The Best Laptop for College in 2020: Could It Be a Tablet?
By Crystal Lee
| Last Updated December 22, 2020
Choosing the best laptop for college gets trickier every year. As technology changes and computer manufacturers develop new ways to help students work effectively, the dizzying array of options can be overwhelming. With all the new devices that are available, it can be a challenge to figure out which is the best laptop for college students in 2020.
Before you part with your hard-earned cash, you need to consider your options carefully. First of all, do you need a laptop for college? Maybe what you're really after is the best tablet for college students. Or even the best 2-in-1 laptop. It all depends on your individual needs.
The first step in choosing any computer is figuring out how you will be using it. Will you mainly be doing online research and in-class note taking, or do you expect to be building multimedia projects and streaming movies? Does it have to be portable, or will it stay in your dorm room? How much battery life do you need? Is a full-size keyboard important to you?
If you know which school you will attend and what program you will take, some of these questions may already be answered for you. Many programs have specific hardware or operating system requirements for student devices, so be sure to check. Some majors allow tablets; others require laptops. Sometimes a tablet that goes to and from class can supplement a stay-at-home laptop; sometimes a 2-in-1 can do the job.
Ultimately, the best device is the one that works best for you. The information in the following sections can help you figure out what that might be.
- Laptops vs. tablets vs. 2-in-1s
- 8 things to look for in a device
- 5 common technology buying mistakes
- The best devices for:
- How to find discounts on laptops or tablets for college
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Laptops vs. Tablets vs. 2-in-1s
It's no secret that college students love their technology. In one survey, 53 percent of college students said they could go no more than 10 minutes without using some form of digital technology on a typical school day. But in order to choose the best device, you need to understand the basic types.
Laptops come with physical keyboards and generally have larger screens and more storage space than tablets. They are typically more powerful than tablets, which means they're better at handling processing-intensive programs like Photoshop. They are also better suited for multitasking because of the relative ease of having more than one window open at the same time. And they are extremely popular in college classrooms: In a 2017 survey, 88 percent of college students owned laptops, and 82 percent of those students used a laptop to complete homework assignments.
Tablets are lighter and thinner than laptops and are thus much more portable. Their smaller size and lack of attached keyboard means they're well-suited for tasks like surfing the web and reading e-books. Tablets tend to have longer battery life than laptops, and many can be paired with wireless keyboards or styluses, adding to their usability. However, they usually cost more than laptops. And college students don't seem to rely on them as much: In the 2017 survey noted above, 56 percent of students owned a tablet, but only about 20 percent of students used a tablet for academic purposes.
You get a bit of both worlds with 2-in-1 computers, also known as hybrids. They have touchscreens like tablets and physical keyboards like laptops; depending on the model, the keyboard either folds out of sight behind the screen or detaches entirely. Some hybrids have processing power that rivals traditional laptops, though most have less storage capacity than traditional models. And convertible hybrids (where the keyboard remains attached but folds away) tend to be bulkier and heavier than a traditional tablet.
8 Things to Look For in a Device
It's easy to get lost in the descriptions of each computing device without really knowing what you're buying or what you actually need. This section can help you sort through the jargon around different features and focus on what really matters to you.
A laptop with a larger screen is easier to work with, but heavier to carry around. On the other hand, a tablet that fits in your pocket might be frustratingly small when it comes to typing notes. Generally speaking, a screen that's larger than 15 inches is too big to be portable. You'll have to decide how small is too small to use comfortably, but if you plan to use a tablet as a laptop replacement, get at least a nine-inch screen.
Your choice of major may dictate your screen size—for instance, engineering students who need a CAD workstation will need a laptop with a larger screen. Remember that weight is also a factor: Tablets are usually fairly light, but if you're going with a laptop, try to find one that weighs four pounds or less.
The higher the screen resolution, the more detailed text and graphics will be. Most students will want a display that's at least 1920 x 1080 resolution (also known as "full HD," or 1080p), though some schools say 1600 x 900 is good enough. Film students or others who need to view high-resolution graphics might want to go with 3840 x 2160 (also known as 4K or UHD), but these types of screens cost more and are a bigger drain on the battery. If you plan to use your device to play games or watch movies, check that the display has a refresh rate of at least 60Hz for a smoother viewing experience.
Most new laptops come with eighth-generation quad-core Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors. The more expensive Core i7 can speed things up a touch if you're doing video editing or 3D rendering, but it won't make much difference to web browsing or word processing.
For most students, the Core i5 processor is a good choice. Core i7 makes sense for students who will regularly run extremely demanding software, such as Adobe's Creative Suite. In general, Core i7 is better for multimedia consumption, high-end gaming, and scientific work.
The Core i9 processor is available on a few laptops. But for most students, it's not necessary to spend the extra money.
Random access memory (RAM) is temporary memory that allows information to be stored and retrieved on a computer. More RAM doesn't necessarily mean your programs will run faster; it does mean you can run more programs at the same time. For laptops, you will generally need at least 4GB of RAM to work comfortably, though most schools prefer 8GB. Some majors that require heavy-duty multitasking require 16GB of RAM.
