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- Laptops are essential for everything college students do, whether it’s for work or fun.
- The best college laptops offer strong performance, great battery life, and sharp screens.
- The Dell XPS 13 is our top pick because it expertly balances performance, reliability, and design.
Besides tuition, textbooks, and lodging, many college students will need to spend money on a new laptop. The best college laptops will get you through four (or more, depending on your program) years of schoolwork as well as YouTube, Netflix , and Spotify binges.
An ideal laptop for college is one that won’t slow down after a couple of years or crash constantly while you’re trying to get work done. It’s also slim and lightweight for carrying around campus, and has ample battery life so that it doesn’t die on you at inopportune times. You’ll also need to consider your major area of study: humanities may require more memory for all the tabs you’ll open writing research papers, while engineering or art can require more processing power to design and create.
To help you find the best college laptop in time for your first round of exams, we’ve gathered up the best ones we’ve tested. Where needed, we’ve included some picks based on extensive research and our decades of computing expertise and knowledge.
Here are the best college laptops of 2021:
The best college laptop overall
The Dell XPS 13 has all the hallmarks of an excellent laptop: strong performance, a lightweight and striking design, a comfortable keyboard, and a gorgeous display.
Pros: Excellent design, attractive screen, long battery life, good performance
Cons: Webcam could be better
Dell’s flagship laptop has always stood out for its eye-catching design, nearly borderless screen, and solid performance. That’s still true in 2021 with the newest version of the Dell XPS 13, which runs on Intel’s 11th-generation processors and now offers the option for an OLED display. The cheapest model is currently on sale for $783.99 through Dell, which is a great price for a laptop of this caliber.
The XPS 13’s design is a big part of what makes it a great choice for college students in particular. It starts at just 2.6 pounds, making it even lighter than the MacBook Air. Since there are barely any borders framing its screen, Dell was able to cram a 13-inch screen in what’s essentially the size of an 11-inch laptop. That could be useful for college students in need of a portable laptop that will fit in almost any bag.
The XPS 13 also has one of the most comfortable keyboards I’ve ever typed on, a perk students will appreciate when writing long papers or taking notes in class.
Battery life in real-world usage is about six hours, which isn’t the best we’ve seen on a laptop but is still more than enough to get you through a day of classes. But like many laptops, the Dell XPS 13’s webcam resolution is only 720p, which might make you look a bit blurry and dim in video calls.
The XPS 13 should also pack plenty of performance, considering even the cheapest configuration on Dell’s website comes with an 11th-generation Intel Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.
Dell also offers a 10% discount on select electronics and accessories as part of its education discount program for those who qualify, in addition to other sales on laptops tied to the back-to-school season.
Originally $999.99Save 22%
The best budget college laptop
The Acer Chromebook 15 offers the best value laptop for students on a budget.
Pros: Large 1080p screen, long battery life, top-firing speakers, plenty of ports
Cons: No biometric login, small local storage
For anyone prioritizing value above all else, we recommend the Acer Chromebook 15. This Chromebook features plenty of parts and niceties found in much pricier laptops — such as a 15-inch screen, top-firing speakers, and USB-C connectivity.
That means you’re getting a fairly large screen with a decent resolution — not to mention full-sounding speakers — for watching Netflix and getting schoolwork done. The USB-C port runs on the USB 3.1 standard, so you’ll get 5-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) data speeds rather than the faster 40 Gbps speeds available through Thunderbolt 3.
The Acer Chromebook 15 also has a webcam with high-dynamic-range, or HDR, for deeper color support in video chats, and an 802.11ac Wi-Fi radio — the most widely used standard today.
Otherwise, the Acer Chromebook 15 includes a dual-core Intel Celeron CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 32GB SSD, two USB-C ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, and a battery that’s rated for up to 12 hours of use. Suffice it to say, you’re getting the niceties of a $600 laptop for almost half the price.
With that said, you get what you pay for: It has a serviceable but basic design, and it has an even smaller hard drive than the Google Pixelbook Go (see below), so you would definitely need extra storage — either cloud or external drive. And like the Pixelbook Go, you have the same Chromebook limitations. But for many college students who don’t need the frills or plan to run any intensive web apps, the Acer is a great option.
