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Best Laptop for College in 2024

No matter what you're studying, you'll want the right laptop to get through college. We've tested the top laptop brands to find the best laptops for college students.

Updated Dec. 31, 2023 9:00 p.m. PT

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Written by  Matt Elliott Joshua Goldman
Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
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Matt Elliott Senior Editor
Matt Elliott is a senior editor at CNET with a focus on laptops and streaming services. Matt has more than 20 years of experience testing and reviewing laptops. He has worked for CNET in New York and San Francisco and now lives in New Hampshire. When he's not writing about laptops, Matt likes to play and watch sports. He loves to play tennis and hates the number of streaming services he has to subscribe to in order to watch the various sports he wants to watch.
Expertise Laptops, desktops, all-in-one PCs, streaming devices, streaming platforms
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Joshua Goldman Managing Editor / Advice
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
Expertise Laptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and drones Credentials
  • More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.

What to consider

Price

Operating System

Size

Screen

Processor

Graphics

Memory

Storage

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Experts
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Tests per laptop
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Hours testing
$750 at Amazon
Apple MacBook Air M1 laptop open on a gray table with a blue sofa in the background.
Best MacBook for students
MacBook Air M1
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$880 at HP
HP Pavilion Aero 13
Best lightweight laptop for students
HP Pavilion Aero 13
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$850 at HP
HP Pavilion 14 laptop open and facing to the right on a green background.
Best 14-inch laptop on a budget
HP Pavilion 14
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$799 at Walmart
Lenovo Yoga 7i 2022 14-inch two-in-one laptop in stand mode with the display facing left on a yellow background
Best Windows 2-in-1 laptop for students
Lenovo Yoga 7i
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$950 at Dell
G15 Ryzen Edition gaming laptop
Best gaming laptop for student budgets
Dell G15 Gaming Laptop
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$1,000 at HP
HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook in front of a gray wall
Best Chromebook that will last four years
HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook (Update: Out of Stock)
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Which is the best laptop for college overall?

Despite nearing its third birthday, Apple's MacBook Air M1 remains the best laptop for most college students. It costs considerably less than the newer M2 version and provides ample performance and battery life to get you through four years of school and beyond.

Read more: MacBook Air M2 vs. MacBook Air M1

With so many resources and so much of your course curriculum available online, it's next to impossible to get through college without a laptop. There is no shortage of laptops for sale, which makes it difficult to zero in on one that will fit your needs and budget. That's where we come in. We've done the research and testing to find the best laptop for college students in 2024. Whether you are looking for a MacBook, a Windows laptop or a Chromebook for school, we've rounded up several college laptop picks that will serve most students well. Most of our picks cost less than $1,000. 

Best laptops for college of 2024

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$750 at Amazon

Best MacBook for students

MacBook Air M1

Despite the availability of the newer and larger M2 MacBook Air and even newer and larger 15-inch MacBook Air, the M1 MacBook Air is sticking around -- and that's a good thing. Apple's entry-level laptop is still our go-to recommendation for a MacOS laptop for basic everyday use. It has great performance and long battery life -- up to 18 hours -- and is a solid choice for school and entertainment anywhere.

Like the previous Mac laptop models, the M1 Air has Apple's Magic Keyboard, Touch ID, a Force Touch trackpad and a Retina display. If you're a college student, it's hard to go wrong with the most affordable MacBook Air. You can occasionally find it for as little as $750. Right now, the lowest price is $849 at Amazon.

M1 MacBook Air review

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$880 at HP

Best lightweight laptop for students

HP Pavilion Aero 13

HP packed a lot of value into the Aero 13: Eye-pleasing magnesium-aluminum chassis, strong processing performance, long battery life, a bright, colorful display and a weight of just 2 pounds (0.94 kilograms). Amazingly, considering all that it offers, it has a regular starting price of less than $900 and is regularly on sale for less than $700. 

