like an 8TB SSD (in top configurations) and a 15-inch OLED display to become one of the best Windows-based media laptops you can buy.
The Best Laptops for Graphic Design Grads
Next we have visual and graphic design. From high-powered machines that can run Photoshop with speed to 2-in-1 models that let an artist draw directly on screen, the visual arts are more dependent upon the right hardware than ever before.
For many creative pros, the laptop search will start and end with Apple. From Mac exclusives like Sketch to popular tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, you’ll get great software support from macOS, and the M1 processors Apple uses offer genuinely impressive performance. Our favorite for photo and graphics work is the Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch, which comes in a choice of M1 CPUs. For most users, the M1 Pro is the better choice of processor, versus the more expensive M1 Max.
Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio
(Photo: Molly Flores)
What you won’t get on a Mac is touch and pen capability. For that, we recommend a Windows-based 2-in-1, like the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio. With so many touch-capable systems available, we suggest looking for a convertible system that offers a true digitizer with pen support, giving you all the functionality of a dedicated digital drawing pad, but without the extra device. Detachable laptops tend to be lower-powered, so stick with a laptop that offers drawing instead of a tablet that comes with a keyboard.
Recommended by Our Editors
The Best Laptops for Business Majors
Though it’s not as exciting as shooting movies or crafting a visual masterpiece, most college grads are headed to the office. White-collar jobs and slipper-wearing work-from-home situations have made the day job more diverse than ever, but everyone needs a great machine that lets them get their work done.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9
(Photo: Molly Flores)
Our favorite is the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9, which is perfect for professionals wherever they work, whether that’s in the office, home office, or out on the road. The thin and light design are among the best you’ll get from an ultraportable, but it also has the best chops of any business laptop we’ve reviewed. You may find more affordable options on our list of great business laptops, but you aren’t likely to find something better.
The Best Laptops for Computer Science Grads
With so much of our lives being lived online and in digital worlds, programming is more vital than ever. From straight coding to full-stack web development, programmers and coders need a machine that can keep up.
Specifically, that means a laptop with both processing muscle for compiling code and enough RAM that you’re never bogged down. We recommend something with at least an Intel Core i5 CPU and 16GB of RAM or more. Dedicated graphics are optional—unless you’re also doing game development, or something else with a visual component that needs graphics horsepower to simulate playback. If you’re adding design to the mix, you’ll want a GPU that can handle it.
Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED XC
(Photo: Molly Flores)
Great battery life is helpful if you’re on the go, but more important is screen resolution. When you spend hours looking at raw code in an IDE or emulating whatever app or website you’re developing, you want it to be clear and accurate, but you also want to give your eyes a break.
We like the Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED XC, which offers blazing performance and a gorgeous OLED display. It has enough power to get you through the thorniest project, while also giving you gaming muscle for the off hours.
The Best Laptops for Engineering and Science Grads
Engineers may find work in anything from chip design to refining engine parts to planning city-wide infrastructure, but the core tools all demand one thing above all: power.
Looking at both processing and graphics, you need more power than the average laptop can provide. That’s why we’ve chosen from our list of the best mobile workstations to find a laptop that goes above and beyond, providing rock-solid performance and graphics horsepower for tools like AutoCAD and Solidworks.
HP ZBook Studio G8
(Photo: Molly Flores)
One of our favorites is the HP ZBook Studio G8. As workstation laptops go, it’s got the full package, from a beefy Core i9 processor and Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 graphics to a 4K display and a healthy amount of storage.
The Best Laptops for Finance Majors
Money movers and stock traders also have their own needs, in a business where downtime and sluggish performance can cost big. From accounting to day trading, you may not need massive processing power, but a mix of solid performance, go-anywhere portability, and professional-looking design are all a must.
13-inch Apple MacBook Air
(Photo: Molly Flores)
Most ultraportable laptops will fit the bill, but the 13-inch Apple MacBook Air offers the whole package, from the slim aluminum design to impressive 29-hour battery life. Whether you’re living the nomad lifestyle or working shoulder-to-shoulder with an office full of traders, it’s a great option for trading and finance.
The Best Laptops for Communications and Writing Grads
Finally, a topic near to my heart: the best laptops for writers and editors. While the work may not be demanding in terms of processing or graphics requirements, some special considerations make some laptops stand out above the rest. Basic office software will get the job done, and internet access will let you research and share your work. But these basics are standard on most every laptop.
MSI Modern 14
(Photo: Molly Flores)
What isn’t so standard are niceties like a backlit keyboard with a comfortable layout, and a solid selection of ports. Thankfully, you can get all of these things at budget-friendly prices, if you know what you’re looking for. Our favorite is the MSI Modern 14, which not only ticks all of the boxes for productivity and features, but also comes in a host of configurations, some less than $500.