Acer also recently announced a new 14-inch Chromebook with a 1080p screen that claims to offer 15 hours of battery life. It launches in July starting at $270, and we look forward to testing it soon.
Students should also check out Acer’s education discount program, which slashes 10% off certain prices and offers free shipping.
The best college MacBook
The new MacBook Air gets a big boost in speed and battery life thanks to Apple’s M1 chip, all while keeping the same sleek design.
Pros: Fast performance, super-long battery life, much improved camera
Cons: Lacks facial recognition and a borderless screen, iPhone apps don’t add much without touch screens
Apple’s thin-and-light laptop got a major upgrade in late 2020 with the introduction of its M1 chip, which brings much longer battery life and more power. That makes the $999 MacBook Air an even better choice for college students that may frequently find themselves away from an outlet.
I was able to get about 12 hours of use out of the M1-powered MacBook Air, which is a noticeable increase from the previous-generation Intel MacBook Air’s 7-hour battery life. Other than the boost in battery life and speed, you can also expect a significantly improved webcam that leverages Apple’s image signal processor. That can be useful for students that may be attending lectures remotely or that frequently video chat with friends and family while away at school.
We prefer the MacBook Air over the M1-powered MacBook Pro for its slimmer design and lower price. Both laptops offer a very similar experience, making the Pro a tough sell, especially for those who just need a laptop for writing papers, watching videos, and doing some light multimedia editing.
The MacBook Air’s starting configuration comes with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. It typically starts at $999, but students can get it at a $100 discount that brings the price down to $899. As part of Apple’s back-to-school promotion, which runs through September 27, you can also get a free pair of AirPods for buying a new MacBook Air.
Originally $999.99Save 10%
The best 2-in-1 college laptop
Lenovo’s Yoga 9i packs plenty of power into a slim 2-in-1 design, but it’s really the audio that sets this laptop apart.
Pros: Excellent sound, sleek design, integrated stylus
Cons: Webcam is only 720p, ports located on one side
The Lenovo Yoga 9i has a sleek design, integrated stylus, and excellent audio — making it great for scribbling notes, watching a movie, or blasting tunes in your room before a night out.
It’s the successor to our previous pick, the Yoga C940, and comes with Intel’s newer 11th-generation processors as well as other improvements. It’s one of the pricier options on this list, but it has plenty to offer. The cheapest option available through Lenovo right now includes a powerful Intel Core i7 processor, a 1080p 14-inch screen, 8GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage.
The Yoga 9i’s rotating Dolby Atmos soundbar is also capable of pumping out boisterous sound whether it’s being used in laptop, tent, or tablet mode. That’s because the soundbar is located in the hinge, a prime location that enables it to fire sound upward and outward regardless of its position. The battery life is average, but should be more than enough for most people.
Overall, it’s a great choice for those who want a powerful laptop with a great keyboard, excellent sound, and a flexible design that enables it to double as a tablet. But that doesn’t mean it comes without drawbacks.
The 720p webcam is fairly dim, which might make video calls less pleasant. There are plenty of ports, including one USB-A and two USB-C slots with Thunderbolt 4 for connecting accessories. But all of those ports are located on one side, which could be inconvenient.
Students can get a 5% discount site-wide through Lenovo, but that doesn’t apply to products that are on doorbuster or clearance sales.
What else we considered
The best college Chromebook: Google Pixelbook Go
Google’s latest is the best college Chromebook because it combines a sleek design with an incredible keyboard and a surprising level of hardware for its starting price.
Pros: Excellent display, incredible keyboard, lightweight and slim, long battery life
Cons: Fan-less CPU, pricey upgrades, no biometric login, small-capacity storage
If your budget allows and you want a Chromebook that’s a bit more powerful, check out Google’s newest Chromebook, the Pixelbook Go.
With its attainable starting price, the Pixelbook Go provides a shockingly luxurious portable computing experience that similarly-priced laptops couldn’t come close to. For example, the Pixelbook Go has a 1080p touch-capable display with a 1080p camera, in addition to 8GB of RAM.
