There's a multitude of laptops on the market that would be a fit for college students, and almost all of those models are available in multiple configurations to match your performance needs and budget restraints. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number options, we're here to help with advice on what to consider when shopping for a school laptop.
The search for a new laptop for most people starts with price, particularly for cash-strapped college students. To end up with a laptop that will last you at least through four years of school, I would advise against choosing a bargain-basement, entry-level model. Additionally, you could get away with spending less upfront in past years with an eye toward upgrading memory and storage in the future. Laptop makers are increasingly moving away from making components easily upgradable, however, so it's best to get as much laptop as you can afford from the start.
Generally speaking, the more you spend, the better the laptop. That could mean better components for faster performance, a nicer display, sturdier build quality, a smaller or lighter design from higher-end materials or even a more comfortable keyboard. All of these things add to the cost of a laptop. I'd love to say $500 will get you a powerful gaming laptop, for example, but that's not the case. Right now, the sweet spot for a reliable laptop that can handle average school tasks is between $700 and $800. For STEM students who need to run demanding STEM apps (or those looking for a bit of gaming -- after your homework is done, of course), you'll need to spend about $1,000 or a bit more. The key is to look for discounts on models in all price ranges so you can get more laptop for less.
Choosing an operating system is part personal preference and part budget. For the most part, Microsoft Windows and Apple's MacOS do the same things (except for gaming, where Windows is the winner), but they do them differently. Unless there's an OS-specific application you need, go with the one you feel most comfortable using. And if you're not sure which that is, head to an Apple store or a local electronics store and test them out. Or ask friends or family to let you test theirs for a bit. If you have an iPhone or iPad and like it, chances are you'll like MacOS, too.
But when it comes to price and variety (and, again, PC gaming), Windows laptops win. If you want MacOS, you're getting a MacBook. While Apple's MacBooks regularly top our best lists, the least expensive one is the M1 MacBook Air for $999 -- although this nearly three-year-old Air is regularly discounted to $750.
Windows laptops can be found for as little as a couple of hundred dollars and come in all manner of sizes and designs. Granted, we'd be hard-pressed to find a $200 laptop we'd give a full-throated recommendation to, especially if you need it to last you through four years of school.
If you are on a tight budget, consider a Chromebook. ChromeOS is a different experience than Windows -- more streamlined and easier to use. But limited in that basically everything runs through the Chrome browser. Just make sure that your school or course work doesn't require you to use apps that run only on a Windows or Mac machine.
If you plan on taking your laptop to class each day, then you'll want a lighter and thinner laptop. We recommend a model with a 13-inch or 14-inch display for most students. Larger 15- and 16-inch models provide more screen real estate for getting work done and juggling multiple windows, but you'll probably get tired of dragging it across campus.
When it comes to deciding on a screen, there are many considerations: how much you need to display (which is surprisingly more about resolution than screen size), what types of content you'll be looking at and whether or not you'll be using it for gaming or creative or STEM work.
You really want to optimize pixel density; that is, the number of pixels per inch the screen can display. Though there are other factors that contribute to sharpness, a higher pixel density usually means sharper rendering of text and interface elements. (You can easily calculate the pixel density of any screen at DPI Calculator if you don't feel like doing the math, and you can also find out what math you need to do there.) We recommend a dot pitch of at least 100 pixels per inch as a rule of thumb.
Because of the way Windows and MacOS scale for the display, you're frequently better off with a higher resolution than you'd think. You can always make things bigger on a high-resolution screen, but you can never make them smaller -- to fit more content in the view -- on a low-resolution screen. This is why a 4K, 14-inch screen may sound like unnecessary overkill, but may not be if you need to, say, view a wide spreadsheet.
Text and the edges of images can look fuzzy on a lower-resolution display. Look for a Full HD 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution at minimum -- or a 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution on laptops with 16:10 aspect ratios that are taller than traditional 16:9 widescreen displays and provide more vertical screen space for work without significantly increasing the footprint. A Quad HD (QHD) resolution of 2,560×1,440 pixels (2,560×1,600 on a 16:10 display) will result in crisper text and images and will likely suffice on a 13- or 14-inch laptop display -- you don't necessarily need a 4K display.
The processor, aka the CPU, is the brains of a laptop. Intel and AMD are the main CPU makers for Windows laptops. Both offer a staggering selection of mobile processors. Making things trickier, both manufacturers have chips designed for different laptop styles, like power-saving chips for ultraportables or faster processors for gaming laptops. Their naming conventions will let you know what type is used. You can head to Intel's or AMD's sites for explanations so you get the performance you want. Generally speaking, though, the faster the processor speed and the more cores it has, the better the performance will be.
Apple makes its own chips for MacBooks, which makes things slightly more straightforward. But, like Intel and AMD, you'll still want to pay attention to the naming conventions to know what kind of performance to expect. Apple uses its M-series chipsets in Macs. The entry-level MacBook Air uses an M1 chip with an eight-core CPU and seven-core GPU. The current models have M2-series silicon that starts with an eight-core CPU and 10-core GPU and goes up to the M2 Max with a 12-core CPU and a 38-core GPU. Again, generally speaking, the more cores it has, the better the performance.
The graphics processor, or GPU, handles all the work of driving the screen and generating what gets displayed, as well as speeding up a lot of graphics-related (and increasingly, AI-related) operations. For Windows laptops, there are two types of GPUs: integrated (iGPU) or discrete (dGPU). As the names imply, an iGPU is part of the CPU package, while a dGPU is a separate chip with dedicated memory (VRAM) that it communicates with directly, making it faster than sharing memory with the CPU.
Because the iGPU splits space, memory and power with the CPU, it's constrained by the limits of those. It allows for smaller, lighter laptops, but doesn't perform nearly as well as a dGPU. In fact, there are some games and creative software that won't run unless they detect a dGPU or sufficient VRAM. Most productivity software, video streaming, web browsing and other nonspecialized apps will run fine on an iGPU, though.
For more power-hungry graphics needs, like video editing, STEM and design applications as well as gaming, you'll need a dGPU; there are only two real companies that make them, Nvidia and AMD, with Intel offering some based on the Xe-branded (or the older UHD Graphics branding) iGPU technology in its CPUs.
For memory, we highly recommend 16GB of RAM, with 8GB being the absolute bare minimum. RAM is where the operating system stores all the data for currently running applications, and it can fill up fast. After that, it starts swapping between RAM and SSD, which is slower. A lot of sub-$500 laptops have 4GB or 8GB, which in conjunction with a slower disk can make for a frustratingly slow Windows laptop experience. Also, many laptops now have the memory soldered onto the motherboard. Most manufacturers disclose this, but if the RAM type is LPDDR, assume it's soldered and can't be upgraded.
Some PC makers will solder memory on, however, and also leave an empty internal slot for adding a stick of RAM. You may need to contact the laptop manufacturer or find the laptop's full specs online to confirm. And check the web for user experiences, because the slot may still be hard to get to, it may require nonstandard or hard-to-get memory or other pitfalls, including voiding the warranty.
You'll still find cheaper hard drives in budget laptops and larger hard drives in gaming laptops, but faster solid-state drives have all but replaced hard drives in laptops. They can make a big difference in performance. But not all SSDs are equally speedy, and cheaper laptops typically have slower drives; if the laptop only has 4GB or 8GB of RAM, it may end up swapping to that drive and the system may slow down quickly while you're working.
Get what you can afford, and if you need to go with a smaller drive, you can always add an external drive or two down the road or use cloud storage to bolster a small internal drive. The one exception is gaming laptops: We don't recommend going with less than a 512GB SSD unless you really like uninstalling games every time you want to play a new game.