The 6 best laptops for college in 2022

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When students start a college course or are going back to school, these days, pen and paper aren’t the only tools they need for modern education.

Hardcover books, photocopies, handwritten assignments, and in-person courses are now often replaced or supplemented with e-books, distance learning platforms, virtual classes on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and collaboration over mobile apps — all of which increases a student’s reliance on laptops, smartphones, and tablets to work successfully both on campus and at home.  

Also: The 6 best Macs

The best laptop for school now needs to go beyond what we may have expected pre-pandemic. When purchasing a new device, there are more factors to consider: it has to be reliable and ready for everyday use, may need to be used in real-time video calls, and might have to be suitable for resource-hungry programs.

Below, ZDNET has compiled a selection of the best laptops for students with these requirements in mind. 

pros

  • Super lightweight
  • Affordable for students
  • Has Apple’s M2 chip
cons

  • Not as powerful as the MacBook Pro

Specifications: Display: 13.6-inch | Apple M2 chip | Memory: 8 to 24GB | Storage: 512GB to 2TB SSD | Retina display with True Tone | Two Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports | Webcam: 1080p | Colors: Midnight, Starlight, Space Grey, Silver | Custom options available

As ZDNet has previously recommended in our remote student gadgets roundup, Apple’s MacBook Air is a more lightweight macOS option which could be an excellent option for students that need a machine powerful enough to manage videoconferencing and remote study applications, but also weighs less than your average hardcover book.

The difference? A MacBook Air has been designed to be lighter and thinner than the MacBook Pro and while you may sacrifice some of the more powerful tech specs available as a trade-off, the Air is a more affordable option for students and will last throughout their studies. 

A $100 discount is available in Apple’s education store.

macbook-air
Amazon

pros

  • Packs a lot of power and features
  • Great for creative applications like Adobe
  • Has Apple’s new M2 chip
cons

  • Expensive option for students

Specifications: Display: 13, 15, and 16 inch | Processor: Apple M2 | Memory: 8GB to 24GB | Storage: 256GB to 2TB SSD | Webcam: 720p | Colors: Silver, Space Gray | Custom options available

MacBook Pros are a common sight on college campuses. They are expensive — especially, arguably, given the specifications on offer — but they are solid, quick workhorses that will last throughout a college career. They are especially popular for creative applications, but you may find the device overheating if you are running power-heavy games. 

The 13-inch model is most suitable for college students as it is a powerful machine but still small enough to travel with and to fit on pull-out tables in lecture halls. 

You can take advantage of a $100 discount in Apple’s education store. 

apple-macbook-pro
Apple

pros

  • Tablet or laptop use
  • Great battery
  • Up to 256GB storage
cons

  • Can only install apps from Microsoft Store in Windows 10 S mode

Specifications: Display: 10.5-inch, touchscreen | Processor: Intel Pentium Gold or 10th-gen i3 | Memory: 4GB or 8GB | Storage: eMMC drive: 64GB, up to 128GB SSD | Intel Graphics | Webcam: 5MP/8MP HD | Colors: Platinum, Black | Custom options available, including LTE

A hybrid laptop option focused on mobility is Microsoft’s Surface Go 3. Starting at $399.99, the device is made up of a detachable 10.5-inch PixelSense touchscreen display, keyboard, kickstand, and stylus. With an estimated battery life of up to 11 hours, the Windows-based device can be used as a traditional laptop or a standalone tablet and weighs only 1.2 pounds.

The Surface Go 3 runs on Windows 11 Home and comes with Windows Hello biometric security, as well as both a 5MP front-facing camera and an 8MP rear-facing camera, which is adequate for virtual classes on the go. This device should be considered useful not just for a college career but also for when a student enters the workforce.  

microsoft-surface-go-3
Microsoft

pros

  • Secure fingerprint reader
  • Long battery life
  • Comfortable keyboard
cons

  • Webcam resolution could be better

Specifications: Display: 14-inch | Intel Core 11th-gen i5 | 8GB RAM | 256GB SSD | Intel Iris Xe Graphics | Webcam: IR & 720p HD with HPD | Windows 10 Pro 64 | Fingerprint reader  | Custom options available

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 is one of the more heavy-duty options we recommend specifically for college students — especially for those that require hefty processing power, creative apps, and gaming. 

This laptop is also an option for users who want a rugged laptop as Lenovo tests out the ThinkPad line against a variety of different environmental conditions.

When it comes to security, this laptop contains a fingerprint reader and ThinkShield technology.

