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The best laptops for college students: Apple, Microsoft, and more compared

The best laptops for college students are portable, powerful, and house plenty of storage for your studies.

Why you can trust ZDNET

ZDNET's reviewers spend weeks to months testing each laptop on this list, using it for both everyday tasks like browsing, streaming, and gaming, to more performance-intensive work like photo and video editing. We aim to give you a view into how each laptop could actually fit into your life and workflow, and the pros and cons of their various features like performance, display, and battery life.

What to Consider

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Design

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Performance

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Storage and RAM

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Purpose

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Value

Apple MacBook Air | Best laptop for college students overall
Apple MacBook Air
Apple MacBook Air
Best laptop for college students overall
View now View at Best Buy
Apple MacBook Pro | Best laptop for creative college students
Apple MacBook Pro
Apple MacBook Pro
Best laptop for creative college students
View now View at Apple
Microsoft Surface Go 3 | Best 2-in-1 laptop for college students
Microsoft Surface Go 3
Microsoft Surface Go 3
Best 2-in-1 laptop for college students
View now View at Walmart
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 | Best laptop for business college students
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9
Best laptop for business college students
View now View at Amazon
HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook | Best budget laptop for students
The HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook nearly shut.
HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook
Best budget laptop for students
View now View at HP
Dell XPS 13 | Best laptop for STEM college students
Dell XPS 13
Dell XPS 13
Best laptop for STEM college students
View now View at Amazon
Show more (1 item)

For college students, laptops are an essential tool for everything from e-books, Zoom classes, and overall class work and projects. But among the laundry list of decisions students are faced with in preparing to go off to college, which laptop is best suited for their studies and needs is one we can help break down and answer. 

Also: The best laptops overall

Based on hands-on testing, the Apple MacBook Air is ZDNET's top pick for the best laptop for college students. Its lightning-fast performance and easy lightweight portability make for a perfect accompaniment to your university learning. Plus, Apple also offers student discounts. However, that is far from the only option available. Read on for the best laptops based on key factors like performance, battery, construction, and budget. 

The best laptops for college students of 2024

Apple MacBook Air

Best laptop for college students overall

Apple MacBook Air specs: Display: 13.6 inches | Chip: Apple M2 | RAM: 8 to 24 GB | Storage: 512GB to 2TB SSD | Webcam: 1080p | OS: macOS

Crowned ZDNET's product of the year in 2022, Apple's MacBook Air is a lightweight macOS powerhouse which can help students manage video conferencing and remote study applications all while managing a lightweight, slim form factor that weighs less than your average hard cover book. 

While there may be some  sacrifices by choosing this option over the MacBook Pro (like the fluid 16.2-inch XDR display), the Air is a more affordable option, and a $100 discount is available in Apple's education store. Additionally, the machine is more than capable of rendering larger files and aiding in photo editing and animation projects for creative students. 

Review: Apple Macbook Air

Apple MacBook Air
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Apple MacBook Pro

Best laptop for creative college students

Apple MacBook Pro specs: Display: 13, 15, and 16 inches| Processor: Apple M2 | RAM: 8 to 24 GB | Storage: 256 gigabytes to 2 terabytes SSD | Webcam: 720p | OS: macOS

MacBook Pros are a common sight on college campuses. They are expensive -- especially, arguably, given the specifications on offer -- but they are solid, quick workhorses that will last throughout a college career. They are especially popular for creative applications, but you may find the device overheating if you are running power-heavy games. 

The 13-inch model is most suitable for college students as it is a powerful machine but still small enough to travel with and to fit on pull-out tables in lecture halls. Overall, it is one of the best Macs you can buy.

Review: Apple Macbook Pro

Apple MacBook Pro
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Microsoft Surface Go 3

Best 2-in-1 laptop for college students

Microsoft Surface Go 3 specs: Display: 10.5-inch touchscreen | Processor: Intel Pentium Gold or 10th-gen i3 | RAM: 4GB or 8GB | Storage: eMMC drive: 64GB, up to 128GB SSD | Webcam: 5MP/8MP HD | OS: Windows 10 Pro, Windows 11 Home, Windows 11 Pro

A hybrid laptop option focused on mobility is Microsoft's Surface Go 3. Starting at around $320, the device is made up of a detachable 10.5-inch PixelSense touchscreen display, keyboard, kickstand, and stylus. With an estimated battery life of up to 11 hours, the Windows-based device can be used as a traditional laptop or a standalone tablet and weighs only 1.2 pounds.

