The best laptops for college: HP, MacBook, and more

The best laptops for college: HP, MacBook, and more

With back-to-school season in full swing, many students are preparing to go back to college or start college for the first time. It’s an exciting time for numerous reasons, but if you’re anything like us, one of those reasons is getting a new laptop. It’s always exciting getting your hands on a brand-new PC, but choosing one can be difficult. There are a lot of fantastic laptops out there, and we’ve already highlighted a few for students of different ages. This time, we’re specifically focusing on the best laptops for college students.

College students are likely to be using their laptops for a lot of similar things — reading, writing documents and assignments, and browsing the web. But even within that context, everyone is different, so we have a handful of choices to help you find the perfect match for you.

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Best overall: HP Spectre x360 14

HP Spectre X360 14

We’ve said this a few times before, but the HP Spectre x360 14 is a phenomenal laptop. HP’s Spectre lineup is always one of the best out there, not only because of the high-end specs, but also because of their design. These are some of the most unique-looking laptops out there, with a dual-tone color scheme and chopped-off corners that make it instantly recognizable.

The Spectre x360 14 is extra special because it’s the first time HP is using a 3:2 display in the Spectre lineup. What that means is this display is taller, and thus it can fit more vertical content. If you’re using the laptop for school to write assignments or read documents, this is great because you can see a lot more at once. You can even configure it with a 3K2K resolution for an extra sharp viewing experience.

As you’d probably expect, you get top-notch specs across the board, too. It comes with up to an Intel Core i7-1165G7 processor with Iris Xe Graphics, 16GB of RAM, and 2TB of storage. That combination ensures you have a laptop you can use for years to come, and will last you all the way through college. If you’re used to multi-monitor setups, Thunderbolt 4 support also means you can easily connect multiple external displays.

On top of that, this is a convertible, which means you can use it in a variety of different ways. You can rotate the display all round and use it as a tablet, or use tent mode to watch a movie. It even includes a pen for those who enjoy taking handwritten notes. Plus, there’s Windows Hello facial recognition, which makes unlocking the computer a breeze. There’s really not much more you could want. This is one of the best laptops you can get for college.

    HP Spectre x360 14
    The HP Spectre x360 is a fantastic Windows PC with just about everything you could ask for. It has top-notch specs, a high-quality 3:2 display with pen support for taking notes, and more.

Best MacBook for college: MacBook Air

apple macbook air m1

Not a Windows fan? MacBooks are very popular laptops among college students, and the latest MacBook Air is probably the best one you can get right now. It comes with the Apple M1 processor, which is incredibly powerful, but also very efficient. Not only does it perform much faster than previous MacBook Air models, but it also promises up to 18 hours of battery life, which is fantastic. It can easily last you through any normal day, and perform great while doing so. You can also configure it with up to 16GB of RAM and 2TB of SSD storage.

Of course, you also get the high-resolution Retina display MacBooks are known for, Touch ID to make logging in easier, and a pair of Thunderbolt ports for charging and connecting peripherals. Aside from the Apple branding, another thing that makes the MacBook Air appealing is it runs macOS. While it’s more limited in some ways, many consider it to be an easier-to-understand operating system compared to Windows. If you’re an iPhone user, you’re bound to enjoy seamless cross-device connectivity with apps like iMessage or FaceTime. You just can’t get that interconnected experience on Windows.

    MacBook Air
    The latest MacBook Air packs a lot of power in a very efficient package thanks to the Apple M1 processor. It's not only fast, but it can last you easily through the day, and offer a great experience while doing so.

Best premium Windows laptop: Surface Laptop 4

Surface laptop 4 15 inch on purple background

If there’s a Windows equivalent of a MacBook, it’s probably the Surface Laptop 4. Like other Surface devices, it has a premium metal build that looks simple but beautiful, and comes with top-notch specs. There are both Intel variants – packing up to an Intel Core i7-1185G7 – and AMD models, which come with custom Ryzen processors up to a Ryzen 7 4980U. The Intel processors are newer and somewhat faster, but you get slightly better battery life with the AMD variants. Depending on the color, size, and processors you choose, you can also get the Surface Laptop 4 with up to 32GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage, so you can certainly get a lot of power out of it.

The Surface Laptop 4 comes in both 13.5 inch and 15 inch models, but no matter which one you choose, you’re getting the same pixel density and a 3:2 aspect ratio for the display. That’s a boon for productivity, and on top of that, this is a high-resolution PixelSense display, so it looks great. It’s also a touchscreen with Surface Pen support, but you can’t fold it back like a convertible. Above the display, there’s an IR camera for Windows Hello facial recognition, which is always welcome.

