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Best Laptops for College Students

In our tests, these models score high marks for performance and battery life

Illustration of the best laptop for college students
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Laptop makers like Apple, Dell, and HP are already offering back-to-school deals on some of their best models, giving consumers several opportunities to save a buck. But is it the right time to pounce?

For many people, the answer is yes.

According to Gap Intelligence, a research firm, laptop prices typically reach their lowest point of the year in late July and throughout August, and during the Black Friday holiday shopping season.

Consider Apple: It recently introduced a new version of its popular MacBook Air, a 13-inch notebook that does quite well in our ratings. It starts at $1,099, though college students can get it for $999—and Apple will throw in a pair of Beats Studio 3 Wireless headphones, free.

HP has models like the high-end Spectre x360 and more modest Pavilion on sale for several hundred dollars off. (HP, as you might expect, also has deals on printers this time of year.) And Dell is offering about $200 off select laptops, including models that have done well in our ratings, like the Inspiron 15 and the G3 15, a gaming laptop that’s powerful enough to run hit games like “Apex Legends” without breaking a sweat.

For college students (and their parents), it might make sense to go for a gaming model because they’re generally powerful, well-built, and will probably last all four years before students start running into problems like running out of storage space or finding that apps aren’t as responsive as they once were.

“Four years is kind of a long time, so you want something that will last,” said Dustin Downs, a PC market analyst at Gap Intelligence. “You don’t want to have to replace the laptop in two years because it starts slowing down.”

Unlike microwaves and twin-sized sheet sets, a computer is a deeply personal purchase, and it makes sense to do your homework before you reach for your wallet.

Take time to consult your school's website for guidelines. University IT departments often provide a list of computer requirements and links to exclusive student discounts from manufacturers. Business and engineering students, for example, may have to use Windows-based software that doesn't work on an Apple computer unless they partition the hard drive or use virtualization software like Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion. Those in creative fields such as film and design may find themselves in need of macOS.

Be careful, though. School requirement lists aren't always up to date. Case in point: More than a few strongly recommend laptops with optical drives for CD/DVD use, even though that technology has largely vanished from laptops in recent years (though you can always buy an external CD/DVD drive that connects to the laptop via USB).

Below are some of the best laptops for college from companies including Apple, Asus, and HP. Most feature solid-state drives, which are speedier and more reliable than a traditional spinning hard drive but are a little more expensive.

Each laptop has at least 8GB of memory, with 16GB on the most expensive models. According to Antonette Asedillo, who oversees computer testing for Consumer Reports, you can get by with 4GB of memory for basic web browsing and word processing. But if you find yourself doing tasks beyond that, you'll wish you had spent the money to upgrade.

“Definitely err on the side of more," she says, "because upgradable RAM is becoming rare.”

All use an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor. The i5 can handle most everyday tasks including web browsing, video streaming, and photo editing via the Photoshop app. The i7 is better for demanding tasks, such as 4K video editing and top-tier gaming.

Best of all, these laptops come recommended by our testers, who grade them on nearly 200 data points. To make sure each one is just like the one you might take home, we purchased every last model from a retailer.

1
The Budget Pick
HP Pavilion 15-CS1063CL
HP Pavilion 15-CS1063CL

    HP Pavilion 15-CS1063CL

    You should be able to find this HP notebook for a little more than $500, which is a good price for a laptop of this caliber. (Laptops under $500 are a good choice for many consumers, but they’re not usually among our best-rated.) It’s got an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 1TB hard drive, all of which add up to one of the better-performing laptops in our ratings. The hard drive is slower than a solid-state drive, but the trade-off is more space for large files like hi-res videos and digital photos.

     

    This is a laptop that's more than powerful enough to handle everyday schoolwork and light enough (4 pounds) to slip into a backpack, and it has a battery that lasts 10 hours before needing to be charged.

     

    The one area where our testers were not particularly impressed was the display. It has a narrow viewing angle, which could make it difficult for more than one person to look at the screen at once or for you to see the screen clearly if you're looking at it from the side, above, or below. And there's a bit more resistance than usual while dragging your finger across the touch screen.

