A version of this story originally appeared on the Strategist U.S.
Choosing a laptop for university is a big decision that’s heavily influenced by your budget and your day-to-day needs. “It really depends on what you’re going to do with your laptop and what your major is,” says Sue Tiger, manager of Tech Zone at the University of Illinois. For example, “architecture requires a very high-end PC, and education may require a medium-size, middle-of-the-road Macbook Pro.” Since the majority of students will use their computers to surf the web, take notes, answer emails, attend Zoom classes, and use word processors like Word or Google Docs, most midrange laptops — or maybe even a good Chromebook — will be sufficient. Just make sure you find something rugged, says Charlie Regan, CEO of Nerds on Site. “You’re going to spill things on it. You’re going to drop it.”
Tiger also suggests checking what systems your campus uses before making your purchase. “If you have a Mac and your campus mainly supports Windows, she warns, “you can be out of luck.” This doesn’t mean your laptop is unusable, but you may have to jump through some extra hoops for access to applications for certain classes or even printing around campus.
We spoke to Tiger, Regan, and seven other computer repair and tech experts about the best machines for every type of student. Here are their recommendations.
Regan says Nerds on Site is ordering a hundred Chromebooks at a time to keep up with demand. “It’s a functional computer, but it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles. It’s a remarkable bargain, and we haven’t experienced much in the way of breakdown,” he says. Alan Zilberman at Laptop MD says that at 2.3 pounds, the laptop is “easy to carry.” Plus, he notes that “the magnesium body makes it very durable and robust.” It’s also fast-charging and has an impressive eight-hour battery life.
“Chromebooks represent a pretty solid value,” says Tony Larson, an IT professional. Zilberman likes this option from Samsung, calling it “a great device that is well rounded and appropriate for any student. It’s slim and pretty light.”
Our colleagues at the Verge named the XPS 13 the “Best Laptop You Can Buy,” and many of our experts liked it too. “When it comes to a premium laptop that’s perfect for a few years of college, the Dell XPS 13 two-in-one is my pick,” says Austin Evans, a tech YouTuber. The latest XPS 13 redesign led to a more compact machine “but still packs a 13.4” touch screen with a taller 16:10 aspect ratio, giving it a little bit of extra screen real estate. It’ll even give you the ability to do a little bit of gaming,” he says. The XPS 13 is almost entirely made of aluminum, “which makes it very durable and able to withstand drops and scratches,” Zilberman says. “And the keyboard is designed to last.”
Miguel Melendez, a PC expert at B&H Photo Video, recommends the latest version of the MacBook Air, which has Apple’s own M1 processor. “It’s really all a student would need, no matter what they are going to study. The M1 chip is very capable and it has been doing very well for any type of user,” he says. Melendez also says the 8GB of RAM in the Air is great “for students who like to have a lot of tabs open at the same time,” or those who need to edit photos or videos. The 256GB of storage is plenty too. “I find that most people will use cloud services these days, since that is convenient and you get access to all your data from all of your devices.” The Air also has the benefit of being one of the most lightweight options on the market. “If this is going to be the device you take with you every day, most will appreciate lighter laptops,” he says. “I have seen it many times where they get a laptop that is too heavy and have to buy a new one shortly after, because with all the books or other things they might need to have with them, two or three extra pounds make a big difference.” Jason Snell, host of the tech podcast Upgrade, is also a fan of the Air. Last year, he bought one for his own daughter as she headed back to university. Zilberman recommends it, too, because of its reliable operating system, updated scissor-style keyboard, and great hardware. Plus, “it’s light, slim, and easy to carry,” he says.
“I always recommend starting with a 13-inch MacBook Pro,” says Tyler Stalman, a photographer and tech podcaster, of what has become the de facto laptop for creators. “I love taking photos and making movies, so I feel like that extra power and port you get compared to the MacBook Air is always worth the upgrade,” says Stalman. Regan likes Apple laptops for their durability. He even chucks them on the floor from time to time to show his customers how rugged they can be. The Pro has a bright screen, 256GB or more of storage, a smooth trackpad, and up to ten hours of battery life.
“If you want more power and a bigger screen and you can deal with a heavier machine, the Mac 16-inch is your best bet,” Tiger says. Zilberman agrees, calling the 16-inch MacBook Pro his personal top choice “because of its ability to supersede the performance of most laptops or tablets on the market today. It’s great for practically any laborious task or application due to its outstanding internals and unmatched reliability compared to all other devices of this nature.” It can run multiple operating systems, like MacOS or Windows, which gives you a lot of flexibility when it comes to running certain applications. “The only cons of this device are the weight and size. So plan to keep it on your desk for the most part,” Zilberman says.
“You can get the 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 for as low as $1,299 for 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, which puts it neck-in-neck with the entry-level MacBook Pro, but with a bigger screen,” says Verge writer Monica Chin. In Chin’s testing, she found that Surface 4 can export video nearly 12 times faster than its predecessor, the Surface Laptop 3, and its battery lasts nearly 11 hours. It also has a 10 hour and 52 minute battery life. Chin also says students will be pleased with the Surface’s speaker and webcam quality, since they’ll likely be listening to a lot of music and still doing some video calls, even if they’re not 100 percent remote. The Surface delivers a good picture “and the dual far-field microphones had no trouble picking up my voice,” she says. “The speakers, which now support Dolby Atmos 9, sound quite clear, with good volume and bass and percussion that are audible (though not booming).”
Zilberman likes this two-in-one laptop because it “is cost-efficient, with a touch screen, 256GB solid-state drive, and a durable body.”The 14-inch screen and 8GB of RAM should be more than enough to get most students through their coursework. “The only con is, it’s not very light,” Zilberman says.
Melendez also likes the Ideapad, which he considers a great deal. “It comes with Office Home & Student, which is usually something most students will need to purchase,” he says. The Ideapad is a tank, with a bright 15-inch screen, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. This means it’s perfect for multitasking, so you can edit photos and work on documents with relative ease. And because of the massive storage capabilities, you can save documents, photos, and videos without having to worry about maxing out your hard drive.
If you’re looking for something even more portable than a Chromebook, Snell recommends the iPad. “Some students could probably do fine with an iPad Air and a good case, such as the Logitech Combo Touch and an Apple Pencil,” he says. Plus, “Apple’s got some new iPad software coming this fall that improves pencil input, especially for note-taking.” iPads are also able to run Google docs and other programs on Safari with relative ease nowadays.
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