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Best college laptop for 2021: Apple, Microsoft, Dell and more

Best college laptop for 2021: Apple, Microsoft, Dell and more

For most students, one of the most significant investments they’ll make is also the primary academic tool they’ll need: a laptop. You can find a passable entry-level laptop with an adequate display, battery life, graphics card and hard drive for less than $300, but spending a few hundred more on the right laptop for your needs can yield a device with better performance, longer battery life and a bigger and faster SSD hard drive, which is well worth the additional money. We created this list of the best laptops for college students by using benchmark testing as well as our own hands-on experience. We considered everything from SSD storage to whether the laptop has a HD webcam (whether or not it had sufficient USB ports or an HDMI port was also was also a factor). We’ll update it periodically as we review new products.

Note that most of our choices for the best laptops for college run between $500 and $1,000. If you’re looking for a less expensive college laptop — or if you’re open to an alternative to Apple’s MacOS and Microsoft Windows — we recommend checking out the best Chromebooks for students. The best budget laptop options are less expensive but still powerful enough to handle student-life basics such as getting on the internet, email, creating documents or working with spreadsheets.

However, if you’re looking for the right laptop — one that can double as a gaming laptop, has a ton of storage or can handle powerful programs like video-editing software, read on for our picks.

Read more: Best laptop backpack for 2021   

Sarah Tew/CNET

The newest Apple MacBook Air hits all the right notes: This powerful laptop is back to the old $999 starting price, and it has Apple’s new Magic Keyboard, which most people prefer to the previous model’s butterfly design. Even better, this Apple laptop features current-era Intel processors, a new Force Touch trackpad and 256GB of storage for the entry-level configuration. The major drawback: The base model of this Apple MacBook Air with Retina Display features a Core i3 processor, and stepping up to the Core i5 costs an extra $100. 

Still, the brand new Apple MacBook Air and older models are frequently on sale. At the moment, the 2020 MacBook Air is available for around $950, which is a decent deal. That noted, the 2019 base configuration — which comes with an older but more powerful Core i5 processor — is still a great laptop worth a look, especially when it’s discounted to less than $900, even though you’ll be stuck with that pesky older MacBook keyboard design.

Read our 2020 MacBook Air preview.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you’re committed to the Windows operating system and want a balance of portability, power and price, it’s hard to find a better 13-inch laptop than the XPS 13. Dell has been making incremental improvements to this Dell XPS 13 machine for so long that it’s hard to find a flaw. For 2020, Dell made the laptop even smaller, while making the screen larger and increasing performance for both CPU and graphics-intensive tasks. It’s not a huge leap, but it’s still the best in the category. The very capable 10th-gen Intel Core model is linked below, but versions with the 11th-gen Tiger Lake chips are now in the pipeline.

Read our Dell XPS 13 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Surface Pro remains the standard-bearer for Windows devices that work as both as a Surface laptop and touch screen tablet, though this convertible laptop makes for a better tablet than it does for a laptop. (If you’re looking for the opposite, Lenovo’s two-in-one Yoga devices are better laptops than they are tablets.) In addition to the typical great performance and battery life you can expect, the seventh-edition Surface Pro finally gets a USB-C port. The Surface laptop’s super-portable size makes it ideal for high school and college students who may be carrying a lot of gear. Though this company still sells the Surface laptop Pro without its essential Type Cover keyboard and Surface Pen included, it can frequently be found for a relatively cheap laptop price– sometimes with one or both accessories.

Read our Surface Pro 7 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Dell’s G series laptops deliver a smart balance of build quality, battery life and performance, with plenty of graphics card power for college students looking to play the latest AAA games when they aren’t hitting the books. The slim, compact design masks its gaming pedigree and power. And even the entry-level configuration is powerful, equipped with a 10th-gen Intel Core processor and Nvidia GTX GeForce GTX 1650 Ti GPU. 


The Yoga Chromebook is a versatile student laptop — and it doubles as a convincing tablet. This Chrome OS device has a 15.6-inch 4K touchscreen display, solid battery life and, with an Intel Core i5 CPU and 8GB RAM, enough performance for everyday office and entertainment tasks. The aluminum chassis gives it a premium aesthetic, and it has a comfortable keyboard and touchpad. Though this touchscreen laptop lacks some of the higher-end features you find on the company’s Windows-equivalent C740 and C940, the Chromebook version does have a privacy webcam shutter. It starts at $900 — but is often on sale for less.

Read our Lenovo Yoga C740 (14-inch) review.

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