Back to school 2019: top-rated student laptops for both work and play

Make sure you're getting the best bang for your buck with our handy back to school laptop guide for students

best laptops for students 2019 back to school
(Image credit: Future plc.)

T3's experts have put together a guide of the best laptops for students available in 2019 from Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and others all so selecting the right laptop for school, college or university is as easy and a straightforward as possible. 

That's because here we've condensed down those choices into the five systems that we feel cover the vast majority of usage scenarios and budgets in 2019.

And the good news is that there has never been a better time to get into the laptop market than right now, with manufacturers falling over themselves to add the best screens, powerful internals, awesome battery life, and utilise exciting form factors. The choices listed below – from the brand new MacBook Air to the Surface Pro – offer all of these things are more.

We've tried to include a range of different options based on the preferences of students, including three different operating systems – macOS, Windows, and Chrome OS – form factors, screen sizes, and price points. 

If what you're looking for is more specialist, then be sure to also check out T3's best laptops, best cheap laptops, best lightweight laptops, best 2-in-laptops and best gaming laptops guides.

MacBook Air 2019 back to school 2019

It's hard to beat Apple's recently-updated MacBook Air.

(Image credit: Apple)

1. MacBook Air (2019)

Apple's cheapest new laptop will serve all your student-y needs perfectly

Specifications
CPU: 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 617
RAM: 8GB LPDDR3
Screen: 13.3-inch Retina 2560x1600 resolution LED
Storage: 128GB/256GB
Connectivity: 2x USB-C, 3.5mm jack
Reasons to buy
+Recently updated with better specs+Amazing screen and trackpad+macOS is easy to use

Until recently, recommending the MacBook Air wouldn't have been a smart call. It had an old screen, older processors, and a somewhat outdated design. Luckily, Apple heard these complaints and introduced a refreshed version earlier this year, alongside updated MacBook Pros, that takes much of the magic from its larger (Pro) and smaller (12-inch) MacBooks, rolling it up into the perfect student package.

So, what's new? The main thing is the display, which remains the same 13.3-inch size but is now Retina with some added magic. Touch ID has also been added, letting users log-in and/or buy things with just a fingerprint. The keyboard too has been given a refresh, using Apple's latest technology that it says fixes some of the reliability issues. Oh, and there's more power here, too.

Unlike the more expensive Pro range, the Air is actually quite reasonably priced, too. Although it comes with 128GB of storage as standard – on the low end of acceptability in 2019 – it will only set you back around £1,099, not counting the generous discounts Apple offers to students.

Dell XPS 13 back to school student laptop

The best Dell has to offer is a really good choice for students.

(Image credit: Dell)

2. Dell XPS 13

A great screen, trackpad, and battery make this one special laptop.

Specifications
CPU: 8th-gen Intel Core i5, up to i7
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 620
RAM: 8GB/16GB LPDDR3
Screen: 13.3-inch 1920x1080 resolution
Storage: 256/512GB
Connectivity: 2x Thunderbolt, 1x USB-C, 3.5mm jack, microSD
Reasons to buy
+Big, beautiful 4K display +Really powerful +Great battery

For those who want MacBook-level hardware but can't abide macOS – which is totally fair enough – Dell have created one of the most compelling Windows laptops around, the XPS 13. The non-touchscreen version (which clocks in at about £1,200) has all of the core components you want from a laptop: a great touchpad and keyboard (tick), amazing screen (tick), and superb battery life (tick). 

We recommend you go for the i7 non-touch model out of the four available for several reasons, the main one being that it's the cheapest one and, as a student, this is important (or, at least, it's important to your parents). Having a touchscreen is neat, but in all of our tests, we've always found that it becomes tiresome after a while, especially for laptops that don't covert into tablets.

It really is hard to do better than Dell's XPS offering which, rather incredibly for a Windows laptop (and we say this with a deep appreciation for Windows machines), even manages to have a good trackpad and keyboard in our testing. These factors, combined with the price, make this a strong contender for currently and future students. 

back to school 2019 Microsoft Surface Pro 6

It's hard to beat Microsoft's latest and greatest Surface Pro.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

3. Microsoft Surface Pro 6

Microsoft shows everyone else how it's done.

