Heading to college is stressful enough without having to worry about what laptop you’ve got in your backpack. When it comes to laptops, college students are often in a difficult position in that they have less money to spend on a new computer than they’d probably want.
The good news is that unless you’re studying to be a graphic designer or architect, you probably don’t need top-of-the-line specs. Instead, things like battery life, price, and portability become even more important when faced with carrying a laptop around from class to class all day.
We hope to help out with at least this one higher education decision by highlighting what we think are the best laptops for college. Read on to find some selections that can check at least a few boxes and narrow does the best laptops for college.
Asus ZenBook UX330UA
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Why should you buy this: You won’t find many laptops that provide a better combination of low price, great performance, and lightweight design.
Who’s it for: College students who don’t have a lot to spend but still demand a great laptop.
How much will it cost: $750
Why we picked the Asus ZenBook UX330UA:
Just because you don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean you don’t crave a well-built machine with enough power and battery life to plow through your assignments. You can choose an ultra-budget machine and save some cash for frozen pizza, or you can spend just a little more and grab a laptop that offers significantly better build, performance, and battery capacity.
One of our favorite machines in that price range that does it all is the Asus ZenBook UX330UA. It might not look like anything special, but it’s the very best value laptop on the market. We gave it a 9 out of 10 score in our review precisely because of how well it delivers the essentials of what you want in a laptop at a price that won’t break the bank. It’s just been refreshed with an affordable $750 price tag and the new 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, making its performance and value even more impressive.
One of the ZenBook’s best attributes is that it looks like it costs a lot more money, with the same kind of all-aluminum chassis as more expensive machines. It also sports Asus’s iconic “spun metal concentric circle” finish that brings even more eye appeal to the machine’s silver finish. Throw in the fact that it’s thinner and lighter than a MacBook Pro, and you won’t at all feel like you’re carrying around a budget machine.
Of course, performance and battery life matter — and the ZenBook UX330UA has both in more than sufficient quantities. The eighth-generation quad-core Intel Core i5-8250U processor provides excellent performance and efficiency, while the surprisingly large 57 watt-hour battery should keep the machine running for an entire school day. While the touchpad could use some work, the display is also much better than you’d expect for this much money, with plenty of brightness, great contrast, and solid color support.
In the end, we believe that you don’t need to spend an inordinate amount of money to get a great laptop for college. The Asus ZenBook UX330UA provides the best example to prove our point.
Our Asus ZenBook UX330UA full review
Best laptop for taking notes in class
Microsoft Surface Pro
Why should you buy this: You won’t find a better Windows 10 tablet for taking your notes in class, and then working on papers back in the dorm.
Who’s it for: College students who want to replace paper with electronic notes
How much will it cost: starts at $800 (without keyboard)
Why we picked the Microsoft Surface Pro:
Microsoft’s most recent detachable tablet reigns supreme as our overall favorite 2-in-1. It’s a fifth-generation machine, meaning that Microsoft has had plenty of chances to get its formula right. And they did — the Surface Pro is the best Windows 10 detachable tablet on the market.
It also provides class-leading active pen support, with the Surface Pen providing the lowest latency in a Windows 10 tablet, 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, and tilt support. That means it’s awesome for taking handwritten notes and making quick drawings, something that can certainly come in handy for today’s college students. Use Microsoft’s own OneNote application and you can get rid of paper notes forever.
At the same time, you’ll get a laptop that provides excellent productivity performance and solid battery life. The Surface Pro isn’t the cheapest option at $800 for the entry-level model with an Intel Core m3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB SSD. Plus, you’ll want the $160 Signature Type Cover for writing papers and the $100 Surface Pen to take your notes. That brings the total investment to $960.
But you’ll also end up with a laptop that will let you work both in the classroom and in the dorm, and that provides far more flexibility than any other machine on our list. The Surface Pro is great for consuming media as well, with its high-resolution display that’s bright and offers extremely high contrast. If you want to catch up on some Netflix when you’re taking a break, the Surface Pro has you covered there as well.
Our Microsoft Surface Pro full review
Best college laptop for Google users
Samsung Chromebook Pro
Why should you buy this: It’s the most powerful Chrome OS 2-in-1 on the market that doesn’t cost a fortune
Who’s it for: College students who use Chrome OS or attend colleges using Google solutions
How much will it cost: $550
Why we picked the Samsung Chromebook Pro:
Google’s Chrome OS platform and its various services, such as Google Docs, are becoming increasingly important in educational environments. Chrome OS is lightweight, requiring far fewer computing resources than Windows 10, and it’s easy to administer and maintain. If you cringe at the thought of using a Chromebook from the terrible one your high school loaned you, think again. The Samsung Chromebook Pro is beautiful to look at and impressive to work on.
Did we mention Chrome OS requires fewer computing resources? What that means in practice is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get great performance with the platform. In fact, our overall favorite Chromebook, the Samsung Chromebook Pro, is the second most expensive Chrome OS machine on the market (behind only the uber-expensive Google Pixelbook), and it only costs $550.
