Computer

The best laptops for college in 2021

The Asus ZenBook 13 UX333 is the best college laptop you can buy. Unless you’re studying to be a graphic designer or architect, you probably don’t need an insane amount of power for your college laptop. Instead, things like battery life, price, and portability are more important, which the Asus ZenBook 13 provides in abundance.

How do we know? Well, we’ve reviewed hundreds of laptops, benchmarking and testing each to compare how they stack up against each other. For the value it provides, the ZenBook 13 really makes for the ultimate college laptop. We do, however, have a few other options listed below if you want some alternatives that we wholeheartedly recommend.

The best laptop for college at a glance

The best laptop for college: Asus ZenBook 13 (2020)

asus zenbook 13 ux333fa
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: You won’t find many laptops that provide a better combination of low price, great performance, and lightweight design.

Who’s it for: College students who don’t have a lot to spend but still demand a great laptop.

What we thought of the Asus ZenBook 13 (2020):

A well-built, feature-complete, affordable machine, the latest Asus ZenBook 13 does it all. We gave an earlier version of this laptop a 9 out of 10 score in our review precisely because of how well it delivers the essentials: This updated version comes with a 10th-gen Intel Core i7-10510U processor, GeForce MX250 GPU, and an interesting customizable trackpad/touchscreen that can switch between various formats for different shortcuts, depending on what you’re doing.

Another of the ZenBook’s best attributes is that it looks premium, including being made with the same kind of all-aluminum chassis as more expensive machines. It also sports Asus’s iconic “spun metal concentric circle” finish that brings even more eye appeal to the machine’s Royal Blue finish with attractive gold accents. Throw in the fact that it’s a thin and light laptop with an innovative ErgoLift hinge that lifts the keyboard to a comfortable angle, and you won’t at all feel like you’re carrying around a budget machine.

Other important specs include a USB-C port (in addition to HDMI), Wi-Fi 6 compatibility, and 512GB of PCIe NVMe solid-state drive storage, plus 16GB of RAM. A solid, reliable choice, the Asus ZenBook UX333 proves you don’t need to spend an excessive amount of money to get a great laptop for college.

The best MacBook for college: MacBook Air (2020)

Macbook Air (2018) Review

Why should you buy this: It’s the most economical entry into Apple’s MacBook ecosystem.

Who’s it for: Any college student who loves the Mac but doesn’t have the budget for the MacBook Pro.

What we thought of the Apple MacBook Air (2020):

Apple is renowned for building attractive, robust laptops that are popular on college campuses — not least because Apple has been active in the education market for decades. And if you want a Mac, then the most economical choice (while still getting those sweet MacBook specs) is the 2020 MacBook Air.

The latest version of the MacBook Air has an updated keyboard (which has garnered plenty of praise all on its own), and a top-notch Retina display (13.3-inches at 2,560 x 1,600). The low-cost model, beginning at $ 999, starts with a 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 processor, 256GB of PCIe SSD storage, 8GB of RAM, and a battery rated for about 11 hours browsing online. Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports are readily available, as well as a DisplayPort connection and USB 3.1.

The best tablet for college: Microsoft Surface Go 2

Why should you buy this: You won’t find a better Windows 10 tablet for taking your notes in class and then working on papers back in the dorm.

Who’s it for: College students who want to replace paper with electronic notes.

What we thought of the Microsoft Surface Go 2:

The first Surface Go was designed to be an ultra-portable computing device that could fit just about anywhere. The second-generation is a bit heavier (0.05 pounds more) but also has a larger 10.5-inch HD display and performance options up to a new Intel Core m3-8100Y processor. At a low price, it’s clearly a competitor for Apple’s iPads and a strong choice if you like the iPad but need a Windows-oriented device for classes.

It also offers class-leading active pen support, with the Surface Pen providing the lowest latency in a Windows 10 tablet, 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, and tilt support. That means it’s awesome for taking handwritten notes and making quick drawings, something that can certainly come in handy for today’s college students. However, Windows “S Mode” can be frustrating to use at times, so we suggest disabling it if you’re using the Surface Go 2 for more complex tasks.

Oh, and if you’re looking for something with a little bit more power, why not check out Surface Pro 7?

