Theis the best college laptop you can buy. Unless you’re studying to be a graphic designer or architect, you probably don’t need an insane amount of power for your college laptop. Instead, things like battery life, price, and portability are more important, which the Asus ZenBook 13 provides in abundance.
How do we know? Well, we’ve reviewed hundreds of laptops, benchmarking and testing each to compare how they stack up against each other. For the value it provides, the ZenBook 13 really makes for the ultimate college laptop. We do, however, have a few other options listed below if you want some alternatives that we wholeheartedly recommend.
The best laptop for college at a glance
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Why should you buy this: You won’t find many laptops that provide a better combination of low price, great performance, and lightweight design.
Who’s it for: College students who don’t have a lot to spend but still demand a great laptop.
What we thought of the Asus ZenBook 13 UX333:
A well built, feature-complete, very affordable machine, the Asus ZenBook UX333 does it all. We gave it a 9 out of 10 score in our review precisely because of how well it delivers the essentials of what you want in a laptop at a price that won’t break the bank.
One of the ZenBook’s best attributes is that it looks premium, including being made with the same kind of all-aluminum chassis as more expensive machines. It also sports Asus’s iconic “spun metal concentric circle” finish that brings even more eye appeal to the machine’s Royal Blue finish with attractive gold accents. Throw in the fact that it’s a thin and light laptop with an innovative ErgoLift hinge that lifts the keyboard to a comfortable angle, and you won’t at all feel like you’re carrying around a budget machine.
Of course, performance and battery life matter — and the ZenBook UX333 has both in more than sufficient quantities. The 8th-generation Whiskey Lake quad-core Intel Core i5-8265U processor provides excellent performance and efficiency, while the 50 watt-hour battery should keep the machine running for an entire school day. A solid, reliable choice, the Asus ZenBook UX333 proves you don’t need to spend an excessive amount of money to get a great laptop for college.
Read our Asus ZenBook 13 UX333 review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Why should you buy this: It’s the most economical entry into Apple’s MacBook ecosystem.
Who’s it for: Any college student who loves the Mac but doesn’t have the budget for the MacBook Pro.
What we thought of the Apple MacBook Air:
Apple is renowned for building attractive, robust laptops that are popular on college campuses — not least because Apple has been active in the education market for decades. And if you want a Mac, then the most economical choice is the 2018 MacBook Air.
Apple modernized its original take on the thin-and-light laptop by slimming the bezels and adding the latest butterfly keyboard and Force Touch touchpad, and updating to a Retina keyboard (13.3-inches at 2,560 x 1,600). That means that if you like contemporary MacBooks, then you’ll like the MacBook Air.
The low-end MacBook Air starts at $1,200 for an 8th-gen Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. If you’re low on funds and can live with the previous version, then you can spend $1,000 for an older Core i5, and the same 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.
Read our Apple MacBook Air review
Why should you buy this: You won’t find a better Windows 10 tablet for taking your notes in class, and then working on papers back in the dorm.
Who’s it for: College students who want to replace paper with electronic notes.
What we thought of the Microsoft Surface Go:
Markedly different from the other entries on this list, Microsoft’s most recent detachable tablet shines in its flexibility. Six years in, Microsoft has had plenty of chances to get its formula right. And they did — the Surface Go is a well built, stylish tablet perfect for unobtrusively taking notes in lectures and seminars.
It also provides class-leading active pen support, with the Surface Pen providing the lowest latency in a Windows 10 tablet, 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, and tilt support. That means it’s awesome for taking handwritten notes and making quick drawings, something that can certainly come in handy for today’s college students. Use Microsoft’s OneNote application, and you can get rid of paper notes forever.
At the same time, you’ll get a laptop that provides solid productivity performance and battery life. You may not be able to use this as a gaming or high-performance device, but for $400 you’ll get 64GB of storage, an Intel 4415Y CPU, and 4GB of RAM, which is more than enough for writing papers or catching up on Netflix. The battery also lasts around eight hours, which should get you through the day without charging. It’s not perfect, but a college student is the perfect demographic for this highly-portable, 2-in-1 laptop.
Read our Microsoft Surface Go review
Why should you buy this: It’s one of the most powerful Chromebooks on the market that doesn’t cost a fortune.
Who’s it for: College students who don’t need to run heavy applications.
Why we picked the HP Chromebook x2:
If you cringe at the thought of using a Chromebook from the terrible one your high school loaned you, think again. The HP Chromebook x2, though, is nothing like that. It still runs on Google’s Chrome OS platform, but unlike those ultra-cheap computers, the HP Chromebook x2 is fast, well-built, and highly portable.
For $599, you get a 7th-gen Intel Core m3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage capacity. That sounds minimal when compared to the typical Windows 10 notebook, particularly in terms of storage space. But remember that Chrome OS requires far fewer computing resources — and most of your data will reside in the Google cloud. Toss in a bright, high resolution (2,400 x 1,600) 12.3-inch display, and you have a machine that’s more than powerful enough for Google’s slim OS. This all resides beneath a convertible laptop to tablet design, supporting not only media consumption but convenient note-taking as well.
Read our full HP Chromebook x2 review
Why should you buy this: Just because you’re on a tight budget doesn’t mean you don’t want a quality machine.
Who’s it for: Any college student whose budget can’t stretch beyond the basics.
What we thought of the Acer Aspire E 15:
College is an expensive proposition, and sometimes you have other things to spend your money on than a new laptop. That’s why it’s great not to have to compromise with the Acer Aspire 5, a 15.6-inch notebook that’s incredibly affordable and is still equipped with fast, modern components. For example, you can pick up a configuration with an 8th-gen Core i3-8145U CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD for only $430. Or, you can spend an extra $130 and jump up to a 10th-gen Core i5-1035G1 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD.