For that money, you get an Intel Core m3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage capacity. That sounds minimal when compared to the typical Windows 10 notebook, particularly in terms of storage space. But remember that with Chrome OS, you don’t need a ton of RAM to push things along — and most of your data will reside in the Google cloud. Toss in a bright, high resolution (2,560 x 1,600) 12.3-inch display, and you have a machine that’s more than powerful enough for Google’s slim OS.
In addition, the Chromebook Pro is a convertible 2-in-1, meaning the screen flips around from clamshell laptop mode to tablet, and it comes with an active pen. That means you can not only use it as a convenient media consumption device, but you can take notes with it as well.
Finally, while Chrome OS doesn’t have as many apps as Windows 10, Google has been kind enough to build Android app support into newer Chromebook machines like this one. That means that you can fire up the same apps that you use on your Android smartphone, along with a great selection of games that should run well on the Chromebook Pro’s hardware.
Our Samsung Chromebook Pro full review
Best college laptop for Apple lovers
Why should you buy this: MacOS has one affordable model left, and it’s the MacBook Air
Who’s it for: College students who prefer MacOS but can’t afford the MacBook Pro
How much will it cost: $1,000
Why we picked the MacBook Air:
There are a number of great choices if you’re a MacOS user, including the 12-inch MacBook that’s incredibly portable and then a line of MacBook Pro machines that offer power and refinement. Unfortunately, they’re also incredible expensive machines. If you’ve got extra cash and love Apple products, go for it — but it’s likely outside of the typical college student’s budget.
Fortunately, there’s another option that provides great support of current MacOS versions and is a bit more affordable. Specifically, we’re talking about the MacBook Air, the notebook that started the thin and light craze and that still presents a viable option. It runs $1,000 for a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD, and so is hundreds of dollars less expensive than its more modern siblings. It even got a slight processor bump earlier this year to ensure that it’ll last you through your four years of school.
For that money, you’ll get a machine that sports Apple’s usual design and build quality, along with one of the best notebook keyboards around. The display is a little dated at 1,440 x 900 (128 PPI), but the battery is large at 54 watt-hours and so should provide for most of a school day’s productivity. You’ll get a couple of USB-A 3.0 ports for connectivity, along with a mini-DisplayPort to connect to an external monitor and an SD card reader.
The MacBook Air also won’t weigh you down, at 2.96 pounds, nor will it take up too much room in your backpack at 0.68 inches at its thickest point. In short, the oldest MacBook is currently the best machine for any college-bound MacOS user on a tight budget.
We do have to note that Apple hasn’t updated the MacBook Air’s design and specs in quite some time, and so it is a bit behind the technology curve. Recent rumors point to a more affordable MacBook replacement coming soon, but we feel the Apple would be well-served bring the maching up to date as well.
Best college laptop on a tight budget
Acer Aspire E 15
Why should you buy this: Just because you’re on a tight budget doesn’t mean you don’t want a quality machine.
Who’s it for: Any college student whose budget can’t stretch beyond the basics.
How much will it cost: $350
Why we picked the Acer Aspire E 15:
College is an expensive proposition, and sometimes you have other things to spend your money on than a new laptop. In today’s Windows 10 PC market, however, manufacturers are making great systems at every price point. You don’t have to accept an inferior machine just because your budget is tight.
A case in point is the Acer Aspire E 15, a 15.6-inch notebook that’s incredibly affordable and yet equips today’s modern components. For example, you can pick up a configuration with a seventh-generation Core i3-7100U processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard disk drive (HDD) for only $350. You’ll also enjoy a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 or 141 PPI) display that will provide plenty of room to work as well as a good platform for watching Netflix during your downtime.
In addition, you’ll enjoy excellent connectivity with two USB-A 3.0 ports, a USB-A 2.0 port, an Ethernet port for connecting to your dorm’s network, and both VGA and HDMI video connections. To keep all of your work backed up, you use either the DVD writer or the SD card reader. And, the Aspire E 15’s generous battery capacity promises up to 12 hours of use, meaning that you should be able to crunch through a school day at the library rather than remaining tethered to a charger in your dorm room.
If you can scrounge up some extra cash, then you should look at some of the prettier machines on our list. However, if you’d rather save your money for some better dorm room furniture or that textbook you don’t even need, then the Acer Aspire E 15 should meet your basic requirements with some room to spare.
How we test
We spend a tremendous amount of time reviewing notebooks of all shapes and sizes — and that’s saying something today, when notebooks come in so many shapes, sizes, and configurations. To make sure our recommendations provide real value to our readers, we live with the machines for a time and use them in writing our reviews — to make sure we can assess how they’ll work for real users.
But we do have a method to our madness in conducting these reviews, and you can get a behind-the-scenes look at it here. Hopefully, it will be obvious that our reviews are real labors of love — or hate, depending on the notebook – and therefore you can at least recognize that we don’t arrive at our conclusions without some serious consideration.