With a huge host of ports, battery life of at least 15 hours, an anti-glare screen, and rapid charge technology, this versatile laptop will not only be a valuable addition to any dorm room, but is also excellent for leisure, whether this is streaming or gaming. Useful key sub-functions are available for making calls over videoconferencing platforms, too. 

lenovo-thinkpad-x1-carbon-gen-9
Amazon | Getty

pros

  • Stylish color options
  • Super long battery life
  • PixelSense touchscreen display
cons

  • Not as many ports as other options

Specifications: Display: 13.5/15-inch, touchscreen | Processor: AMD Ryzen 5/7 to Intel Core i7 | Memory: 8GB,16GB, or 32GB | Storage: 128GB to 1TB SSD | Webcam: 720p HD, Windows Hello biometrics | BitLocker support | Colors: Black, Platinum, Sandstone, Metal, Cobalt  | Custom options available

For students who prefer the Windows 10 Home operating system and need power for high-end applications, whether for work or play, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is an excellent choice,

Available in 13.5 and 15-inch PixelSense touchscreen options, the laptop is light enough to carry around on campus and is also compatible with a stylus. Users can expect 16.5 hours or more of battery life, depending on usage. 

microsoft-surface-laptop-4
CNET

pros

  • Inexpensive laptop
  • Small and portable
  • Quality build
cons

  • No 5G
  • Disappointing speakers

Specifications: 11-inch display | Chrome OS | Qualcomm Snapdragon 7c processor | Qualcomm Adreno 618 Graphics | 4GB RAM | 64GB SSD storage | 1 microSD media card reader | 5mp/8mp cameras | Up to 11 hours battery life

As part of HP’s back-to-school sale, the HP Chromebook x2 is a laptop to consider if you are on a budget. With a saving of $210, this device operates on Chrome OS and is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon mobile processor, Adreno Graphics, and comes with a reasonable 4GB memory and 64GB SSD storage. 

In addition, this device contains a fingerprint reader for biometric security. 

hp-chromebook-x2
HP

The Apple MacBook Air is the best college laptop or going back to school due to its longevity, great portability, and sleek design. However, you get the best out of the device by going beyond its default specifications.

Laptop for college

Budget-friendly?

High-spec?

Operating system

Price

Apple Macbook Air

Reasonable

Reasonable

MacOS

$999

Apple Macbook Pro

X

MacOS

$1299

Microsoft Surface Go 3

X

Windows

$399

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

X

Windows

$1465

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

Windows

$799

HP Chromebook x2

X

Chrome OS

$370

When you are deciding on a new college laptop or remote study, you first need to ascertain its main purpose: purely for essay writing? A one-stop-shop for study and entertainment? A workhorse for power-hungry design programs?

While Macs — at least, iMacs — are generally associated with powerful design programs, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops are sturdy machines for work and play, whereas Chromebooks are typically suitable for general tasks.

If a laptop is only for writing, surfing the internet, and checking email, the more budget-friendly options on our list will be suitable and should last through a college career.

Studies don’t last forever, though, and so if you’re willing to invest a little extra into a machine that is more future-proof and will last you years to come, you should consider one of the laptops in our guide that sport higher specifications, such as high RAM and modern graphics cards.

Choose this laptop for college…

If you need…

Apple Macbook Air

A portable, light, and steady workhorse

Apple Macbook Pro

A macOS machine with higher specs

Microsoft Surface Go 3

A 2-in-1, versatile study PC

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

A powerful, rugged machine

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

A future-proof Windows laptop

HP Chromebook x2

A budget-friendly option

Going to college is an expensive endeavor and can even be more so when the course taken is a STEM or design qualification — but for many students, simply a reliable, robust device for research and writing trumps spending a fortune on unnecessarily powerful specifications. We’ve leaned upon our years of reviews and tests to make sure we have a range of requirements covered. 

While premium — and more expensive — Chromebooks are available, these lightweight models are generally considered more budget-friendly alternatives to traditional Windows or macOS devices. 

Chromebooks operate on Google’s Chrome operating system (OS) and are focused on mobile apps rather than traditional software. These laptops are used for basic browsing, studies, and entertainment, but if you have a particular software requirement, you must check for available support before you invest in a Chromebook. However, it is also possible to also use virtualization software (VMs) to circumvent such limitations. 

As software continues to evolve and become more sophisticated, more resources are demanded. A processor manages the input/output of your laptop’s circuits and generally speaking, the more high-end the processor, the more efficiently your device will run. This can be crucial when you are running software that requires high levels of processing power. 

Memory, or random-access memory (RAM), is short-term storage that ‘remembers’ what activities are happening on a laptop. The more memory, the more responsive a device will be and the more a laptop can handle before risking lags, slowness, or response delays.  

The level of storage you need depends on the tasks you intend your laptop for. Aside from software, which can take up gigabytes in space, storage is needed for files including media — such as television shows or films — music, photos, and documents. 

Traditional hard drives (HDD) are slowly being phased out in preference for solid state drives (SSDs), which are flash-based, use less energy, and are significantly faster. However, they are also usually more expensive. Alternatively, eMMC storage cards, usually found in Chromebooks, are an embedded form of storage suitable for these light devices due to the hardware’s tiny size.

While we’ve done our best to showcase great back-to-school and college laptops, we can’t highlight every great product on the market. Also consider the options below: