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How to pick a laptop for college: 4 things to consider and 10 laptops we recommend

Are you starting college and need a new laptop? We've got you covered. From the latest AI models to all the new sleek 2-in-1 convertibles, let's break down how to find the right laptop for you.
Written by Kyle Kucharski, Editor
Reviewed by Kayla Solino

Asus Vivobook 16 (2024)

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Need a laptop for college but don't know where to start? You're not alone. The amount of laptops on the market can be overwhelming, even for computer nerds like us. Many colleges and universities will recommend specific models depending on your degree program, but if you're on your own, don't fret. We can help break down some important considerations and make a few suggestions. 

Also: The best laptops for college: Expert tested and reviewed

We've gone hands-on with dozens of laptops here at ZDNET, and our expert team is excited to share their findings on the best laptops for college in 2024. However, there are a few essential points to consider before running out and dropping cash on a new laptop. Let's run through them.

Also: These 5 gadgets are the college essentials you'll actually reach for

1. Determine what you'll use your laptop for


Microsoft Surface Pro: deconstructed

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Different areas of study can have vastly different requirements for your laptop. If you're in a field such as media, design, or production and working with high-end graphics, you'll need to consider machines that can adequately handle those tasks. And the reality is that often (but not always!) means spending a little more money.

Also: How we test laptops at ZDNET in 2024

Trust me, the worst thing you could do is settle for a lower-end machine that struggles to keep up with an intense workload; it's just going to hold you back during crunch time or finals week, and dealing with tech issues is a huge bummer when it gets in the way of assignments. 

It's also important to consider your degree program or area of study while selecting a laptop. Many institutions may list recommended laptop and hardware options, so be sure to check your university's online resources, connect with a department chair, or talk with other students in your area of study too. More often than not, specific programs like engineering or mathematics suggest Windows PCs over MacBooks due to particular software and programming. At the same time, the laptop selection will only matter a little for other degrees. Regardless of which category you fall into, you'll still want to purchase a top laptop to last all four years (and beyond).

Opt for a powerful GPU and display if you'll be studying:

  • Graphic design
  • Photo editing, illustration 
  • Video editing
  • 3D drafting

Get a powerful processor if you'll be studying:

  • Programming
  • The sciences
  • Game design
  • Research
  • Data and analytics
  • Multitasking with productivity apps 
  • Anything else 

2. Assess your budget

hp envy x360

Alienware m18 R2

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Once you've figured out the primary tasks you'll be doing with your new laptop, you should look at what you'd like to spend. Spending more on a computer typically means getting access to higher-tier hardware, more memory, faster processing speeds, and better displays. But of course, this is different across the board. Some machines punch above their price point, and others are overpriced for what they offer. 

Here's what kind of laptop you're likely to get based on its price: 

  • $500 or less: Budget computers and Chromebooks with limited storage and modest hardware. 
  • $500 - $1,000: This is the "sweet spot" where you can find some pretty solid machines on sale and some respectable machines with a wide range of hardware. 
  • $1,000 - $1,500: This is the middle tier, where most new laptops can be found. Machines in this tier will be balanced enough for most users and armed with hardware a few steps above the baseline. 
  • $1,500 - $2,000: These are mid-plus laptops with upgraded components compared to those in the middle tier, typically with better displays, more storage, and faster processors. 
  • $2,000 and above: This bracket includes high-end machines with state-of-the-art processors, GPUs, and expensive OLED screens. 

3. Get your student discount

LG Gram Pro 16 2 in 1

LG Gram Pro 16 2 in 1

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Let's face it: college students (or their parents) aren't exactly made of cash. But that shouldn't stop you from nabbing the laptop you want. You don't have to drop big money to get a good laptop for college because often, students can qualify for discounts on new laptops from almost all big-brand laptop companies. Here are the links to student discount signups for several major manufacturers. 

4. Consider your preferences

Lenovo Yoga 7i

Lenovo Yoga 7i 2-in-1

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

Hardware aside, your personal preferences in what you want in a laptop matter. When it comes to the physical form factor of your ideal laptop, do you value portability above all else, or are you unbothered by a heavier laptop if that means a more prominent, better display? 

Also: The best 15-inch laptops of 2024: Expert tested and reviewed

Would you like to be able to switch your laptop to a tablet? If so, you'll want to look at a 2-in-1 convertible laptop, of which there has been an explosion of really nice machines this year. We'll break down some of the most common personal preferences and give some suggestions along the way. And whatever your preferences are, these picks below are our three favorite laptops for college overall

If you value portability

If you're looking for a laptop that is above all else, light and easy to carry around, there are some great options out there that are defined by their portability. 

Also: The best lightweight laptops of 2024: Expert tested

Ultraportability does come with tradeoffs, however. In terms of design, the constraints on manufacturers to squeeze value out of every square inch of space means that certain elements may be smaller, lighter, or in non-conventional locations. This especially refers to the battery, display, or the laptop's keyboard. I've tested several great lightweight laptops, and these three are my top choices for college students. 

If you prioritize battery power

If you're looking for a machine with a marathon battery that can last all day on campus and then some, we've got you covered. 

