The hunt for the best college laptops doesn't just end because you and your family members have started a new semester. And, yes, this semester is unlike any other — full of remote learning — which makes finding a a great laptop as important as ever. In fact, it's as essential as a No. 2 pencil used to be (ask your parents).
All of our best college laptops have at least a couple of common traits. Not only do they have great to excellent battery life, but there's fantastic bang for your buck, with multiple models under $600 (and some higher priced laptops that are fantastic investments).
- The best laptops you can buy now
- We've got the best Chromebooks for kids
- Gear up for class: The best back to school sales
And if you're worried about spending over $1,000, know that our picks are made with your future in mind. The MacBook Pro isn't cheap, for example, but mine has lasted me 8 years, which is enough time for undergrad and graduate school (or for applying to your first jobs out of college).
Read on for our picks of the best college laptops you can buy now.
You normally assume that buying a budget laptop means getting budget quality, but the Acer Aspire 5 says no. Not only does it offer a bright 1080p display that's great for researching and writing papers, but it's also got a 15-inch screen, great for splitting between your project and your research. It's also got the specs for decent multi-tasking, starting with its 8th generation Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD.
College students looking to take their laptop all around the house (and outside) will appreciate the Acer Aspire 5's battery life: it lasted nearly 9 hours on our web surfing battery test, which is very good for a 15-inch system. And since this next school year looks to be a little less mobile than before, we're not that concerned about how the 3.8-pound Acer Aspire 5 isn't the lightest laptop around — as many are heavier.
Going to college with a decent budget? The Dell XPS 13 just got a decent speed boost thanks to Intel's 11th Gen Tiger Lake processors. Specifically, the XPS 13's Geekbench 5 score beats last year's by about 10%. And for writing up your next major assignment or project, you'll love XPS 13's keyboard — one of the best there is. Also, Dell's found a way to trim the bottom bezel of its InfinityEdge display, for an even better screen-to-body ratio than before.
And if you customize it properly, you can get it with the Arctic White colorway that's a real eye-catcher. And with the Intel Iris Xe upgrade, we've seen decent graphics performance boosts vs last year's model as well. The only real issue is in its battery life, which is still good, but not as long as the 10th Gen Intel-based XPS 13.
Read our full Dell XPS 13 (2020, 11th Gen) review.
The new MacBook Air will keep its charge through multiple classes, breaks and all nighters. We mean that, as it survived on the Tom's Guide battery test for 14 hours and 41 minutes, the longest lasting MacBook Air ever. Its performance is also seriously faster: the M1 chip makes the MacBook Air a shockingly decent system in multiple ways. Not only did it run Rise of the Tomb Raider smoothly, but that was a Rosetta 2 conversion of that Intel app.
Plus, you can run iOS and iPadOS apps on the MacBook Air, as its M1 processor is similar to the A-series iPhone and iPad processors. Living the remote learning life? You'll look clearer and more accurate than ever, as signal processing in the M1 makes the MacBook Air webcam better than ever. Also, its Magic Keyboard is really great for typing comfortably for hours on end.
Read our full Apple MacBook Air M1 (late 2020) review.
Students are one of the primary groups that have made Chromebooks a success, and we easily recommend the Asus Chromebook Flip C434 for your next semester. Not only does it offer the simplicity needed by many — plus easy access to Google Docs, Sheets and Slides for your next classes — but the addition of Android app emulation gives this growing platform new tricks. The Asus Chromebook Flip C434 offers a slick design and speedy performance — plus it lasted 8 hours and 52 minutes on our battery test, so you won't need that power cord when you take your laptop to the kitchen table or the couch.
The Flip C434 is also great for college students who can take notes in Android apps with its touchscreen. And with a solid set of ports — 1 USB 3.1 port, 2 USB-C ports, a headphone jack and a microSD card slot — you'll never have a hard time connecting anything. Admittedly, ChromeOS doesn't have the high-end apps that graphic design, engineering and computer science majors may need. But the Flip C434 is a great pick for english and history majors, or anyone else who can rely on a word processor and an internet connection.
One of the best college laptops is back and better than ever. Refreshed with a new design, powerful speakers and useful security features, the new HP Envy 13 is a prime candidate for the prospective college student who is looking to invest in a laptop that will last until graduation — or even to their post-grad years. And, yes, parents — you get what you pay for, with serious speed (starting at Core i5) and epic battery life (more than 11 hours).
The 2019 Envy 13 will speak to the privacy and security minded college student, with a fingerprint sensor to protect your data, and the ability to disable your webcam (which should be useful except when teachers demand to see you so they know you're not snoozing). It's also got a slick minimal aesthetic, and the option for a sharp 4K screen or a 1080p display (which will have longer battery life). It's not hard to understand why Envy 13 is one of the best college laptops you can buy.
College students looking for a portable 2-in-1 that can last a while should give the Surface Go 2 a close look. Yes, the original Surface Go was not a hit, but this model fixed practically everything wrong with the original. Its thinner bezels mean more screen space for your assignments (and a more modern looking tablet). We would have ranked the Surface Go 2 a bit higher, but its 10.5-inch screen and keyboard may be small for some college students.
