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Best college laptops in 2021

Best college laptops for back to school students shopping online
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It's always time to find the best college laptops, as the need to replace a laptop never quite matches up with the new semester. And since higher education is still remote for many, the task of finding a fantastic laptop to experience these classes 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).

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 college laptops: Acer Swift 3 (AMD)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

1. Acer Swift 3 (AMD)

The best college laptop under $700

Display: 14 inches; 1920x1080 | CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 4700U | GPU: AMD Radeon graphics | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 512GB SSD | Weight: 2.7 pounds

Amazing battery life
Powerful performance
Affordable
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 college laptops - Dell XPS 13 (2020, 11th Gen) review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

2. Dell XPS 13 (2020, 11th Gen)

The best college PC laptop

Display: 13.4 inches; 1920x1080 or 3840x2160 | 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

Gorgeous, immersive display
Comfortable keyboard
Great overall performance
Battery life could be better
Slim port selection

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.

best college laptops - Apple MacBook Air M1 (late 2020) review

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3. Apple MacBook Air M1 (late 2020)

The best college laptop for iPhone users

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

Remarkably fast performance
Strong legacy app support
Amazingly long battery life
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

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

4. Asus Chromebook Flip C434

The best Chromebook for college

Display: 14 inches; 1,920 x 1,080 | CPU: 8th-Generation Intel Core m3 | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 615 | RAM: 4GB-8GB | Storage: 64GB | Weight: 3.19 pounds

Slick design
Nice display
Good battery life
A bit more expensive than some other Chromebooks

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.

best college laptops: HP Envy 13 (2019)

5. HP Envy 13 (2019)

The best college laptop if you've got the money

CPU: Intel Core i5/Core i7 | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 620/Nvidia GeForce MX250 | RAM: 8GB/16GB | Storage: 256GB/512GB/1TB | Display: 13.3-inch, 1080p or 4K | Size: 12.1 x 8.3 x 0.6 inches | Weight: 2.8 pounds

Attractive, portable chassis
Fast performance
Bright display
11+ hours of battery life (FHD model)
No Thunderbolt 3

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.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

6. Microsoft Surface Go 2

The best 2-in-1 laptop for college students

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

Lengthy battery life
Bright, vivid screen
Great webcam
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 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.

Best Chromebook: Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2

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

7. Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2

The best premium Chromebook for college students

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

Beautiful design
Gorgeous QLED display
Improved battery life
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 lasts a lot longer on a single charge— 7:50 vs the previous model's 5:55. We tested the Core i3 version, and found it provided plenty of speed (not that Chrome OS needs a lot).

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.

Best college laptops: MacBook Pro with M1

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

Best college laptop for photo editing

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

Superb performance
Crazy long battery life
Bright and colorful display
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. 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 college laptops: Acer Swift 3 AMD Ryzen 7 4700U

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9. Acer Swift 3 (2020, AMD Ryzen)

Best laptop for the price

CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 4700U | GPU: AMD Radeon Graphics | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 512GB | Display Size: 14-inch, 1080p | Size: 12.7 x. 8.6 x 0.6 inches | Weight: 2.7 pounds

Herculean performance
A beastly multitasker
Clicky keyboard
Fingerprint scanner
Dim display

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:

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