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The best laptops for college students

Our favorite machines for classes on campus, online and everywhere in between.

Will Lipman Photography for Engadget

Whether you commute to a physical campus, take classes online or do a little of both, a laptop is likely the center of your studies. If you're working with an aging machine, upgrading to a newer model can make all of your academic pursuits a little easier by helping you stay on top of your schedule and multitask better with dozens of tabs devoted to research while you write your essays. While almost every new laptop the comes out is a bit more expensive than the last, there's good news, too: laptops are lasting longer than ever before, so your new machine 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.

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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 M-series MacBooks have proven to be reliable, speedy and long-lasting. And with each new generation of chip, older models 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.

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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.

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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 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

Photo by Devindra Hardawar / Engadget

Read our full review of the Apple MacBook Air M3

It's hard to beat Apple's MacBook Air if you want a powerful machine for college that won't weigh you down. You have a few good options this year — the 13-inch or 15-inch MacBook Air M3 and the MacBook Air M2. The M3 laptop earned a score of 90 from us for its impressive performance, gorgeous 13.6-inch Liquid Retina display and its thin-and-light design. However, the M2 remains a fantastic machine and, with the launch of the M3 models, it received a $200 price cut. We recommend springing for an M3 Air if you want a more future-proof laptop, but the MacBook Air M2 will likely be enough for most students's needs.

Apple has officially stopped selling the M1 MacBook Air in its online store, but it's still floating around the internet for under $1,000. It has the wedge design of older MacBook Airs, larger bezels and only a 720p webcam. But if you're coming from an Intel machine, the performance gains will be noticeable even if you pick up an M1 machine on clearance. However, we expect stock to become limited as the year goes on.

$1,070 at Amazon
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$1,099 at Best Buy$1,099 at Apple
Will Lipman Photography for Engadget

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 latest XPS 13 lacks a headphone jack, and some of its buttons are hard to see and use. But it's a well-rounded machine and reliable workhorse that will get you through classes and late-night writing sessions without breaking a sweat.

The XPS 13 (previously called the XPS 13 Plus) offers a solid balance of speed and attractive-yet-minimalist design. This year, it’s powered by a new Core Ultra 7 processor, which makes it an “AI PC.” Thanks to a built-in NPU (neural processing unit), it can handle a few AI tasks, like Windows Studio Effects for video chats, without taxing your CPU or battery life. But it also has everything we previously liked about the XPS 13 Plus: An edge-to-edge keyboard with lusciously large keys, along with a huge “invisible” trackpad nestled within its glass wrist rest. And of course, it features a nearly border-less “Infinity Edge” screen, which has been a mainstay of the XPS line for almost a decade.

When it first debuted, the XPS 13 Plus was a more powerful alternative to Dell’s thinner and weaker XPS 13. While we’ll miss the previous XPS (which you can still find refurbished), it makes sense for Dell to lean into its stunning new aesthetic. The 2024 XPS 13 Plus looks more refined than the vast majority of Windows ultraportables, and like the Infinity Edge display, it raises the bar for what other PC makers should emulate.

$1,399 at Dell
Will Lipman Photography for Engadget

Read our full review of the Razer Blade 15 gaming laptop

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.

$2,900 at Razer
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$2,300 at Amazon

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. Our favorite Chromebook is Lenovo’s Flex 5 Chromebook, which Engadget’s resident Chrome OS aficionado Nathan Ingraham described as a tremendous value. This laptop nails the basics, with a 14-inch Full HD touchscreen, a great backlit keyboard and a 13th-gen Core i3 processor. The latest model has an upgraded 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, which when paired with the Core i3 CPU, make for a speedy, capable machine. It’s also nice to see one USB-A and two USB-C ports, six hours of battery life and a 360-degree hinge that makes it easy to use the Flex 5 as a tablet. This could be the ideal laptop for Chrome OS fans, and it’ll hit the sweet spot for a lot of other buyers out there, providing a level of quality and performance that’s pretty rare to find at this price point.

$424 at Amazon
Will Lipman Photography for Engadget

Read our full review of the HP Pavilion Aero 13 laptop

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.

$600 at HP
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$739 at Amazon
Will Lipman Photography for Engadget

Read our full review of the 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.

$990 at Amazon
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$1,189 at Office Depot