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$850 at HP

Best 14-inch laptop on a budget

HP Pavilion 14

The HP Pavilion 14 is a budget laptop that looks and performs above its price. At 3.2 pounds (1.4 kilograms), the laptop can easily be a daily carry for school but also has a screen that's comfortably large enough for full-time use. It's just a solid everyday laptop with a clean design. The baseline display features a 1920x1200 resolution and is rated for a sufficient 300 nits of brightness, and you can upgrade to higher-resolution panels, including an OLED display with a 2.5K resolution. Intel-based models start at $900, and AMD-based configurations start at an even more reasonable $850 and are regularly discounted to just $500.

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$799 at Walmart

Best Windows 2-in-1 laptop for students

Lenovo Yoga 7i

This thin, 3-pound convertible is a solid choice for anyone who needs a laptop for office or schoolwork. The all-metal chassis gives it a premium look and feel, and it has a comfortable keyboard and a responsive, smooth precision touchpad. As a two-in-one, you can use it as a laptop or tablet and it supports pen input with Lenovo's optional Active Pen. It also has a physical shutter for its webcam that gives you privacy when you want it. And it has a long battery life to boot at 12 hours, 45 minutes in our tests. Last year's model based on a 12th-gen Core i5 CPU and 14-inch display with a fine 2.2K resolution is a great deal at its current discount at Walmart.

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$950 at Dell

Best gaming laptop for student budgets

Dell G15 Gaming Laptop

College life forces one to be thrifty, and what's more thrifty than getting two laptops in one? Dell's budget gaming laptop is one of the most affordable laptops available with RTX graphics and is a great pick for students looking for a school laptop with a side of gaming. Or STEM students looking for a laptop capable of running intensive STEM applications. You can get it as a 15.6-inch G15 or 16-inch G16 model, and we'd steer you toward the smaller G15 if you plan to tote it to class. It starts as low as $900 for a configuration with a 13th-gen Intel Core i5 CPU and RTX 3050 graphics. A better buy is the $1,000 model that bumps you up to a Core i7 chip and, more importantly, next-gen RTX 4050 graphics among other upgrades.

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$1,000 at HP

Best Chromebook that will last four years

HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook (Update: Out of Stock)

There are certainly more affordable Chromebooks, but HP's Dragonfly Pro Chromebook is one of the best Chromebooks we've ever reviewed and worth its elevated price. It boasts a gorgeous magnesium-and-aluminum chassis that is the polar opposite of the standard plastic Chromebook fare. It also serves up a high-resolution and bright 14-inch display, punchy speakers and a cool haptic touchpad. Few Chromebooks are worth $1,000, but the HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook is the rare exception. It has the ruggedness and performance to get you through four years of college and into the real world.

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Other laptops for college we've tested

Asus ROG G15: Above-average performance and a nice design distinguish this budget gaming laptop from the competition.

LG Gram 17 (2023): The Gram is amazing for its size and weight, but its dGPU is a generation behind, and the price is high.

Lenovo Yoga 7i 16: The 14-inch Yoga 7i has long been a favorite for offering more for less. The "more" on this version includes a 16-inch display with a low resolution that makes text fuzzy and it's an awkward size for a two-in-one.

Asus VivoBook F1502ZA: We liked the design and comfortable keyboard on our review unit, but its performance and display came up short. 

Acer Swift X 14: The 14-inch Swift X delivered excellent performance and an OLED display in a small package and with plenty of ports to boot. Its design, keyboard, touchpad and speakers didn't match the rest of the package.

Lenovo Slim Pro 7: Much like the Acer Swift X, the Slim Pro 7 gets you good performance in a small body, but the other parts aren't quite as nice. 

HP Dragonfly Pro: While we really liked this 14-incher's design and the performance was good, some of its other features such as the display didn't live up to its price. 

HP Victus 15: HP's entry-level gaming laptop is a bargain, but the Dell G15 outclasses in design and features.  

How we test laptops

The review process for laptops consists of two parts: performance testing under controlled conditions in the CNET Labs and extensive hands-on use by our reviewers. This includes evaluating a device's aesthetics, ergonomics and features with respect to price. A final review verdict is a combination of both objective and subjective judgments. 

