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Best laptops for college students in 2021

Best laptops for college students
(Image credit: Unsplash - Emmanuel Ikwuegbu)

The best laptops for college students are powerful enough to let you tackle all your school projects, with enough portability and power capacity to get you through a full day of classes. Whether you're going back to school in person or attending classes remotely, having the right laptop is key.

Our best college laptop picks all share a few common traits. Not only do they have great to excellent battery life, which is critical when you're running between classes on campus all day, but they offer fantastic bang for your buck, with multiple models under $1,000 — as well as some higher-priced laptops that are fantastic investments.

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.

Best laptops for college students: Acer Swift 3 (AMD)

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1. Acer Swift 3 (AMD)

The best college laptop under $700

Specifications
Display: 14 inches; 1920x1080
CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 4700U
GPU: AMD Radeon graphics
RAM: 8GB
Storage: 512GB SSD
Weight: 2.7 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Amazing battery life+Powerful performance+Affordable
Reasons to avoid
-Display is a little dim-Speakers aren't great

College students learning to make a dollar stretch can learn a lesson from the Acer Swift 3. That lesson? You don't need to pay a premium for great performance. Its AMD Ryzen 7 4700U CPU is snappy and it's got exceptional battery life (11:09) — all packed into a lightweight design. Plus, its USB Type-C, HDMI and USB-A ports mean you're able to do more with any adapters or dongles.

On top of that, its keyboard is great for typing out term papers, with quiet, clicky keys that won't irritate your roommate. Just don't expect it to replace your Bluetooth speaker: we wish its audio had a bit more kick. Its slightly dim display isn't great for Netflix either, but its mix of performance and price is so strong that you'll be able to look past that minor concern.

Read our full Acer Swift 3 (AMD) review.

Best laptops for college students: Asus Zenbook 13 OLED

(Image credit: Future)

2. Asus Zenbook 13 OLED

The best cheap college laptop with OLED

Specifications
Display: 13.3-inch 1080p OLED
CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 5700U
GPU: Integrated Radeon graphics
RAM: 8 GB
Storage: 512 GB
Weight: 2.5 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Stellar battery life+Beautiful 1080p OLED display+Great performance
Reasons to avoid
-Middling sound quality-Inconsistent webcam-No headphone jack

If you're looking to spend between $500-$1,000 the AMD-equipped Asus Zenbook 13 OLED is an excellent value, offering an eye-catching 1080p OLED display and exceptional battery life in a slim, lightweight package for less than a thousand bucks. 

Sure, the speakers aren't amazing, the webcam leaves something to be desired, and there's no headphone jack (though it does ship with an adapter), but these are stumbling blocks you can work around. If you need a zippy little ultraportable with a great screen that will last you through a full day of classes and then some, you can't do better than the OLED-equipped Asus Zenbook 13 at this price.

Read our full Asus Zenbook 13 OLED review.

Best laptops for college students: Dell XPS 13 OLED

(Image credit: Future)

3. Dell XPS 13

The best Windows laptop for students

Specifications
Display: 13.4 inches; 1920x1080, 3840x2160, or 3.5K OLED
CPU: 11th-Generation Intel Core i3-i7
GPU: Intel UHD to Intel Iris Xe
RAM: 8GB-16GB
Storage: 256GB-2TBGB SSD
Weight: 2.64 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Gorgeous, immersive display -- especially if you spring for the 3.5K OLED option+Comfortable keyboard+Great overall performance+Slim, attractive chassis
Reasons to avoid
-Battery life could be better-Slim port selection-Grainy 720p webcam

If you've got a decent budget and want a compact, powerful Windows laptop that will last you through a few years at school, the Dell XPS 13 is a great choice. It's one of our favorite laptops thanks to its excellent performance, beautiful display, and svelte design. While the battery life isn't as good as some other laptops of similar price, it's usually more than enough to get you through a day of classes without scrambling for a charger.