Read our Microsoft Surface Go 2 review

The best Chromebook for college: Asus Chromebook Flip C214

ASUS Chromebook Flip C214

Why should you buy this: It’s a unique 2-in-1 Chromebook that can stand up to college life particularly well.

Who’s it for: College students who don’t need to run heavy applications.

Why we picked the ASUS Chromebook Flip C214:

At first glance, it may seem like many Chromebooks are too weak or too limited for managing college tasks. This Flip model is a bold (and affordable) exception that provides Chromebook features in a 2-in-1 design for easy tablet use. There’s an 11.6-inch HD touchscreen on a 360-degree hinge, an Intel Gemini Lake dual-core Celeron N4000 processor, and 4GB of RAM.

Since this is a Chromebook, it’s designed to be used primarily with the cloud or an external storage drive and only has 32GB of SSD memory. However, for transferring data you have two USB-C ports, a USB-A port, and a microSD card slot.

But the Flip C214 p has one more trick up its sleeve: It’s ruggedized with spill resistance, a scratch-resistant coating, and a rubber grip for more reliable holding. That makes it particularly qualified to endure college life.

The best cheap laptop for college: Acer Aspire 5

Acer Aspire E 15 Review

Why should you buy this: Just because you’re on a tight budget doesn’t mean you don’t want a quality machine.

Who’s it for: Any college student whose budget can’t stretch beyond the basics.

What we thought of the Acer Aspire 5:

College is an expensive proposition, and sometimes you have other things to spend your money on than a new laptop. That’s why it’s great not to have to compromise with the Acer Aspire 5, a 15.6-inch notebook that’s incredibly affordable and is still equipped with fast, modern components. For example, you can pick up a configuration with an 8th-gen Core i5-8145U CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. You can increase or decrease some of these specs, but watch to see how pricing is affected if you try it!

In either case, you’ll also enjoy a 1080p display and excellent connectivity with two USB-A 3.0 ports, a USB-A 2.0 port, a USB-C 3.1 port, an Ethernet port for wired networking, and a full-size HDMI video connection. In a day and age where companies are sidelining compatibility concerns, that’s nothing to sneeze at. But perhaps most impressive is the Aspire 5 generous battery capacity. In our testing, the Aspire 5 exceeded Acer’s 7-hour estimate when browsing the web, at just over nine hours. You’ll be free to roam campus all day without lugging around a power brick or having to dash back to your dorm for extra charging.

If you can scrounge up some extra cash, then you could look at some of the prettier machines on our list. However, if you’d rather save your money for some better dorm room furniture or textbooks, then the Acer Aspire E 5 can meet your basic requirements with some room to spare.

Read our Acer Aspire 5 review

The best gaming laptop for college: Dell G3 15 (2020)

Dell G3 Gaming Laptop Review

Why should you buy this: It provides a relatively thin and light laptop with some real gaming chops without breaking the bank.

Who’s it for: Any college student with a limited budget who wants to take a gaming break from classes and homework.

What we thought of the Dell G3 Gaming Laptop:

You’ll spend hours and hours in class, studying, and taking tests, and there’s nothing like a quick gaming session to get your mind off your work. If you want a laptop that can keep up, then the 2020 version of Dell’s 15-inch G3 laptop offers several key benefits.

First, it’s reasonably priced at around $ 800 for a configuration with a 10th-gen Intel Core i5-10300H chip, a reasonable GeForce GTX 1650 GPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB PCIe NVMe SSD. Ports include HDMI 2.0, USB-A 3.2, and USB-C with DisplayPort support, plus Thunderbolt 3, so you get a little of everything. The 15-inch HD display has a brightness rating of 350 nits and an anti-glare screen to help you keep focus.

Second, the new G3 15 is also relatively thin and light for a gaming laptop. That means you can carry it around campus as well. Like all gaming laptops, it won’t provide you with record-breaking battery life, but it’s decent enough to get you to a class or two and back to the dorm.

How we test

We spend a tremendous amount of time reviewing notebooks of all shapes and sizes — and that’s saying something today, when laptops come in so many shapes, sizes, and configurations. To make sure our recommendations provide real value to our readers, we live with the machines for a time and use them in writing our reviews — to make sure we can assess how they’ll work for real users.

