Picks

The Best Laptops for Students

Based on more than 500 hours of research.

Asus ZenBook UX330UA laptop closed.
The Asus ZenBook UX330UA.
Michael Hession

This post was published in partnership with Wirecutter, the site devoted to finding the best gear and gadgets. Every product is independently selected by the Wirecutter team. We update links when possible, but note that deals may expire and are subject to change. If you buy something through our links, Slate and Wirecutter may earn an affiliate commission.

Based on more than 500 hours of research and testing close to a hundred laptops over the past few years, we think that the Asus ZenBook UX330UA is the best laptop for most college students because it offers the most value at its affordable price. It has solid performance, especially its battery life, which lasts nearly as long as any laptop we’ve tested in the past year. It’s slim and light, and its backlit keyboard is comfortable and springy.

We also have picks for students who can spend more, are enrolled in photography and film programs, or play games outside of class. Our picks are best for college and graduate students, but they’ll work for those in high school, too—we expect these laptops to last at least five years, so they should carry you through the entirety of high school, college, or graduate school (but not all three).

Our Pick

Asus ZenBook UX330UA laptop on a desk.
Michael Hession

The best laptop for college students
BUY: Asus ZenBook UX330UA
$749, Amazon

The ZenBook is also amazingly well-made for the price, with a powerful processor, a 1920×1080 display, and a decent webcam—we recommend the UX330UA-AH55 configuration with an Intel Core i5-8250U processor, 8 GB of memory, and a 256 GB solid-state drive. But its trackpad can occasionally be unreliable, and and it’s about an inch wider and deeper than other premium ultrabooks. It also lacks a fast, versatile Thunderbolt 3 port, which will become more useful over the next few years as more accessories support the standard. But for around $750, it’s the best option for college students.

Upgrade Pick

Dell XPS 13 on a desk.
The Dell XPS 13.
Michael Hession

A premium Windows laptop
BUY: Dell XPS 13
$924, Amazon

The best Mac option
BUY: MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017) with 128 GB storage
$1,299, Amazon

If you’re willing to pay more for a better battery life, screen, and trackpad in a thinner laptop, get the Dell XPS 13 or the non-Touch Bar 13-inch MacBook Pro, depending on which operating system you prefer. The late-2017 non-touchscreen Dell XPS 13 is the best Windows ultrabook we’ve found. Not only is its battery life among the longest we’ve seen, the laptop is more compact and has a better keyboard and trackpad than the Asus ZenBook. To read more about the Dell XPS 13, head to our review of the best Windows ultrabooks.

The 2017 MacBook Pro is much more expensive than the ZenBook (and even the Dell XPS 13), but it’s the least-expensive Mac we recommend for college students. It has all-day battery life, a lightweight aluminum body, and one of the best trackpads around, along with good performance and a fantastic display. However, it has only two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone/mic jack—that lack of legacy ports may be an inconvenience for students who already own USB-A printers or hard drives. For a more in-depth analysis of the 2017 MacBook Pro, check out our guide to finding the right MacBook.

We usually recommend laptops with 256 GB of storage, but college students may be better off getting 128 GB to save some money and relying on cloud storage to store files (or getting an external hard drive, if they really run out of room).

Also Great

Three laptops open and stacked on one another.
Kyle Fitzgerald

A Windows laptop for film and photo students
BUY: Dell XPS 15
$1,749, Amazon

A Mac option for film and photo students
BUY: Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2017)
$2,249, Amazon

If you’re a film or photography student who needs a laptop for photo and video editing, we recommend the Dell XPS 15 or the 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro. They’re much more expensive, and have battery life that’s two to three hours shorter than our main picks, but their screens are better quality and higher-resolution, their processors are more powerful, and they have dedicated video cards to provide smooth performance while editing video footage and doing other demanding creative jobs. Head to our review of the best 15-inch laptops for photo and video editing to read more about these picks.

For students who play games
BUY: Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming
$1,260, Amazon

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming is the best gaming laptop for most college students. Although it costs around $150 more than the ZenBook and it’s about 20 percent wider and deeper (and three pounds heavier) the Dell has an impressive dedicated graphics card for playing video games such as Overwatch or Doom. And it has a decent keyboard and trackpad, a great screen, and it’s super easy to upgrade. Gaming laptops are not known for their battery life, though; the Inspiron’s battery life was average, at 4 hours and 27 minutes. Its fans were also the loudest of all the budget gaming laptops we tested. Check out our guide to the best budget gaming laptops to learn more.