Plus, in 2021 Dell began offering the XPS 13 with a 3.5K OLED touchscreen option. If you can afford the upgrade (it's usually a couple hundred bucks extra, around the same price as the non-OLED 4K screen configuration) it's well worth the investment, as the OLED's deep, inky blacks, vibrant colors, and high contrast ratios really shine when mounted in the XPS 13's thin-bezelled InfinityEdge design. It's so good that it won the awards for best laptop display and best laptop overall in our Tom's Guide Awards 2021.

Read our full Dell XPS 13 OLED review.

Not interested in OLED? Don't miss our Dell XPS 13 (2020, 11th Gen) review.

Best laptops for college students: Apple MacBook Air M1 (late 2020) review

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4. Apple MacBook Air M1 (late 2020)

The best college laptop for iPhone users

Specifications
Display: 13.3 inches; 2,560 x 1,600
CPU: Apple M1
GPU: Integrated 8-core GPU
RAM: 8GB-16GB
Storage: 256GB-2TB SSD
Weight: 2.8 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Remarkably fast performance+Strong legacy app support+Amazingly long battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Still has thick bezels-Light on ports

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

Best laptops for college students: Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

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5. Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

Best laptop for productivity-minded students

Specifications
Display: 13.5-inch 2256 x 1504 touchscreen
CPU: 11-Gen Intel Core i5/i7 | Ryzen 5/7 4000-series
GPU: Integrated Intel Iris Xe or Radeon graphics
RAM: 8GB to 32GB
Storage: 256GB to 1TB SSD
Weight: 2.79 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Light, slim design+Very comfy keyboard+Great speakers+Good battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Needs more ports-Thick bezels are an eyesore-Needs a better webcam

The Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 is the closest thing the company makes to a flagship Windows laptop. This 2021 addition to the Surface Laptop line packs premium components into a svelte chassis, and it comes with a clean Windows 10 install that's bloatware-free.

If you're looking for a premium Windows laptop to carry all day between classes or coffee shops, the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 is the way to go. It has a comfy keyboard with well-sized, satisfying keys and a nice Alcantara deck option that gives your wrists a little more comfort than a typical all-metal laptop. Factor in the respectable 10+ hour battery life and the screen's tall 3:2 display ratio, which can help you read and edit documents more comfortably, and you have a great notebook for students looking to get things done on the go.

Read our full Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 review.

Best laptops for college students: Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2

Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

6. Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2

The best premium Chromebook for college students

Specifications
CPU: Intel Celeron | Core i3 processors
RAM: 4GB, 8GB
Storage: 64GB, 128GB
Display: 13.3-inch QLED (1080p)
Dimensions: 12 x 8 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 2.7 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Beautiful design+Gorgeous QLED display+Improved battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Key travel could be better-Touchscreen input can be inconsistent

The original Samsung Galaxy Chromebook's biggest perk was actually creating its achilles heel. Yes, that 4K OLED display was sharp, but a move to a 1080p QLED panel was a fantastic decision that should make this Chromebook a hit. Now it's way more affordable, and also has better battery life— 7:50 vs the previous model's 5:55. Of course, that's still not nearly as good as the other laptops on this list, most of which lasted 10-16 hours on a single charge.

Plus, the Galaxy Chromebook 2 pumps out a ton of volume for such a small laptop. Admittedly, we weren't as happy with the vertical travel in its keyboard, which creates a typing experience you may have to adapt to — unless you're coming from a MacBook from 2016 to 2019. But college students will find a lot of value in a Chromebook that looks this good — its Fiesta Red color option will stand out in your lecture halls — and works this well. Plus, at $549 (Celeron) or $699 (Core i3), you're getting a lot for a fair price.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2 review.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

7. Microsoft Surface Go 2

The best 2-in-1 laptop for college students

Specifications
CPU: Pentium Gold, 8th Gen Intel Core m3
Camera Resolution: 8MP (rear), 5MP (front)
Display: 10.5 inches, 1920 x 1280 pixels
Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
Memory: 4GB, 8GB
Ports: headphone jack, USB-C, microSD, Surface Connect port, Surface Type Cover Port
Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.9 x 0.3 inches
Weight: 1.22 pounds (1.75 pounds with type cover)
Wi-Fi: IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax
Reasons to buy
+Lengthy battery life+Bright, vivid screen+Great webcam
Reasons to avoid
-Unimpressive performance-Type Cover requires adjustments

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 great: it lasted 11 hours and 39 minutes in our battery test, which is over 5 hours longer than the original Surface Go lasted. 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 i3 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.

