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The best laptops for college: Top notebooks for students

What is the best laptop for college? The Apple MacBook Air is our top choice. We analyzed display, memory, portability, and price below.

It's hard enough starting a college course, but now, students have an unusual set of challenges to face: Finding their way around campus, meeting new people, and getting stuck in with their courses all of this in the midst of a pandemic. 

Hardcover books, photocopies, handwritten assignments, and full on-campus courses are now being replaced or supplemented with e-books, distance learning platforms, classes through Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and collaboration over mobile apps -- all of which increases a student's reliance on laptops, smartphones, and tablets to work successfully both on campus and at home.  

The best laptops for school now need to go beyond what we may have expected pre-pandemic. When purchasing a new device, there are more factors to consider: it has to be reliable and ready for everyday use, may need to be used in real-time video calls, and potentially has to be suitable for resource-hungry programs.

When it comes to the latter, lightweight laptops and notebooks aren't always as powerful as desktops, but there are options on the market that have the memory and processing power to handle design or photography software. A benefit of notebooks, too, is that they are usually lightweight -- making travel to and from classes to home, and back, less of a hassle.    

Below, ZDNet has compiled a selection of devices with these requirements in mind. 

Apple MacBook Air

Best laptop for college

Apple MacBook Air

Specifications: Display: 13.3-inch | Apple M1 chip | Memory: 8 to 16GB | Storage: 256GB to 2TB SSD | Retina display with True Tone | Two Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports | Webcam: 720p | Colors: Silver, Space Gray, Gold | Custom options available

As ZDNet has previously recommended in our remote student gadgets roundup, Apple's MacBook Air a more lightweight macOS option which could be an excellent option for students that need a machine powerful enough to manage videoconferencing and remote study applications, but also weighs less than your average hardcover book.

The difference? A MacBook Air has been designed to be lighter and thinner than the MacBook Pro and while you may sacrifice some of the more powerful tech specs available as a trade-off, the Air is a more affordable option for students and will last throughout their studies. 

A $100 discount is available in Apple's education store.

Apple MacBook Pro

A common sight on college campuses

Apple MacBook Pro

Specifications: Display: 13- to 16-inch | Processor: Apple M1 - M1 Max | Memory: 8GB to 64GB | Storage: 256GB to 8TB SSD | Webcam: 720p | Colors: Silver, Space Gray | Custom options available

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. 

The 13-inch model is most suitable for college students as it is a powerful machine but still small enough to travel with easily, as well as fit on pull-out tables in lecture hall seats. 

You can take advantage of a $100 discount in Apple's education store. 

Acer Chromebook Spin 11

Budget-friendly flexible option

Acer Chromebook Spin 11

Specifications: Display: 11.6-inch touchscreen | Intel Celeron N3350 | Memory: 4GB | Storage: 32GB eMMC | Intel HD Graphics 500 | Webcam: HD | Pen included | Colors: Silver 

The Acer Chromebook Spin 11 is a budget-friendly option for students who want to focus on portability and who need a flexible device.

The laptop is convertible and has been designed with a flexible hinge that allows the device to be used as a traditional laptop, tented, or as a tablet. (However, the screen does not detach).

As the laptop runs on Chrome OS, users have access to a variety of Google Apps. While this device is not suitable for power-heavy applications, students will be well-equipped for performing basic tasks, studying, and writing up assignments in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides. The Spin is also fine for entertainment, such as using streaming services.

Microsoft Surface Go 3

A modern 2-in-1 workhorse

Microsoft Surface Go 3

Specifications: Display: 10.5-inch, touchscreen | Processor: Intel Pentium Gold or 10th-gen i3 | Memory: 4GB or 8GB | Storage: eMMC drive: 64GB, up to 128GB SSD | Intel Graphics | Webcam: 5MP/8MP HD | Colors: Platinum, Black | Custom options available, including LTE

A hybrid laptop option focused on mobility is Microsoft's Surface Go 3. Starting at $399.99, 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.  

