Update 14/4/21: Lenovo lands another Chromebook in the best students laptop list with the Flex 5, but Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air M1 is still the laptop to beat in 2021.
Everyone's well and truly back to school and university now in 2021 and while many will have a laptop that can hang in there till next year, there's a heap of affordable and powerful offerings for those that can't.
Take the stress and strain out of choosing a great system for your schooling and university needs with T3's guide to the best laptops for students, which has a 2021 pick for just about every need and budget.
The good news is that retailers are keen to shift laptops to students, and will usually offer a host of tempting deals and discounts to get you to part with your cash, so keep your eyes peeled for the best student discounts on laptops while you shop – you just might end up spending less than you budgeted for.
So whether you're heading off to university, picking up your studies at home, or anything in between, our guide is here to help you find the overall best student laptop and narrow down a device that's perfect for you – one that has the features you need at a price that suits.
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.
Be sure to keep checking back regularly, as we'll be constantly updating this list with newer models and updated information, and we'll also include some clutch buying advice to help you narrow down the ideal learning tool.
What is the best student laptop?
While Apple's MacBook Air is always a popular choice amongst students, the company's new M1 processor puts a super powerful and extremely efficient processor under the hood which will match the performance of any premium laptop. Anyone buying a new Air will get this serious performance bump at no extra cost over last year's devices. So if you want a single recommendation, the MacBook Air (M1, 2020) is our pick for 2021.
If you need a Windows based OS then Dell's XPS 13 gets a performance bump with new intel 11th Gen Intel CPU and Iris Xe integrated graphics. It also comes down in price a little form previous models making it the Windows Based Student Laptop to beat this year.
If your budget is a little tight to include these high-end student offerings then Lenovo's Ideapad Duet Chromebook is a fully kitted out 2-in-1 that comes in at under $600. Ultra portable and powerful enough to run web browsers and office applications with ease this is an awesome device for younger students or those studying on a shoestring.
For more information about the best student laptops in 2020, then read on, but before we get to the main list, let's cover how to choose the best student laptop for you.
How to choose the best student laptop for you
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 often made available to students by the academic institution they're attending and, if not, the Google Docs suite is free for everyone and easy to use for with a Gmail account. If you are partial to Google's online offering Google's Chromebooks are a great lightweight tool for students that can be cheaper than full Windows 10 systems.
Many students will need their laptops 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 especially in our increasingly online context, but these are now included as standard on every laptop. You'd be hard pushed to find a model without one.
Assuming that a student's main workload is based around the web and document processing, this roundup also allows for the odd use of processor-heavy professional applications on some of the more premium systems.
If you have lots of big data-sets to crunch or your studies require you to to work with graphically intensive software, you might want to check out our best ultrabook or best gaming laptops roundups for a slightly more powerful PC.
Given all that, these are our pick of the best student laptops currently available, ranging from humble typing machines to top-of-the-line ultrabooks capable of both work and play.
The best student laptops you can buy today
Of all the M1 devices Apple released in 2020, the MacBook Air is the one that benefits most from the new Apple-built processor. Now on par with the Macbook Pro 13, the MacBook Air is just 23 percent off last year’s Core i9 MacBook Pro 16, which is a little bit ridiculous for a $1600 passively-cooled Ultrabook. It’s also now the record holder for the longest battery life laptop we have on file. At 19 hours and 6 minutes in 1080p movie playback it’s more than double the average current ‘long-lasting’ Ultrabook lifespan here.
If you can afford to drop a couple of hundred extra on the MacBook Pro (M1, 2020) then you'll get a nicer keyboard with a handy Touchbar, better quality speakers and more robust cooling architecture, but other than that the MacBook Air offers an almost identical feature set, for less.
Starting at $1,599 the MacBook Air (M1,2020) scores a 400-nit 2560 by 1600 pixel Retina display with full DCI-P3 HDR colour reproduction, capable of professional-level cinematic colour grading. Because it's also got the same M1 processor as the MacBook Pro it can also handle intensive workloads like rendering and transcoding.
System memory on the new MacBook Airs is integrated into the M1 chip, which means most will be able to get away with just the entry 8GB of RAM. We found 8GB of Apple's Unified Memory was enough to get 86.6 fps on games like Total War Saga: Troy using Low 1680x1050 resolution settings. This system also outperformed the XPS 13 (9310) by 40% in Geekbench 5 multi-threaded CPU tests.
If that wasn't enough the MacBook Air also has a fingerprint reader, a dedicated AI processor, access to iOS and MacOS apps and a new web camera to round out a pretty amazing package.
Dell revises its XPS range frequently and while you're usually forced to pay a premium for the most current XPS units, you can generally grab a good deal on the recently ousted XPS units. Dell’s latest XPS range has a 11th generation CPU, but while the latest 'New' labeled devices start at over AU$2,000, you can pick up an i5/8GB RAM/256GB storage model for AU$1,400 when it's on sale ($1,749 RRP) or an i7/8GB/512GB XPS 13 for the sale price of AU$1,784 ($2,099 RRP).
The new Dell XPS 13 (9310) is a top contender for best Ultrabook for good reason, but savvy students can get this premium unit for a steal by pairing back the optional extras and keeping an eye out for sales.
The XPS 13 (9310) features an all new integrated Iris Xe Graphics processor that is powerful enough for light 1080p gaming on current titles like Metro: Exodus, Sid Myer's Civilisation VI, Total War Saga: Troy and F1 2020. All of these games have playable averages of between 30 and 60fps when using low graphical settings on an i7/16GB RAM XPS 13 (9310), so it'll churn through lighter games like Fortnite and Rocket League.
The 11th-generation Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs also get a slight generational performance bump, which means they are more than capable of efficiently taking on even the more demanding software your school or university course requires.
The 16 by 10, 13.4-inch display can be configured with either a 500 nitt Full HD+ or a 4K HDR screen with a DCI P3 colour gamut. The 4K model has touchscreen capabilities and you can opt for a non-touch variation of the 1080p screen, but all three offer Dolby Vision for HDR media playback.
The Intel Core i5-1135G7 which has an RRP of $2,399 will be more than enough for most student's requirements, but you can upgrade this to an Core i7-1165G7 CPU for $2,899 for the non touch FullHD model. If you want the touch panel it’ll cost an extra $100 while the 4K screen will add $500 to the bill. The i5 variant comes with 8GB of RAM and the i7 model comes with either 16GB or 32GB and can expand the included PCIe SSD storage from 512 GB to 1TB, as long as you’ve already forked out for the upgraded 4K display.
The XPS 13 (9310) is a great update that offers excellent power at a very fair price. As one of the top contenders for our best laptop pick it'll last students for years to come and won't be under-powered if you transition into a workplace in that time.
We were pretty blown away by Lenovo’s Ideapad Duet Chromebook. If you put it up next to a Microsoft Surface Go 2, you’d probably notice that the Chromebook’s keyboard was fractionally harder to type on, the back panel stand made it a little heavier and they run different operating systems, but that’s not a lot when you consider that the Surface Go 2 starts at $629 (or $829 with keyboard) and the Ideapad Duet Chromebook comes with keypad and stand case for $599.
While we definitely prefer the hardware from Microsoft, Chrome OS is a much richer operating system than Windows 10S to use with a lightweight 2-in-1, especially if you already use Gmail or any of the other G Suite apps. That said, the 10.1-inch 1920 x 1200 pixel display looks vibrant and offers a 400nit peak brightness and other than the overly small right hand side keys the keyboard is easy enough to type on and comes with a nicely sized, smooth-to-touch trackpad.
If you’re a tab hoarder, you’ll probably hit the upper limits of the device’s MediaTek P60T 8-core processor and the 4GB of RAM pretty quickly, but anyone who’s happy to keep things to just a handful of tabs on a few desktops shouldn’t really have any issues. Battery life was pretty good too, lasting 5 hours and 31 minutes in gaming benchmarks and 7hours and 45 minutes in 1080p movie playback.
There are a couple of minor setbacks like the single USB Type-C port (it comes with a c-to-3.5mm headphone adapter) and a slow ~100MB/s flash memory at 128GB without the option for microSD card expansion, but at least Google offers 100GB of online storage to new users, which alleviates some of the pain here.
We weren’t expecting Microsoft to release a Go variation of its Surface Laptop range in 2020, or ever really, but we’re certainly glad it did.
