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Best student laptops 2021: the very best laptops for students

T3 logo T3 3 days ago Robert Jones
a group of people looking at a laptop: The best student laptops hero image showing students sat on the floor using HP laptops © Provided by T3 The best student laptops hero image showing students sat on the floor using HP laptops

Studying today, no matter if you are at school, college or university, is markedly different from a few years ago, with a new emphasis placed on online remote learning. There's significantly less face-to-face time, more virtual seminars and lessons, as well as more resources being delivered purely online.

All of that means that it is now more important than ever to own one of the best student laptops of 2021.

Laptops for students are not just for writing essays now but for taking part in those critical online sessions, so you need one that can handle video calls as well as documents. And with so many online classes, video meetings and virtual collaborations, students are spending more time on their laptops than ever before and to work optimally you don't want to scrimp on an underpowered model.

We're now in the pre-new academic year summer months, and that is good news for student laptop shoppers as plenty of retailers are currently discounting some great systems that are perfect for school and college.

If you're wondering what separates the best college laptops from the best laptops overall or specialist systems like gaming laptops and 2-in-1 laptops, it's that they have to satisfy two very different criteria: they need to be excellent all-rounders, and they need to be excellent value, too. That means they can't cut any crucial corners but they need to be keenly priced.

The arrival of the best Chromebooks has given the market quite a kick. Google's mobile-focused laptops have encouraged PC firms to up their game, as have Apple's iPads – and in fact we think you should check out T3's best tablets guide too, because many of today's tablets are perfectly capable laptops too. All you need is a keyboard. If you prefer Dells to Apples and laptops to tablets, though, check out our guide to the best Dell laptops.

And if you're in the market for some external storage, particularly for Apple laptops, check out our best external hard drives for Mac guide as well as this one.

So how do you choose the best student laptop? Price is important, of course, but it shouldn't be your sole criteria. That's why our guide covers so many options, manufacturers and operating systems: every student is different and that means their requirements will differ.

We don’t quite know what this academic year holds – after the last 12 months we've stopped trying to predict the future – but we do know that whether your learning is 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.

Laptops are also great for serious processing and rendering nowadays, so if you're a budding engineer and need some recommendations, then be sure to check out T3's best laptops for engineering students guide. This guide is filled with systems that won't let you down when using resource-heavy software like AutoCAD, MATLAB and Solid Works.

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. Plus, our best webcams guide is worth considering if you want to look good in video meetings.

Finally, the best student laptops are a cornerstone to the student laptop experience. They are a critical tool that enables work, entertainment and study, and as such they are included in T3's back to school guide. This guide is filled with all the technology, products and gadgets that we think make the student experience better, so we recommend anyone who is about to get back to booking it to take a gander. From the best mattresses for students, to the best tablets and onto the best cheap headphones, we've got every aspect of student life covered.

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.

If you need a laptop that you'll easily be able to slip in your bag to carry between home and your classes then you should definitely consider the Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon

It's no bigger than a notepad and weighs less than a kilogram so it's super portable. Even the charger will be easy to carry with you, it looks more like a smartphone charger than one made for a laptop. 

Being so small doesn't mean that you won't get decent specs though, it packs in the 11th Gen Intel Core processors which makes it a great choice for getting productive, although I wouldn't rely on it for lots of photo and video editing. Its solid performance is paired with a crisp, detailed screen as well as a sleek, stylish design and a keyboard that feels satisfying and reliable to type on. 

The one major downside is the average battery life, you will definitely need to plug it in at some point during the day. Luckily though, it doesn't take long to recharge.

Unlike some of the other options on this list, the Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon won't give you a big display and premium features like a touchscreen or fingerprint sensor, but it will be ideal for anyone who wants style and portability from their laptop without spending a huge amount of money.

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.

While the MSI Katana GF66 won't get you the very best frame rates, it will run all the best games of the moment smoothly – and it costs considerably less than a lot of the mid-range and top-tier gaming laptops out there at the moment. The capable Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU means you'll be able to play anything you want at a decent level of quality, and the laptop stays relatively cool and quiet too.

What makes this a great student laptop as well as a gaming laptop is that there's a powerful 11th-gen Intel Core i7-11800H CPU inside, so it's going to speed through non-gaming tasks as well. The 15.6-inch display is a pleasure to work with and you've got the integrated webcam for your video calls too.

The design of the laptop isn't the most inspired, but that does mean that you can take it into lectures without drawing too much attention to yourself. If you're looking for a powerful all-round laptop that can cope with the best games around, and for a respectable price too, then the MSI Katana GF66 is a model you should be checking out while you're shopping around.

If you’re looking for an affordable laptop then the Acer Swift 1 is worth considering. Not only is it slim and lightweight enough to carry around with you, but it also looks quite sleek in comparison to other laptops at this price with a backlit keyboard and slim bezels around the 14inch display.

It’s not all about looks though - this laptop has a decent quality screen, a fingerprint sensor to keep it secure and the battery life is excellent. You get a lot for your money here. 

While this is a great basic laptop, you do lose out on performance. So if you need it for anything creative like graphic design or photo editing then look elsewhere. But for those that just need a laptop to type out essays and stream Netflix shows, this will be a decent choice. 

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.

It's more expensive than other Chromebooks, but the Pixelbook Go brings premium looks and build quality to Chrome for a fraction of what you'd pay for a similarly impressive PC or Mac thanks to widespread discounting. The touchscreen is superb, the webcam makes you look great and the battery life is stellar, with 8 to 10 hours in mixed use and fast charging support; we described it in our review as "the best Chromebook ever... it is, quite simply, superb".

If you've previously looked at Chromebooks but felt they weren't powerful enough we think the Pixelbook Go may change your mind: although the processor is relatively low-powered compared to, say, Apple's M1, the Chrome OS has been designed to be as lightweight as possible and doesn't need the same amount of horsepower as rival operating systems do. These days Chrome is a very mature and capable operating system.

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.

If you need a laptop that can be used to get productive in the day, and then to stream TV and movies in the evenings then the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 will be a great premium option. 

The 15.6inch FHD (1920 x 1080) screen is great for streaming video, and it can be pushed back by 360-degrees to transform it into a tablet. That opens it up for so many different types of work, be that typing out essays or making quick sketches. The 16:9 aspect ratio won't be for everyone though.

One problem with large-screened portable computers is usually how bulky they are, it makes them difficult to put in your bag to take to class or to the library. That's not an issue here though as this laptop is seriously thin and lightweight considering. It only weighs 1.39kg! 

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.

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.

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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