Best Laptops for College

September 4, 2018

10:20 am

Whether you’re off to college, or already there, a trusty laptop is an essential bit of kit. The best laptops for college are able to balance essay writing as well as plenty of Netflix, social media and video calls back home. You’ll want a laptop that can go the distance to see you right through college and beyond.

But what should you go for? Will a $300 Windows laptop do the trick? Or do you need a MacBook (you may want one, but do you need one?). And what about a Chromebook? With a year at college costing the average student at least $20,000, you’ll want to spend your money wisely. 

The good news is that all of the above are viable laptop options, depending on what type of student you are. We take a look at main choices when buying a laptop for college.

On this page:

Best Laptops for College Students

  1. Apple MacBook Air – Packs in loads of power, fantastic battery life, and light
  2. Apple MacBook Pro – A powerhouse, and a great tool for design students
  3. Lenovo Yoga 730 – A stylish Windows 10 laptop that thinks its a tablet, too
  4. Acer ChromeBook Spin – A diminutive, low-cost Chromebook that will slip into any bag
  5. Asus VivoBook Flip – A full-function Windows 10 laptop at a knock-down price
  6. Microsoft Surface Laptop – Microsoft’s answer to the MacBook
  7. Apple MacBook (12-inch) – The thinnest and lightest MacBook yet

Apple MacBook Air – $999

macbook air - tech.co

The MacBook Air has the honor of being the cheapest MacBook (we use that term relatively, this is Apple we’re talking about). Add Apple’s student discount and you can bring it down to a reasonable amount.

It’s not the latest MacBook model, but the Air still has lots to recommend it. This is a powerful, compact laptop that will serve you well through your college years and into your first job, without breaking a sweat.

A 12 hour battery life means you can leave the charger at your dorm and be on your way, and the light laptop won’t drag you down. Starting with an Intel i5 processor at the entry-level model, it should provide enough raw power for almost everyone, unless you’re looking to do some really graphic heavy work, in which case look to the MacBook Pro (see below).

Apple MacBook Pro – $1299

macbook pro no touch bar - tech.co

This is the ultimate MacBook, with a price-point to match. The entry-level model starts at $1299, but shoots up to $2,800 for the fully kitted out version. The good news is that you probably don’t need that one.

So what does the money get you? For an entry-level MacBook Pro, you’ll get an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of Ram, and of course that visually stunning Retina display. All those specs can be improved upon if you spend more – the top of the line MacBook Pro (with a Touch bar above the keyboard) is north of $2,000.

There’s a reason that MacBooks are so highly regarded in the design and creative industries, and the MacBook Pro is the pinnacle of this. If you’re studying design or a related offshoot, a MacBook Pro is a great tool for your course.

Not sure which MacBook model to go for? Read our full guide, Which MacBook Should I Buy?

Lenovo Yoga 730 – $750

Lenovo Yoga 730 - tech.co

This is a Windows 10 laptop with a surprising twist – literally. The screen can fold all the way back to onto itself, essentially serving as a large, 13-inch laptop, with a handy touchscreen.

It’s no gimmick though – the screen makes it genuinely useable when flipped upside down as a hybrid tablet. It’s great for watching videos this way, for example.

Beyond this trick, the Yoga 730 has plenty under its hood. There’s the latest generation i5 processor (for the entry-level model) and a 128GB solid state drive for fast load times and a decent amount of storage. If you like to make diagrams in class, it’s also compatible with a stylus, although this is sold separately, and costs around $50.

Acer ChromeBook Spin – $329

Acer Spin - tech.co

Ditching the traditional Windows and macOS operating systems for the Chrome OS, the Acer ChromeBook Spin does things a little differently. As with other ChromeBooks, it’s mainly cloud-based – think of it as the Chrome web browser, with a keyboard added on. 

You’re not expected to save files to the computer itself – you get limited storage (32GB). Instead, you save files securely in Google Drive. 

The Celeron processor would struggle to run macOS or Windows, but it still gives an extremely streamlined experience in ChromeOS. The laptop is super-fast to boot up and switch apps.

If you want to do anything other than write essays, browse the web, stream video or research online, then this might not be for you. But, it’s a very cheap alternative to a traditional laptop.

Asus VivoBook Flip – $300

Asus Vivobook - tech.co

If you want to stick with good old Windows 10, then the Asus VivoBook Flip is a respectable, cheap laptop that should see you through college.

Like the Acer Chromebook, the Pentium processor will limit what you can do, and the 64GB of storage is hardly generous. You’ll need to save docs to the cloud, or get an external hard drive.

However, for around $350, you get a fully functioning 14-inch Windows 10 laptop. As the Flip name suggests, the screen can fold back on itself, much like the Yoga 720 above, but at a fraction of the price. It’s pretty slim and lightweight too, for the price bracket.

