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Published Aug. 16, 2021

Once upon a time, school required pens and pencils, notebooks, a good calculator, a dependable typewriter, tons of textbooks, and a classroom. Now you can get all that and so much more in a single device. So how do you go about choosing the best laptop for college? A fast laptop is a must and so is one that is portable enough to transport to and from campus and between classes. Or if you’re learning online, good laptops for college are ones that travel easily from room to room at home. Plus you’ll need a laptop for school that can perform all the functions your education requires with some other tricks left over for when you aren’t busy doing schoolwork.

The best college laptops can make an easy transition from high school to college, but narrowing down your options from among all the various brands and models available can be challenging. Before you start, make a list of preferences and non-negotiables, and then let the search begin.

Finding the best laptops for college

One of the most important things to ask yourself when embarking on your hunt for the best laptop for college might be this: What is your preferred operating system: Windows, Chrome, or Mac OS? Windows is flexible and runs on a larger number of laptops. Chrome offers more apps, games, and offline functions. Macs, meanwhile, have better security and advanced technology, but MacBooks are pricey and do not have touch screens. Be sure the operating system you settle on offers everything you’ll need for your classwork. 

Another thing to think about when looking at good laptops for school is whether you want a 2-in-1 model that can function as both a laptop and a tablet. Size will matter, too. Students who will be carrying around their laptops a lot might want to go smaller. That said, portability might mean sacrificing a first-rate gaming experience as well as the ability to use the laptop for complicated design projects. 

Other key things to look for are the types of ports incorporated into the design, storage capacity, and screen resolution. Also, look into whether the laptop has 4G LTE or 5G support—just in case you need to access the internet when you’re away from a router, like during a long lecture. Student laptop deals will make the purchase easier on the wallet. But when it comes to battery life, longer is better. Don’t settle for anything that won’t last at least seven hours when not connected to a power source.

What size laptop do you need?

The best laptop for college should be one that doesn’t take up too much space in your backpack and won’t weigh down your back as you walk (or bike) from class to class. Laptops are generally portable, but some are bulkier than others. Screen sizes typically range from between 11 and 18 inches, and going toward the lower end of that range no longer means you have to settle for only the most basic functions. A good laptop should tick all the necessary boxes regardless of size. So if you’d prefer to carry around one that weighs three pounds as opposed to nine, it should still offer quality, speed, and long battery life.

That said, the smaller you go, the fewer ports you may have to make external connections, although there are dongles that can pick up the slack. Other potential drawbacks: Compact laptops aren’t necessarily conducive to a high-end gaming experience, smaller displays might not be as easy on the eyes, and mini models might not be ideal for designing and other tasks that require multiple screens and more sophisticated interfaces. You’ll also have to settle for a smaller screen to watch movies and TV shows, but since the best laptop for college will be used primarily for educational purposes (or should be), this drawback might provide a necessary deterrent for students tempted to replace study sessions with streaming ones.

Best mini laptop: Microsoft Surface Pro 7

Small and Sleek

This ultra-slim design comes with a long-lasting battery. Microsoft

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The Microsoft Surface Pro 7 is available in platinum, black and matte black, and it has USB-c and USB-a ports for multiple connections. The battery can last up to 10.5 hours on a full charge, and it only takes a little over an hour to go from empty to 80 percent. A free upgrade to Windows 11 on one of these Microsoft laptops as soon as it’s available is also included.

Do you want to go with a 2-in-1 laptop?

The best laptop for college can actually function as both a laptop and a tablet. The display portion of a hybrid 2-in-1 can snap apart from the keyboard to be used as a tablet, while a convertible 2-in-1 has a hinge design that allows the screen to rotate on the keyboard or flip back 360 degrees into tablet mode. The obvious benefits are the money you save by buying one device instead of two (which can indeed be offset by the hefty price tags on some high-end 2-in-1 models), and the space you save in your backpack. You also have access to all your desktop apps and your tablet apps in basically one place.

On the downside, if you go for a cheaper model, you might not get an abundance of processing power or battery life, and as much hard drive space as with a traditional laptop. If you are worried about subjecting an uncovered detached screen to the same abuse that slippery traditional tablets often have to endure, you might prefer to go with a convertible model, which offers a level of protection from wear and tear by making the device easier to safely grip by the keyboard side when in tablet mode.

Best 2-in-1 laptop: Dell Inspiron 14 5406 2-in-1 Convertible Laptop

Night-Friendly Design

This Dell laptop easily transforms from a workstation to a portable cinema. Dell

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The screen is backlit, which makes it easier to work in low-light situations, and the power button has a fingerprint reader to make signing on speedier. Turning it on is faster, too: Just flip up the lid, and a sensor automatically boots it up.

Do you want to be dependent on a router connection or public WiFi?

