The best laptop for college students
Ah, college. A time of true enlightenment. Whether you’re just starting out or you’re heading into your final year, you’re going to need a good laptop for college research and writing papers. But with so many different brands and confusing model numbers out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
Don’t worry, we’re here to help. We’ve pulled together a robust list of student-friendly laptops for college that we had previously tested and reviewed as part of our ongoing quest to find the best laptops. In other words, the folks over here at PCWorld have personally vetted each and every one of these picks. While most (if not all) of the laptops on this list are fantastic productivity machines, we’ve also got picks for gamers and macOS users, and options to hit every price point. You may also find some low-cost gems in our roundup of the best laptop deals, which we update daily.
Read on to learn more.
When we think about the best thin-and-light laptop, it’s always been a close contest between the Dell XPS 2-in-1 and the HP Spectre x360. This time around, we’re giving the luxurious HP Spectre x360 14 some time in the sun, with a nod to the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 9310 that preceded it as our top pick. The Spectre x360 14, now sporting the same Intel 11th-gen Tiger Lake CPU available in the Dell XPS line, trades blows with its eternal rival in test after test. It rises to the top because of a few key advantages: It offers longer battery life (thanks to a bigger battery), a far better keyboard, and little things like a USB-A port and a physical webcam shutoff switch, all for a lower price. Well played, HP.
If you’re serious about gaming, the Asus ROG Strix G15 Advantage Edition is one heck of a powerhouse. The review unit we tested had an 8-core AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX processor, a AMD Radeon RX 6800M GPU (with 12GB of GDDR6), 16GB of memory, and 512GB of NVMe SSD storage. You can play older titles on high to very high graphics settings and newer games on medium. There are a few shortcomings, though. Battery life is lackluster and it’s pretty darn heavy. That said, poor battery life and a clunky form factor isn’t unusual for a gaming laptop, and if you’re looking to play some games when you aren’t busy working on assignments, this powerhouse offers much more value than most of its rivals.
By naming this Windows tablet the Surface Pro 7+, Microsoft mistakenly implies that it’s some sort of minor upgrade from the Surface Pro 7. Nothing could be further from the truth: We rarely see such massive upgrades in CPU and GPU horsepower, as well as battery life. It also offers an LTE option and an absolutely dead-silent, fanless chassis.
You may be wondering why we chose the 7+ and not the Surface Pro 8. While the 8 has a larger screen and good audio, configurations start at $1,099.99 and can go up to over $2,599.99. Well, it comes down to price. The 7+’s base configuration starts at $899, which is a more affordable option for college students, and it should still chew through tasks admirably. The base version has an Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of SSD storage.
As a general note, Chromebooks make excellent productivity machines. They’re designed for basic tasks like web browsing, typing out papers, and so on. They’re also largely virus-free.
Google’s Pixelbook Go is a perfectly good Chromebook and that’s exactly what the company set out to create. It offers a careful balance of quality features and economical compromises for a reasonable $649 starting price. It’s also much better looking than the typical bare-bones model. If you’re committed to the Chromebook universe, this is a laptop worth buying.
The MacBook Air with the new M1 processor so absolutely and thoroughly trounces the Intel version released earlier this year (with Intel’s “Ice Lake” Y-series CPU/GPU) that it defies belief. And, since there’s no fan, the Air runs super quiet, which is great in a classroom setting.
Unfortunately, Apple changed practically nothing else about the MacBook Air. This new model is exclusively a processor swap. But what a processor! You can read the full review of the MacBook Air M1 at our sister site, Macworld.
The LG Gram 17 is a remarkably lightweight business laptop, and one worth considering if your scholarship left you ample room for a luxe laptop purchase. Although relatively big in size dimensions-wise, it somehow weighs just under three pounds. Is it a work of sorcery? No, it’s the magnesium chassis that makes it so light. In our review, we liked the bounciness of the keys and the long battery life. The Gram 17 ran out of steam around the 13 hour mark, which is nothing short of impressive. The 17-inch IPS-grade display is stunning, too. With a resolution of 2560-by-1600, you’re bound to get a crisp and vibrant picture. According to our review, the display size is perfect for productivity.
The Acer Swift 3X is both speedy and lightweight, an ideal choice for the college student who’s always on-the-go. The higher tier configuration we reviewed has an Intel Core i7-1165G7 processor, an Intel Iris Xe Max discrete GPU (with 4GB of LPDDR4X memory), 16GB of memory, and 1TB PCIe NVMe of SSD storage. But the real star of the show is its 14-inch 1080p IPS display, which shines at a bright 300 nits, according to our review. We managed to squeeze out 12+ hours of battery life on a single charge, so you can definitely expect this laptop to last through multiple classes.