Best laptops for college students: MacBook Pro with M1

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

8. MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, late 2020)

Best college laptop for photo editing

Specifications
Display: 13 inches; 2560x1600
CPU: Apple M1 (8-core)
GPU: 8-core integrated
RAM: 8GB to 16GB
Storage: 256GB to 2TB SSD
Weight: 3 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Superb performance+Crazy long battery life+Bright and colorful display
Reasons to avoid
-Dated design-Just two Thunderbolt ports

If you're going off to college to learn about making movies or master other visual media, you'll want to turn to the new M1-powered MacBook Pro. Its display is better than the Air's and its battery lasts longer as well -- it ran for 16 hours and 25 minutes in our battery test, which is absolutely epic. And once your favorite applications update to support Apple silicon, you'll wonder what took Apple so long to ditch Intel. 

And just like with the new Air, the MacBook Pro comes with the new Magic Keyboard, as Apple finally ditched the shallow and unreliable Butterfly keyboards. This combination of endurance and performance, mixed with a display that's great for seeing your creations come to life makes for one of the best college laptops for Apple users, provided their budget allows for it.

Read our full MacBook Pro with M1 review.

Best laptops for college students: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano

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9. Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano

The best ultraportable laptop for students

Specifications
Display: 13 inches; 2K
CPU: Intel Core i5-1130G7 | Intel Core i7-1160G7
GPU: Intel Iris Xe Graphics
RAM: 8GB - 16GB
Storage: 256 - 1TB SSD
Weight: 2 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Great battery life+Lightweight+2K, anti-glare display
Reasons to avoid
-Limited ports-Dull sound

If you absolutely, positively need the lightest laptop possible for going back to school, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano is a great choice. This svelte 2-pound laptop will be easy to carry and should last you through a full day at school; it lasted 12 hours on our battery test, which puts it up there against some of the very best laptops on the market today. And that's quite impressive when you remember that the 2.9-pound XPS 13 is almost a whole pound heavier. 

Lenovo didn't sacrifice on performance or usability either. The Nano's Intel 11th Gen Tiger Lake processors provide the speed you need for tackling your school projects, and its keyboard provides a snappy and comfortable typing experience that lives up to the ThinkPad brand. You just might need to pack a USB-C hub, though, as it's a little light on ports.

Read our full Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano review.

How to choose the best college laptop for you

Portability and battery life are often more important than performance, screen quality, or any other attribute when you're shopping for a laptop that's great for school. Luckily we put every laptop we review through our Tom's Guide battery test, which involves continuously browsing the web over Wi-Fi with the screen brightness set to 150 nits.

Based on those results, we recommend budget shoppers consider purchasing 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 remarkably long-lasting 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 11th Gen CPUs and Thunderbolt 4 (great for connecting an external monitor) but unimpressive sound, while Microsoft's Surface Laptop 4 has great sound and a powerful 11th Gen Intel CPU, but no Thunderbolt 4 ports -- just two USB ports, one USB-C and one USB-A.

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 afore-mentioned web-surfing-based battery test, which involves setting each laptop's display to 150 nits of brightness and measuring 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:

Best office chairs | Best desk lamps | Best pens | Best computer speakers | Best laptop bags | Best webcams | Best all-in-one printers | Best Chromebooks for kids

Alex Wawro

Alex Wawro is a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice. Got a hot tip? Get in touch via alex.wawro@futurenet.com.