In either case, you’ll also enjoy a 1080p display and excellent connectivity with two USB-A 3.0 ports, a USB-A 2.0 port, a USB-C 3.1 port, an Ethernet port for wired networking, and a full-size HDMI video connection. In a day and age where companies are sidelining compatibility concerns, that’s nothing to sneeze at. But perhaps most impressive is the Aspire 5 generous battery capacity. In our testing, the Aspire 5 exceeded Acer’s 7-hour estimate when browsing the web, at just over nine hours. You’ll be free to roam campus all day without lugging around a power brick or having to dash back to your dorm for extra charging.
If you can scrounge up some extra cash, then you could look at some of the prettier machines on our list. However, if you’d rather save your money for some better dorm room furniture or textbooks, then the Acer Aspire E 15 can meet your basic requirements with some room to spare.
Read our Acer Aspire 5 review
Why should you buy this: It provides a relatively thin and light laptop with some real gaming chops, without breaking the bank.
Who’s it for: Any college student with a limited budget who wants to take a gaming break from classes and homework.
What we thought of the Dell G3 Gaming Laptop:
You’ll spend hours and hours in class, studying, and taking tests, and there’s nothing like a quick gaming session to get your mind off your work. If you want a laptop that can keep up, then the Dell G3 Gaming offers several key benefits.
First, it’s reasonably priced at around $800 for a configuration with an 8th-gen 45-watt quad-core Core it-8300H CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Most important, that nets you an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, a quick mobile GPU that can game at 1080p with decent graphics in most modern titles.
Second, the Dell G3 Gaming is also relatively thin and light for a gaming laptop. That means you can carry it around campus as well. Like all gaming laptops, it won’t provide you with record-breaking battery life, but it’s decent enough to get you to a class or two and back to the dorm.
Read our Dell G3 Gaming Laptop review
How we test
We spend a tremendous amount of time reviewing notebooks of all shapes and sizes — and that’s saying something today, when laptops come in so many shapes, sizes, and configurations. To make sure our recommendations provide real value to our readers, we live with the machines for a time and use them in writing our reviews — to make sure we can assess how they’ll work for real users.
But we do have a method to our madness in conducting these reviews, and you can get a behind-the-scenes look at it here. Hopefully, it will be obvious that our reviews are real labors of love — or hate, depending on the notebook — and therefore you can at least recognize that we don’t arrive at our conclusions without some serious consideration.
Research and buying tips
There was once a time when our answer would be a strong “no,” primarily because gaming laptops were once usually much larger, thicker, and heavier than non-gaming machines. That’s the last thing you want to carry around from class to class. That’s no longer true today, when many gaming laptops are thinner and lighter than ever. In addition to our Dell G3 Gaming pick above, the Razer Blade is perhaps the classic example of a laptop that’s made for gamers, with fast CPU and GPU options, but isn’t much thicker or heavier than other laptops.
At the same time, gaming laptops tend to focus more on performance than battery life, and you’ll pay a premium to carry around those gaming components in a thin and light chassis. The great thing is that many laptops today have Thunderbolt 3 ports that can connect to external GPU enclosures for some extra gaming oomph. If you choose a laptop with at least a quad-core 8th-gen Intel CPU and at least 8GB of RAM, then you can attach it to an external GPU and get performance that’s pretty darn close to a dedicated gaming laptop. And your choice of a laptop will be much wider, including choosing among the horde of excellent 2-in-1s that have hit the market over the last several years.
You’ll want enough storage for the operating system, your applications, and all of the documents and other files you’ll need to keep up with your studies. Microsoft recommends 32GB for Windows 10 itself, and you can figure that at least 50GB will be required once your laptop is up and running. Then, you’ll want to factor in your applications and keep in mind that many games can take up a few gigabytes (or more) all by themselves. That means that a 128GB SSD might be a little light and that 256GB is likely a better starting point.
If you want to balance cost (the larger the SSD, the more you’ll pay, naturally) and expandability, then look for a laptop with an SD card slot. Today, you can add a 400GB micro SD card for around $60, meaning that if your local storage gets maxed out it’s possible to greatly expand the space available for your most important documents. Also, if you use a cloud storage service like Microsoft’s OneDrive that allows you to store all of your documents offline and then download only those you need right now, then you can save on local storage requirements.
Google’s Chrome OS might be a better choice for any college student whose schoolwork is limited to web use and word processing. Chrome OS is very lightweight and demands less powerful components, and so a Chromebook can provide much better performance and longer battery life for much less money.
Also, Chromebooks are arguably more secure and more regularly updated than Windows 10 and MacOS, and they’re more limited and thus less likely to tempt a college student to waste time on non-essentials. There’s a reason why Chrome OS is increasingly popular in educational environments, and why Google continues to focus on making the OS attractive to students.
If by “tablet,” you mean one of the many Windows 10 2-in-1s with detachable keyboards, like the Surface Go that’s included in our list, then absolutely — a tablet is the same as a laptop once you convert it to laptop form. If by “tablet,” you mean a true mobile device like an iPad, then that’s a more difficult question to answer.
Yes, you can attach a keyboard to an iPad and use it as a more traditional laptop, and soon enough you’ll even be able to add a mouse or touchpad. But iOS doesn’t support the same kinds of feature-complete applications that you’ll find on Windows 10 and MacOS, at least not yet. You’ll need to be very careful to check all of your application requirements — now and in the future — to make sure you can get all of your work done. If you don’t have any specific applications that won’t run on such a tablet, though, then sure, you could benefit from its very lightweight chassis and relatively simple software.