The first computers were introduced at universities, though they were a little different from the svelte laptops we’re looking at today. Those machines were building-sized monstrosities that had punch card inputs and operated as giant glorified calculators.
Today’s computers need to be able to do much more than the primitive number-crunchers of Turing’s day. They need to support a huge range of software, given that several courses have special requirements, as well as the standard office packages – although that said, Google’s Chromebooks and the associated Google Docs suite are extremely good (and free) substitutes.
- Also check out our guide to the best laptops
They need to be able to run HD video lectures without juddering – and a set of good speakers always comes in handy when the university day is done. These machines also can’t break the bank, given the increased cost of schooling all round the world.
Given that, these are our pick of the notebooks currently available, ranging from humble typing machines to top-of-the-line desktop replacements for those hoping for a bit of LAN gaming between all that work...
1. Asus Zenbook UX305
The best value Ultrabook on the market? We think so
CPU: Intel Core M 5Y10 800MHz (dual-core, up to 2GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5300 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 13.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (matt) | Storage: 256GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 1.2MP | Weight: 2.6 pounds | Dimensions: 12.8 x 8.9 x 0.5-inches (W x D x H)
The ZenBook UX305 might have borrowed some of Apple’s style tips, but it’s much more generous than the machine it's copying, with a high-res 13.3-inch screen, large SSD, and good hardware in a solid aluminium case.
It’s also thinner, lighter and (in our purple-aluminium-loving eyes) more attractive. The tinny speakers are the only disappointment, but at least it means you won’t be distracted by movies or music mid-lecture...
2. Acer Chromebook 15
This Chrome OS laptop is an absolute bargain
CPU: Intel Celeron 3205U 1.5GHz (dual-core) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics | RAM: 4GB | Screen: 15.6-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels | Storage: 32GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 720p | Weight: 4.85 pounds | Dimensions: 15.08 x 9.65 x 0.95-inches
It might be twice as heavy as the ZenBook, but the Chromebook 15 from Acer shows that it can make that difference pay – especially as it’s ridiculously cheap. The hardware is in line with that price, with lower specs across the board, but the machine is running Chrome OS, so doesn’t seem to mind. And that screen is an absolute delight. Again, its speakers are poor, with flat treble and weak bass – but at this price, you can afford an iPod as well.
3. Apple MacBook Air 13-inch
The Ultrabook inspiration plods on
CPU: Intel Core i5 1.3GHz (dual-core, up to 2.6GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5000 | RAM: 4GB | Screen: 13.3-inch, 1440 x 900 pixels | Storage: 128GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: FaceTime HD | Weight: 2.96 pounds | Dimensions: 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.68-inches (W x D x H)
The Air may be in severe need of a redesign, like much of Apple’s range, but it’s still the machine that birthed the Ultrabook – slim-line with good core performance from a solid CPU and nippy storage. It’s a pity so much of this machine is second-rate these days – particularly the oddly low-spec screen – but we wouldn’t look anywhere else for reliability and customer support.
Read the full review: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch
4. Dell XPS 15
A portable 15-inch powerhouse
CPU: 2.6GHz Intel Core i7 6700HQ (quad-core, 6MB cache, up to 3.5GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M (with 2GB GDDR5) | RAM: 16GB Dual Channel DDR4 (2,133MHz; 8GB x 2) | Screen: 15.6-inch, 4K Ultra HD (3,840 x 2,160) InfinityEdge touch | Storage: 512GB PCIe SSD
Like its smaller sibling, the XPS 13, Dell’s XPS 15 sports an almost bezel-less InfinityEdge display. 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, 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.
Read the full review: Dell XPS 15
5. HP Spectre x360
Another Spectre that's oddly brilliant
CPU: Intel Core i5 2.2 GHz | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5500 | RAM: 4GB | Screen: 13.3 inches 1920x1080 | Storage: 128GB SSD | Connectivity: 3x USB3 | Camera: HD | Weight: 1.48kg | Dimensions: 12.79 x 8.6 x 0.63 inches
There's something oddly brilliant about HP's Spectre range. Clearly intended to compete with Apple in terms of build quality, but priced just a tiny bit lower to gain some traction with potential buyers. The X360 is another convertible that allows you to fold the screen backwards to create a tablet-style device. This is ideal for Windows 10, although you'll probably not use it much as a tablet because it's still a laptop-weight device.