Microsoft Surface Laptop – $800

Microsoft Surface Laptop - tech.co

Is Microsoft’s Surface Laptop a MacBook killer? Not quite, but if you fancy the style and power of a MacBook, but want the Windows environment, it’s the next best thing.

It starts at $800 for the Intel m3 processor model, which is a little underpowered (specially if you need to do graphics editing on your course). We’d recommend opting for the Intel Core i5 $1000 at least to get the full benefit.

You’ll end up with a snappy laptop that not only looks amazing, but also performs great too, with a slim profile and excellent battery life.

Apple MacBook $1300

Apple MacBook - tech.coThe MacBook is effectively the MacBook Air’s replacement, but for now, they get to exist alongside each other. While the 12-inch MacBook might be lighter and thinner (that used to be the Air’s party trick), there’s not a great deal to choose between them for the average student. There is, however, a big price difference. Our advice is to accept a slightly older model and save by choosing the Air.

Yes, the 12-inch Macbook has a newer processor. Yes, it has a sharper, brighter Retina display. And yes, it does look stunning. However, the Air pips it on battery life, has more ports to play with, and is significantly cheaper.

If power is key for you, then opt for a MacBook Pro – the 12-inch MacBook won’t suit for graphics work, for example. If value trumps all, get the Air.

If you want a laptop that primarily looks great, and won’t weight down your bag on the way to a lecture, then plump for the 12-inch MacBook.

Best Cheap Laptops for College Under $500

You don’t have to spend big to get a good quality laptop for college. There are some dependable Windows models for around the $500 mark. We wouldn’t recommend spending less than $400 on a Windows laptop, though, or else you’ll be stuck with an agonizingly slow laptop. The last thing you want is to miss out on taking notes at the beginning of a class because you’re still waiting for your underpowered laptop to boot up.

  1. Acer Spin 3 – $499

A nice, large, 15-inch laptop with a revolving screen, this laptop is well priced for those who want style and power on a budget. Granted the Intel Core i3 won’t turn heads, but it will prove more than capable for day to day tasks, and is a leg up from the Celeron and Pentium processors that are often found in cheaper laptops.

  1. Samsung Chromebook Plus – $460

A Chromebook can be a cheap, smart way to grab a speedy laptop, as long as you’re comfortable working within the Google operating system. This Samsung has a stunning 12-inch screen and the processor can more than cope with anything you throw at it. You can, however, get a Chromebook for even cheaper than this – see below for more on Chromebooks.

  1. Microsoft Surface – $400

Okay, this isn’t a laptop exactly, but a tablet. However, starting at $400 and offering Windows 10 in full, the Surface is worth considering. It’s undoubtedly compact and lightweight, if you can deal with taking notes and writing essays on its 10-inch screen. The keyboard is extra, and frankly, essential, but if you’re on a course that only requires occasional note taking and research, take a look.

Should you buy a Chromebook for College?

Maybe. A Chromebook isn’t a laptop per se – think of it as the laptop’s slightly leftfield cousin. Not running on Windows or macOS, Chromebooks run the Chrome operating system.

For the most part, Chromebooks are cloud-based, expecting you to save the bulk of your work online rather than locally. As a result, they tend to have little storage, sometimes as low as 32GB, but this does mean that the price is kept down.

The benefit? No lost files – everything is stored securely online, so if you lost your Chromebook, you could still recover your essay from Google Drive.

It’s price, though, that’s the real head-turner for Chromebooks. You can pick up a decent model for around $200. It won’t be a powerhouse, but because ChromeOS is so much lighter (it’s basically the Chrome web browser with apps and plug-ins), it doesn’t take much power to run.

For the essentials – essay writing, web browsing, social media and video – a Chromebook will do a fine job.

Your average Politics, History or English major will find they get along great with a Chromebook. But, for anyone who needs some processing power, like those on a Design or Engineering course, will find them sorely lacking.

Should you buy a MacBook for College?

You won’t regret it if you do. The MacBook is no stranger to the college campus, and while it’s true that anyone rocking one in class will never be wanting for power (or for that matter, style), it could be massive overkill (and overspend) for most students.

If you’re mainly writing notes and researching papers, then a MacBook is likely to be under-utilized in your care. However, designers and media students have a stronger use case, thanks to the platform’s (deserved) reputation as a tool for graphics and video editing. The MacBook Pro is, after all, one of the Best Laptops for Designers.

There’s a lot to like about the MacBook. Whether it’s the crystal clear Retina display, the buttery smooth Intel processor, the touch bar of the Pro range, that intuitive operating system…for many, the MacBook is the peak of desirability when it comes to a laptop. But, it might not gel with your budget.

The cost of a MacBook can be mitigated by Apple’s student discounts. As an example, the entry-level MacBook Air can be had for $849 currently if you’re a student, a nice $150 discount off the list price.

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Jack is a senior writer at Tech.co with over a decade's experience researching and writing about consumer technology, from security and privacy to product reviews and tech news.

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