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Best student laptops 2021: the best laptops for students

T3 logo T3 25/02/2021 Robert Jones
a woman sitting at a table with a laptop on a bed: best student laptops 2021 © Provided by T3 best student laptops 2021

Just like last year, life at university, college or school is looking very different this year, with many students now reliant on remote learning to progress their education. As a result, ensuring a learner has one of the best student laptops of 2021 in their locker is more important than ever before.

Student laptops were already absolutely essential devices in the world of modern study, but this year we’re likely to be using them more than ever so getting the right laptop for studying is even more important. With online classes, video meetings and virtual collaboration now the name of the game, getting a great study tool is crucial.

We do have some good news for you. Retailers are really pushing student discounts on laptops right now due to the current situation and there are some really good deals to be had: these systems offer an incredible blend of portability and performance without also breaking the bank.

Because, truth be told the one of the primary things that separates student laptops from, say, the best laptops overall, or more specialists systems like gaming laptops and 2-in-1 laptops, is that their prices tend to be more affordable. 

A lot like with the best Chromebooks on the market, shopping for a student laptop is kinder to the wallet. On that note, it may also be worth scoping out T3's best tablets guide, too, as with a keyboard cover many of today's top slates are more than capable of acting as a student laptop.

We’ve also seen some manufacturers – hello, best Dell laptops – make giant leaps that make their products even better suited to student life than they already were. But as our best student laptops guide demonstrates, there’s much more to picking a student laptop than going for the cheapest one.

We don’t quite know what this academic year holds, but we do know that no matter what kind of learning you’ll be doing – fully remote, in-person or a mix of the two –these laptops will be the perfect companions for studying, for staying in touch with friends and family and for creativity too.

Oh, and lastly, if you're looking to build a better home or dormitory office for study, we think it's well worth checking out our best office chairs guide, as it will mean you can work for long hours in comfort.

The best student laptops you can buy today

We think that for the vast majority of students the best student laptop available today is the HP Pavilion 14. Combining strong all-round specs, which include an 8th generation Intel Core i5-8250U CPU, Intel UHD Graphics 620 GPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, along with a simple yet stylish design and crisp screen, for the money you can't do better running Windows 10.

The system's build quality is also good, and you get dedicated HDMI, USB Type-C and networking ports, too, meaning that hooking the machine up in the dorm or in class is easy. Battery life sits at up to 11 hours, and the machines comes pre-installed with a fresh copy of Windows 10 Home.

Cheaper and more expensive student laptops are available in this list, as well as makes from Apple that run macOS, however, for an affordable sweet spot then look no further than the HP Pavilion 14.

To see how this laptop stacks up against a model right at the premium end of the spectrum be sure to check out our HP Pavilion 14 vs Dell XPS 13 (2020) comparison feature.

The Dell XPS 13 series has consistently wowed us here at T3, and the latest version of the laptop continues that trend – it's powerful, supremely well built, and compact, so just about everything you could possibly want in your search for the best student laptop around during back to school season.

With the latest 11th-gen Intel processors installed and up to 16GB of RAM installed, this is a portable computer that's going to be able to handle everything that you want to throw at it. From late-night Netflix to early-morning essay writing, you'll find the Dell XPS 13 for 2021 a capable and competent laptop.

The Dell's 13.4-inch display has really tiny bezels and a can, if desired, be ramped up to a 4K resolution, although we think for most people Full HD is just fine. The color reproduction and detailing are superb anyway.

To find out how this premium student laptop compares to a more budget-orientated one, check out our Dell XPS 13 (2020) vs Acer Chromebook 315 comparison feature.

The Chromebook 315 is a ridiculously cheap student laptop that's also very capable. The hardware is in line with that price, with lower specs across the board – but as the machine runs Chrome OS, it doesn't matter too much, with the laptop still delivering a fast and responsive usage experience.

Providing that you have an internet connection, which anyone with a smartphone does (hello portable hotspot), then this Chromebook unlocks the powerful and comprehensive G-Suite of applications, which includes Google Docs, GMAIL, Drive, Sheets, Slides, Calendar, Hangouts and more – simply put, it delivers everything a student needs in class or when working on coursework and revising.

