I review laptops for a living – these 5 are my best picks for college and uni students

At college or uni it's important to have a laptop that can do everything you need – without breaking the bank

Students typing on laptops in class
(Image credit: Bloomberg / Getty Images)

Keep your blackboards, your pens and your paper, as most studying these days just needs one piece of equipment: a laptop. Much like picking your Harry Potter house, however, this is an incredibly important decision that's essential to get right. 

With that in mind, think of me as a kind of sorting hat. I review laptops for a living and my time at university was up only a few years ago, so I feel like I'm extra qualified to help you pick out the best student laptop for you. 

Although there are four Hogwarts houses, I've actually done one better and arranged five different options for you to pick from: whether you're after a budget Chromebook, an affordable MacBook, or one of the best Windows laptops, I've got your wish granted. Here are my top picks for the essential student laptops for going back to class this year.

1. Best Chromebook: Lenovo Chromebook Duet

Lenovo Chromebook Duet

(Image credit: Lenovo)

Chromebooks have come a long way in a short time, to the point where many students swear by them. If you're happy to use the likes of Google Docs instead of Microsoft Office and are on a budget, then a Chromebook makes all kinds of sense.

This model is one of the best Chromebooks out there, and the absolute best option if you're looking for one on a budget (which, let's be honest, all students are). Prices start from just a few hundred (for the entry-level spec), an absurdly low outlay for something you'll use every day, as you can see in the shopping widget embedded below.

Small enough to put in your bag to take to classes, this Chromebook features an impressive battery life for its svelte design – our tests found it could stream a 1080p video for five-and-a-half hours straight. 

That's without mentioning the Duet's party trick: it's a 2-in-1, meaning you can detach the screen from the keyboard and use it as a tablet, too, which is great for Netflix binges or for being the DJ at an impromptu house party. 

Check out our Lenovo Chromebook Duet review.

2. Best Apple laptop: Macbook Air M1 (2020)

MacBook Air 2020

(Image credit: Apple)

If you're an Apple person, the chances are you'll want the best MacBook for your studies. Unfortunately, they are normally rather on the expensive side. Enter the MacBook Air M1 to fill that gap. 

It might be the cheapest Mac, and is a little older than some of the current range, but this is no poor relation. For under its four-figure price you get the classic sleek Mac design, with price point-leading performance. Creatives swear by Macs and macOS, so depending on your course, this might be an essential bit of kit. 

Weighing just 1.29kg, this laptop really does earn its "Air" tag, but if you want the performance lowdown you'll get an eight-core Apple M1 processor, a seven-core Apple GPU, 8GB of integrated RAM and 256GB of storage. Not bad right?

Check out our Apple MacBook Air M1 review.

2. Best all-rounder: HP Pavilion 14

HP Pavilion 14 dv0511sa

(Image credit: HP)

A top all-around pick for students is the HP Pavilion 14. This touchscreen beauty can handle pretty much anything uni/college life throws at you, and won't cost you the earth. It's certainly my pick for an affordable Windows all-rounder.

Lightweight at 1.4kg, it still boasts a lush 14-inch 1080p resolution screen. If you're into the best streaming services, you'll also be impressed by the audio from the dual speakers (Bang & Olufsen, no less) – in fact, you might not even need to buy a Bluetooth speaker with this laptop.

If you're a hardcore Photoshopper then you should upgrade to the Intel Core i5 model or look elsewhere, but otherwise this HP might be your ideal next laptop. With over eight hours of battery life in our testing, this is a solid Windows machine that should be a capable sidekick for years to come. 

Dive into our full HP Pavilion 14 review.

4. Best for gaming: Acer Chromebook 516 GE

Acer Chromebook 516 GE review

(Image credit: Acer)

If you like your gaming and don't want a PS5 or Xbox Series X, then we've got some bad news: most of the best gaming laptops are likely way out of your budget. Unless you plan on not eating for the entirety of your studies, PC gamers should either lug their desktop between classes (I'm kidding) or look at the cheaper end of the market instead. Luckily there are some excellent options. 

I particularly like the Acer Chromebook 516 GE: it's a rare 'gaming Chromebook'. This Acer boasts a glorious 120Hz 1440p 16-inch screen – but still only weighs 1.7kg. It doesn't have all the garish trim of many gaming laptops either, so you won't get any funny looks during class. 

Under the hood, you get an Intel Core i5 processor, Intel Iris Xe graphics and 8GB of RAM. Our reviewer even managed to happily play Cyberpunk 2077 on it (gaming studies anyone?). In terms of battery life, whisper it but this Chromebook outperforms gaming laptops significantly. Expect around seven per charge or four-to-five when gaming. 

Check out our full Acer Chromebook 516 GE review.

5. Best Premium laptop: Dell XPS 15 (9520)

The Dell XPS 15 (9520) laptop computer

(Image credit: Dell)

If you want to spend the money you've saved on a year out, or got an extra juicy student loan, then you might want to check out something at the top-end of the market. The Dell XPS 15 is a five-star machine all day long, and it's perfect for those undertaking courses such as engineering that need a heavy hitter. 

The laptop and charger are heavy, sure, but provided you can lug them to class, you'll not be wanting for performance. With an OLED screen with a 3456 x 2160 resolution, streaming will look crystal clear, while 16GB of DDR5 RAM, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 3050 Ti graphics card and an Intel Core i7 processor, along with two Thunderbolt 4 ports, will render creative work a breeze for you using this Dell. 

You can work for long spells too – with our tests discovering around nine hours of battery life (four-to-five hours when gaming). If you're just looking for a note-taker or casual Netflix machine then I'd say this laptop is way more than you need – but for those who need a powerhouse performer, here you have it!

Interested? Read our Dell XPS 15 review.

Andy Sansom
Staff Writer

Andy is T3's Tech Staff Writer, covering all things technology, including his biggest passions such as gaming, AI, phones, and basically anything cool and expensive he can get his hands on. If he had to save one possession from a fire it would be his PlayStation 5. He previously worked for Tom’s Guide - where he got paid to play with ChatGPT every day. When it comes to streaming, Andy will have his headphones glued in whilst watching something that will make him laugh. He studied Creative Writing at university, but also enjoys supporting his favourite football team (Liverpool), watching F1, teaching himself guitar, and spending time with his dog.