    2
    The Big Screen Pick
    Dell Inspiron 17 3000 (2019)
    Dell Inspiron 17 3000 (2019)

      Dell Inspiron 17 3000 (2019)

      This is a 17-inch notebook that may be a good choice for students who want a laptop large enough to make Netflix and Hulu really sing and don’t want to spend a ton of money in the process. It can be configured on Dell’s website with prices starting just north of $500, though our model was a little more expensive.

       

      Our tested model came with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, a 128GB solid-state drive, and a 1 terabyte hard disk drive. Having two drives means you can install your most frequently used apps on the smallish SSD (so they load faster) and your less frequently used data (photos and videos) on the large hard drive.

       

      Our testers had two primary concerns with this model: The battery life isn't great, at less than 5 hours per change, and it’s also on the heavy side, at almost 6 pounds. That’s not out of the ordinary for a laptop this large, but does mean you’ll want to keep it tethered to a desk more than some of the other models mention here. 

      3
      The 'Take It Anywhere' Option
      LG Gram 13 8th Gen
      LG Gram 13 8th Gen

        LG Gram 13 8th Gen

        Th LG Gram is a 13-inch notebook (14-, 15-, and 17-inch models are also available) that weighs very little for a laptop this size—just 2.1 pounds. Few other models even come close, which is important, say, if your campus is big and you need to take long walks to get from class to class.

         

        In this feathery package you get enough raw computing power to help you zip through everyday productivity tasks, such as editing text documents, presentation slides, and spreadsheets. The LG has an Intel Core i7 processor, 512 gigabytes of solid-state storage, and 8GB of memory. Battery life is an impressive 15 hours in CR testing.

        4
        The 2-in-1 Pick
        Microsoft Surface Pro 6 (Core i7)
        Microsoft Surface Pro 6 (Core i7)

          Microsoft Surface Pro 6 (Core i7)

          This is a 12.3-inch detachable that performed well in our tests. (A detachable is a 2-in-1 laptop that allows you to separate the keyboard from the display.) Available in stores for about $1,200, it has an Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and 256GB of solid-state storage, and you can expect a little more than 11 hours of battery life, according to our testers.

           

          Those are high-end specs that will enable you to complete just about any task with ease, whether you're putting together large spreadsheets, watching HD video, or editing photos.

           

          Microsoft also makes the smaller, 10-inch Surface Go. It’s not as powerful as the Pro, though it can handle apps like Word and PowerPoint without breaking a sweat.

          5
          The Apple Pick
          Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (2018, MR9Q2LL/A)
          Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (2018,...

            Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (2018,...

            Creative types and movie aficionados will appreciate this 13-inch $1,600 model. It offers the best display of the bunch, above-average speaker quality, and a nearly 18 hours' worth of battery life. And at a meager 3 pounds, it won't weigh you down.

             

            Inside you’ll find an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and 256 gigabytes of solid-state storage, specs that will suffice for everyday tasks. One rare downside: Unlike many other laptops available today, this one doesn't have a touch screen. That’s unlikely to be a deal-breaker for dedicated Apple fans, but it's still worth noting.

             

            Unlike the other models on this list, though, this one is outfitted with two USB Type C ports, which is an inconvenience for anyone with accessories—a mouse, an external hard drive, speakers—that require the far more prevalent USB Type A wired connection. The solution? You can either embrace the world of wireless accessories, including headphones and mouse, or simply buy the appropriate adapter.

            6
            The Gamer Pick
            Asus ROG Strix GL704GV-DS74
            Asus ROG Strix GL704GV-DS74

              Asus ROG Strix GL704GV-DS74

              The Asus ROG Strix is for the student who needs raw power over everything else. Technically a gaming laptop, it’s a 17.3-inch notebook that can usually be found for around $1,700. That’s on the higher end of the pricing sale, but it’s also among the fastest laptops in our ratings, with an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of memory, and a 512GB solid-state drive.

               

              Having such a powerful laptop is useful if your college-bound child intends to do things like edit hi-res video or regularly use the Adobe Creative Suite.

               

              What's also worth mentioning is this laptop's use of Nvidia's new "RTX" graphics cards. These cards support a new type of lighting technology (known as "ray tracing") that makes lighting in certain games (like “Battlefield V” and a newly updated version of “Quake II”) look more realistic than games that don’t use the tech.


              At 6 pounds, it’s definitely on the heavier side, and its battery lasts a little less than 6 hours, so be sure to keep a power cord handy.

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