As T3 notes in its best student laptops buying guide, affordability is key for a lot of learners heading to school, college or university. Very few students have serious cash to flash during their study years, and that's why most systems they end up using systems that cut a corner or two.
The best laptops for design students, though, just as with the best laptops for engineering students, can't cut corners as strong core performance is absolutely crucial to their raison d'être. These laptops need enough power and speed to run demanding graphic design applications such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, as well as Autodesk 3ds Max. That is why the list of laptops here costs a little bit more than most student laptops on the market today.
We've got great graphic design student laptops running both macOS and Windows, too, as well as systems that offer touchscreens, dual-screens and even proper 2-in-1 screens, too. There's a laptop for every design student's needs, including a fantastic budget option, and we feel that with one of these systems in your backpack then everything from taking notes in lectures to honing skills by creating are unlocked.
The best laptops for design students
The best laptop for design students overall is the the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1, 2020). There are many reasons for this, but the foremost among them is the system's superb 13.3-inch LED-backlit Retina display. This panel delivers a 500 nits peak brightness, 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution and, critically for design students involved in graphic design, P3 color gamut support. This is one seriously accurate and vibrant screen.
In terms of hardware spec, Apple's mighty M1 processor handles both CPU and GPU work, and when specced along with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage space delivers a system that is perfect for graphic design of all types. You've got the processing power and speed to handle illustrating, designing, 3D model work, rendering and editing – and that included editing both 4K and 8K video.
On top of all this you've got the now typical first rate Apple fit and finish, super strong and intuitive macOS operating system, and highly portable dimensions. It also comes equipped with Apple's very well received Magic keyboard, which makes typing even at length a pleasure.
The counterpoint to an instant purchase are this model's screen size, which isn't huge at 13 inches. A 16-inch MacBook Pro does exist, though, so providing you can afford the extra spend (which is considerable), then you can get a system with larger screen. For our money, though, the 13-inch is perfect for design students as it delivers a great visual experience without costing a fortune.
As we noted in our Dell XPS 13 (9310) review we found it to be powerful, rocking a great screen, supremely well built, and compact, too – which are all the qualities that make it a great laptop choice for design students.
With the latest 11th-gen Intel processors tucked in laptop's chassis, along with and up to 32GB of RAM and Intel's very capable Iris Xe graphics chip, this is a portable computer that's going to be able to handle every graphic design program going. While a choice of both touch and non-touch 500 nits screens ranging in resolution from FHD+ (1920 x 1200 pixels) to UHD+ (3840 x 2400 pixels) means that any content displayed looks fantastic. Colors are deep and vibrant, while detailing is super sharp. The whole screen is also coated with Corning Gorilla Glass, meaning that it's really tough to scratch or break.
The major caveat to an instant purchase is that the Dell XPS 15 also exists, which not only delivers a larger screen but also adds in the ability to upgrade the GPU to an even more powerful model from Nvidia. There's no doubting that a high-spec XPS 15 outpunches an XPS 13 for graphic design work, but the extra spend required to bag the bigger laptop is considerable, and from our experience the powerful XPS 13 is more than enough for design students.
Which is why we believe the Dell XPS 13 (9310) is the best laptop for design students running Windows on the market in 2021.
If your budget can't stretch to the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (M1 2020) above and you still want a great laptop for design students that doesn't cost as much then the latest Apple MacBook Air (M1 2020) is our choice of system to check out.
The reason for this is that the laptop is powered by the exact same M1 chip that sits in the MacBook Pro, and providing you spec the Air with 16GB of RAM, you get the same level of performance.
The screen is also really crisp, too, with a resolution of 2560x1600, and despite it not being quite as bright as the MacBook Pro's, does deliver a 16:10 aspect ratio, which is ideal for design work.
The obvious drawbacks to the Air is that it can't be specced as high as the Pro, which in its 16-inch form factor comes loaded with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M dedicated graphics card, but considering this system's seriously impressive core functionality, which is easily enough to handle huge files in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, for the budget strapped it's still a great choice.
The Asus ZenBook Duo 14 has a superb party piece that is ideal for design students – it has a second screen that sits just below the main one that can be used to display whatever you like. Just think about that for a second, no matter which graphic design software you're using you have a second screen to display anything you want on with the ZenBook Duo 14. Toolbars, dialog boxes, palettes, brushes, second images, videos – what ever you want you can display it, and Windows treats it just like you had a second screen attached to your system.
Oh, and did we mention that the second screen is also a touch screen? Yep, it is, which opens up digital stylus use, too. Graphic design students eat your heart out!
The ZenBook Duo 14 also has the internal stone to back this dual-screen arrangement up, too, coming loaded at a high spec with an 11th-gen Intel Core i7 CPU, 32GB of RAM, an Intel Iris Xe graphics chip, and 1TB SSD. On certain high-end specs you can even opt for a model that also comes with an Nvidia GeForce MX450 GPU, for even more graphics performance. So, yeah, you've got all the power in the world to run Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Blender and Autodesk 3ds Max.
The obvious caveats to consider with this system include its price, which is higher than most other laptops due to its second screen, and also if you indeed need that second screen. Because if you don't, then you may be better plumping for a single-screen laptop with a touch screen interface. The ZenBook Duo 14, though, is a premium choice for well-heeled design students, and is an easy recommend if you can afford it.
Getting value for money is key to many students, and that means that 2-in-1 systems that offer both laptop and tablet functionality are often a great fit for those going to college or university. For design students, though, things are a little trickier as the specs and performance delivered need to be top shelf, which not many 2-in-1s deliver.
One that does deliver the power and screen performance a design student needs is the Microsoft Surface Book 3, which comes loaded with a properly powerhouse spec. This includes Intel Core i7 CPUs, Nvidia GeForce GPUs, up to 32GB of RAM and up to 1TB of SSD storage space. That combo is more than enough to run even the most demanding graphic design software, and opens up 4K and 8K video editing.
The Microsoft Surface Book 3 comes in two screen sizes, too, and while there's no doubting that the larger 15-inch model does deliver more screen real estate, which is always welcome in design work, the far more affordable 13-inch is T3's top pick for graphic design students. It keeps an expensive system's price remotely affordable, while still delivering the same great core functionality.
Unlike many 2-in-1 systems, too, the Surface Book 3's screen can completely detach from its keyboard base, meaning true slate mode is unlocked. This is great for browsing designs, as well as viewing photos, illustrations and videos. Naturally, it's also really useful for when the student just wants to use their system for some downtime, streaming movies and TV shows from Netflix.
To discover even more about this system check out T3's should I buy the Microsoft Surface Book 3 guide.
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