What are the best laptops for school? The best device depends on the student’s academic focus. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) students don’t need the same kind of machine as liberal arts majors. Here’s a list of the best laptops for all sorts of students.
This guide covers the best laptops for students pursuing science, design, programming, and other majors.
Builders, Content Creators, and STEM Students
Ask the student what software they need for school. The majority of STEM students, along with future architects and videographers, use particular kinds of software — such as a Computer Aided Design (CAD) program. For example, AutoCAD works best when used with a “discrete Graphics Processing Unit” or GPU.
A discrete GPU can offer excellent performance for rendering 3D images. Unfortunately, high-power hardware tends to cost a bit more than laptops that don’t have a discrete GPU. For this reason, gaming laptops often make for the best tools for those interested in the sciences.
On the other hand, most computer science students — in contrast to other technology majors — don’t require an expensive device, unless they’re using 3D modeling systems. Most would be better off with a lower-cost unit. Check further down the page for laptops suited for computer science majors.
Best Rendering Laptop: Dell Inspiron 15 7000
Most powerful laptops cost a small fortune, many coming in well over $1,000. However, there’s a less-expensive, but an identically equipped model from Dell selling for over $200 less than competitors: The Dell Inspiron 15 7000. Dell’s model offers the same performance, at much less cost. The price tag? Around $780. For the money, you can’t find a better graphics-crunching laptop anywhere.
CNET rates the Inspiron 7000 7.8 out of 10 stars on account of its slow hard drive and bulk. Fortunately, the model linked to below includes Solid State Drive (what’s an SSD?), for zippy performance. The Wirecutter places the Inspiron at the very top of the best budget gaming laptops.
Since this article was published, Dell has released a new version of the laptop, the Dell Inspiron 15 (7th Generation).
Best Value Laptop: Acer Aspire E15
For those looking for a more inexpensive alternative, look at the Acer Aspire E15, which uses a dual-core processor along with a less powerful GPU, compared to the Inspiron. While it’s decidedly less powerful, it still offers good performance for a budget system.
It’s also one of the best-reviewed gaming machines on Amazon, hitting an average of 4.1 stars out of five on 467 reviews. Its strengths include a 256GB SSD for fast storage, 8GB of RAM, an NVIDIA 940MX GPU, and robust battery life. Most review sites rank it as good but overpriced — with its recent price cut, though, the Aspire E15 now ranks high on the value scale.
Laptops for Artists and Designers
For those relying on artistic talent, try out a 2-in-1 convertible tablet. A 2-in-1 (what’s a 2-in-1?) combines the best features of a laptop with the touchscreen interface of a tablet. Many even throw in electronic pens for creating sketches by hand. For its creative virtues, artists should strongly consider the Microsoft Surface Pro 4.
Best Model: Microsoft Surface Pro 4
The Surface Pro 4 combines the state of the art in processor technology with elegant, sophisticated design. While it’s not great for gaming, complex video-editing, or rendering graphics, it is one of the most flexible computers ever created.
Unfortunately, its price ranges from between $750 to $1,200 for the lower end models — and those prices don’t include either a stylus or a keyboard. Those cost extra.
Since this article was published, Microsoft has released a new version the Microsoft Surface Pro.
Value Option: Acer Switch Alpha 12
If the Surface’s price left you feeling flat, Acer’s newest device might be for you. It’s essentially the same 2-in-1, with slightly less battery life. The selling point: the Alpha runs for $200 less, and it includes a keyboard.
The Acer Switch Alpha 12 includes solid build construction, excellent performance, and a fanless Core i-series processor. It gets a leg up on the Surface by offering a crucial part in the base package: a keyboard. The total cost comes out to around $350 less than a Surface at full retail. If you go by Amazon’s prices, right now, it’s around $400 cheaper, for a similarly decked out model.
As a proud owner of a Switch Alpha, I can honestly say it’s pretty much the same thing as a Surface, with slightly worse battery life and lots of bloatware. Fortunately, Windows 10 offers a debloat option.
Laptops for Programming Students
Most programming students don’t require beefy specs. Rather, they just need a reliable processor and a decent screen. An SSD helps with compiling software faster, although truthfully, it’s not needed to get by.
Best Model: Dell XPS 13
Dell’s XPS 13 (our XPS 13 review) managed to impress pretty much every reviewer on the planet. The laptop received incremental updates since its release in 2014, meaning there is another refresh of the hardware pending in 2016. Fortunately, that means discounts on the current line, which is rotating out of circulation.
CNET rated the XPS an 8.3 out of 10, based on its amazing screen quality but criticized its battery life. TrustedReviews rated it a 4.5 out of 5 stars, based on its stylish construction, amazing battery life, and great value.
Since this article was published, Dell has released a new version the Dell XPS 9360.
Best Value: Lenovo Ideapad 300
The recommended hardware for programming students is — strangely enough — relatively low-end. Most programmers can get away with almost any kind of Windows, Apple, or Linux computer. In fact, many Linux machines provide a better development environment than competitors.
Even so, students prefer an operating system that they’re comfortable with — most of the time, that means Windows. The lowest-priced Windows laptop to meet the basic requirement of a programming student is the Lenovo Ideapad 300. It includes a modern Intel processor, along with a price of $317. You can’t get a better deal than that. However, I caution readers to avoid any variations of the Ideapad that include “Braswell” processors. It’s Core i3 or bust.
Most reviews of the Ideapad 300 indicate good value. LaptopMag awarded it 3.5 out of 5 stars. NotebookCheck gives it a 75%. The common complaints include weak battery life and a poor webcam. If you purchase an Ideapad, an incredible performance boost is to throw in a Solid State Drive.
The SSD migration process shouldn’t take more than about 15 minutes of your time. And the advantages are numerous. An SSD won’t just improve performance — the upgrade could improve a laptop’s battery life.
Everyone Else: A Chromebook
For almost everyone else, the best laptops tend to use the Chrome operating system (see why you should buy a Chromebook). Unless the student needs proprietary Windows software, they are actually better off with a Chromebook. A Chromebook can do about 90% of what a Windows or Macintosh can do, except without the possibility of catching malware.
Chromebooks also offer long battery life and are lightweight. And because of the Chromebook’s unique immunity to malware, it’s also the best device for children.
Best Chromebook: Toshiba Chromebook 2
The overall best Chromebook is the Toshiba Chromebook 2, which offers reliable performance, low cost, and light weight. While the original Toshiba Chromebook didn’t impress many reviewers, its successor received universal praise as the best of its class on today’s market.
The Toshiba scores universal praise online. Its aggregate review score on Amazon is 4.3/5 stars. The Wirecutter considers Toshiba’s offering as the best, for most people. LaptopMag rates it 4.5 stars out of 5, based on its excellent display and amazing battery life.
Best Value: HP Chromebook 11 G5
In the $200 range, the majority of Chromebooks offer pretty standard screens and the cheapest processors possible — but the HP Chromebook 11 G5 manages to squeeze in a design win by combining solid build quality, along with 12-hours of battery life. The cherry on top: unlike most of the competition, the G5 can run Android applications.
For its retail price tag of $189, you won’t find a better device anywhere. Unfortunately, the Chromebook 11 G5 isn’t yet available on Amazon, although you can purchase it directly from HP’s website.
Back to School Sales?
For those looking to save a buck on a laptop for a student, buying in the late summer often means paying less money. Many manufacturers and retailers try to liquidate as much stock as possible before the holiday season arrives. That means you can get last year’s models for a substantial discount.
Anyone else buying a laptop for school? Let us know in the comments what you bought!