We test all laptops with a core set of benchmarks, including Primate Labs Geekbench 5 and 6Cinebench R23PCMark 10, a variety of 3DMark benchmarks (whichever can run on the laptop), UL Procyon Photo and Video (where supported), and our own battery life test. If a laptop is intended for gaming, we'll also run benchmarks from Guardians of the GalaxyThe Rift Breaker (CPU and GPU) and Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

For the hands-on, the reviewer uses it for their work during the review period, evaluating how well the design, features (such as the screen, camera and speakers) and manufacturer-supplied software operate as a cohesive whole. We also place importance on how well they work given their cost and where the manufacturer has potentially made upgrades or tradeoffs for its price.

The list of benchmarking software and comparison criteria we use changes over time as the devices we test evolve. You can find a more detailed description of our test methodology on our How We Test Computers page. 

Factors to consider when buying a laptop for college

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're feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number options, we're here to help with advice on what to consider when shopping for a school laptop.

Price

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. 

Operating system

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.

Size

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.

Screen

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 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.

Processor

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. 

Graphics

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.

Memory

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.

Storage

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 has only 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. 

College laptop FAQs

How much do good laptops cost?

The good news for college students on tight budgets is you can get a nice-looking, lightweight laptop with excellent battery life that will last you through four years of college for less than $1,000. In the $700 to $800 range, you'll even find models with premium design touches like thin-display bezels and aluminum or magnesium bodies. 

Above $1,000 is where you'll find premium laptops and two-in-one convertible models that act as both laptop and tablet. If you're looking for the fastest performance, the best battery life, the slimmest, lightest designs and top-notch display quality with an adequate screen size, expect to spend at least $1,000. 

Which is better: MacOS or Windows?

Deciding between MacOS and Windows laptop for many people will come down to personal preference and budget. Apple's base model laptop, the M1 MacBook Air, starts at $999 but is regularly discounted to $750.  For a newer M2 MacBook, be prepared to spend $1,000 or more. 

For the money, though, you're getting great hardware top to bottom, inside and out. Apple has moved to using its own processors, which resulted in across-the-board performance improvements compared to older Intel-based models.

But, again, that great hardware comes at a price. Also, you're limited to just Apple laptops. With Windows and Chromebooks (more on these below), you get an amazing variety of devices at a wide range of prices. 

Software between the two is plentiful, so unless you need to run something that's only available on one platform or the other, you should be fine to go with either. Gaming is definitely an advantage for a Windows laptop, though.

MacOS is also considered to be easier and safer to use than Windows, especially for people who want their computers to get out of the way so they can get their school work done. Over the years, though, Microsoft has done its best to follow suit and is trying to remove any barriers with Windows 11. Also, while Macs might have a reputation for being safer, with the popularity of the iPhone and iPad helping to drive Mac sales, they've become bigger targets for malware.

Are Chromebooks worth it?

Yes, they are, but they're not for everyone. Google's Chrome OS has come a long way in the 10-plus years since it arrived and Chromebooks -- laptops that run on Chrome OS -- are great for students who do most of their work in a web browser or using mobile apps. They are secure, simple and, more often than not, a bargain. What they can't do is natively run Windows or Mac software. With their low cost and easy of use, Chromebooks are a natural fit for students, but be sure your school or particular course of study doesn't have certain software requirements that make a laptop with either Windows or MacOS a requisite.

Which laptop is best for students who are also gamers?

You can play games on any laptop. That said, what games you play and what content you create -- and the speed at which you do them -- is going vary greatly depending on the components inside the laptop. 

For casual browser-based games or using streaming-game services like Nvidia GeForce Now and Xbox Cloud Gaming, you don't need a powerful gaming laptop. And similarly, if you're trimming video clips, cropping photos or live-streaming video from your webcam, you can get by with a modestly priced laptop or Chromebook with integrated graphics. 

For anything more demanding, you'll need to invest more money in discrete graphics like Nvidia's RTX 30- or 40-series GPUs. Increased system memory of 16GB or more, having a speedy SSD of at least 512GB for storage and a faster processor such as an Intel Core i7 or AMD Ryzen 7 will all help you get things moving faster, too. 

The other piece you'll want to consider is the display. For gaming, look for screens with a high refresh rate of 120Hz or faster so games look smoother while playing. For art students and content creators, look for displays that cover at least 100% sRGB color space or, better yet, 100% DCI-P3.