The best laptop for college will never leave you in a situation where you are unable to get online because you’re away from a router or in a classroom or public space with no WiFi connection. If you get a 4G LTE (long-term evolution) or 5G laptop, you’ll always be able to access the Internet using a built-in modem that can connect to an internet provider the way your phone does. You won’t have to worry about the security risk of using public WiFi or tethering your laptop to your smartphone and draining its battery.

It may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. There is one trade-off, though: You get what you pay for, and you’ll be paying a bit extra. Laptops with built-in modems can be expensive, and you’ll also have to pay for the data. It can add up over time, so LTE laptops will be more useful to students who must always have a guaranteed connection and don’t mind spending $20 or so a month for 2 GB, just in case they need a back-up plan in situations where a router or public WiFi fails or isn’t available at all.

Best 4G LTE or 5G laptop: Microsoft Surface Pro LTE

Powerful and Portable

The Intel Core processor helps this laptop deliver faster speed and higher performance. Microsoft

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The Microsoft Surface Pro LTE is LTE-supported, so you never have to worry about being stuck without an Internet connection. Other perks include up to 13.5 hours of battery life (50 percent longer than the Surface Pro 4), a touch screen with extra-sharp resolution, and a fanless cooling system.

Will you be using your laptop for gaming?

If you will be using your laptop for gaming as well as doing schoolwork, you’ll need more than just the basics. To start with, you’ll probably want to go a bit larger with the screen size since visuals will be important. Just be sure to choose a size that will fit into your backpack when classes are in session on campus or you’re gaming away from home.

You’ll probably also want a better resolution for clean, crisp graphics and as close to hi-fi sound as you can get. As for speed and performance, 4GB of RAM is passable, 8GB is highly recommended, and 12GB will provide a positively premium gaming experience. An external keyboard and mouse, headphones, and a separate monitor can enhance game time and give a student something to look forward to during brutal marathon study sessions.

Best gaming laptop: Acer Nitro 5 AN517-54-77KG Gaming Laptop

Great Performance

This makes a smooth transition from gaming device to online-schooling tool. Acer

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The screen on this Acer laptop is large enough to ensure you won’t miss any of the action while gaming (the display is in HD, too). And at twice the RAM required for the best gaming laptops, it promises peak performance. There’s also 1TB of storage space for school necessities, four USB 3.0 ports, and an average battery life of eight hours. It’s probably too big to fit into most traditional backpacks, but it should comfortably fit into a larger tote bag.

Can you get a good laptop for college at a discount price?

The best laptop for college and high school will make a dent in your bank account, but it doesn’t have to be a massive one. Although how much you spend will depend largely on the features that are important to you, you should be able to get a decent one for well under $1,000. The average laptop customer is said to spend around $600 or $700, but you can go significantly lower than that if you require few to no bells and whistles. 

Acer and Lenovo both sell budget models in the $400 price range, while at between $200 and $300, Hewlett Packard’s Stream 11 is billed as the cheapest Windows laptop your money can buy. Although it offers good performance and long battery life (about nine hours on a full charge), the low-res display isn’t the best and neither is the webcam. Samsung’s Chromebook 4 is equally budget-friendly, so don’t let the idea that the best laptop for college is out of your budget to stop you from seeking it out.

Best budget laptop: Acer Aspire 5 A515-46-R14K Slim Laptop

Excellent Value

This model offers premium performance at a budget-friendly price. Acer

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The Acer Aspire 5 A515-46-R14K Slim Laptop is a good choice for college that ticks all the major boxes. Its dual-band WiFi 6 connection makes it a fast laptop, and this model of Acer laptops comes with BlueLightShield protects your eyes from the glare of blue light. A backlit keyboard, fingerprint reader, and noise-canceling technology make this one of the best performing laptops that a little bit of money can buy.

FAQs

Q: What size laptop is good for a college student?

A laptop with a 13.3-inch screen that weighs around three pounds is good for a college student. Anything that’s larger than 15.6 inches might not be able to fit into your backpack, and anything heavier than four or five pounds could be murder on your back.

Q: Is 8GB RAM enough for college?

Fortunately, 8G of RAM (random access memory, which determines the laptop’s speed and performance) should be enough laptop memory to get anyone through four years of college. That said, engineering and business students who will be processing a lot of data should opt for 16GB.

Q: Are 2-in-1 laptops worth it for college?

A 2-in-1 laptop is worth getting for college because they are portable and cheaper than spending money on a separate laptop and tablet. You can get a hybrid model where the screen and keyboard snap apart or a convertible one that allows the screen to flip all the way back into tablet mode. Touch screens make 2-in-1 laptops easier to negotiate without a mouse, which saves even more money and space.

The final word on the best laptops for college

Choosing one of the best student laptops for college can be a daunting task, but if you arm yourself with a solid list of requirements, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. A smaller model allows for easier portability, while a 2-in-1 can enhance versatility. What is the best laptop to buy? The answer might differ from student to student, but thankfully for those on a budget, the best-rated laptops aren’t necessarily the most expensive.

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