Hunting down the best laptop for your money can be a real pain. Buying for yourself is one thing: You and you alone must suffer with your decision. But when you’re on the market hunting down the best laptops for high school students, making the wrong decision will produce an endless flow of complaints. It’s too slow. It’s too heavy. It won’t run my programs. Painful, we know, so we’re here to save you from the horrors.
As parents, we know exactly what you need to buy. Don’t jump on Amazon and buy a cheap laptop originally released in 2012. There are plenty of modern options sporting the same price tag. Most of what you’ll find below are based on Intel’s latest eighth-generation processors, and screens ranging from 13.3 inches and larger.
All but one laptop listed below is based on Windows 10 Home. We selected a Chromebook as well in case you want to bypass Windows altogether. Chromebooks are highly popular in the educational system for their lightweight design and dependence on web-based applications.
Acer Aspire E 15
If you’re looking for an all-around great laptop for your high school student, but don’t want to beg the bank for a loan, Acer’s Aspire E 15 models fit the bill. There are two versions for the picking: a $599 model with an eighth-generation Core i5 processor and a $799 version with an eighth-generation Core i7 chip. These two CPUs are the latest built by Intel for laptops, so they should stay relevant for a few years.
Backing the eighth-generation Intel CPUs is a discrete (stand-alone) GeForce MX150 graphics chip by Nvidia. It’s designed specifically for laptops, promising four times the performance experience with Intel’s integrated graphics. The chip wasn’t built for high-end gaming, but it can handle eSports-related games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and DOTA 2 at 60 frames per second using a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution. That’s not too shabby.
Of course, you’re not buying a laptop for your student to play games all night. Having a stand-alone discrete GPU is beneficial in other areas that demand high levels of graphics processing, such as 3D animation, video editing, CAD design, and so on. Backing both the GPU and CPU is 8GB of system memory, and a minimally-sized 256GB SSD. The laptop even includes a DVD writer!
Other features packed into Acer’s laptop include two video outputs, a handful of USB ports, wireless and wired networking, and an SD card reader. But it’s not exactly thin and light, measuring 0.94 inches thick at the front, and 1.19 inches in the back. Given its size, students may elect to keep this laptop at home unless they are comfortable stuffing it into their backpacks along with their textbooks, or carrying the laptop by hand.
Acer Chromebook 15
This is probably the biggest and best Chromebook we’ve seen in a while. Although the processor isn’t served up in the usual “Core” flavor, it does a fine job running Google’s Chrome-branded operating system. There’s no discrete graphic chip like we saw in Acer’s Windows 10 laptop, but it can handle graphics applications lower than the default resolution at a decent frame rate.
One of the bigger features of Acer’s Chromebook is its support for Google Play. At its core, Chrome OS was designed to handle web-based apps, so students and other users aren’t downloading possible malicious apps. With Google Play support, you can download and install most of your favorite Android apps, but that means the Chromebook’s 32GB of storage can quickly disappear.
Despite its 15.6-inch screen, Acer’s Chromebook is rather thin and light, measuring 0.75 inches thick and weighing 4.30 pounds. The screen is a decent Full HD resolution, but it’s the technology behind that screen that really shines, providing wide viewing angles and rich, deep colors. All that imagery is backed by an awesome speaker placement, which seats a front-facing speaker on each side of the backlit keyboard.
As for other goodies packed into Acer’s big Chromebook, it includes two USB-C ports, either of which can be used to power the Chromebook and/or recharge the battery. That battery isn’t shabby at all either, lasting around 12 hours while streaming video non-stop. The device also includes two regular USB ports, Wireless AC networking, and a 720p webcam that’s perfect for Google Hangouts.
Best Budget Laptop
HP Stream 14t
The good news with this laptop is that it has a decent-sized screen at 14 inches. The drawback is that the resolution is only 1,366 x 768, which is rather low for a laptop currently sold on the market. It’s also backed by a dual-core Intel Celeron processor that was released in the first quarter of 2016, so it’s coming up on hitting its second anniversary. While there’s nothing wrong with this mixture of ingredients, this combination is why the laptop is so inexpensive.
For the money, you get a decent amount of performance stemming from two processor cores with a base speed of 1.60GHz, and a maximum speed of 2.48GHz. The CPU is backed by Intel’s integrated graphics and 4GB of system memory to handle normal tasks like web browsing, document editing, streaming “high definition” video, and more. There’s even a built-in camera for web-based video collaboration.
Although HP doesn’t list a 64GB option on its website, you can find the laptop on Amazon with 32GB and 64GB capacities. Otherwise, the features remain the same: wired and wireless networking, a handful of USB ports, an SD card reader, and HDMI video output. The device measures a mere 0.70 inches thick, and weighs 3.17 pounds.
This isn’t the only Stream-branded laptop sold by HP. The company also lists 11.6-inch models ranging from $199 to $479 for mainstream students and “pro” users. All appear to rely on Intel Celeron processors by default, but the “pro” models pack higher storage capacities, and the Windows 10 Pro operating system. But what you get with the Stream 14t at $249 is a real bargain, especially for a 14-inch laptop.
Best Premium Laptop
Asus Zenbook UX330UA
Although the Zenbook UX330UA packs the smallest screen on our list, the horses underneath its 13.3-inch hood can’t be ignored. Powering this laptop is an eighth-generation Intel Core i5-8250U processor, 8GB of system memory, and a somewhat-speedy SSD with a 256GB capacity. There’s no discrete graphics chip, which is why Acer’s Aspire E 15 won our top pick over this impressive eighth-generation laptop.
Of all the laptops on our list, this model is the only one packing a fingerprint reader. This reader supports Windows Hello, allowing students to access Windows 10 using their finger instead of manually entering credentials. For parents, this may seem troublesome, but you can always access the PC using whatever PIN or password you created. Windows 10 also provides parental controls, so you can limit the types of content your student accesses on and offline, and receive a weekly report detailing the student’s activities.
Intel’s Core i5-8250U is a four-core chip with a base speed of 1.60GHz and a maximum speed of 3.40GHz. The integrated graphics isn’t exactly performance driven, but it’s capable of outputting a 4K resolution through a DisplayPort adapter. Video outputs include a MicroHDMI port, and the two USB-A ports that support vide output through an adapter or dock.
Other goodies packing into the laptop include wireless networking (wired is available through a USB adapter), Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity, and a 720p webcam. The laptop measures just 0.53 inches thin, and weighs 2.64 pounds, making it an easily portable device for any high school student.
How We Test
Laptop testing begins on a visual level. We look at the overall quality, how the screen connects to the base, the spacing of the keys, the sturdiness of the chassis (shell), and more. We walk around with the unit in our hands to determine its portability: is it extremely heavy? How well does it withstand bumps? You know, the fun, easy, visual stuff.
Of course, looks aren’t everything. We use specific software to test the processor, graphics, storage read/write speed, and battery life. Benchmarking can be a long process – especially when you’re trying to kill a battery that promises an uptime of over 20 hours. For laptops with discrete graphics chips, we use PC games to determine how well they render output frames at specific resolutions every second.
We also make sure the screens deliver as promised. We have a special tool for that, which measures the screen’s brightness level, how it correctly displays colors, the contrast ratio level, and so on. While we’re killing the battery with a video loop, we’ll sit down and watch how each frame is rendered on-screen, and listen to how the sound projects from the laptop’s speakers.
Ultimately, our evaluation stems from both software-generated numbers, and our hands-on personal opinion. But we have opinions as parents too, thus we feel that any one of these laptops would be a great fit for one of our own kids.