The best laptops for college in 2018

Don’t start adulthood with a bad decision. These are the best college laptops

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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.

At a glance

Product Category Rating
Asus ZenBook UX330UA The best 4 out of 5 
Microsoft Surface Go The best for taking notes in class 3.5 out of 5
Samsung Chromebook Pro The best for Google users 4 out of 5
MacBook Pro 13-inch The best for Apple lovers 3 out of 5
Acer Aspire E 15 The best budget option 4 out of 5

Asus ZenBook UX330UA

The best laptop for college

Asus Zenbook UX330 review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

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:

A well built, feature-complete, very affordable machine, the Asus ZenBook UX330UA does it all. We gave it a 8 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. With the release of a new UX331UA model, retailing at closer to $800, the UX330UA has just been refreshed with an affordable $750 price tag. You’ll be happy with either version, though the newer model has thinned out bezels and a slightly light chassis.

One of this ZenBook’s best attributes is that it looks premium, despite being made 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. A solid, reliable choice, the Asus ZenBook UX330UA (or UX331UA) proves you don’t need to spend an inordinate amount of money to get a great laptop for college.

Read our full Asus ZenBook UX330UA review

Microsoft Surface Go

The best for taking notes in class

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

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 $400 (without keyboard)

Why we picked the Microsoft Surface Go:

Markedly different from the other entries on this list, Microsoft’s most recent detachable tablet shines in its flexibility. Six years in, Microsoft has had plenty of chances to get its formula right. And they did — the Surface Go is a well built, stylish tablet perfect for unobtrusively taking notes in lectures and seminars.

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 solid productivity performance and battery life. You may not be able to use this as a gaming  or high-performance device, but for $400 you’ll get 64GB of storage, an Intel 4415Y CPU, and 4GB of RAM, which is more than enough for writing papers or catching up on Netflix. The battery also lasts around eight hours, which should get you through the day without charging.  It’s not perfect, but a college student is the perfect demographic for this highly-portable, 2-in-1 laptop.

Read our full Microsoft Surface Go review

Samsung Chromebook Pro

The best for Google users

Samsung Chromebook Pro review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

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 less hardware than Windows 10, and extends support for Android apps to laptops. If you cringe at the thought of using a Chromebook from the terrible one your high school loaned you, think again. Our favorite Chromebook, the Samsung Pro model is beautiful to look at and impressive to work on.

For $550, 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 Chrome OS requires far fewer computing resources — 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.  This all resides beneath a convertible laptop to tablet design, supporting not only media consumption, but convenient note-taking as well.

Read our full Samsung Chromebook Pro review

MacBook Pro 13-inch

The best for Apple lovers

macbook pro 13 inch non touch bar vs 15 2016 keyboard 1200x9999

Why should you buy this: With a recent refresh, the MacBook Pro is back on the market.

Who’s it for: College students who prefer MacOS and can’t wait for the new MacBooks.

How much will it cost: $1,300

Why we picked the MacBook Pro:

With the MacBook Air hopelessly out of date and the 12-inch MacBook too expensive, there just isn’t a great option for college students in the Mac world right now. In fact, we’d highly recommend springing for one of the Windows 10 options on this list or waiting for the high-rumored $1,000 MacBook coming this fall. But if you fall into the camp of wanting a Mac right now, picking up the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar is your best bet.

It should be noted that while the higher-end MacBook Pros received a mid-summer refresh, the entry-level version is still on 7th-gen Intel CPUs. So, while it’s a bit outdated, what you do get is Apple’s extremely high-quality build, great performance, excellent warranty, and cool-kid credibility that comes with the brand. Just start applying for that on-campus job now so you can afford this thing.

Read our full MacBook Pro 13-inch review

Acer Aspire E 15

The best budget option

Acer Aspire E 15 Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

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. That’s why it’s great to not have to compromise with 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 an Aspire E 15 configuration for only $350 with a seventh-generation Core i3-7100U processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard disk drive (HDD) for only $350. Or, you can jump up to reasonable $600 for an Aspire E 15 that sports an eighth-generation Intel Core i5-8250U, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SATA SSD, and a discrete Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU that’s good enough for some light gaming during study breaks.

In either case, you’ll also enjoy a 1080p display and excellent connectivity with two USB-A 3.0 ports, a USB-A 2.0 port, a USB-C 3.1 port for futuristic support, an Ethernet port for connecting to your dorm’s network, and both VGA and HDMI video connections. In a day and age where companies are sidelining compatibility concerns, that’s nothing to sneeze at. But perhaps most impressive is the Aspire E 15’s generous battery capacity, in our testing, met Acer’s own 12-hour estimate when looping a local video. You’ll be free to roam campus all day without lugging around a power brick or having to dash back to your dorm for extra charging.

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 can meet your basic requirements with some room to spare. In face, we think that many people, students or not, might consider the Aspire E 15 to be all the notebook they need.

Read our full Aspire E 15 review

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.

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