If our picks are too expensive and you’re willing to compromise battery life, portability, or performance for a cheaper laptop (or laptop replacement) that can handle basic computer work, we also have a section on the best budget alternatives for college students.

Why You Should Trust Us

The Wirecutter’s team of computer reviewers has been researching and testing laptops since 2013, and the members of that team have more than 20 years of collective experience reviewing all kinds of laptops. We’ve spent more than 500 hours researching and testing hundreds of laptops—from portable ultrabooks to Chromebooks to gaming laptops to 15-inch laptops for creative professionals and beyond—in the past few years.

How We Picked

Students need a great laptop that’ll last for years of taking notes, writing papers at 3 in the morning, editing photos for a group project, or playing Overwatch. But choosing the right one can be more challenging than writing a thousand good words on Proust.

The most important features in a laptop for college students are value, battery life, size and weight, keyboard and trackpad, performance, storage, screen, and ports. Not all college students will have the same priorities, though. For example, a film student may need a more expensive laptop that can handle editing video on a high-quality screen; a student who enjoys playing video games might be willing to put up with a larger, heavier laptop to get a decent graphics card.

These are the features that you should look for in a laptop for college, but the order will vary depending on the work you do with it:

Price and value: College is expensive—students have to pay for tuition, housing, textbooks, and other miscellaneous fees and costs—so a laptop’s price-to-performance ratio is the most important factor. Students should get the least expensive laptop that will handle their coursework and last through all of college.
Battery life: Because students rarely work in a single location, the longer the laptop’s battery life, the better. A laptop should last a full day of classes, so you can concentrate on taking notes and doing your homework instead of worrying about finding an outlet.
Size and weight: You don’t want a massive laptop weighing down your backpack as you sprint across campus to class. A 13-inch laptop that weighs around three pounds or less provides the best balance of screen real estate and portability for most college students. A 15-inch laptop isn’t necessary unless you plan on using your laptop to play games or edit video or photos.
Keyboard and trackpad: Your laptop’s keyboard and touchpad should be comfortable to use for long periods of time and accurate and responsive to your touch.
Performance: Processor: An Intel Skylake or Kaby Lake Core i5 processor or better will be powerful enough for most coursework. If you plan to use your laptop for gaming or film and photo assignments, we recommend a more powerful quad-core processor.
Memory: We recommend 8 GB as a minimum for browsing the Web, sending emails, and writing research papers, and 16 GB for students who have a more demanding workload.
Graphics card: You need a dedicated graphics card only if you’re a gamer, or a film or photography student.
Storage: Solid-state drives are much faster than hard drives, and they’re affordable in all our picks. We recommend that most college students get 128 GB of storage, relying on cloud storage or an external hard drive if you need more room. Gamers, as well as students enrolled in photo and film programs, are probably better off spending more for at least 256 GB of built-in storage.
Display: You should get a laptop with at least a 1920×1080 IPS display, since you’ll be staring at your computer screen every day. Photo and film students should invest in a higher-quality, higher-resolution IPS screen.
Ports: While a lack of ports didn’t disqualify any of our contenders, we prefer to see at least a couple USB 3.0 Type-A ports, as well as a Thunderbolt 3 port for future-proofing. An SD card slot is useful if you’re in a photo or film program.

Our pick: Asus ZenBook UX330UA

Closeup on Zenbook's keyboard.
The ZenBook’s keyboard is comfortable enough to slog through that paper on Cartesian dualism.
Michael Hession

BUY: Asus ZenBook UX330UA
$749, Amazon

The Asus ZenBook UX330UA is the best laptop for most students heading to campus because it offers the best overall package at an affordable price. The ZenBook UX330UA costs around $750 at the time of this writing, has great battery life, is slim and light, and has a good backlit keyboard. It also has good enough performance for schoolwork, a nice screen, and a variety of new and old ports. We recommend the UX330UA-AH55 configuration with an Intel Core i5-8250U processor, 8 GB of memory, and a 256 GB solid-state drive. Although the ZenBook has wider dimensions and a less reliable trackpad than other premium ultrabooks, and although it lacks a Thunderbolt 3 port, it still meets most college students’ needs.

