This guide is for college students that want the best laptop for them. We have general guidelines that you should follow when doing your research, as well as specific guides for many different majors. We help you get the most bang for your buck.
What to look for in a laptop for college
Visit any college lecture hall and laptops have become more ubiquitous than notebooks. While some students may have once considered using a desktop, it is increasingly clear that most students feel the need for a laptop as much as the need for a morning coffee.
Luckily, while unlimited coffee plans included in room and board haven’t yet caught on, colleges do recognize that students need laptops, and often include an allowance for them in their financial aid budgets. Some even make suggestions as to what is the best laptop to buy.
However, those general suggestions offer a lot of leeway. What is best for a graphics design or computer science student is not what is best for a business major or a biologist. Understanding the needs of a student is crucial, but it is also useful to know exactly what is meant by all those technical terms being thrown around by computer manufacturers.
Understanding Your Needs
Different students will have different needs for a laptop, that is a given. However, a few factors can more intelligently inform laptop choice than others.
While some may assume that students will want to take a laptop to class with them, some do prefer to keep their laptop at home. Smaller laptops are more portable, but that smaller size comes at a price, either by spending more money or by sacrificing some of the features discussed below.
Some majors, like design, computer science, or video-editing, will require more processing power than others. It is not just those one might expect; geography classes using GIS applications have processing demands that often surpass video editing requirements. Knowing what a student intends to study matters greatly.
It should go without saying, but buying more laptop than is necessary is not always a great idea. Sure, more storage and RAM (both discussed below) can help forestall a laptop needing to be replaced in two or three years. However, spending money on a powerful GPU when a student is going to be a Classics major, and has no interest in gaming or video editing, is simply wasteful.
The Parts of a Laptop
Once a student has given some thought into how he/she will use a laptop, it is useful to dig into how each laptop will stack up. In order to do that, however, it is useful to know what all those technical terms mean.
The CPU, or Central Processing Unit, is essentially the pump that moves information through a computer. Often, it is just called the processor. Remember, a computer is nothing more than a bunch of wires, and while electricity may move at the speed of light, that doesn’t mean that a computer’s calculations will be. Instead, the CPU handles almost all of the billions of calculations that allow a computer to function. Typically, its speed is measured in gigahertz, with speeds of two to four common.
However, that is not the only crucial factor. The number of cores refers to how many different ‘pumps’ are available for use. A quad core processor will be able to handle many more calculations per minute than a single core, and if the laptop will be used by someone else needing a lot of power, that is the place to start.
The GPU, or Graphics Processing Unit, is essentially a CPU that handles mostly what goes on the screen. These days it is also heavily used in other things that require a lot of mathematical computations as it is extremely well suited for it. For years, this was the domain of serious gamers, but has become something that most laptops need, given the advanced screens available. Typically, unless a student is studying something like engineering, art, or design, or is an avid video editor or gamer, the integrated option will work well.
If the CPU is the pump, RAM is the size of the bucket that the water is being pumped into. RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and this is where the computer ‘holds’ information that it is trying to use quickly. This is one of the areas where computers can have the biggest range. A low-end laptop may only come with four gigabytes of RAM, which is plenty of checking email, browsing the internet, and watching lectures online. If a student is going to be juggling multiple journal articles (for example, a liberal arts student), using a lot of statistics (like a business student), or anything of the like, then eight gigabytes is a better suggestion. For those looking for editing video or high-end graphics, 16 or 32 GB may be required.
SSD or HDD?
The storage of a computer is held on either a solid state drive (SSD) or a hard disk drive (HDD). Most laptops are moving towards SSDs because they are faster and much sturdier, but the per gigabyte cost of SSDs is still quite expensive when compared to HDDs. A rough analogy of the difference is imagining looking for information in a book versus a bunch of scrolls. A SSD is like a book; the reader can go right to the page number, while someone using a scroll has to find the individual scroll, then read down until the information is found. For almost all cases, an SSD is a better option.
All of this can sap a computer’s power supply quickly, which makes the choice of battery all the more important. Students should aim to get a laptop that provides battery life that easily exceeds eight hours, unless they know that they will not be using their laptop in class. The reason for this is simple; like miles per gallon, battery life estimates are not a hard and fast rule, but more of a guideline.
A variety of different screens exist, ranging from those with HD resolution to those with screens with pixels so small that space between them cannot be distinguished by the naked eye. For most students, this will be a matter of personal preference, but students studying video or art may find that a more detailed screen is beneficial. Keep in mind that many of those very detailed screens can sap battery life.
