Though the phone may be central to social life, for most college students, the laptop is the primary academic tool. It's also likely to be one of the most significant investments -- aside from tuition, room and board.
You can now get an entry-level laptop for $200 to $400. But we think it's worthwhile to spend at least a few hundred more to get a machine that will last longer and perform better. This list, which represents our top choices for college, university and even high school students, is based on our own hands-on use and benchmark testing.
Most of these laptops cost around $500 or more. If you're looking for something less expensive, we'd recommend checking out our list of the best Chromebooks. They're inexpensive and great for basics like email, getting on the internet, creating documents or working with spreadsheets -- especially if you're already working with Google's apps.
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Apple MacBook Air (2017)Sarah Tew/CNET
In 2018, Apple finally announced a new version of the MacBook Air -- an evergreen student favorite -- which now starts at $1,199 (£1,199, AU$1,849). The new model offers some nice upgrades including a Retina display, Touch ID and USB-C ports. That noted, many folks don't love the feel of the new MacBook Air's "Butterfly" keyboard, and, frankly, none of the recent updates are essential. The older version, from 2017, which has Apple's traditional and beloved keyboard, can often be found for far less -- usually under $900 -- making it the better value.
Lenovo Yoga C930Sarah Tew/CNET
Lenovo has spent years refining its premium two-in-one design to deliver a laptop that convincingly doubles as a tablet; the Yoga C930 is the form perfected. The keyboard and display are very good, the speakers are great and there's sufficient power for any productivity or entertainment task. Starting at around $1,150, the C930 is a bit pricey, but not overpriced -- you're getting a laptop and a tablet, after all -- and offers flexibility and features beyond its immediate competition.
Dell XPS 13Sarah Tew/CNET
If you're committed to the Windows operating system and want a balance of portability, power and price, it's hard to find a better laptop than the XPS 13. Starting at $899, this laptop is attractive, incomparably slim and offers a ton of configuration (and price) options. And though the last few versions of the XPS 13 were subverted by a terribly-positioned webcam, that has now been fixed with the new 2019 model. Dell also makes a 15-inch version, which starts at $999.
Acer Nitro 5Sarah Tew/CNET
Just about any laptop can handle the basics at this point -- but if you're looking for one that can double as a gaming system, that narrows the field considerably. Starting at $600 or so, the Nitro 5 is wallet-friendly but still brings a respectable graphics card to the table: the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 or 1050Ti, which is sufficient for solid gameplay. You end up with tons of performance at a reasonable price.
Apple 13-inch MacBook ProSarah Tew/CNET
The newest 13-inch MacBook Pro is so expensive that it's likely out of reach for most college students. But if additional firepower is needed for video creation, photo-editing or other multimedia projects, the higher-end MacBook Pro remains a serious contender. And, better yet, there are plenty of slightly older models around that will still do the trick. A MacBook Pro from 2017, equipped with a dual-core Intel CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, currently sells for about $1,350.
Razer Blade StealthSarah Tew/CNET
If you're looking for a more serious gaming machine, the Razer Blade Stealth is costlier than the Acer Nitro but delivers commensurate bang for the buck. There are some touches that underscore the machine's gaming credibility -- rainbow-colored keyboard backlights, triple-snake-head logo -- but it's understated enough to fit into any classroom environment. For about $1,400, you get an all-metal body, Core i7 CPU, 16GB RAM and 256GB SSD combo. Configuring a MacBook Pro equivalently would be so much more expensive.
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