With its long battery life, the Asus ZenBook UX330UA can survive a full day of lectures and seminars, even if you can’t find an outlet to plug into during or between classes. In our battery test, the Asus ZenBook UX330UA lasted 7 hours, 16 minutes, landing in the middle of our pack of contenders. It was about an hour behind our upgrade pick, the Dell XPS 13, which gave us 8 hours, 23 minutes on a single charge.

The ZenBook is about an inch wider and takes up more backpack space than the Dell XPS 13 and MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017), measuring 12.7 inches wide, 8.7 inches deep, and half an inch thick. And at 2.6 pounds, the ZenBook is around the same size as (if not lighter than) our upgrade picks. All good backpacks for college students have enough room to fit the ZenBook, and the ZenBook’s light weight is a real asset for a college student on the move.

The ZenBook UX330UA has a backlit keyboard, with soft, springy keys that feel only a little mushy when pressed. It’s comfortable enough to use for an extended period of time, like when you’re holed up in the library the day before a final exam. We found its trackpad unreliable, though, and more frustrating to use than our upgrade picks’. Because it was shallow, sometimes we weren’t sure whether we’d pressed down hard enough to register a click; other times, its smooth surface was too responsive, and we triggered unintentional gestures.

The UX330UA has a mix of new and old ports, so it should be compatible with any of your existing peripherals as well as new ones you accrue throughout the next few years of college. The ZenBook has one USB-C port, but it’s USB 3.1 Gen 1, and the laptop cannot charge via this port—we’d rather Asus include a faster, more capable Thunderbolt 3 port. The laptop also has two USB 3.0 ports, a Micro HDMI port, a combo headphone/microphone jack, an SD card slot, and a proprietary charging port. It supports current-generation 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1.

The colors on the UX330UA’s 13.3-inch 1920×1080 IPS screen are a bit cool, but the screen is otherwise decent. The UX330UA’s webcam is in the top-middle of the screen, and although its video quality can’t match that of an external webcam, it’s fine for calling home or videoconferencing with classmates to discuss a group project. The Asus also has a fingerprint reader for Windows Hello login support, and it was fast and responsive every time we logged in.
Head to our review of the best Windows ultrabooks to read more about the Asus ZenBook UX330UA.

A step up: Dell XPS 13 or 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar

If you’re willing to pay around $300 more for better battery life, screen, and trackpad in a thinner laptop, the non-touchscreen Dell XPS 13 is a great choice. Its battery life is among the longest we’ve seen; it’s thin and light; it has a great keyboard and trackpad; and it has fast performance, a healthy selection of ports, and a good screen. We recommend getting the configuration with an Intel Core i7-8550U processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 256 GB solid-state drive, and a fingerprint reader.

If you’d rather save around $300 and buy an XPS 13 with an older processor and 128 GB SSD, the late-2016 version is a great choice while it’s available. The configuration we recommend has an Intel Core i5-7200U processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 128 GB SSD, and a fingerprint reader. It gave us around 20 minutes more battery life than the 2017 version, and everyday performance wasn’t significantly different, although the eighth-generation model lagged less during heavy multitasking. We prefer the newer model, especially because the 2016 model will soon be hard to find, but you don’t give up much in choosing the older one.

The non-touch XPS 13’s battery life is among the best you’ll find in a Windows ultrabook, at 8 hours, 23 minutes in our Web-browsing battery tests. Most of the models we tested in 2017 lagged behind the XPS 13 by at least an hour, including our top pick for students, the Asus ZenBook UX330UA, which lasted for 7 hours and 16 minutes.

The Dell XPS 13 and the Asus ZenBook are similarly sized, with minor trade-offs in physical dimensions and weight: The Dell is more compact than the ZenBook by almost an inch in width and depth, while the the ZenBook is imperceptibly lighter than the Dell. Both laptops weigh less than three pounds and are small enough to fit into a backpack.

The Dell’s keyboard is comfortable and responsive, though the backlit keys are a little shallow. The XPS 13 has a much better trackpad than the ZenBook, too—it was accurate and reactive to our touch, with precise tap-to-click and a satisfying physical click. The trackpad never dropped swipes in our testing, and it worked well for two- and three-finger gestures that the ZenBook struggled with.