However, the Pixelbook G o does come a bit short on storage, at least local storage. With merely 64GB of space in the entry configuration, it leans heavily on Google Drive cloud storage, which starts at $1.99 per month (or $19.99 per year) for 100GB more space (online connectivity required). Still, most other Chromebooks at this price point offer either the same or less local storage. Finally, the Pixelbook Go’s battery can last for up to 12 hours, by Google’s measure, putting it in line with the MacBook Air.
We adore the Pixelbook Go for its silent and comfy keyboard as well as its overall offering of premium hardware for a relatively budget price. At its starting configuration, this is the best Chromebook for the money, although not the cheapest. However, if you’re looking at the priciest model — with an Intel Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a 4K Ultra HD screen — we’d recommend seeking a high-end Windows or MacBook laptop instead.
The reason why we aren’t recommending this for college students is that we think the Acer Chromebook 15 is a terrific option and cost less money.
What to look for in a college laptop
The hardware inside of your laptop — often referred to as the “specs” — will determine how well it will run on a daily basis, and how long it should last before it gets replaced. All of the laptops in our guide should have enough processing power, storage, memory, and battery longevity to last for at least an entire four-year term of study.
Of course, the more powerful laptops will be faster and could last a lot longer, but they’re more expensive. You’ll have to look within your budget, but we are recommending laptops that work for most college students.
We’re here to help you understand all the key aspects of a laptop and how they can play into your ability to use the machine for college.
OS and software support
Each of the laptops in our guide runs one of the three major operating systems (OS): Windows, MacOS, and ChromeOS. Each OS has its own set of pros and cons.
- Windows 10: Windows 10 is the most popular computing operating system, and you’ll have no problem finding the right software to help get your work done. It’s also the best OS for games, if that’s how you plan on spending your free time. The downside is that, because it’s so popular and open, hackers generally target Windows first, so it’s important to run antivirus software regularly and update the OS as security patches get released. Learn more about what to know about Windows 11 before buying a new laptop.
- MacOS: Like Windows, MacOS is a fully fledged OS with a robust library of apps. If you need a popular app to get your work done, it’s almost definitely available for the Mac. The downside is that MacOS only runs on Apple hardware, which is typically a lot more expensive than Windows alternatives. The two upsides are that MacOS has far fewer viruses than Windows, and it shares many of the same apps as the iPhone.
- ChromeOS: ChromeOS is different from MacOS and Windows because it’s based on Google’s Chrome browser, and it requires online connectivity for much of its functionality. You won’t have access to the same types of software as you would on a Mac or PC, but you can still use Google’s G suite to write papers, prepare presentations, create and edit spreadsheets, and more. Learn more about whether a Chromebook is right for you.
There are three important considerations for a laptop display for school. The first is resolution, which effectively lets you know how clear the picture will be. The short version is that the higher the number, the better the clarity.
You’ll often see labels such as 720p (“HD”), 1080p (“Full HD”), 4K (“UHD”, “Ultra HD”, or 2160p). Though more is better, the smaller displays of laptops tend to look perfectly sharp at 1080p, and the upgrade to 4K often comes with major sacrifices to battery life.
Size is the next consideration. Smaller 11 and 12-inch displays are better when you only need one window open at a time. Medium-sized 13 and 14-inch models are good for light multitasking, but can be difficult if you’re not comfortable with small tests. Larger 15.6- and 17-inch displays offer more workspace but will often mean bigger, heavier devices.
Then there’s brightness, which is often measured in nits. A display that’s rated at 300 nits or below, it’ll be hard to use outdoors in bright conditions. Higher-brightness displays may work better outdoors, as can displays that offer a matte or anti-glare finish.
Your processor is going to play heavily into how speedy your computer feels. Luckily, outside of gaming, engineering, or digital art, most modern processors you’ll find in laptops will do just fine for school work.
If the laptop you’re looking at has an Intel processor, know that 8th-Gen Intel Core processors and newer will all but guarantee decent performance. If you don’t see a generation listed, you can always find it out by looking at the processor’s name, as the generation number always appears in this underlined spot: Intel Core i7-9700.
For AMD processors, you’ll find Ryzen 3000 and 4000 series processors are up to snuff. For higher performance needs look for Intel or AMD processors that have an H at the end of their model name – these indicate high-power models in both cases.
