What to look for in a college laptop
The hardware inside of your laptop — often referred to as the “specs” — will determine how well it will run on a daily basis, and how long it should last before it gets replaced. All of the laptops in our guide should have enough processing power, storage, memory, and battery longevity to last for at least an entire four-year term of study.
Of course, the more powerful laptops will be faster and could last a lot longer, but they’re more expensive. You’ll have to look within your budget, but we are recommending laptops that work for most college students.
We’re here to help you understand all the key aspects of a laptop and how they can play into your ability to use the machine for college.
OS and software support
Each of the laptops in our guide runs one of the three major operating systems (OS): Windows, MacOS, and ChromeOS. Each OS has its own set of pros and cons.
- Windows 10: Windows 10 is the most popular computing operating system, and you’ll have no problem finding the right software to help get your work done. It’s also the best OS for games, if that’s how you plan on spending your free time. The downside is that, because it’s so popular and open, hackers generally target Windows first, so it’s important to run antivirus software regularly and update the OS as security patches get released. Learn more about what to know about Windows 11 before buying a new laptop.
- MacOS: Like Windows, MacOS is a fully fledged OS with a robust library of apps. If you need a popular app to get your work done, it’s almost definitely available for the Mac. The downside is that MacOS only runs on Apple hardware, which is typically a lot more expensive than Windows alternatives. The two upsides are that MacOS has far fewer viruses than Windows, and it shares many of the same apps as the iPhone.
- ChromeOS: ChromeOS is different from MacOS and Windows because it’s based on Google’s Chrome browser, and it requires online connectivity for much of its functionality. You won’t have access to the same types of software as you would on a Mac or PC, but you can still use Google’s G suite to write papers, prepare presentations, create and edit spreadsheets, and more. Learn more about whether a Chromebook is right for you.
There are three important considerations for a laptop display for school. The first is resolution, which effectively lets you know how clear the picture will be. The short version is that the higher the number, the better the clarity.
You’ll often see labels such as 720p (“HD”), 1080p (“Full HD”), 4K (“UHD”, “Ultra HD”, or 2160p). Though more is better, the smaller displays of laptops tend to look perfectly sharp at 1080p, and the upgrade to 4K often comes with major sacrifices to battery life.
Size is the next consideration. Smaller 11 and 12-inch displays are better when you only need one window open at a time. Medium-sized 13 and 14-inch models are good for light multitasking, but can be difficult if you’re not comfortable with small tests. Larger 15.6- and 17-inch displays offer more workspace but will often mean bigger, heavier devices.
Then there’s brightness, which is often measured in nits. A display that’s rated at 300 nits or below, it’ll be hard to use outdoors in bright conditions. Higher-brightness displays may work better outdoors, as can displays that offer a matte or anti-glare finish.
Your processor is going to play heavily into how speedy your computer feels. Luckily, outside of gaming, engineering, or digital art, most modern processors you’ll find in laptops will do just fine for school work.
If the laptop you’re looking at has an Intel processor, know that 8th-Gen Intel Core processors and newer will all but guarantee decent performance. If you don’t see a generation listed, you can always find it out by looking at the processor’s name, as the generation number always appears in this underlined spot: Intel Core i7-9700.
For AMD processors, you’ll find Ryzen 3000 and 4000 series processors are up to snuff. For higher performance needs look for Intel or AMD processors that have an H at the end of their model name – these indicate high-power models in both cases.
Your computer’s memory, or RAM (random access memory), is what keeps all your applications up and running. It’s measured in gigabytes, and the simple thing to understand is that more is better. For most people, 8GB of RAM is plenty. But if you often work with a lot of windows and tabs open (especially in Chrome), you may start to use it all up.
Your computer can start to feel a lot slower if all your RAM is getting used, and you may have programs crash. The upgrade to 16GB will more likely than not cover most users’ needs outside of 3D modeling or high-res video editing. You may even be able to get by on 4GB if you tend to use your computer lightly for word processing and a couple browser tabs.
It’s easy to keep a lot of important files saved online, so storage has become a bit less important for our laptops. You likely don’t need a terabyte on your laptop if you stream movies and music. If you plan to game after class, that’s when extra storage will be most crucial. For non-gamers, 256GB or even 128GB will likely be enough.
What’s most important is getting solid state storage (or an SSD), as these will make for a system that’s lighter and feels much snappier than a system with a hard drive (or HDD). If you think you might need more storage in the future, many USB drives and microSD cards can serve as auxiliary storage while adding almost no bulk or weight to your laptop.
These are surprisingly important. A computer that has only USB-C ports may feel modern, but it can become a pain to interface with a lot of accessories. Many mice, keyboards, and external drives still rely on USB-A ports, so it can be handy to have at least one available.
If you want to get high speeds out of the USB connection, check the version: USB 2.0 is fine for a mouse or keyboard, while USB 3.0 and above are handy for external drives thanks to their fast transfer speeds.
For even more speeds, you can look for Thunderbolt 3. It can also be helpful to have a laptop that charges over a USB-C port, since you’re likely to have more options should you need to borrow a friend’s charger if you forget yours.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but your laptop’s weight is going to matter a considerable amount for school. We’ll start with 4 pounds as a baseline. That’s a common ballpark for a lot of laptops, and it likely won’t feel too heavy in a good backpack during short trips between classes.
But, if you often bike or walk with your laptop, aiming for a laptop below 3 pounds can spare you some backaches. Heavier, high-performance laptops can quickly top 7 pounds, and though that may not sound like a lot, you’ll quickly start to feel it when combined with your books and other school supplies. And, chargers are a compounding factor, as lighter laptops tend to have lighter charging bricks while heavier laptops have beefier bricks.