Specifications
CPU: 8th-gen Intel Core i5, up to i7
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 620
RAM: 8GB/16GB LPDDR3
Screen: 12.3″ PixelSense (2736×1824) Touchscreen
Storage: 128/256/512GB
Connectivity: 1x USB 3, Surface Connect port, 3.5mm jack, microSD, miniDisplay
Reasons to buy
+Amazing hardware and clever design+2-in-1 form factor+Great performance

It's best to think about the Surface Pro 6, launched in October last year, as a laptop that also happens to have a kickstand and touchscreen. Unlike the iPad Pro, most likely its closest competitor, the Surface can run fully-fledged desktop apps, thanks to Windows 10, whilst also flipping seamlessly into tablet mode for late night Netflix (a staple of student life). 

Anyone who wants Apple-quality hardware will be pleased by Microsoft's efforts here, which have been lauded by almost every one who touches a Surface device. The screen, especially, is fantastic; not the biggest, but it has loads of pixels and clever behind-the-scenes tech that makes them look great. 

While some may prefer a more traditional laptop, the Microsoft-made Surface keyboard cover and additional pen are great additions that really make it feel like the full thing. If you're looking to write a long Word document, or create an Excel spreadsheet, look no further than the Surface Pro. The only slight downside is the extra cost for the funky form fact and accessories, but Microsoft handily offers some sizeable student discounts.

Acer Chromebook 15

The only, and best, Chromebook on this list. 

(Image credit: Acer)

4. Acer Chromebook 15

The cheapest laptop on the list by far, if you can handle Chrome OS.

Specifications
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
Reasons to buy
+Very affordable+Sleek and light

The Acer Chromebook 15 is an interesting addition to the list because it represents a compromise position between price – it costs just £250 – and the implicit tradeoffs associated with Chrome OS, the laptop-ready offering from Google that's based almost entirely around the Chrome browser.

In our testing, Chrome OS has its strengths and weaknesses: working on simple documents is made easy to Google's G Suite apps (Docs, for example, is just as good as Word) and the overall experience is very simple. The downside, however, is that more complex tasks can feel slow, with some – like intensive gaming or video editing – basically becoming impossible.

But this really depends on what you want the laptop for. If you'll be using it for taking notes in class, writing a few essays, surfing the web, and watching Netflix, it's hard to beat Acer's very solid offering, especially for that price.

back to school 2019 laptops

The ZenBook 13 is widely considered to be one of the best. 

(Image credit: Asus)

5. Asus ZenBook 13 (UX333FA)

With a great display and price, you'd be hard pushed to do better.

Specifications
CPU: 8th-generation Intel Core i3, i5, and i7
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 620
RAM: 8GB:
Screen: 13.3” LED-backlit FHD (1920 x 1080)
Storage: 256/512GB
Connectivity: 1x USB-A, 1x USB-C, 1x USB 2, HDMI, microSD
Reasons to buy
+Top screen+Various specs available

Like the Dell XPS 13, the Asus ZenBook 13 offers almost everything you could possibly need: 10+ hours of battery life, enough power to chomp through most tasks, a lovely screen, and good keyboard. It doesn't really get much better if you're in the market for a powerful and light Windows machine for uni.

We recommend the slightly more specced up model – the UX333FA – which comes with an i5 chip, 256GB of SSD storage, and 8GB, all of which will be plenty for most tasks. While the base-tier model will do, it's always best to future proof laptops so they last longer than a couple of years.

It's worth returning to the central selling point of the ZenBook 13: battery life. Having the ability to go for over 10 hours is very impressive and is also perfect for any students that find themselves holed up in an awkward, plug-less spot in the library ahead of a  tough deadline. Coincidentally, it also happens to be great for aimlessly surfing the internet rather than doing work.