And that 15.6-inch screen is an absolute delight, by the way. Again, its speakers are poor, with flat treble and weak bass – but at this price, you can afford an iPhone or iPod as well. One of the best student laptops going in 2021 for those shopping on a budget, and who don't need a host of extra bells and whistles.

Want to know how this system stacks up against our number one student laptop choice? Then be sure to scope out our HP Pavilion 14 vs Acer Chromebook 315 comparison feature.

Last year, the Intel-powered MacBook Air was our recommended Apple laptop for students. This year, it’s the Apple-powered M1 MacBook Air. It may look identical to its predecessor, but it’s very different inside. This isn’t just the best Apple laptop for students. It’s the best Apple laptop for almost everyone.

What makes this MacBook different is that the processor is now an Apple one. It’s from the same family as the processors in the iPhone and iPad and it’s incredibly fast and incredibly energy efficient. 

In tests, the new Air has outperformed many laptops that cost considerably more money. In Apple’s M1 the processor, graphics processor and memory are combined to work incredibly efficiently, and the result is a MacBook Air that delivers truly exceptional performance and all-day battery life as well as the pick-up-and-go portability that’s been the MacBook Air’s trademark.

We’ve picked the MacBook Air over the MacBook Pro for several reasons. It’s significantly cheaper without being significantly less powerful, it’s completely silent and it doesn’t have any fewer expansion ports than its more expensive sibling. It’s an amazing all-rounder.

To see how this system compares to our number one student laptop choice, be sure to check out T3's HP Pavilion 14 vs Apple Macbook Air (M1, 2020) comparison feature.

Microsoft's forays into the 2-in-1 market have been a huge success, revitalising the company's image as a serious hardware maker right when it needed it. For people who want to get in on this without paying handsomely – so students, in other words – Microsoft has you covered with the Microsoft Surface Go 2.

It builds on what made the original Surface Go so good, adding a more premium-feeling design and a small specs bump to make sure you can get through all of the computing tasks that you need to get through. It also squeezes in a bigger-sized screen into a form factor the same size as the original Surface Go, but cutting down on the bezels.

You can eke out around five hours of use between charges with the Surface Go, and given its size and power, it's perfect for jumping between the library and the lecture hall. In your calculations about whether or not to buy this, make sure that you factor in the extra cost of the Type Cover keyboard in as well, which you're going to need to make full use of this as a laptop as well as a tablet.

To learn more about this budget 2-in-1 student laptop check out our detailed should I buy the Microsoft Surface Go 2 guide, and to see how it performs against another top cheap laptop check out our Asus Vivobook 15 vs Microsoft Surface Go 2 comparison feature.

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Being a student isn't just all work, but plenty of play, too. And if you're a gamer who wants to play the latest AAA PC games in-between study sessions then the Acer Nitro 5 is a great choice. It's a great choice as it delivers serious gaming chops at an affordable price point.

Core to that experience is the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 graphics card, which is capable of playing games like Cyberpunk 2077 with real time ray tracing turned on. This GPU is supported by a 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-9750H CPU, which is hexa-core and has more than enough grunt to power any typical laptop task as well as more creative ones like editing photos and videos.

The Acer Nitro 5 also comes with a spacious 17.3-inch screen, too, meaning that watching movies and TV shows is immersive, and thanks to a wide-variety of connection ports, hooking up peripherals and other tech is a synch.

You also get a built-in webcam and mic, too, so remote learning and video chats with friends, family and other gamers is unlocked. The laptop is also available in a wide-variety of configurations.

Overall, the Acer Nitro 5 is strong all-round laptop, but one that also comes with dedicated gaming silicon tucked under the hood, making it a no-brainer for students shopping for a new gaming-capable laptop.

To see how this laptop compares to two other popular gaming systems, be sure to scope out T3's Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 vs Acer Nitro 5 and Asus Zephyrus ROG S GX701 vs Acer Nitro 5 comparison features.

If you're going to kickstart your education, regardless of the subject or the level, why not invest in a student laptop that's not only built to last, but also one of the most powerful laptops you can buy in 2021? That’s what Huawei is offering with the robust MateBook X Pro, and it's going to have you covered whatever your subject.