And its battery life, just as importantly, is over 5 hours longer than the original Surface Go. College students will love the Surface Go 2's Zoom-ready webcam, a 5-megapixel 1080p front camera that is perfect for this era of online learning. Plus, you get Windows Hello biometric login for unlocking the Surface Go 2 when you sit down to it, and if you get the 8th Gen Intel Core m3 version, you'll get the moderate multitasking capability you need to catch up with your coursework (while you stream Spotify).
Read our full Microsoft Surface Go 2 review.
For a premium Chromebook experience, look no further than Google's Pixelbook Go. Students might scoff when their parents use the word "Chromebook," as they're synonymous with earlier education, but this is a Chromebook for all ages. First off, its slim, lightweight design comes in two colors: Just Black and Not Pink, which goes a long way in keeping this Pixelbook from looking like a knockoff MacBook Air. On top of that, its quiet and comfortable keyboard is ideal for late night typing sessions when your roommates are sleeping.
Students pursuing higher education will also appreciate the Pixelbook Go when they need to get some air away from a power adapter. The Go lasted over 11 hours on our Wi-Fi-based web surfing test. Oh, and don't let your student think the Pixelbook Go doesn't have the speed they need: it's got Intel Core m3 through Core i7 CPUs, so you don't need to settle, plus up to 16GB of RAM for all the Chrome tabs you could need. Plus, its screen is both bright and colorful (great for Netflix), and it's actually a touchscreen, for when it's time to emulate Android apps. We just wish its hinge rotated to tablet mode for optimal use of those apps.
Read our full Google Pixelbook Go review.
When it comes time for your budding photographer or movie-maker to edit video or images, they'll want to turn to the MacBook Pro. While we like the MacBook Air's True Tone panel for automatically calibrated color, power users should get the MacBook Pro. That's because beefier applications like Photoshop, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro all need the Gen U-series Intel chips in the MacBook Pro, not the less capable Y-series chips in the MacBook Air.
The so-called Magic Keyboard in the new MacBook Pro is so good it almost erases the bad memories of the shallow and unreliable Butterfly keyboards that made me wait years to think about buying a new MacBook. And the new 13-inch MacBook Pro also lasts a while too, making it nearly 11 hours on our web-surfing based battery test. We just wish you got the 10th-Gen versions of those Intel CPUs in the entry-level model, instead of having to upgrade for them.
Read our full MacBook Pro 13-inch (2020) review
The dark horse of the best college laptop race is the Acer Swift 3 running on AMD Ryzen CPUs. At only $649, this laptop goes toe to toe with the Dell XPS 13 and the MacBook Pro. That's how fast the Ryzen 7 4700U CPU is.
The Swift 3 also wins points for its comfortable keyboard, which has clicky keys that provide ample feedback. Students also cut down on login time thanks to the fingerprint reader built into the Swift 3's keyboard deck. And all this power is wrapped in aluminum and magnesium, so it also looks like a champ. The one major caveat is its display, which is on the dim and dull side of the equation. If your student already has another big screen for binge-watching the best Netflix shows, consider the Swift 3: it's a surprising stunner.
How to choose the best college laptop for you
Budget shoppers should target the Acer Aspire 5, Asus Chromebook Flip C434 and Microsoft Surface Go 2, as all come in at less than $600 — and that's with the Surface Go 2's Type Cover Keyboard (sold separately). Picking between these three is simple. If you prioritize performance, get the Aspire 5. Need a Chromebook? The Flip C434's your next laptop. Want a tablet? Go get a Surface Go 2.
The next price tier of laptops, both under $700, has the Acer Swift 3 and the Google Pixelbook Go, which brings up an interesting choice. The Swift 3 is fast for its price tag, but its screen is not that bright. If you can do all your school work via Chrome and Android, the Pixelbook Go's premium build and excellent screen are a solid combination.
Lastly, we get to the folks who can spend $1,000 or more. iPhone-using college students can get the MacBook Air if their majors don't require demanding programs, or spend the extra $300 for the MacBook Pro if they're going to be living within Adobe's applications. The rest of the student body, who think the best college laptop has to be a PC, will decide based around performance and audio quality. The Dell XPS 13 has modern 10th Gen CPUs and Thunderbolt 3 (great for connecting an external monitor) but unimpressive sound, while the HP Envy 13 has stellar audio with slightly older 8th Gen Intel chips and no Thunderbolt 3.
How we test the best college laptops
College students, no matter the season (or year, for that matter) live in a highly mobile situation, where they're going to want a laptop that can last a while on a single charge. That's why we test laptops with our web-surfing-based battery test, where we set each laptop's display to 150 nits of brightness and measure how long it can last while loading an endless stream of web pages.
On top of that, we test each laptop's performance with a mix of every day usage, (opening tons of web browser tabs, streaming YouTube and move) and performance-measuring benchmarks such as Geekbench for the CPU and our own storage speed tests to see how fast these laptops can clone big blocks of data.
We measure each laptop's display via the readings recorded by our light gun, one of two pieces of hardware (the other being our colorimeter) that we use to measure how bright a screen can get and how much of the sRGB color spectrum it can produce.
Be sure to check out all of our guides to get you ready to go back to school: