How to Choose a Laptop to Last Through School
If you’re a student, a laptop is as essential as your textbooks and school ID—and not just because of your school work. It should also be able to handle your big extracurricular activities: keeping up with your social networks, streaming movies, listening to music, posting photos, gaming, video chatting with the ‘rents back home. And of course, the best laptops for college students need to last for the long haul, preferably through four years of undergrad and maybe a year of grad work.
Lucky for you, we have a bunch below that fit that description perfectly—and they won’t drain your savings account. Here are the basics you should keep in mind while looking for a laptop for college.
First Off: Research Your College
The first, and most important, thing to do is check with your school for specific system requirements. They may have hard-and-fast recommendations. Or not.
Some colleges and universities want their students equipped with Windows-based laptops, to cut down on software incompatibility issues or to keep technical support concentrated on one platform. Others don’t care which operating system you use, whether it’s Windows, macOS, or even Linux if you’re a hard-core type. Some institutions have on-site computer repair centers that service only laptops purchased from the university or an affiliated computer store on campus; using one of these facilities, the turn-around time will be much quicker than if you were to send it overnight to the original manufacturer.
Also note that most schools offer price breaks for particular vendors and include extensive software bundles, which can shave off a good amount from your laptop purchase. So you might want to look into the campus store as a first shopping destination, before you hit your local superstore or favorite online seller.
Keeping It Light
Not every student will agree, but depending on how far you’ll haul it every day, a big-screen notebook may not be such a good idea.
It’s nice to have a mini home theater in your dorm room or play the best games in full 1080p, big-screen glory, but a 5-pound-plus laptop with a 15-inch or 17-inch screen will be a chore to haul across campus while you’re running from class to class. You’re better off with something that’s light: If screen size matters less to you than convenience, a super-thin ultraportable might be the way to go.
For most people, a maximum 13- or 14-inch widescreen is ideal, as it will make room for other items in your backpack and minimize the weight burden. Depending on your tolerance level, a smaller display works as long as you understand that full webpages and productivity applications will involve more scrolling, and fonts will appear smaller than they do on larger screens, assuming the same resolution and zoom level.
Essays, research papers, and chatting online with your classmates will take up most of your computing time, so a full-size keyboard and a comfortable touchpad are crucial. Also know: When you venture smaller than a 13-inch-class laptop, you run the risk of not getting the same typing experience. The easiest way to ensure that you have the best keyboard is to stop by a brick-and-mortar store and spend some time typing on prospective choices of different size classes. (If you decide to buy a smaller, less expensive laptop, it’s probably worth investing in a standalone keyboard you can keep at home or in the dorm for when you need to do a lot of typing. A desktop monitor you attach via HDMI could be a nice complement, too.)
How Much Power Do You Need?
Laptops offer a wide selection of processors across both budgets and usage cases—you can choose one that maximizes performance, or one that favors battery life. Or you can select one that plays to both strengths: Intel’s latest “Kaby Lake” and “Coffee Lake” Core CPUs (also known as seventh- and eighth-generation Intel processors) confer the benefits of both power and battery efficiency.
If you desire all-day battery life, and spend almost all of your time in a web browser, you might want to consider going with a chromebook. These typically run on low-powered processors (Intel Celeron and Pentium chips, in most cases), but these CPUs suffice for the kinds of workaday online tasks that chromebooks excel at. (More about chromebooks in a bit, below.) If performance, on the other hand, ranks high on the list, a Windows 10 or macOS machine with an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 CPU gives you the most oomph.
Note that not all Core i5 and i7 chips are created equal. The ones ending in “H” or “HQ” are the highest-performance chips, typically found in larger gaming-focused and power-user laptops, while the ones ending in “U” are efficient, low-power CPUs meant for use in thinner, more portable machines. More performance means more heat generated, which generally means the more substantial the chassis and supporting gear needed to cool the chip.
If you like playing games in your downtime, you might want to splurge on a more expensive gaming laptop. Most general-purpose machines, especially at under-$800 prices, won’t have the kind of discrete graphics chip (GPU) necessary to make the hottest AAA game titles look good and play smoothly. But if you hunt around a little, you can find gaming laptops these days starting at around $700 with a decent GPU for playing games at 1080p and moderate or better settings. (We’ve recommended a couple here at the moment, and similar models abound from Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo, MSI, and others.) A powerful GPU can also help in certain high-end and scientific applications that can benefit from GPU acceleration, but, like a high-powered processor, they also feast on the battery.
The good news is that, in most other cases (unless, say, you’re an architecture major with a heavy reliance on CAD software), most integrated GPUs should be more than enough for the day-to-day tasks you’ll face. This is the graphics silicon built into the processors of most budget laptops. Today, that overwhelmingly means some form of Intel integrated graphics: Intel HD Graphics, Intel UHD Graphics, or Intel Iris or Iris Plus graphics. Our reviews will detail their comparative performance levels, but none is a match for even a moderate dedicated GPU.
With the increasing prevalence of cloud storage and web applications, having plentiful local storage space is somewhat less vital now than it used to be, but you should still make sure that your laptop meets your needs. If you plan to install a lot of programs or want to hang on to lots of large media files, you’ll need 500GB of space or more. If you don’t foresee needing all that local storage, or are content with leaving a lot of your work online, you can get by with a laptop with less space.
Whichever way you go, remember that storage affects speed, too. If you go with a hard drive because you get more storage for less money, know that it will be noticeably slower than a snappy-feeling solid-state drive (SSD). The higher cost and lower capacity of a faster SSD may be a trade-off that some people are willing to make. The good news is that by plugging an external hard drive into your laptop’s USB port, you can add more space whenever you need it. Although you probably won’t have to do this unless you’re a video junkie or an aspiring filmmaker, it’s a good option to have.
Gamers may want to take an altogether different view. With many AAA game installations topping 40GB or 50GB each, a small SSD can get eaten up fast. You’ll want to think about that before you buy a machine, say, with a 256GB SSD alone, or at least be prepared to swap games on and off the drive as you complete them.
A sizable battery can be your biggest ally on a day filled with classes and extracurricular activities. A few school-oriented laptops come with multiple battery options. Others have only one—and it’s non-removable.
In this case, figure out where battery life ranks in the grand scheme of things. If removable batteries are an option, it might be a good idea to get a second one, or a larger, “extended” one if available, at the time of purchase. (The more “cells” the battery contains within a given model line, the better the battery life.)
A big battery can mean some heft, but the weight gain is well worth it if it means leaving the system unplugged from dawn until dusk. This is where our reviews come in especially handy; we’ve tested every laptop that passes through our labs for battery runtime with nonstop video playback, so you can get a good idea of relative endurance between models.
What About Chromebooks?
In the past several years, there has been a strong push by chromebook manufacturers into the education market. Chromebooks themselves have gone from being glorified netbooks running the Chrome OS to laptops that are still web-centric but have a relatively full feature set. If, like many schools, the one you’re attending puts its coursework in the cloud, a chromebook can offer you much of the functionality of a regular laptop, and it may deliver longer battery life.
It will also likely cost you a lot less than other types of notebooks, as chromebook prices typically run between $200 and $300 (although higher-end models can go for as much as $1,000). Just be sure you have easy access to constant Wi-Fi access, as there is scant local storage on these systems, and you have to plan ahead to use them effectively offline. PC gamers, of course, won’t find much use for one of these laptops; they only run Chrome OS apps and (in the case of most recent chromebooks) Android apps from the Google Play store. But a chromebook can also be a good, inexpensive second laptop you carry around campus to take notes, while your beastly gaming rig (or desktop gaming PC, for that matter) hangs back at the dorm or at home.
(In the market for a Chrome OS laptop? We’ve also rounded up today’s best chromebooks.)
Consider a Hybrid
In recent years, a new category of laptop/tablet hybrid has emerged. Hybrids, also known as 2-in-1s, are capable of functioning as traditional clamshell-style laptops when you need them to, but can transform into tablets when that’s a more convenient form factor for what you’re doing. Some (generally called convertibles) sport a folding design that flips the keyboard out of the way, usually by rotating all the way around its hinge, while others (detachables) allow you to dock a tablet/screen portion of the PC with an accessory keyboard for laptop-like functionality.
What About Windows 10 S?
You probably won’t run across Windows 10 S in your shopping travels, but it’s good to know what it is. Microsoft’s new student-centric version of its operating system is a locked-down version of Windows, aimed at preventing malware from being inadvertently downloaded. It’s compatible with any app in the Windows Store, but it doesn’t allow third-party Windows programs unless you convert your laptop to full Windows 10 Home or Pro. You can easily switch to the full version using the Microsoft Store app, but a fee may apply depending on your device, and you won’t be able to go back to Windows 10 S once you convert. Also, this version of the OS supports only the Edge Browser.
Windows 10 S comes preloaded on the Microsoft Surface Laptop (a $999 ultraportable model with a target placed firmly on the backs of Apple’s line of MacBooks) and in the consumer versions of the new-for-summer-’18 Microsoft Surface Go.
A Word on Warranties
Almost every laptop you might buy today is backed by at least a one-year warranty on parts and labor. Extended warranties are also available, but whether they’re worth it depends on who you are as a user.
For starters, know that the standard warranty doesn’t cover accidents that stem from a spilled drink or a drop on a hard surface. Most manufacturers sell accident coverage as a separate plan, on top of extended warranties that work on top of a standard one, so you might end up spending close to $300 for three years of coverage. Apple offers a maximum three-year extended warranty ($250), while most Windows-based laptop vendors will offer up to four years.