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9

Rugged laptop with hefty processing power

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9

Specifications: Display: 14-inch | Intel Core 11th-gen i5 | 8GB RAM | 256GB SSD | Intel Iris Xe Graphics | Webcam: IR & 720p HD with HPD | Windows 10 Pro 64 | Fingerprint reader  | Custom options available

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

This laptop is currently on offer with the voucher THINKPDEALS2022.

HP Chromebook x360

A versatile Chrome OS machine

HP Chromebook x360

Specifications: Display: 14-inch, touchscreen | Chrome OS | Intel 11th-gen i3 | Memory: 8GB | Storage: 128GB - 256GB SSD | Intel UHD Graphics | Webcam: 720p HD | Fingerprint reader | Colors: Silver  | Custom options available

Another Chromebook option suitable for students is the HP Chromebook x360. Due to its optional, increased internal storage capacity, this Chromebook can be more expensive than most but for students, this device can provide all of the necessary power and storage required to see them through their studies. The HP Chromebook x360 has a 360-degree hinge and can function as a standard laptop, tent, or tablet.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

Best for high-end applications and portability

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

Specifications: Display: 13.5/15-inch, touchscreen | Processor: AMD Ryzen 5/7 to Intel Core i7 | Memory: 8GB,16GB, or 32GB | Storage: 128GB to 1TB SSD | Webcam: 720p HD, Windows Hello biometrics | BitLocker support | Colors: Black, Platinum, Sandstone, Metal, Cobalt  | Custom options available

For students who prefer the Windows 10 Home operating system and need power for high-end applications, whether for work or play, Microsoft's Surface Laptop 3 is an excellent choice,

Available in 13.5 and 15-inch PixelSense touchscreen options, the laptop is light enough to carry around on campus and is also compatible with a stylus. Users can expect 16.5 hours or more of battery life, depending on usage. 

HP Envy 2-in-1 laptop

An overall powerful, large laptop for study and entertainment

HP Envy 2-in-1 laptop

Specifications: Display: 15.6-inch Full HD, touchscreen | AMD Ryzen 5 | Memory: 8GB | Storage: 256GB SSD | AMD Radeon Graphics | Webcam: 720p | Windows 11 Home | Color: Black

The HP Envy 2-in-1 laptop is a robust laptop with a large screen that would suit any student heading to college this year. Featuring powerful specifications, a high-quality display, and voice assistant technology built-in, this offering by HP is the sort of machine that can be used at a desk as a general workhorse, even if the programs you need to use are resource-intensive.

There is also a useful, in-built shutter for covering your camera if you don't want to be on-screen during study calls or meetings, and as a hybrid PC, this laptop can also be used as a tablet.

Google Pixelbook Go

A strong Chrome OS option for students

Google Pixelbook Go

Specifications: Display: 13-inch LCD | Processor: Intel m3 to Core i7 | Memory: 8GB to 16GB | Storage: 64GB to 256GB SSD | Intel Graphics | Webcam: 1080p | Titan C security chip | Colors: Black

With up to 12 hours of reported battery life, fans of the Google brand could consider the Google Pixelbook Go, a fast machine with a premium feel. While this Chromebook isn't one of the newest available on the market, the benefit of this device is its useability as a remote work device and its ability to run powerful applications. 

For improved hardware security, this Chromebook also comes with a Titan C security chip.

What is the best laptop for college?

The Apple MacBook Air is the best laptop for college due to its adequate processor and memory, along with great portability and sleek design.

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.

Which is the right laptop for you?

When you are deciding on a new laptop for college 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.

Our selection process explained

Going to college is an expensive endeavor and can even be more so when the course taken is a STEM or design qualification -- but for many students, simply a reliable, robust device for research and writing trumps spending a fortune on unnecessarily powerful specifications. We've leaned upon our years of reviews and tests to make sure we have a range of requirements covered.