Based on more than 400 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 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).
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-AH54 configuration with an Intel Core i5-7200U 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 $700, it’s the best option for college students.
If you’re willing to pay more for a better 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 2016 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).
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.
The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming is the best gaming laptop for most college students. Although it costs around $200 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. It also has eight-hour battery life and a crisp, responsive keyboard and trackpad, and it’s cool and quiet enough during gaming sessions. 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.
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.
- 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
The Asus ZenBook UX330UA is an excellent value for college students.
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 $700 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-AH54 configuration with an Intel Core i5-7200U 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 easily 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 ZenBook lasted 8 hours and 3 minutes, by far the longest of the Windows ultrabooks we tested in the past year. Aside from our upgrade pick—the Dell XPS 13, which lasted for 7 hours and 21 minutes—most other Windows ultrabooks we tested don’t even come close. The majority run dry before the six-hour mark.
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. But at 2.6 pounds, the ZenBook is a bit 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’s keyboard is comfortable enough to slog through that paper on Cartesian dualism.
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. Although its trackpad works decently most of the time, it was almost too responsive in our testing. Its smooth, glossy surface made it easy to trigger gestures we didn’t intend, and its physical left and right clicks aren’t as crisp or as snappy as those of our upgrade picks’ trackpads.
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
The thinner Dell XPS 13 has a better screen and trackpad than the ZenBook.
If you’re willing to pay around $300 more for a better 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 i5-7200U processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 128 GB solid-state drive, and a fingerprint reader. We recommend 256 GB of local storage if you can afford it, but college students may be better off saving that money and relying on cloud storage or external hard drives instead.
The non-touch XPS 13’s battery life is among the longest you’ll find in a Windows laptop, although our top pick for students, the Asus ZenBook UX330UA, lasted 42 minutes longer in our Web-browsing battery tests. The Dell provided 7 hours and 21 minutes of battery life in the same test, which is more than enough for a full day of classes.
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.
The MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017) is expensive, but it’s the best choice if you need a Mac.
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.
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.
Chromebooks are excellent budget laptops if you can complete all your work in a web browser.
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.
If you’re willing to sacrifice battery life and portability for $150, get the Acer Aspire E5-575G-57D4, which has a fast processor, plenty of memory, and a solid-state drive, as well as an Nvidia GeForce 940MX graphics card with 2 GB of dedicated memory. It’s by far the best Windows laptop you’ll find for the price. But we strongly recommend saving up for the ZenBook, which is only around $150 more and has longer battery life, is quite a bit smaller and lighter, and has a better keyboard, trackpad, and screen. To read more about the Acer, check out our review of the best cheap Windows laptops.
If you spend all of your time doing email, checking your social networks, and working in Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365, consider a Chromebook. Chromebooks are smaller and lighter than cheap Windows laptops, and they have longer battery life. The best ones have more-comfortable keyboards and trackpads. But Chromebooks run ChromeOS, which means that they can’t load certain desktop apps like Photoshop, which could be an issue if your coursework requires specific programs that won’t run on a Chromebook.
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.
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 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.
If you’re a film or photo student: Dell XPS 15 or 15-inch MacBook Pro
Our picks for photography and film students have high-resolution screens, powerful processors, and dedicated graphics cards for smooth performance while editing video footage.
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.
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.
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.
If you play games: Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming
Get the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming if you want a laptop for taking notes during class and playing The Witcher 3 afterwards.
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 and heavier, but they’re the best option if you like to blow off steam in Overwatch.
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. The Inspiron has incredible battery life that’s as good as our top pick’s—8 hours and 33 minutes. The Inspiron gets a little warm and loud playing games, as all gaming laptops do, but it’ll keep cool and quiet while you’re taking notes in class. And its snappy, responsive keyboard and trackpad are as good for playing games as they are for writing reports. 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 15.2 by 10.8 by 1 inches, compared to the ZenBook’s 12.7 by 8.7 by 0.5 inches.
Our favorite budget gaming laptop, the Lenovo Legion Y520, is about a half-pound lighter than the Dell, and it’s better at effectively managing heat and noise while gaming. But its battery lasts only around 3 hours, so we don’t think the Lenovo is the best option for college students. To read more about these two options, check out our review of the best budget gaming laptops.