Finally, audio output matters to many students. As a general rule, most laptops have underpowered speakers, as it is simply difficult to put a considerable subwoofer in a four pound machine. However, some exceptions do exist, and even those that are underpowered can still sound quite good, if not pushed to the limit.
College Laptop Buying Guides
We have put together a lot of different buyer guides depending what major you are. Your needs will vary greatly based on what you are studying.
Depending on what you want to do with your major you might need a powerful laptop. As a math major you can delve into things such as machine learning and statistical computations. Having a decent laptop would be good for math majors. Have a look at our guide on best laptops for math majors.
One thing that is certain is that as a doctoral student you will be doing a lot of writing and research. Depending on what your doctor is in you might also require a more or less powerful computer. We have published a guide on how to find the best laptop for doctoral students that you should check out.
Computer science is one of the areas where it actually matters what laptop you have. For your first few years you can use pretty much anything, but when you start taking upper division classes you might want something with a little more power. Check out our article on how to find the best laptop for computer science.
As a nursing student you will be doing a lot of research and writing a lot of papers. You don’t need the most power out there, but you want flexibility and battery life. We have a great guide on the best laptop for nursing students that you should have a look at.
There are quite a few engineering fields out there, and many of them require that you have a decent work station. We have put together a general guide for how to find the best laptop for engineering students. You should have a look at it.
Law school is another area where you will be doing a lot of writing and researching. For the most part you will be having one tab open on westlaw and another on word. You don’t need the most power, but you want something that will last you through the BAR exam. Have a look at our guide on the best laptop for law school.
As with nursing, in medical school you will be doing a lot of writing and researching. You want a laptop that can last you the duration of your studies, which will be quite some time. We know that medical school is already expensive enough, so we have put together a guide on how to get the best laptop for medical school so that you can get the most bang for your buck.
IT is a booming industry with quite good salaries. Having a laptop that can support you through your studies, including in activities that stretches beyond what regular coursework demand of you, can be helpful. in this guide we go over the things that you should look for, as well as list what we think are the best laptops for information technology students.
List of Best Laptops for College
In addition to having specific guides, we have also compiled a list of what we consider the best laptops for college. These laptops are based on the general guidelines we have given above. As there are many paths in college, this is a general list and has a little bit of everything, but it represents some of the best options in the low-range, mid-range, and high-end laptops.
Our pick as the best laptop for college is the Acer Aspire (#ad).
Acer Aspire – Best Budget Laptop
Acer has made a great laptop with the Acer Aspire series. This laptop is one of the best general laptops out there. It brings together price, portability, and power in a way that few other laptops do. One of the main reasons for getting this laptop is exactly because of the great power that it offers for its low price. It will not be the best for gaming, but it is also not as expensive as even entry level gaming laptops.
There are a few specific things about this laptop that stand out. First is that you have the option of getting a brand new 10th generation Intel CPU. You can downgrade if you want, but the laptop has an i5-1021U CPU. Not that many laptops come with a 10th gen yet so this is a great feature of this laptop. The CPU is the brain of the computer and this will be able to handle most things that you can throw at it. If you are looking for the most amount of power then maybe have a look at the MSI or the Razer laptops.
Another reason for getting this laptop is that it has 8 GB of DDR4 RAM. This is not such an amazing thing in itself, but for the price it is pretty good. A laptop in this price range would not need more RAM, but if you are on a budget and actually need a laptop with more power then you can always add more RAM later if you want. This particular model does not come with a GPU but on the Amazon page there is an option for it if you want.
There are a lot of other great features about this laptop that are excellent for college. They include a decent size hard drive, good screen, and a fingerprint reader. You should have a look at the Amazon product page to see more things that you might be interested in.
See the Acer Aspire (#ad) on Amazon.
MSI GS65 Stealth-430 – Most Powerful Laptop
Another great laptop for college is the MSI GS65 Stealth-430. This is perhaps one of the most powerful laptops on this list, only to be matched by the Razer option. MSI is known for making great gaming and high end laptops so you know you will get a lot of power with this option.
One reason for buying this laptop is that it comes with an Intel Core i7-9750H CPU. This is one of the best CPUs on the market right now for laptops, and you are going to major in anything that requires power, then this is the CPU you should be looking for. Most high end laptops have this CPU and you should not be looking for anything less if you think you might need the extra power. This is also a great choice for those students that like to relax with a game or two in their spare time.