The Dell’s 13.3-inch IPS screen offers good color reproduction and fantastic viewing angles, as well as a matte coating that prevents glare. This makes it better than the ZenBook for watching movies after you’ve finished your work. The 1080p screen is particularly immersive because of its teeny-tiny, 5.2 mm bezel, but the narrow bezel pushes the webcam to the bottom-left edge, above the Esc key. Because of this placement, the camera will give Mom and Dad—or, worse, your classmates or professors—an unflattering view up your nose during video calls.

The Dell has a Thunderbolt 3 port—which the ZenBook lacks— that you can use to transfer data, connect an external display, or charge mobile devices or the laptop itself. It also has two USB 3.0 ports, a headset jack, an SD card reader, and a Noble Lock slot. We appreciate the selection of new and legacy ports.

BUY: Dell XPS 13
$924, Amazon

Upgrade Pick

MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017).
Nick Guy

BUY: MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017) with 128 GB storage
$1,299, Amazon

If you need a Mac, either because of personal preference or school requirements, we recommend the 2017 non-Touch Bar 13-inch MacBook Pro. It has all-day battery life, a lightweight aluminum body, and a fantastic trackpad and display. But its keyboard is shallow, and it has only two Thunderbolt 3 ports, with no legacy ports. We recommend getting the configuration with a 2.3 GHz dual-core 7th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB (or 256 GB, if you can afford it) solid-state drive. Because it’s expensive, we recommend checking out refurbished models first to see if you can get a good deal.1

The MacBook Pro is almost an inch less wide than the Asus ZenBook UX330UA at 12 by 8.4 by 0.6 inches, but it’s nearly half a pound heavier. Still, at around three pounds, the MacBook Pro is light enough to carry around campus without adding too much weight to your bag.

The MacBook Pro has a thin keyboard with shallow travel. The Asus ZenBook and Dell’s keyboards are much springier and more comfortable to use for long periods of time. The MacBook Pro’s trackpad, however, is the best we’ve used on a laptop. Because it has no hinge, you can click anywhere on the touchpad and receive the same response, and its haptic feedback is satisfying.

The 2017 MacBook Pro has a fantastic 13-inch screen; its 2560×1600 Retina display has more pixels than the Asus and Dell’s 1920×1080 screens, making everything look crisper and more detailed. Its webcam, like the ZenBook’s, is placed intuitively in the top-center of the screen.

The MacBook has two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Because these are the only two ports—aside from a 3.5 mm headphone/mic jack—you’ll need a hub or adapter if you have any hard drives, scanners, printers, or card readers that use USB-A. Similarly, if you want to use an external display or projector, you’ll need the right adapter.

The MacBook Pro comes with the best support of any computer brand. Apple includes one year of coverage, which you can extend to three years by paying for AppleCare+. You can visit the Genius Bar in any Apple retail store for in-person support, instead of having to ship your laptop off to a Windows manufacturer when you run into an issue.

Budget Options

If our picks are too expensive and you’re willing to make some sacrifices for a cheaper computer that can still handle basic work, consider these budget options. Keep in mind that they all make serious trade-offs—shorter battery life, bulkier size, more-limited functionality, or an outdated design—to achieve their more-affordable price tags, and they’re not likely to last as long as our picks. Despite each budget option’s particular setbacks, however, each provides good-enough performance for less money than our main picks.

Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA.
Michael Hession

The best Chromebook
BUY: Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA
$449, Amazon

If you can complete all of your work in a Web browser, we recommend the Asus Chromebook Flip 302CA. The Flip provides enough battery life for a full day of classes, and it has a compact body with a touchscreen, a 360-degree hinge, and a comfortable keyboard. It’s fast enough for tab-heavy browser work, too. To read more about the Flip or to check out other, even cheaper, options, see our review of the best Chromebooks.

The cheapest Windows option
BUY: Asus VivoBook Flip 14 TP401CA-DHMT4
$480, Amazon

If you need to save some cash, get the Asus VivoBook Flip 14, which has a solid processor, 64 GB of speedy eMMC storage, 4 GB of RAM, and a bright, 14-inch screen. It’s by far the best Windows laptop you’ll find for the price. But we strongly recommend saving up for the ZenBook UX330UA, which is quite a bit smaller and lighter and has double the storage, as well as a better keyboard and trackpad. To read more about the VivoBook Flip, check out our review of the best cheap Windows laptops.