From stellar performance to the lightweight form factor, the Acer Swift X has a lot to offer. In addition to handling content-creation tasks, it can also run a few lightweight games as well. However, the real star of the show is its battery life. Despite the power-hungry internals, the Swift X’s battery lasted more than 12 hours in our tests. Depending on your use, you won’t need to go hunting for an outlet all that much. It’s perfect for college students.
The HP Envy x360 15 (2021) has an attractive design, decent internals, and a wide selection of ports. The unit we tested came equipped with an AMD Ryzen 7 5700U processor, 16GB of memory, and 512GB of PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD storage. For ports, you’re getting two USB-A, USB-C, HDMI 2.0, and a full-sized SD card slot. In our review, we liked the keyboard quite a bit, saying “the keys give off a satisfying tactile bump and they actuate even if you hit just the corner of a key with your fingernail.” In other words, you don’t need to worry much about accidental keypresses.
The Dell Inspiron 14 2-in-1 is affordable and offers good performance for the price. The AMD Ryzen 7 5700U processor is fast enough for everyday tasks like web browsing and document editing. It makes a good productivity machine, which is perfect for college. According to our review, the laptop “remained comfortably cool and quiet while juggling multiple apps, browser tabs, and downloads”. It’s also pretty versatile in terms of what you can do with it. You can prop it up like a tent and watch movies or flip the screen around and use it like a tablet. Overall, it’s a good value. You’re getting good performance, punchy audio, and a convertible touchscreen.
The Aspire Vero is affordable and fast enough for general use. The review unit we tested has an Intel Core i7-1195G7 processor, Intel Iris Xe graphics, 16GB of memory, and 512GB PCIe NVMe M.2 of SSD storage. While the internals are pretty good. the most unique thing about the Vero is that it’s made out of PCR plastic, which makes it one of the few environmentally friendly laptops out there. While we dig how eco-friendly it is, the exterior’s got a textured design that takes some getting used to. The keyboard is also springy and the 1080p non-touch display produces crisp images. The one downside is its short battery life. In our review, we managed to eek a measly seven hours out of the three-cell battery.
If you’re working with an inflexible budget, the Gateway 15.6-inch Ultra Slim Notebook would be a good option. In our review, we liked the performance and roomy screen size. Plus, the internals are incredibly easy to access so long as you’ve got a screwdriver. That means you can upgrade the memory or storage down the line. The keys on the keyboard offer pretty good travel, too. Unfortunately, at this price, there’s bound to be some compromises. Build quality is subpar, as the chassis often creaks and crunches. The trackpad is also made of rough plastic, which may cause your fingers to occasionally stick to it. But this laptop offers a lot of value for the price, and will definitely get the job done.
What to look for in a laptop for college
The first thing to consider is budget. How much are you willing to spend on a laptop? If you’re working with an inflexible budget, Chromebooks are a good option. They’re affordable and designed to handle everyday tasks like writing papers, working on spreadsheets, and so on. Chromebook prices can range anywhere from $200 up to $1,000. If you want to spend a bit more, laptops with convertible touchscreens (otherwise known as a 2-in-1) offer a great deal of functionality. You can flip the screen around and use it like a tablet or prop it up like an easel for watching movies.
If you’ve got a jammed-packed schedule, you’ll probably be running from class to class with very little downtime in between. That’s why we’d recommend a laptop with a long lasting battery. We’d recommend something that’ll last 7 to 10 hours-plus on a single charge, unless you want a notebook that can play games on the side—gaming laptops are notorious for their shorter endurance, even during everyday tasks. That 7 to 10 hours is a good figure if you plan on taking your laptop everywhere with you.
Things like navigating your e-mail or watching Netflix will require more RAM. We’d recommend springing for 8GB of RAM or more. 4GB of RAM is all fine and good for web browsing and basic office work, but 8GB is better for more opening up more tabs and whatnot. Plus, applications like Google Chrome and Spotify tend to eat up a lot of RAM. Most people can get by with 4GB in a pinch if you’re on a tight budget, however, but you won’t be able to multitask as much.
The final thing is a decent keyboard. In college, you’re going to be spending a lot of time typing. Depending on your personal preference, you may want either a full or short travel keyboard. Mechanical keyboards, for example, normally have longer travel. This helps prevent accidental keystrokes. The keys also give a lot of tactile feedback, as they bounce back after they’re pressed down.
For more specifics regarding the hardware you want inside your laptop, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide on how to buy a budget laptop without getting screwed, as well as our broader cheatsheet on what to look for in a laptop CPU and GPU.