The Surface Go 3 runs on Windows 11 Home and comes with Windows Hello biometric security, as well as both a 5MP front-facing camera and an 8MP rear-facing camera, which is adequate for virtual classes on the go. This device should be considered useful not just for a college career but also for when a student enters the workforce.  

Review: Microsoft Surface Go 3

Microsoft Surface Go 3
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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9

Best laptop for business college students

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 specs: Display: 14 inches | Processor: Intel Core 11th-gen i5 | RAM: 8GB  | Storage: 256GB SSD | Webcam: IR & 720p HD with HPD | OS: Windows 10 Pro 64

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 is one of the more heavy-duty options we recommend specifically for college students -- especially for those that require hefty processing power, creative apps, and gaming. 

This laptop is also an option for users who want a rugged laptop as Lenovo tests out the ThinkPad line against a variety of different environmental conditions.

When it comes to security, this laptop contains a fingerprint reader and ThinkShield technology.

With a huge host of ports, battery life of at least 15 hours, an anti-glare screen, and rapid charge technology, this versatile laptop will not only be a valuable addition to any dorm room, but is also excellent for leisure, whether this is streaming or gaming. Useful key sub-functions are available for making calls over videoconferencing platforms, too. 

Review: Lenovo ThinkPad X1

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9
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HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook

Best budget laptop for students

HP Chromebook x2 specs: Display: 14-inch 2560 x 1600 touchscreen | Processor: Intel Core i5-1235U | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 256GB SSD | Webcam: 8MP front camera | OS: Chrome 

The HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook is one of the best laptops for college students when you want a Chromebook. This 14-inch touchscreen features an ambient light sensor, plus a 12th-generation Intel Core i5 processor for faster, better multitasking. 

Hailed for its fast performance, it's paired with the Chrome operating system and Intel Iris Xe Graphics to keep your images bright and vibrant. And, because it's a Chromebook, you have easy integration with Android apps. 

It's also first Chromebook to feature a front-facing eight-megapixel camera, and a set of HP Quad Speakers provide phenomenal sound. For greater security, use the built-in fingerprint reader with patented 3-D technology to help protect some of your most sensitive information. 

The battery life is generous, too, offering 11.5 hours of battery life. When it comes time to recharge, HP's Fast Charge technology comes included, allowing you to reach 50% battery in just 30 minutes when you power down your computer. 

At $999, the laptop isn't the most affordable, but in his review, ZDNET's June Wan, said the "hardware enhancements" make the price tag justifiable. "If you're shopping with a $1,000 budget, this is the best Chromebook you can buy right now," he said. 

Review: HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook

The HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook nearly shut.
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Dell XPS 13

Best laptop for STEM college students

Dell XPS 13 specs: Display: 13 inches | Processor: Intel Core i7-1185G7 | RAM: 16GB RAM | Storage: 512GB SSD | Graphics: Intel Iris Xe Graphics | Webcam: IR & 720p HD RGB | OS: Windows 11 Home 

This platinum silver laptop has a lightweight aluminum build that is easy to take with you on the go but still remains a capable and convenient unit. 

There is a 12th-Generation Intel Core i7-1185G7 processor paired with Intel® Iris Xe Graphics for an overall impressive experience. The 13-inch InfinityEdge Touch display has ‎1920 x 1200 pixels and is also anti-reflective for greater versatility. The backlit keyboard comes armed with a built-in fingerprint reader, and the integrated camera has a 720p resolution with dual-array microphones. You don't have to sacrifice audio, either. There is excellent sound supplied by dual stereo speakers that include both a tweeter and woofer.

Ports are great, too, with two Thunderbolt USB-C ports, a USB-C to USB-A 3.0 adapter, and a USB-C to 3.5 millimeter headset adapter. Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1 mean fantastic connectivity.

Review: Dell XPS 13 review

Dell XPS 13
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What is the best laptop for college students?

The Apple MacBook Air is the best college laptop or going back to school due to its longevity, great portability, and sleek design. However, you get the best out of the device by going beyond its default specifications.

Best laptop for college students

Cost

Display

Operating system

Apple Macbook Air

$1,100

13.3 inches, 13.6 inches, 14.2 inches, 15.3 inches

MacOS

Apple Macbook Pro

$1,149

13.3 inches, 14.2 inches, 16.2 inches

MacOS

Microsoft Surface Go 3

$319

10.5 inches

Windows

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

$1,599

13.3 inches, 13.5 inches, 14 inches, 16 inches

Windows

HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook 

$1,000

14 inches

Chrome

Dell XPS 13

$1,599

13.4 inches

Windows

Which college laptop is right for you?

When you are deciding on a new college laptop or remote study, you first need to ascertain its main purpose: purely for essay writing? A one-stop-shop for study and entertainment? A workhorse for power-hungry design programs?

While Macs -- at least, iMacs -- are generally associated with powerful design programs, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops are sturdy machines for work and play, whereas Chromebooks are typically suitable for general tasks.

If a laptop is only for writing, surfing the internet, and checking email, the more budget-friendly options on our list will be suitable and should last through a college career.

Studies don't last forever, though, and so if you're willing to invest a little extra into a machine that is more future-proof and will last you years to come, you should consider one of the laptops in our guide that sport higher specifications, such as high RAM and modern graphics cards.

Choose this best laptop for college students...

If you want...

Apple Macbook Air

A portable, light, and steady workhorse with an M1 chip and HD camera.

Apple Macbook Pro

An ultra-powerful macOS machine with an upgraded M2 chip. 

Microsoft Surface Go 3

A 2-in-1, versatile study PC with a smaller touchscreen for easier portability.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

A powerful, rugged machine with an Intel Core i7 processor for a faster performance. 

HP Dragonfly Pro

A 14-inch HP Chromebook equipped with 16GB of RAM, a bright touchscreen, and a premium build. 

Dell XPS 13

A budget-friendly option with a convenient touchscreen and premium graphics.

How did I choose these laptops for college?

  • Operating system: One of the first decisions to make when choosing the best laptop for college students is the kind of operating system you want. You will find several options, like Windows, Mac, and even Google Chrome, with each operating a bit differently. Think about which operating system you prefer and also which one will work best for school.  

  • Performance: Check the RAM and processor associated with any laptop for college students. This will help determine how fast and capable your computer will be. You will also want to consider the type of graphics, especially if you are a graphic design or art student. 

  • Storage: The amount of storage on your college laptop can also affect performance, determining not only how much data your computer can hold but also how fast it can move. If you plan to use this laptop for all of your college classes, you will likely need a larger amount of storage if you plan to store all those papers and projects on the local drive.

  • Battery: Each college laptop has a different capability for battery life, which can greatly affect how you are able to use your computer. For example, if you travel frequently or spend long days away from a charger, you will want to look for a longer battery life. However, if you are planning light use of your computer, you may not need such a large battery.

  • Construction: When you are a college student, you tend to be on the move a lot. All of that running around can pose a danger to your computer, especially if you tend to be clumsy like me. Instead, cover your bases by looking for a heavy-duty construction that can better withstand your active life as a college student. 

  • Price: The cost of laptops for college students can truly run the gamut based on critical factors like those listed above. While it's easy to spend thousands of dollars on your laptop, it is possible to find more affordable options. The best laptops for college students range in price from less than $250 to $1,600, depending on the model you choose. 

What's the difference between a Chromebook and a Windows or Mac laptop?

While premium -- and more expensive -- Chromebooks are available, these lightweight models are generally considered more budget-friendly alternatives to traditional Windows or macOS devices. 

Chromebooks operate on Google's Chrome operating system (OS) and are focused on mobile apps rather than traditional software. These laptops are used for basic browsing, studies, and entertainment, but if you have a particular software requirement, you must check for available support before you invest in a Chromebook. However, it is also possible to also use virtualization software (VMs) to circumvent such limitations. 

Why should you care about processing power, memory, or graphics cards?

As software continues to evolve and become more sophisticated, more resources are demanded. A processor manages the input/output of your laptop's circuits and generally speaking, the more high-end the processor, the more efficiently your device will run. This can be crucial when you are running software that requires high levels of processing power. 

Memory, or random-access memory (RAM), is short-term storage that 'remembers' what activities are happening on a laptop. The more memory, the more responsive a device will be and the more a laptop can handle before risking lags, slowness, or response delays.  

Does storage matter? What does SSD mean?

The level of storage you need depends on the tasks you intend your laptop for. Aside from software, which can take up gigabytes in space, storage is needed for files including media -- such as television shows or films -- music, photos, and documents. 

Traditional hard drives (HDD) are slowly being phased out in preference for solid state drives (SSDs), which are flash-based, use less energy, and are significantly faster. However, they are also usually more expensive. Alternatively, eMMC storage cards, usually found in Chromebooks, are an embedded form of storage suitable for these light devices due to the hardware's tiny size.

Are there any alternative laptops for college worth considering?

While we've done our best to showcase great back-to-school and college laptops, we can't highlight every great product on the market. Also consider the options below: 

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