Its attractive and sleek chassis is home to a lovely 13.9-inch 3K display, a meaty Nvidia GeForce MX150 2GB GDDR5 GPU, and a battery that will serve you well through even the lengthiest of all-nighters.

With all these specs and more, the Huawei MateBook X Pro has proved itself the new gold standard, and one of the very best 2021 laptops for students available.

There's just so much to like about the Dell Inspiron 14 3000, and its crazy cheap price point is just the first. Next, it rock-solid internal hardware means that light computing tasks are handled with ease, while its stylish lightweight design also makes it incredible portable.

It's 14-inch LCD anti-glare screen is crisp, too, and with a full fat version of Windows 10 Home 64bit installed, it very much delivers the genuine experience out of the box. If browsing the internet, writing reports and essays, as well as storing your most valuable media and work is important to you, then the Insprion 14 3000 is a great companion.

The laptop also comes with a webcam so joining seminars and remote meetings is handled, while its SD card reader and multitude of ports makes it easy to hook storage up to it, as well as it to larger screens and peripherals.

Overall a brilliant cheap Windows 10 laptop that will be ideal for going back to school.

If you like the HP brand but want to spend a little bit more than the Pavillion costs (see above), the HP Envy x360 might be for you. It manages to marry some decent specs with some very decent looks at a price that's not quite as exorbitant as you might think, looking at it.

With AMD powering the CPU and GPU, this is a laptop that's going to handle most of the tasks you throw at it, besides intensive gaming and video editing – it's perfect for writing up essays, or doing some research on the web, or putting together a budget spreadsheet to work out where all your money is going.

And as this is a 2-in-1, when the working day is over you can flip the HP Envy x360 into tent mode and enjoy some Netflix or YouTube on the bright, crisp 13.3-inch screen. Definitely one for your best student laptops shortlist.

Versatility is important for the students and one of the best systems on the market today for that is the Lenovo Yoga Slim 7. This is because it marries a stylish and super thin design that weighs only 1.33kg, therefore making it super portable, with a really strong hardware spec that is anything but underpowered.

The Slim 7's AMD Ryzen 5 processor, for example, delivers all the power you need for photo and video editing, and its spacious and fast SSD makes storing tons of files, pictures, videos, music files, movies and games easy.

This laptop's FHD 14-inch screen comes with very small bezels, too, which make it look far bigger than it actually is, which is ideal for when streaming videos from services like Netflix and Disney+, as well as holding video meetings and attending virtual seminars, with the Slim 7's integrated webcam with privacy shutter ensuring you're see only when you want to be.

One of the other major reasons why this system is so versatile is its battery, which delivers 17.5 hours of runtime on a single charge. That means that no matter if you are out all day studying in a coffee shop, library or communal work space, you won't be left running for a power socket.

Throw in some sweet extras like Dolby Atmos audio, rapid charge battery tech, and a full fat version of Windows 10 Home, and you've got yourself a winner – and especially so at its firmly mid-range price point.

Overall, one of the best student laptops on the market.

Like its smaller sibling, the awesome XPS 13, Dell's XPS 15 sports an almost bezel-less InfinityEdge display, but is better for long hours of work because of the larger screen. It brings the dual benefit of making whatever you're doing on its gorgeous 15-inch 4K screen come to life while also lending it the dimensions of a 14-inch laptop. 

It's bag-friendly to boot and comes packing the goods in terms of specs, including an Nvidia GTX 960M mobile graphics card that's beefy enough to handle just about any game so long as you stick to 1080p.

The XPS 15's battery life is its main weakness, so don't expect its runtimes to stretch into the double figures without taking a booster pack along for the ride. Even with that against it, it's still one of the best student laptops out there.

If you need sleekness and power, and you're prepared to pay for it – but at the same time you still want something that isn't too difficult to carry around or stuff into a backpack – then consider the 13-inch MacBook Pro from Apple (and yes, the keyboard has finally been fixed).

A variety of different configurations are available to suit your needs and budget, but it's possible to get this laptop specced out very well indeed if you're planning on doing any serious image or video editing. Don't underestimate everything you get with macOS too, with Apple's apps improving all the time.