Another feature about this laptop that few others can match is the GPU that it has. It comes with an Nvidia GeForce RTX2080 Max-Q GPU. This is a great option for a laptop, providing power but also the form to allow for a thing and great looking laptop.
There are many other things that you should check out regarding this laptop. For example, it comes with a whopping 32 GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and an Anti-Glare screen. If you require power or are a gaming in your spare time, this might be the laptop for you.
See the MSI GS65 Stealth-430 (#ad) on Amazon.
Dell XPS 15 Inch
The 15 inch version of the Dell XPS is a premium laptop that looks really good. It is flexible, durable, and offers a lot of power. It does come at a hefty price, but it does also come with parts that are worth the price tag.
First of, as the other premium options, it has the Intel Core i7-9750 CPU. You would expect nothing less from a laptop in this price range. Dell has two laptops on this list, both with this CPU. The Inspiron choice that is listed further below comes in at a much lower price, but there are some things that it does not have that the XPS does have.
The Dell XPS does come with a dedicated GPU, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650. Although not the most powerful option anymore, it should satisfy most gamers, and most college majors that require a little power. If you want a laptop that crosses power with a premium look then the XPS is a great choice.
There are other features that you should check out, such as the fingerprint scanner or really amazing display that this laptop has.
See the Dell XPS 15 (#ad) on Amazon.
Razer Blade 15 – Premium Laptop Option
The Razer Blade 15 is another premium option for those requiring a little extra from their computers. The Razer is a gaming laptop, but except for the logo on the back of the lid you really can’t tell. It is a really good looking laptop.
In addition to great looks, this laptop also comes with the powerful i7-9750H CPU. In high end options this really is the CPU of choice, making it hard for any of the laptops to stand out in that regards.
As far as the GPU goes it has an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060. This can rival the GPU of the MSI, and for anyone who wants to play video games or things such as deep learning, this is a great option.
This laptop also sports 16 GB of RAM, a full HD 144 Hz display, and also supports Windows Hello face unlock. This laptop really is a good buy and if it fits in your budget you should give it some serious thought.
See the Razer Blade 15 (#ad) on Amazon.
The Dell Inspiron is one of our favorite laptops because of the power that it brings at it’s price point. As with other more premium options, this laptop has the Intel Core i7-9750 CPU. This is an amazing CPU for a laptop and having it in this laptop is a great deal. Having a good CPU will make the laptop feel fresh for years to come.
Not only does this laptop have a good CPU, but it also has a GPU. Not all laptops in this price range have a GPU, and the Dell Inspiron comes with the Nvidia GeFOrce GTX 1050. It is not the most powerful option out there, but it does make it suitable for some gaming, and even college students that require some power for their major classes can make good use of this laptop. As far as college budgets go, this laptop is one of the better choices out there.
The laptop has 8 GB of RAM. This is not the most, but you can quite easily upgrade to more at a later point if you feel that you need more.
You should check out the other features the Dell Inspiron has to offer. It does have a fingerprint reader to mention one of things you might be interested in,
See the Dell Inspiron (#ad) on Amazon.
The last option on this list is the ASUS TUF. This is an entry level gaming laptop that offers good parts for a relatively low price. The first thing to notice about this computer is that it comes with a Ryzen R5-3550H processor. Most other laptops come with an Intel chip, but for this purpose a Ryzen one should be just as good.
As it is a gaming laptop, it does also have a GPU. It has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 GPU, which is quite a good option for this price. A good CPU coupled with this GPU makes this a great option for those who need power but don’t have the budget for a powerful computer.
There is 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD. These are pretty standard specs and something you would expect from this price.
On the Amazon page you also have the option to upgrade to much more powerful parts, so you can play around with what matches your budget. This is a great laptop, but be warned that it looks more like a gaming laptop than what most of the other options do.
See the ASUS TUF (#ad) on Amazon.
The simple fact is that there is no one best laptop for all college students. Different majors and interests will require different amounts of portability and power, and every student has a different budget. However, by being prepared and knowing the options, students will be able to maximize what they need and hopefully have a bit more money for coffee at the end of the day.
I am a Software Engineer who enjoy writing about things that interest me. Here on OamaTech I write about programming as well as other tech related topics. Visit my author page to learn more about me and what I am working on right now.