Another potential bonus point for the Surface Laptop 4 is you can get it with an Alcantara cover for the keyboard deck. Alcantara is a soft fabric that’s much more comfortable than metal, and it’s a material Surface devices have been using for a while. In terms of ports, the Surface Laptop 4 does miss out on Thunderbolt support, but you can use the Surface Connect port to connect external displays. This is a magnetic connector like Apple’s old MagSafe for MacBooks, so that’s another potential benefit. Overall, this is one of the best laptops you can get for a college student.

    Surface Laptop 4
    The Surface Laptop 4 is a great premium laptop for college students. It comes with either Intel or AMD processors, a high-resolution touchscreen, and two different sizes to suit your taste.

Best mainstream laptop for college: HP Pavilion Aero 13

Front view of HP Pavilion Aero 13

HP may be well known for its premium Spectre lineup, but recently, the company launched a fantastic mainstream laptop in the form of the Pavilion Aero. At first glance, this laptop is almost too good to be true. You can get it with up to an AMD Ryzen 7 5800U processor, 16GB of RAM, and 1TB of SSD storage, which is already pretty impressive. The Pavilion Aero starts at $749, and even at that price, you get a Ryzen 5 5600U, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of SSD storage. But what’s most impressive is the base model includes a Full HD+ display with a 16:10 aspect ratio. That’s something you rarely see in laptops at this price. And if you want to, you can even upgrade to a Quad HD display, another rarity in laptops this affordable.

All of that comes in a package under 2.2lbs in weight, so you can easily carry it anywhere. Plus, it comes in four color options, whereas most laptops these days only give you one or two variants. Of course, there are some downsides. The keyboard isn’t backlit on the base model — though you have the option, and if you get any color aside from the Natural Silver, it’s included by default. You also miss out on Windows Hello facial recognition, and oddly enough HP is using a proprietary charging pin instead of switching to USB Type-C completely.

At the end of the day, though, those are compromises that might not matter to everyone. If you want a powerful, lightweight laptop you can carry to college, this is one of your best options.

    HP Pavilion Aero
    The HP Pavilion Aero is an impressive mainstream laptop with high-performance specs and a great display. It's also super light, making it easy to carry around college. Starting at $749.99, it's seriously impressive.

Best 17-inch laptop for college: Dell XPS 17

Dell XPS 17

Are the screens on other laptops not big enough for you? The Dell XPS 17 might just be for you. This is a seriously powerful laptop, powered by Intel Tiger Lake H-series processors up to Core i9-11980HK, plus NVIDIA GeForce graphics up to an RTX 3060 with 70W of power. On top of that, you can configure this machine with up to 64GB of RAM and 4TB of SSD storage, which is probably way more than you’re ever going to need as a college student. Because those are all high-power components, you also get a large 97WHr battery to keep you going.

The Dell XPS 17 has a large 17-inch laptop, but thanks to the tiny bezels around it, it’s about as big as a standard 15 inch laptop. That display has a 16:10 aspect ratio, and you can configure it with up to UHD+ resolution (3840 x 2400). If you do go the 4K route, you also get touch support, though it’s not there on the base Full HD+ model.

Rounding things out, the XPS 17 has a pretty unique design, too. The outside has a standard silver finish, but the keyboard deck is covered in carbon fiber, which makes for an interesting dual-tone look. In terms of connectivity, you get two Thunderbolt ports on each side, so not only do you have a lot of expansion options, you can charge the laptop from either side. It’s a bit overkill for most college students, but if you want a 17-inch laptop with lots of power, this is it.

    Dell XPS 17
    The Dell XPS 17 is an absolute powerhouse of a laptop. In addition to the large screen, it has high-power Intel processors and NVIDIA RTX graphics, plus options for 64GB of RAM and 4TB of storage.

Best laptop for college gamers: Razer Blade 14

Razer Blade 14 angled view on green background

I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite hobbies as a college student (and today) was certainly gaming, but a compact gaming laptop wasn’t easy to come by. Today though, you can get the fantastic Razer Blade 14. It comes in at just 16.8mm thick and weighs 3.92lbs, but it still packs up to a Ryzen 9 5900HX CPU and an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 with 100W of power. Plus, it has 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD which is enough to store games and school documents alike. It’s certainly impressive how much power Razer crammed into a PC this small. If you want a laptop that’s fairly easy to carry but still very powerful, this is one of your best options.