The more mid-range Surface Laptop Go has a 12.45-inch touchscreen display and it feels super portable and compact, weighing in at 1.11kg. The resolution isn’t quite FullHD at 1,536 by 1,024 pixels, but it maintains a pixel density of 148 PPI which manages to look surprisingly good when the brightness is cranked up.
Out of the box the Surface Laptop Go comes with the streamlined Windows 10S OS, but the various configurations are all running on an Intel Core i5-1035G1 processor, which is more than capable of handling full-fat Windows 10 Home.
The range starts with models featuring 4GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC storage for $999, but we’d probably recommend upping this to a $1,249, 8GB, 128GB SSD configuration for those looking to do anything more than browser-based work. If you’re reluctant to move to a modern cloud-based workflow then you might want to expand that storage further to 256GB for a total of $1,549, but this unit isn’t the best value of the three.
Testing of the 8GB, 256GB SSD variation revealed that the Surface Laptop Go’s CPU is up to three and a half times faster than Intel Pentium processor on the Surface Go 2, with all benchmarks showing at least 60 percent better performance. Combine this with between 30 and 57 percent better graphical performance and you’ve got a similarly priced product that outperforms other Go devices considerably.
While earlier Surface Laptops have been a little under-powered for anything other than the lightest of workloads, the 2019 Surface Laptop 3 13 manages to balance power and price to be a great solution for students. While Microsoft’s clamshell offering hasn’t come down in price since its launch late last year, the models start at a reasonable AU$1,699 for a Core i5 CPU, 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD configuration, which you can get away with if your school or uni uses the Google or Office 365 online suites.
There’s more than enough power in the entry-level Intel Core i5 configuration, but you have the option to upgrade to an Intel Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage space for AU$2,649.
For those that need some local space there are models with 512GB or 1TB of onboard storage, but the price point on these more spacious units becomes a little too high to still be good value. We’d suggest you only go for the larger capacity units if you’re happy to pay a premium.
The Surface Laptop 3’s screen is vibrant and the unit is capable of 4 hours and 37 minutes of lifespan under heavy workloads, so you should be able to stretch this to a full study day if you’re just doing web browsing and document processing.
Chromebooks are a great alternative to Windows 10 S for anyone looking to get all the functionality of a modern laptop without having to fork out thousands for a premium Ultrabook, and Lenovo seems to be dominating the space locally.
The Lenovo IdeaPad Flex i5 Chromebook is a 13.3-inch convertible laptop that uses Google Chrome OS based on Android 9. While not every app is perfectly optimised for the system – we much prefer to use the browser based Google Docs than the Chrome OS app, for example – it does at least have broad compatibility with anything you can get on the Google Play Store or as a Chrome browser extension.
The OS is built around the GSuite office apps which are a great free alternative to the pricey and less cloud focused Microsoft Office applications. And while the device only offers 128GB of onboard storage, the OS ties in nicely with Google One which costs just $2.49 per month for 100GB of cloud storage. You get a year of cloud storage for free with any Chromebook purchase that can be shared with your smartphone and accessed via any computer with an internet account.
The IdeaPad Flex i5 shares the same Intel Core i5-10210U CPU found on many 2020 Ultrabooks, which gives it more than enough power to run all the browser tabs you want. It’s also got a solid 8GB RAM allocation and a reasonably speedy (863MB/s read) 128GB PCIe SSD. This spec sheet puts it on par with many Ultrabooks and it’s almost identical to the Asus Chromebook Flip C436F which retails for $1,799.
When you consider the IdeaPad Flex i5 Chromebook’s got a larger screen and more than double the CPU processing power of a similarly priced Surface Go 2, it makes a pretty compelling argument for why you’d switch to Chrome OS.
It can manage seven hours and eight minutes in 1080p battery life tests and the Intel UHD Graphics provide plenty of overhead for running the wide range of Android games available to it.
The backlit keyboard is nicely spaced and is comfortable to type on for long periods and the trackpad is also suitably smooth and easy to use. Google has done a good job of translating many of the trackpad gestures you’ll get on Windows and Mac to the Chromebooks so you won’t feel like you’re missing out on any productivity perks.
It’s also got a nice selection of interface options including two USB C sockets, one USB Type-A socket, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microSD card reader, which you can use for budget friendly storage expansion down the track, if you need it.
