Whether you’re heading to a physical campus, taking classes online or a mix of both, a laptop is sure to be the control center for your studies. Getting a new machine for the back-to-school season can better help you stay on top of your schedule and handle your furious multitasking with dozens of tabs devoted to research while you write your essays. We’re still dealing with the shadow of the pandemic, and inflation continues to drive up prices, so everything might feel more expensive than ever. The good news is, laptops are also lasting longer than ever, and the options on our list should serve you well for years to come. That is, as long as you pick one from a reliable company and with the right specs. To help you find the best buy as you shop, we put together this collection of things to look out for as well as a list of the best laptops for college.
What to expect
Apple has completed its transition to its own Silicon, so you’ll no longer have the option of Intel-powered Macs. Nor should you want to, really, since the M2 and M1 MacBooks have proven to be reliable, speedy and long-lasting. With a new generation of chips likely on the horizon, older models with M1 processors should get cheaper while still offering excellent performance. This means you’ll have more options to consider without having to stretch your budget.
Meanwhile, new PCs keep getting announced, with the latest models typically powered by 13th-gen Intel processors or the latest AMD Ryzen chips. Though the shift to ARM-based systems has been successful for Apple, the PC industry is still struggling to keep up, and Windows on ARM is basically dead in the water. Don’t waste your time or money on an ARM-based PC; they’re hard to find nowadays anyway.
Speaking of, laptops with top-of-the-line specs can cost you around $1,800 to $2,000 these days. For most college students, though, a midrange machine to use primarily for writing papers and web browsing might be enough. Depending on your field of study, you could get by with an Intel Core i3 processor or equivalent, with at least 6GB of RAM. If you need to run specialized software for design or programming, consider upgrading to a beefier system with more processing power and memory. On the other hand, if you do most of your coursework online or in a browser, getting a Chromebook could save you a lot of money.
You’ll also want to pay attention to a device’s weight, especially if you plan on lugging your laptop to classes in person. There are a lot of premium ultraportables in the 13-inch category, with chips like Intel’s Core i3 or i5, that cost around $1,000. If these light laptops are too expensive, you’ll still have respectable options in the $600 to $800 price range, but they might be heavier and use older, slower processors. I’ve included our recommendations for the best budget laptops in this college-centric guide but we also have more affordable top picks that you can check out as well.
With some laptop makers deciding to get rid of headphone jacks, it’s important to check specs lists when you’re shopping for newer machines. If you don’t have wireless headphones or use equipment that plugs into the 3.5mm jack, you’ll want to steer clear of devices like Dell’s XPS 13 Plus.
Finally, while most laptops in 2023 offer WiFi 6 or 6E and Bluetooth 5.0 or later, you may not have one of the compatible routers or other devices that would enable those faster connections yet. Chances are, your campus WiFi might still be stuck on an older setup, too, so it’s not crucial that you get a system with the latest standards yet. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to get a laptop that’s future-proof, but just know that of all the things to look out for, WiFi 6E shouldn’t be a dealbreaker in your decision-making process.
The best laptops for college students
Best Apple: MacBook Air
It's hard to beat Apple's MacBook Air if you want a powerful machine for college that won't weigh you down. You actually have a few good options this year — the new 15-inch M2-powered MacBook Air, last year’s 13-inch model and the MacBook Air M1. The M2 laptop earned a score of 96 from us for its impressive performance, gorgeous 13.6-inch Liquid Retina display and its refined design that's even thinner than the M1 version that came before it. Our biggest gripe with this laptop is its price tag — the M2 MacBook Air will set you back $200 more than the M1, so you're looking at spending at least $1,199 if you want the best MacBook from Apple.
Even though it’s older, the Apple M1 MacBook Air is a great laptop, outperforming many PCs while maintaining a fanless design. It’s also $200 cheaper, starting at $1,000. You’ll still get a great keyboard and long battery life, along with a nice Retina display. Of course, it uses a 720p webcam, while newer models have sharper 1080p cameras in. They’re housed in notches because Apple shaved down the bezels for a more modern look, so if that bothers you, it might be best to grab an M1 model while you can. You’ll have to live with having just two USB-C charging ports, since only the M2 machines have the additional MagSafe socket, but if you’re already living a largely wireless life and don’t mind a not-so-great camera, you might find the M1 MacBook Air is a solid deal.
Best Windows: Dell XPS 13 Plus
The best PC has long been Dell’s well-rounded XPS 13 series and I still recommend it to anyone that doesn’t want a Mac. Yes, the XPS 13 Plus lacks a headphone jack, and some of its buttons are hard to see and use. But the XPS 13 is a well-rounded machine and reliable workhorse that will get you through classes and late-night writing sessions without breaking a sweat.
Like its predecessors, the XPS 13 Plus offers a lovely OLED screen with impressively thin bezels and packs a roomy, comfortable keyboard. It also features a new minimalist design that looks more modern and offers a performance boost over the standard model. The row of capacitive keys at the top in lieu of traditional function keys may irk some as they can be hard to see outdoors, but if you become familiar with where they are you might not need to see where they are to find the right ones. The invisible trackpad can also be tricky since its boundaries aren’t clear.