Of course, gamers also like high frame rates, so the Razer Blade 14 starts with a Full HD 144Hz panel. You can opt for a Quad HD 165Hz display in the higher tiers, so you get both a smooth image and high-resolution visuals. For a bit of extra flair, the Blade 14 also has an RGB backlit keyboard, with per-key customization available in Razer Synapse. Aside from that, the design is fairly subdued and not obnoxious. You can take this into a classroom and play some games take notes without drawing too much attention.

    Razer Blade 14
    For the young gamer going off to college, the Razer Blade 14 is an extremely versatile laptop. It's got the power to play most AAA games at high quality settings and frame rates, but it has a compact and subdued design that makes it easy to use in a classroom too.

Best for portability: Surface Go 2

Microsoft Surface Go 2 on purple background

Almost on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of power is the Surface Go 2. This may not be the most powerful PC out there by any means, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Weighing in at just 1.2lbs, this tablet is extremely easy to carry around, and its small size means you can slip it into almost any bag. We recommend configuring this one with an Intel Core m3-8100Y to get a good overall experience. You also get 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage this way, so you can do a lot more multi-tasking and store more documents.

The display is pretty great, too. It comes in at a 1920 x 1280 resolution, which is plenty sharp for a 10.5 inch display. Plus, that’s a 3:2 aspect ratio, just like what other Surface devices have, which is great for reading and writing documents. And of course, it’s a touchscreen with support for the Surface Pen (though that’s sold separately).

This is definitely a better option for college students with lighter workloads, mostly writing documents and presentations, but the portability factor plays a huge role here. The configuration we recommend even includes LTE support, so you can stay connected to the internet wherever you may want to get work done. Yes, you’ll probably have to add a Type Cover for the best experience as a laptop, but that doesn’t take away the portability of this machine. The Surface Go 2 is on our list of best tablets for school, which you can always check out to look for other options.

    Surface Go 2
    What the Surface Go 2 lacks in power, it makes up for in portability. This is a small, lightweight device you can take anywhere, and with optional LTE support, you can also stay connected to the internet anywhere. It's a great work machine for lighter workloads.

Best Chromebook: Acer Chromebook Spin 713

Acer Chromebook Spin 713 product image

Chrome OS is an increasingly popular platform, and some schools have started to embrace Chromebooks more so than Windows laptops. If you feel more at home on Google’s operating system, the Acer Chromebook Spin 713 is an incredibly compelling proposition. It starts with an Intel Core i5-1135G7 processor, which includes Intel Iris Xe graphics. Then you add 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, and you already have one of the most powerful Chromebooks out there. It even includes Thunderbolt 4 support for charging and connecting peripherals, including external displays.

Add the fact this is a convertible with a 13.5 inch IPS display at a super-sharp resolution of 2256 x 1504. That means it’s a 3:2 aspect ratio, plus a touchscreen you can use as a tablet whenever you want. The screen is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass, and the laptop itself has an all-aluminum chassis, so it truly feels like a premium device. It even meets the MIL-STD-810H military durability standards. Finally, the keyboard is backlit, another great bonus considering this laptop costs just $699. You don’t see a combination this good almost anywhere else.

    Acer Chromebook Spin 713
    When it comes to premium Chromebooks, it doesn't get much better than the Acer Chromebook Spin 713. A fast Intel Tiger Lake processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, a super sharp touchscreen, and a premium build make this an amazing deal for $699.

Those are our top recommendations for college students, and they should be good enough for almost any workload a student might have. There are various options for different target audiences here, so you’re sure to find something you like. True to its position on this list, the HP Spectre x360 14 would be my personal pick today. I find the versatility of a convertible extremely appealing, and the beautiful design of the Spectre x360 makes it that much more compelling.

However, back when I was entering college, I probably would have wanted the Razer Blade 14 instead. I was much more into PC gaming at the time, and the Razer Blade 14 is perfect for that while still being very compact and portable. If you feel the same way, that would be my recommendation. With that being said, every option on this list is great, and it could be the perfect one for you.

About author

João Carrasqueira
João Carrasqueira

Writer at XDA Computing. I've been covering the world of technology since 2018, but I've loved the field for a lot longer. And I have a weird affinity for Nintendo videogames, which I'm always happy to talk about.