Your computer’s memory, or RAM (random access memory), is what keeps all your applications up and running. It’s measured in gigabytes, and the simple thing to understand is that more is better. For most people, 8GB of RAM is plenty. But if you often work with a lot of windows and tabs open (especially in Chrome), you may start to use it all up.
Your computer can start to feel a lot slower if all your RAM is getting used, and you may have programs crash. The upgrade to 16GB will more likely than not cover most users’ needs outside of 3D modeling or high-res video editing. You may even be able to get by on 4GB if you tend to use your computer lightly for word processing and a couple browser tabs.
It’s easy to keep a lot of important files saved online, so storage has become a bit less important for our laptops. You likely don’t need a terabyte on your laptop if you stream movies and music. If you plan to game after class, that’s when extra storage will be most crucial. For non-gamers, 256GB or even 128GB will likely be enough.
What’s most important is getting solid state storage (or an SSD), as these will make for a system that’s lighter and feels much snappier than a system with a hard drive (or HDD). If you think you might need more storage in the future, many USB drives and microSD cards can serve as auxiliary storage while adding almost no bulk or weight to your laptop.
These are surprisingly important. A computer that has only USB-C ports may feel modern, but it can become a pain to interface with a lot of accessories. Many mice, keyboards, and external drives still rely on USB-A ports, so it can be handy to have at least one available.
If you want to get high speeds out of the USB connection, check the version: USB 2.0 is fine for a mouse or keyboard, while USB 3.0 and above are handy for external drives thanks to their fast transfer speeds.
For even more speeds, you can look for Thunderbolt 3. It can also be helpful to have a laptop that charges over a USB-C port, since you’re likely to have more options should you need to borrow a friend’s charger if you forget yours.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but your laptop’s weight is going to matter a considerable amount for school. We’ll start with 4 pounds as a baseline. That’s a common ballpark for a lot of laptops, and it likely won’t feel too heavy in a good backpack during short trips between classes.
But, if you often bike or walk with your laptop, aiming for a laptop below 3 pounds can spare you some backaches. Heavier, high-performance laptops can quickly top 7 pounds, and though that may not sound like a lot, you’ll quickly start to feel it when combined with your books and other school supplies. And, chargers are a compounding factor, as lighter laptops tend to have lighter charging bricks while heavier laptops have beefier bricks.
Check out our buying guide for college supplies and dorm room essentials
Sending your kid off to college is nerve wracking. The best you can do is impart a few life lessons and outfit your kid’s dorm room with all the essentials. We’ve rounded up everything your kid needs for their dorm room from bedding and decor to tech and school supplies.
Living in a dorm is a crazy experience, but so long as you have the essentials, you’ll be just fine. Read on to find our top picks for every dorm essential you can imagine.
Joe is Senior Technology Editor for Insider Reviews with more than a decade of experience in games and tech media. His work has appeared in TechRadar, PC Maga zine, Laptop Magazine, Tom’s Guide, AOL’s Games.com, and more. Joe has also appeared as a tech expert on programs such as Cheddar from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as well as on panels of experts for events such as the Consumer Electronic Show. His specialties include computing as well as gaming products using a variety of operating systems and interfaces, not to mention extensive benchmarking experience. Learn more about how our team of experts tests and reviews products at Insider here.
Mark writes about just about anything that has a circuit in it from computers and their innards to the wide world of accessories that go alongside them. He has reviewed over a hundred gadgets from high-end desktop processors, VR headsets, and the beefiest of smartphones to fitness trackers from almost unknown brands – and the occasional chair. Having covered the technology space for the past seven years, his writing has appeared in TechRadar, IGN, PC Gamer, Lifewire, and most recently Business Insider. Learn more about how our team of experts tests and reviews products at Insider here.
Lisa is a senior tech correspondent for Business Insider’s Reviews team, where she helps lead our coverage of the latest tech products from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and other major tech companies. She previously served as Time magazine’s tech columnist and got her start as a reporter for Business Insider’s tech section in 2014. Before that, she was staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom’s Guide in 2013. She has appeared on the BBC, CNBC, and CBS New York radio to discuss the latest tech news. See below for some of her work.
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