Some of the best battery life on the market right now can be found on the brand new Microsoft Copilot+ PCs. Qualcomm's new Snapdragon X Elite chips use AI to manage battery life in a hyper-efficient way, lowering battery consumption to a trickle when the machine is not in use. The new HP Omnibook and Lenovo Yoga Slim 7x are two examples of these computers with outstanding battery life extending into multiple days.

Also: The work laptop I recommend to most people is not made by Apple or Lenovo

The battery life of a laptop is measured in its watt-hour (Wh) capacity, which refers to how much electricity (measured in hours) it can store. The higher this number, the more it can store. But how you use your laptop ultimately determines how long it lasts.

Some common tips to extend the life of your battery include:

  • Try to keep your battery between 20% and 80%, instead of keeping the device at 100%.
  • Let your battery drain below 50% regularly. 
  • Try not to charge your laptop in high-temperature environments. 

If you want a 2-in-1

There are lots of benefits to having a convertible laptop in college. Being able to swap from tablet mode to laptop mode can be invaluable if you're studying a field where you need to make sketches or mockups on the fly. Alternatively, popping the machine into tent mode can be great for watching presentations, seminars, or virtual meetings. 

Also: This Lenovo 2-in-1 is one of the most versatile business laptops I've tested

We've gone hands-on with a number of great 2-in-1 laptops this year alone, including the LG Gram Pro 16 2-in-1, which is incredibly lightweight and has a gorgeous display, and the HP Envy x360 2-in-1, which is super well-rounded and high-performing for the price.

Other factors to consider when choosing a laptop for college

Different students will have different performance needs, and it's important to consider what exactly will be required in your courses before selecting a laptop. Students in media, design, animation, and production will likely need to opt for machines with higher hardware performance, while other students who will mainly be using their laptops for research and productivity apps may not need high-end GPUs or extensive memory. 

These are some additional factors that you might want to consider when shopping for a laptop for college:

  • Price: Cost is an important factor, especially for students. I included laptops that cover a wide range of price points, from the inexpensive Acer Aspire Go 15 at just $300 to the pricier Lenovo Yoga Book 9i that will run closer to $2,000. Keep in mind that most computer manufacturers offer student discounts, and their buying links are included in each laptop's section on this page. 
  • Operating system: In order to maximize compatibility, many institutions will elect to run either all Windows or all MacOS systems. If your college chooses to go for Macs, you'll just need to decide whether you want a MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air. Luckily, we've spent a lot of time breaking down the differences. If your college has chosen to use Windows laptops only, you'll have more options to sift through, but there's more room for personalization. Check out our list of best Windows laptops for some additional options. 
  • Storage: The amount of storage on your college laptop determines 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.

How we test laptops

We use a combination of methods to test laptops here at ZDNET. First, we acquire data from benchmarking software to analyze a system's metrics under the hood, and compare those to advertised numbers. Then, we spend an extended amount of time with the laptop (usually a week or two) using it the same way a normal consumer would, in order to analyze its portability, form factor, and how well the battery actually holds up, among others. For an extensive breakdown, check out our comprehensive laptop testing methodology.

  • Benchmarking: First, we run a series of tests to put the computer's hardware through the wringer in order to see what it's capable of. Cinebench is one of the most commonly-used hardware testing suites, which tests the laptop's rendering performance on single and multiple CPU cores. PCMark 10 is another powerful program that covers a wide variety of tasks performed in the workplace, and there are many others that we use in tandem to gather as much data as we can. Some components we run tests on include:
  • Processor: The "brain" of the laptop, and one of the most important factors that determines performance. The four biggest manufacturers that make most of the CPUs found in laptops today are Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, and Apple (in their own machines only). This is tested in benchmarking software.
  • The display: The size of the display (measured diagonally from corner to corner) is also what dictates the laptop's overall size, and play a big role in the laptop's cost. Brightness is measured in "nits", and color spectrums are tested in benchmarking software.

  • The graphics processor (GPU): Whether it's integrated into the CPU or a dedicated graphics card, how well the machine handles graphics is a key factor when it comes to demanding visual tasks like video editing, rendering, and of course, gaming. We test the GPU with a combination of benchmarking software, gaming, and media playback. 

  • Physical form factor: Finally, the laptop's overall appearance and physical form factor encompasses its weight, thickness, how the keyboard and trackpad feel, and whether or not it has a display that can be folded back to form a tablet. We carry the laptop around for at least a week and note how well it commutes.

  • Battery testing: We test a unit's battery in a few ways. A handful of benchmarking programs have their own battery testing components, but we also will just let the laptop run for as long as it can under a medium load. We ensure screensavers and hibernation mode are turned off, set the display's brightness and audio at 50%, load up a livestream on YouTube in Chrome, and wait 'til the end.
  • The human element:  As we mentioned earlier, metrics and system data is important, but numbers alone don't give you the full picture. This is where we weave in our personal experience with the device and tap into the practical use cases that consumers actually care about. 

Ultimately, our goal is to break down the capabilities of each and every laptop we test into digestible terms that real people can find useful. There is a lot of noise and confusion when it comes to navigating the laptop and computer consumer market, so we hope to bring an intuitive element to the whole process by leveraging our team's decades of experience. 

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