The Best Laptops for College in 2021: Top Student Laptops to Buy

Finding the best laptop for college students is no easy task. In addition to offering snappy performance for note-taking and applications, the machines need to be highly portable and reasonably priced. Using our best laptop picks, we rounded up six machines that are great for college students.

We have two top recommendations depending on the operating system you prefer. The Asus ZenBook 13 is a highly portable machine with capable last-gen parts, and the Apple MacBook Air M1 showcases the best Apple has to offer at a decent price.

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The best laptop for college at a glance

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.

MacBook Air M1

Macbook Air M1
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

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 M1:

For years, the MacBook Air has been a thin, light alternative to the MacBook Pro that performs worse. But no longer. Apple’s updated M1 chip provides excellent performance across the devices it’s in, and the fanless MacBook Air shows that off perfectly. In our head-to-head matchup, we found that the MacBook Air is the better option overall. Plus, it’s cheaper.

The base model clocks in at only $999, and it features eight CPU cores, seven GPU cores, 256GB of SSD storage, and 8GB of unified memory. Regardless of the configuration you choose, you’ll get Apple’s beautiful Retina display and Magic Keyboard, which vastly improves on previous MacBook keyboards.

For downsides, there aren’t many. The MacBook Air M1 packs all the power you need into a remarkably thin and light laptop, and it still manages to feature one of the best displays and keyboards on the market. The only issue you’ll run into is port selection. The MacBook Air M1 only features two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports — one of which you’ll need to occupy while charging — and a headphone jack. That said, our roundup of the best Thunderbolt 3 docks can help you expand you connectivity.

Read our MacBook Air M1 review

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, and it’s one of the best tablets overall. 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.

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

Read our Microsoft Surface Go 2 review

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 even some of the best 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.

Dell Inspiron 14

The Dell Inspiron 14 laptop.

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 Dell Inspiron 14:

The Dell Inspiron 14 is one of the best budget laptops on the market. Even under $500, it delivers the latest Intel 11th-gen mobile processors with Iris Xe graphics and full SSD storage. The cheapest configuration comes with an Intel Core i3-1115G3, but you can configure the machine with up to a Core i7-1165G7. In addition, it features Wi-Fi 6 for fast and stable connectivity, a fingerprint reader, and Amazon Alexa support.

The base model includes a full HD non-touch display, but you can purchase the Inspiron 14 as a 2-in-1 if you’re willing to spend a little more. The 2-in-1 option comes with more power under the hood, too. It ships with an AMD Ryzen 7 4700U processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD.

Dell G3 15

The Dell G3 15 laptop.

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:

The Dell G3 15 is a nice compromise at a reasonable price. If you don’t want to go wild with the best gaming laptops but still want to boot up a few games outside of class, the Dell G3 15 is for you. It features an understated build with just enough flare to be considered a gaming laptop, and it has thoughtfully configured specs that give you decent gaming performance while keeping the price low.

At the heart of the machine is a 10th-gen Intel Core i7-10750H, which features six cores and speeds up to 5GHz. For gaming, the Dell G3 15 comes with a Nvidia GTX 1650 Ti that features 4GB of video memory, paired with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. With that hardware, you can expect performance slightly above the PlayStation 4. The G3 15 can deliver 30 frames per second or higher in the latest AAA games at 1080p, and even higher frame rates in esports titles.

You can take advantage of those extra frames, too. The Dell G3 15 features a 15.6-inch full HD display that boasts a 120Hz refresh rate. It’s not very bright at only 250 nits, but it’s smooth enough to give you all the frames you need in games like Fortnite and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. It works for note-taking, too, but we imagine a slight decline in productivity after picking up a G3 15.

Read our review of an older Dell G3 15 model

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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