If you're a student and need a system that handles lightweight computing tasks, can be carried around easily, and will transform into a tablet for entertainment and creative sessions, then the Microsoft Surface Go 2 is an excellent option – especially so if you're shopping on a particularly tight budget.
The most affordable Surface Go 2 you can grab locally starts at $598 and comes with an Intel Pentium 4425Y processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage, which is an offering that seriously competes with some of the best Chromebooks available. While this model only offers Wi-Fi networking and doesn’t carry a heap of space, the Surface Go 2 does feature a MicroSD card expansion slot, to allow you to add cost effective storage as you see fit.
The next tier up doubles the RAM and storage allocations for a total of $879. This clearly moves the device out of the budget Chromebook-like space, but we’d recommend considering it if you intend to update to Windows 10 Home from the device’s stock Windows 10 S OS, since it has that extra processing headroom for full Windows software and some additional space for all the non-Microsoft Store apps you’ll have access to.
The last variation comes with an 8th generation Intel Core m3 processor, a CPU that was once used to power the Surface Pro lineup. Backing this up is the same 8/128GB RAM storage combo from the more powerful Wi-Fi offering, but the most important distinction here is that the Core m3 model comes with 4G LTE connectivity so you can access the internet from anywhere through a mobile data plan. This powerful configuration lands at a more expensive $1,199, which is on par with the entry level Surface Pro 7s, but when you have to fork out a few hundred dollars more for comparable constantly-connected professional 2-in-1s like the Galaxy Book S, it is a actually a really competitive offering.
It ticks all the boxes for one of the best student laptops in 2020 and the versatility of the Surface Go's form factor really makes it stand out. You've got a choice of configurations to pick from to balance power and price.
The kogan Atlas 11.6” 2-in-1 was by far the most affordable laptop of the roundup, so you have to be willing to give it a few concessions on this basis alone. The most noticeable of them is that while it isn’t the most compact keyboard of the roundup it does feel like it thanks to an awkwardly small spacebar that sits too far to the left. There’s also an obvious flex in the soft plastic chassis and sharp edges that’ll press on your hands , particularly on the left since the keyboard skews that way. The hinges have an unnaturally tough feel to them and the power cable is a thin pinhole connection with a large base that looks more like something that powers an electric shaver.
The 11.6-inch touchscreen offers FullHD resolution and is bright enough to be easy to work on although the viewing angle isn’t great and you do get a lot of glare from the glossy screen finish.
Rather than shipping with Windows 10 S as seen on some of it’s siblings the Atlas 11.6” C500 Convertible Laptop actually comes with a full Windows 10 Pro OS, which is pretty amazing when you consider that this OS retails for an RRP of $339 — i.e. more than the cost of this laptop.
The Atlas C500 had faster flash memory than the Lenovo Ideapad Duet Chromebook at over 200MB/s for both read and write speeds and while the 27Wh battery life isn’t exactly great, it's enough to get half a day's work done before you need to charge.
If you like the HP brand but want to spend a little bit more than the Pavillion, the HP Envy x360 might be for you. It manages to marry some decent specs with some very nice 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 its bright, crisp 13.3-inch screen. Definitely one for your best student laptops shortlist.
The ThinkBook 14 is a little thicker than what you get from premium ultrabooks, but if you’re willing to carry around that little extra bulk you can get a lot more for your money.
If you are a student that needs extra processing power, but you don’t have the cash to splurge on one of the more premium devices above, you can get a ThinkBook 14s with an Intel Core i5-10210U CPU, 8GB of RAM and a speedy 256GB PCIe SSD for an RRP of AU$1,487.
Meanwhile, the Core i7 variant with 16GB of RAM is priced by Lenovo at AU$2,089, but we’ve seen it a few hundred dollars cheaper through third party vendors.
In terms of battery life, the ThinkBook 14 managed to last over 11 hours and 15 minutes in 1080p movie playback tests, but the CPU runs at a higher base clock rate than some competitors so for intensive applications it’ll only last around three and a half hours.
Part of the reason the ThinkBook 14’s 45Wh battery lasts so long in media playback is because the Full HD screen is really dull, but at 100% brightness it’s just enough to get you through your study quota.
Lead image credit: Getty