But we do have a method to our madness in conducting these reviews, and you can get a behind-the-scenes look at it here. Hopefully, it will be obvious that our reviews are real labors of love — or hate, depending on the notebook — and therefore you can at least recognize that we don’t arrive at our conclusions without some serious consideration.

Research and buying tips

Are gaming laptops good for college?

There was once a time when our answer would be a strong “no,” primarily because gaming laptops were once usually much larger, thicker, and heavier than non-gaming machines. That’s the last thing you want to carry around from class to class. That’s no longer true today, when many gaming laptops are thinner and lighter than ever. In addition to our Dell G3 Gaming pick above, the Razer Blade is perhaps the classic example of a laptop that’s made for gamers, with fast CPU and GPU options, but isn’t much thicker or heavier than other laptops.

At the same time, gaming laptops tend to focus more on performance than battery life, and you’ll pay a premium to carry around those gaming components in a thin and light chassis. The great thing is that many laptops today have Thunderbolt 3 ports that can connect to external GPU enclosures for some extra gaming oomph. If you choose a laptop with at least a quad-core 8th-gen Intel CPU and at least 8GB of RAM, then you can attach it to an external GPU and get performance that’s pretty darn close to a dedicated gaming laptop. And your choice of a laptop will be much wider, including choosing among the horde of excellent 2-in-1s that have hit the market over the last several years.

Is a 256GB SSD enough for school?

You’ll want enough storage for the operating system, your applications, and all of the documents and other files you’ll need to keep up with your studies. Microsoft recommends 32GB for Windows 10 itself, and you can figure that at least 50GB will be required once your laptop is up and running. Then, you’ll want to factor in your applications and keep in mind that many games can take up a few gigabytes (or more) all by themselves. That means that a 128GB SSD might be a little light and that 256GB is likely a better starting point.

If you want to balance cost (the larger the SSD, the more you’ll pay, naturally) and expandability, then look for a laptop with an SD card slot. Today, you can add a 400GB micro SD card for around $ 60, meaning that if your local storage gets maxed out it’s possible to greatly expand the space available for your most important documents. Also, if you use a cloud storage service like Microsoft’s OneDrive that allows you to store all of your documents offline and then download only those you need right now, then you can save on local storage requirements.

Are Chromebooks worth buying?

Google’s Chrome OS might be a better choice for any college student whose schoolwork is limited to web use and word processing. Chrome OS doesn’t require performing components. Chromebooks are perfect if you’re looking for a fast, affordable, and lightweight laptop. You will also get excellent battery life for the money.

The Chromebooks have a leg-up on security when compared to Windows 10 and macOS machines. Thanks to regular updates, students are less likely to run into security or software problems.

Parents will find these machines more limited and less likely to tempt a college student to waste time on non-essentials tasks and software. There’s a reason why Chrome OS is increasingly popular in educational environments and why Google continues to focus on making the OS attractive to students.

Can tablets work as laptops?

A traditional tablet, like the iPad, can use external keyboards much like a convertible tablet like the Surface Go, but that doesn’t mean they are without limitations. Unfortunately, tablet operating systems are less robust than what you’ll find with a convertible laptop-style tablet.

Students may find limited features and software options, making a convertible tablet with a full-fledged operating system a much better choice. In addition to reducing software limitations, users will find the built-in keyboard and touchpad much more convenient than third-party solutions for iOS and Android tablets.

A tablet with a detachable keyboard can work like a laptop. Before buying a tablet for school, consider a few factors. 

Do your research and make sure the tablet works with any applications you know you’ll use a lot. Traditional tablets have more limits than their convertible counterparts. While programs like Microsoft Excel are easier to use in their full versions, you can still utilize paired down versions for Android and iOS.

A convertible tablet with an operating system will support the applications you need, while regular tablets use Android and iOS versions that don’t work quite as well. To ensure that you have something that will be functional for your coursework, shop for a convertible tablet that runs an operating system that will support all the applications you may need. It’s a much better idea to do this before spending your money on something that is not compatible with your work.

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