Macs aren't the way to go if your budget is tight, but if you can afford the 13-inch MacBook Pro then you won't be disappointed – it'll last you well through your years of education and probably beyond as well. The 10th-generation Intel chips are included, ahead of the switch to Apple Silicon.

Gaming laptops tend to cost markedly more than their non-gaming counterparts, which is why the Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming 3i stands out a bit. With its sub-grand price point, stylish-looking design and dedicated GPU it makes a strong call to any student who wants to be able to play some games in their down time.

There's plenty else to like about this student laptop, too, including the fact that it has a 120Hz IPS Full HD screen. This makes playing fast paced games much better. The screen is 15.6 inches in size, too, meaning you've got plenty of real estate for at least two windows and for streaming Netflix full screen.

The graphics card in the Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming 3i isn't the fastest, as you might expect, but the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 4GB has decent enough clout to run most AAA games at medium settings, which is something that is aided by its strong Intel Core i5 CPU.

Overall, this is good all-rounder student laptop that also offers some decent gaming performance, and it does so at a decent price point, too.

We've always been fans of the Acer Swift series, and the latest edition of the Swift 3 has done nothing to change our minds. You get a 14-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen for staring at those essays and video streaming services, while under the hood everything is powered by Intel Core i5 or i7 chips.

The closer you look, the better the Acer Swift 3 gets – it supports the latest Wi-Fi 6 standards, for example, and has a decent selection of ports too (2 x USB-A, 1 x USB-C, and 1 x HDMI). At the top end of the configuration options, you can even have an Nvidia GeForce MX350 graphics card installed if you think you're going to need it.

When you're in the market for the best student laptop for going back to school, you want something that's reliable, compact, easy to carry around, and great to look at – and the Acer Swift 3 ticks all of those boxes. Definitely one to get on your shortlist if you prefer Windows.

How to choose the best student laptop for you

We hope our student laptop guide proves invaluable for anyone out there shopping for a system that's capable, decent value, and a boon to your productivity. We're constantly updating this list too with newer models and updated information, so be sure to keep checking back regularly, and we've also included some clutch buying advice to help you narrow down the ideal learning tool for going back to school.

Today's computers need to be able to do much more than the primitive number-crunchers of old. They need to support a huge range of software, given that several courses have special requirements, as well as the standard office packages.

When it comes to software, Microsoft's Office 365 suite is free for students, and there are also Google's Chromebooks and the associated Google Docs suite to consider as well, with the latter also free to use.

These laptops need to be able to run HD video lectures without juddering of course, while a set of good speakers always comes in handy when the university day is done. These machines have to be affordable too, given the increased cost of schooling all round the world.

Integrated webcams are important as well, for web lectures and broadcast media-related courses, but these are now included as standard on every laptop. You'd be hard pushed to find a model without one.

How we test student laptops

Laptops are very versatile and powerful tools, which means that there is a lot to consider when buying one. As such, we approach testing student laptops with this in mind, parsing down the process according to what a buyer would consider in store.

Firstly, we evaluate the build quality and design of the system. Here we're looking for signs of robustness and quality, as well as overall fit and finish. It is at this stage that we also evaluate the student laptop's screen, judging its colour balance, fidelity and features, such as anti-glare coatings or tiny bezels.

Next up we evaluate the student laptop purely from a hardware point of view, both on paper and in practice. So we check out its core specifications, such as processor, RAM, storage capacity and graphics chip, before benchmarking the overall package with a brace of benchmarking tools.

We then move onto the more experiential side of the reviewing process, which encompasses what the laptop's operating system and software are like to use, as well as how it performs in the real world – such as, how is the student laptop to carry round, or how well does it perform in a coffee shop.

Lastly, we take a look at any of the system's noteworthy features, such as RGB lighting systems, mechanical keyboards, built-in webcams, touchscreens, rotating screens, stylus support, biometric sign-in options and more. We also provide a rough, real-world take on the system's battery life at this point, too.

Only after these stages are complete do we officially score the student laptop, with a 5-star system (1 being the worst, and 5 being the best) used. If the student laptop scores highly, it is then considered for T3's best student laptop buying guide, which is designed to showcase the very best systems on the market.

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