If you don’t like the changes Dell has made to the XPS 13, or if you definitely need a headphone jack, the older generations are still solid options. There’s also the Samsung Galaxy Book series, which feature beautiful OLED screens and sharper webcams in thin and light frames. I also like Microsoft’s Surface Laptops, and the most recent edition offers great performance and battery life, albeit in an outdated design.
Best for gaming: Razer Blade 15
Just because your laptop might primarily be for coursework doesn’t mean you can’t use it for fun, too. Those looking to game on their machines should prioritize responsive screens and ample ports for their favorite accessories that can best help them defeat their virtual enemies. If you’re considering a gaming-first machine that you can use for school, check out our guide to buying a gaming laptop. It covers details about different CPUs and GPUs, minimum specs and more. Our favorite gaming laptop is the Razer Blade 15, which has an Intel Core i7 processor, and an NVIDIA RTX 3070 graphics for $2,500.
At that price point, it’s the most expensive item on this list, but you also get a 15-inch quad HD screen that refreshes at 240Hz. Different configurations are available, depending on your preference, including Full HD 360Hz and 4K 144Hz versions. The Blade series is also one of the most polished gaming laptops around, and Razer consistently updates it with the latest processors, graphics and other hardware advancements. If you really want to go all-out, you could consider the new Razer Blade 16 that has NVIDIA's RTX 4060 or 4070 GPUs.
Students and gamers looking for something cheaper and more portable should consider the ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14, which was our favorite model in 2021. The main reason it got bumped down a notch is because the 2022 refresh is almost $600 more expensive. It’s still a solid gaming laptop though, with an excellent display, roomy trackpad and plenty of ports in spite of its thin profile.
Best Chromebook: Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5i Chromebook
If you can do most of your schoolwork through web-based apps, a Chromebook is worth considering for your college laptop. Sure they don’t generally look fancy, nor have high-end specs. But they’re often more affordable and have longer battery life. Our favorite Chromebook is Lenovo’s IdeaPad Flex 5i Chromebook, which Engadget’s resident Chrome OS aficionado Nathan Ingraham described as hitting “the sweet spot for a lot of Chromebook buyers.”
This laptop nails the basics, with a 13.3-inch Full HD touchscreen that’s bright and sharp, an excellent backlit keyboard and an 11th-generation Intel Core i3 processor. The 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage may sound meager, but it’s more than enough for a Chromebook, especially at this price. It’s also nice to see USB-A and USB-C ports, a microSD card slot and eight-hour battery life. Weighing 3 pounds and measuring 0.66 inches thick, the Flex 5i is not the lightest or slimmest laptop around, but hey, at least your wallet won’t also feel light as feathers after buying this.
Notably, the Flex 5i is supposed to receive software and security updates until June of 2029, so it will last you for years to come. That’s nice to see, considering this laptop has been out for more than a year now, and we’re expecting Lenovo to release a replacement soon. When that happens, or if another manufacturer launches a comparable option, we will update this list. The Lenovo Flex 5i is no longer available directly from Lenovo, but you can commonly find it on Amazon for about $400 (as of this writing, it is selling for about $350). That’s an outstanding value.
Best cheap laptop for college students: HP Pavilion Aero 13
If you’re looking for a sturdy student laptop under $800, your best bet is the HP Pavilion Aero 13. Yes, it’s almost two years old, but it’s still one of the best cheap laptops for college students available now. For an affordable price, you’ll get a Full HD screen with a 16:10 aspect ratio and surprisingly thin bezels, as well as a comfortable keyboard and spacious touchpad. Importantly, the Aero 13 provides relatively powerful components compared to others in this price range, with an AMD Ryzen 5000 series processor and Radeon graphics. Plus, it has a generous array of ports and enough hours of battery life to last you a full day and then some.
Best Convertible: Microsoft Surface Pro 9
For those who need their laptops to occasionally double as tablets, the Surface Pro series is a no-brainer. Compared to notebooks or 2-in-1 laptops with rotating hinges, tablets with kickstands are often much slimmer and lighter. The Surface Pro 9 is the most recent model and it features Microsoft’s sleek design with a thinner profile and minimal bezels. The Pro 9 also has a 120Hz display that makes scrolling long documents or spreadsheets feel much faster, and you can drop the refresh rate down to 60Hz if you want to conserve battery life. Just make sure you get an Intel processor rather than an ARM-based configuration, since app compatibility might be an issue on the latter. You don’t want to be the only one in class who can’t install the obscure app that your professor wants everyone to use, do you?
We also like Microsoft’s Type Covers and the Surface Pens, though it’s worth noting that they’ll have to pay extra for both if you want them. Unless you’re bent on sticking to Apple’s ecosystem, in which case an iPad Pro would suit you best, the Surface Pro 9 is arguably the best convertible laptop around.