The cheapest Mac
BUY: Apple MacBook Air
$830, Amazon

If you need a Mac and absolutely can’t spend $300 more for the 2017 13-inch MacBook Pro, get a MacBook Air. Although it’s technically a current model, its design hasn’t been updated in years. Still, it offers up to 12 hours of battery life (according to Apple) in a thin, 3-pound body, with a great keyboard and a solid selection of legacy ports. However, it has old Broadwell Core i5 and i7 processors and a 1440×900 display—that’s not even 1080p. The only reason to choose a MacBook Air is if you require macOS and it’s all your budget will allow. We also have a guide to help you choose between the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and MacBook if you’re still unsure.

What about an iPad?

The best tablet
BUY: 9.7-inch iPad (6th Generation)
$447, Amazon

Can an iPad replace your laptop? Simply put: If your school requires any Mac- or Windows-only apps, then you can’t use an iPad in place of an actual laptop. But if all you need a laptop for is browsing the Web, sending emails, and using Microsoft Office, then consider the 9.7-inch iPad (6th generation). Although a tablet doesn’t support desktop apps, the iPad will run longer on a charge than any of our picks and weigh less. Head over to our reviews of the best tablets and pro tablets to read more about these picks.

If you’re a film or photo student: Dell XPS 15 or 15-inch MacBook Pro

If you’re a film or photo student who needs a laptop for heavy video and image work, our main picks can’t handle your workload. Their screens aren’t high-resolution or high-quality enough, their processors are less powerful, and they don’t have the dedicated graphics card that a laptop needs to be able to handle graphics processing alongside other work. Get the Dell XPS 15 or the MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2017) instead.

BUY: Dell XPS 15
$1,749, Amazon

The Dell XPS 15 is the best option for film or photo students because it has a powerful processor and graphics card, as well as the best out-of-the-box color accuracy and widest color gamut of any Windows laptop we tested. Plus it has fast 4K rendering speeds, all the essential ports, and a good keyboard and trackpad. It’s light and portable, too, which makes it easy to carry around campus.

BUY: Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2017)
$2,249, Amazon

Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro (2017) is the best Mac laptop for photo and video editing. The MacBook Pro’s 15.4-inch Retina display (2880×1800) is as color-accurate as the Dell XPS 15’s, and the MacBook Pro’s screen reproduces slightly more of the sRGB color gamut. Although it has the best screen and trackpad we’ve used on a laptop, the MacBook Pro has a shallow keyboard and it lacks legacy ports—it has four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone/mic jack instead. The 15-inch MacBook Pro also had much slower 4K rendering speeds in our Adobe Premiere Pro test than the Dell XPS 15 because Premiere Pro supports hardware acceleration on Windows but not macOS. (Adobe says it’s working on adding hardware acceleration to the Mac version.) If your school requires that you work with Adobe Premiere Pro or you already own a lot of USB-A peripherals, you may want to consider the Dell.

Check out our review of the best 15-inch laptops for photo and video editing for more detail on these picks.

If you play games: Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming

If you play video games in your spare time, our main picks won’t cut it—they don’t have dedicated graphics cards, and they don’t have effective cooling systems to manage noise and heat. Budget gaming laptops cost more than the ZenBook and tend to be a lot bulkier, heavier, and have worse battery life, but they’re the best option if you like to blow off steam in Overwatch.

Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming on a desk.
Michael Hession

BUY: Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming
$1,260, Amazon

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming is the best option for students who need an affordable laptop that can last a full day of class and can also play games well. It has middle-of-the-road battery life for a budget gaming laptop—4 hours, 21 minutes—but it’s by far the least expensive laptop with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 Max-Q graphics card, which is fast enough to support VR and to play most modern games at 1920×1080 resolution. The Inspiron 15 7000 has a decent keyboard and trackpad, a great screen, and is super easy to upgrade. But it has poor battery life—like most gaming laptops—and its fans get distractingly loud when gaming. The Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming weighs 5.8 pounds, almost 3 whole pounds heavier than the ZenBook, and it’s quite a bit bulkier, too: As a 15-inch laptop, the Dell measures 15.3 by 10.8 by 1 inches, compared to the ZenBook’s 12.7 by 8.7 by 0.5 inches.

To read more about the Inspiron, check out our review of the best budget gaming laptops.

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