Read the full review: HP Spectre x360
6. MacBook Pro 13-inch with retina display
A class act
CPU: Intel Core i5 2.7GHz | Graphics: Intel Iris Graphics 6100 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 13.3- inches 2,560 x 1,600 | Storage: 128GB | Connectivity: 2x Thunderbolt 2x USB3 | Camera: FacetimeHD| Weight: 1.58kg | Dimensions: 12.35 x 8.62 x 0.71-inches
If we consider that the Air is essentially an Ultrabook then we can safely ignore it in this roundup and head directly to the Pro. It's a larger, heavier machine but it's also the powerhouse of the range. Starting at £999 it's not bad value when you consider it has 8GB of RAM and an i5 2.7GHz and 128GB SSD.
You'll get 10 hours out of the battery, in the ideal conditions, and the real keyboard makes for a pretty delightful user experience. Oh, and the trackpad - there's simply nothing like it on any PC we've ever used, it's a class act.
If you need Windows 10, that's no problem either, just install with Apple's Boot Camp.
Read the full review: MacBook Pro 13-inch with retina display
7. Dell XPS 13
The most compact Windows laptop
CPU: 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 13.3-inch QHD+ (3,200 x 1,800) | Storage: 256GB SSD
If you’re looking for a Windows laptop, it’s hard to go wrong with the Dell XPS 13. While it’s more expensive than the Asus UX303 — particularly if you go for the QHD+ version — the XPS 13’s InfinityEdge display makes it worth the money. It’s surrounded by a bezel that’s just millimetres thick, lending the 13.3-inch laptop a body that’s closer to 11-inch laptops in size. It gives the XPS 13 excellent portability, and unlike the 12-inch MacBook Dell has done it without sacrificing ports or power. The XPS 13 packs Intel’s latest Skylake processors under the hood, and features both Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.0 ports.
Read the full review: Dell XPS 13
8. Asus ZenBook UX303
A slim and light metalhead
CPU: 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520 | RAM: 12GB (8GB DDR3L 1600MHz SDRAM, on-board memory 4GB | Screen: 13.3-inch IPS FHD (1,920 x 1,080) | Storage: 256GB SSD
Asus has upped the ante with the UX303, which takes everything we loved about the UX305 while adding a premium metal body and Intel’s full-fat Core i-series processors. If it’s power that you seek, the UX303 can be fitted with Intel’s Core i7-6500U, backed up by 8GB of RAM and a capacious 500GB hybrid solid state drive for a useful combination of capacity and speed. There’s the option of a touchscreen or non-touch 1080p display, and Asus reckons you’ll squeeze up to around seven hours of battery life out of the machine. It also wakes from sleep in just two seconds, putting an end to lengthy booting sessions.
9. Apple 12-inch MacBook
The most fashionable laptop around
CPU: 1.1GHz or 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core M processor | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5300 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 12-inch 2,304 x 1,440 pixel-resolution Retina display | Storage: 256GB or 512GB PCIe-based flash storage | Connectivity: USB-C (USB 3.1) | Camera: 480p FaceTime camera | Weight: 0.92 kg | Dimensions: 28.05cm x 19.65cm x 1.31cm (W x D x H)
Apple’s 12-inch MacBook isn’t just the most portable MacBook of them all, you won’t find a more compact laptop with a high-resolution display full stop. Every inch of Apple’s impossibly-thin machine is gorgeous, but it comes at the expense of usability. With just one USB Type-C port, the MacBook requires an adapter if you want to use multiple USB devices - or a combination of peripherals and a display - at the same time. If you don’t mind carrying one around in a case, the MacBook’s surprisingly punchy speakers, good battery life and catwalk looks make it a unique (and fun to use) laptop.
Read the full review: Apple MacBook
10. Lenovo Yoga 900S
Lightweight and beautiful, with a twist
CPU: 1.1GHz Intel Core m5-6Y54 (dual core, 4MB cache, up to 2.7GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 515 | RAM: 4GB LPDDR3 (1600 MHz) | Screen: 12.5-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 FHD IPS LED glossy multi-touch display | Storage: 128GB PCIe SSD
Convertible laptops undoubtedly make better tablets when they’re lightweight. The Yoga 900S is one such machine, weighing in at a svelte 2.2 pounds. What you get then, is a 12.5-inch laptop with a bright and colourful screen that can rotate into several different positions, making it easier to interact with touchscreen apps, do a bit of lightweight gaming or even a spot of reading laid back on the couch. In terms of design, the Yoga 900S borrows the Yoga 3 Pro’s stylish watchband hinge design without charging the jewellery shop price tag. It’s thinner too, while bringing the same pixel-packed 2,560 x 1,440 pixel-resolution display along for the ride.
Read the full review: Lenovo Yoga 900S