In our opinion, if the warranty costs more than 15 percent of the total laptop price, you’re better off spending the money on backup drives or services that minimize downtime in case something does go awry. Of course, you can’t put a price on peace of mind. In rare instances, the logic board or the display—the most expensive pieces of a laptop—can fail and cost you in repairs half of what the laptop is worth. Faulty components usually break down during the first year; anything after that is probably more about regular wear and tear.
So, what’s the best laptop to get for school? True, there are ever more choices on the market today, and slogging through them can be daunting. No worries, though: We did the work for you. Check out the hottest laptops to grace the dorm room, college classroom, and campus quad for this school year. (We specifically kept the pricing below $1,000, with the exception of the $1,299 MacBook Pro 13-inch, which we consider the best value in the current MacBook Pro line for most Apple-loyal users who don’t need heavy processing power.)
For more general factors to look for when shopping, check out our overall top laptop picks, as well as our favorite budget notebooks. And for more shopping advice for school, visit our Back-to-School Tech Guide.
Pros: Elegant, compact design. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports plus USB-C.
Cons: No HDMI or USB Type-A ports. 4K display means shorter battery life than its predecessor. Webcam looks up your nose.
Bottom Line: A new rose gold and white color scheme-well worth an extra $50-makes the Dell XPS 13 a stunning fashion statement, and it’s backed by strong performance and a svelte but sturdy build.
Pros: Great 1080p touch display. Long battery life. Nice fit and finish. Very usable keyboard and touchpad. Plenty of ports. Active stylus included.
Cons: Heavy for its size. Ho-hum VGA webcam. Scanty storage. Performance can be sluggish.
Bottom Line: With its wealth of features and super-budget price, the 11.6-inch Acer Spin 1 is an excellent-value 2-in-1 convertible.
Pros: Excellent battery life. Thin and light. Crisp Retina display. Price drop from last year’s model.
Cons: Connectivity limited to two USB-C ports. Small 128GB hard drive.
Bottom Line: The base model MacBook Pro gets an updated processor and a price drop, making it the best choice for Mac shoppers who want a blend of power and relative affordability.
Pros: Aggressive price. Slim, sturdy build is nice for the money. No garish gamer aesthetic. Super-slim bezels. HD gaming capable. Above-average keyboard.
Cons: GTX 1050’s performance ceiling with demanding games is limited. Smallish 256GB SSD in this model.
Bottom Line: Lenovo’s Legion Y530 tops today’s class of budget gaming laptops with a sleek, distinctive build, alongside solid performance and a full feature set.
Pros: Thin and light. Comfortable keyboard and touchpad. Two Thunderbolt ports. Quick charging. Good everyday computing performance.
Cons: Slightly bulky in Tablet mode. Screen bounces in Laptop mode. No SD card slot.
Bottom Line: The Lenovo Yoga 730 convertible laptop is a small but worthy iteration on its already-excellent predecessor, with better computing performance and a subtle redesign.
Pros: Low price. Sleek design. Large FHD display. Both types of USB ports. Competitive performance.
Cons: Short battery life. No SSD in test model. Lacks touch support. Keyboard not backlit.
Bottom Line: The 15.6-inch Asus VivoBook F510UA is an affordable, capable desktop replacement, but its short battery life makes it less compelling as an oversized thin-and-light portable.
Pros: Sturdy enough for grade-schoolers. Two USB-C and two USB 3.0 ports. Stylus included. Impressive battery life.
Cons: Low native screen resolution. No HDMI port. Ho-hum audio. Two cameras don’t add up to one decent one.
Bottom Line: If you can live with its low-res screen, Lenovo’s semi-rugged, fully flexible 500e Chromebook convertible is a winning choice for classrooms and consumers alike.
Pros: Light and thin body. Comfortable keyboard and palm rest. Long battery life.
Cons: Limited port selection. Installed OS is locked to Windows Store apps. Windows 10 Pro is a paid upgrade after promotional period. Surface Pen not included.
Bottom Line: Microsoft’s Surface Laptop with Windows 10 S is aimed at students looking for a sleek alternative to the aging Apple MacBook Air. It’s stylish and powerful, but you’ll want to nab the free Windows 10 Pro upgrade while you can.
Pros: Solidly built. Strong 1080p gaming performance for the price. SSD and large 1TB hard drive. USB Type-C with Thunderbolt 3.
Cons: Competition offers a full-power GTX 1060 for a similar price. Shallow keyboard. Chassis is heavy on the plastic. Merely average display quality.
Bottom Line: Capable of 60fps gaming at or near maximum settings, the Dell G7 15 is an appealing, budget-friendly gaming laptop with plenty of storage, even if the design is basic.
Pros: Low-cost entry point to the Surface line. Build quality is high. Small, lightweight design. Good potential for education use.
Cons: Middling speed. Keyboard is cramped and costs extra. Narrow for on-lap use. No full-size USB ports.
Bottom Line: The well-built Surface Go is the least expensive route into Microsoft’s superb Surface tablet line, and the most portable option. Just know that frequent travelers will like it best, and the core processing power is on the light side.