Some laptops allow you to add more RAM fairly cheaply and easily, so you might be able to upgrade an older machine. Other laptops have sealed bottoms or memory that's soldered right onto the motherboard, so upgrading the RAM is not an option.
RAM isn't as big a deal for tablets because of how they manage memory, but most come with anywhere from 1GB to 4GB of RAM. Hybrids and convertible tablets typically offer more, sometimes up to 16GB.
The internal memory is where your applications, documents, and media files live. Laptops use either a hard disk drive (HDD) or a solid-state drive (SSD). An HDD is a spinning metal platter with a magnetic coating that stores your data, while an SSD stores data on interconnected flash memory chips.
An SSD runs up to five times faster than a typical 5,400-rpm or 7,200-rpm HDD, which makes a huge difference to both start-up time and performance. Because it has no moving parts, an SSD is both more durable and much quieter than an HDD. An SSD also uses less power, which makes for better battery life. However, an SSD costs a lot more and offers less storage capacity. Laptops that come with an SSD normally have only 128GB or 256GB of storage, whereas a 1TB HDD is not uncommon (and is usually much cheaper).
Many laptops come with USB ports that allow you to connect an external drive for more storage. In fact, many colleges require students to have an external drive that's at least as large as the internal drive in order to back up data.
Tablets use flash memory for internal storage. Tablets with microSD card slots allow for expanded memory capacity, and those with USB ports can connect to flash memory sticks or external hard drives.
Keep in mind that cloud storage is an option for both tablets and laptops (and is the primary storage method on Chromebooks). You'll need Wi-Fi access to retrieve your files, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem on campus.
Depending on what you plan to do with your device, you may want to make sure it has some or all of the following ports:
- An HDMI or mini HDMI port lets you connect your device to TVs or other monitors.
- A microSD card slot can be handy if your device has limited internal storage.
- An SD card slot allows you to transfer photos from a DSLR camera to your laptop or tablet.
- USB ports let you connect with a wide range of peripherals, from keyboards and mice to printers and external hard drives. Multiple USB ports can be useful (for instance, if you don't have a built-in SD card slot, you can use a USB port to connect to an external card reader), but some would argue that they are less important in a world of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
A note about USB: The standard USB port is USB-A, though the computing world is moving toward the newer USB-C standard. A USB-C port is much thinner and can therefore fit on ultraslim devices; it also offers faster transfer speeds than its predecessors and can even be used for charging laptops. (Thunderbolt 3 ports, which can transfer multiple types of data at four times the speed of USB-C, use USB-C connections and cables.) The catch is that many peripherals still use USB-A connections, so you'll need an adapter to use them with a USB-C port.
7. Operating system
Some academic programs prefer a Windows-based machine, some require students to use a Mac, and some leave it entirely up to you. If you're free to choose, you have a number of options.
Windows 10 is the most versatile operating system. It has millions of applications and supports both touchscreen and desktop mode. Windows machines are generally more affordable than Macs (prices range from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars) and come in a wide variety of styles, from traditional laptops to tablets to 2-in-1s.
MacBooks run Apple's macOS operating system; iPads use Apple's iOS. These machines generally cost more than their Windows counterparts (a new MacBook Pro starts at $1,299), but they offer a powerful partnership of hardware and software, and they are less prone to malicious software. MacBooks can also run Windows via the Boot Camp utility, though you'll have to buy Windows separately. iPads can be paired with wireless keyboards, and iPad Pros can also be matched with styluses, meaning they can function as 2-in-1s.
Chromebooks are lightweight laptops that run Google's Chrome OS and are designed to be used while connected to the Internet. Chromebooks are cheap and easy to use (especially if you're already familiar with Google's suite of applications), and they offer exceptional battery life. Some new models even run Android apps. Keep in mind that many Chromebook apps won't work without Wi-Fi, and you won't be able to run full-featured versions of popular programs like Microsoft Office. (However, you can use programs such as Microsoft Word or Excel on many Chromebooks if you install a corresponding Office app on your Chromebook and you have a Microsoft account or Office 365 subscription.) But if your studying takes place online and doesn't require you to use any Windows or Mac applications, a Chromebook might be a good option.
Android is Google's mobile operating system, but there is no uniform version of it. Many companies customize Android for different tablets, meaning you have plenty of hardware options. Make sure the tablet you choose has the version of Android that offers the features you want.
8. Battery life
If you plan to carry your device around campus with you, a long-lasting battery is important. Laptops that offer optional extended batteries can be a good option. Some laptops have power-saving features that let them go 10 hours or more on a single charge, though anything over eight hours is good.
Many tablets can go all day without recharging; don't settle for one that offers less than seven hours of battery life.
5 Common Technology Buying Mistakes
Buying a new laptop or tablet can be a complicated undertaking, so it's no surprise that many people make judgment errors during the shopping process that result in them being unsatisfied with their purchase. Being aware of the most common mistakes can help you avoid falling into that trap. Here are five of the most common errors people make when buying new devices:
1. Buying cheap
Everyone likes to save money, but when it comes to tech shopping, the cheapest option is not always the best one. That's not to say that a $200 device won't suit your needs, but you need to be aware of exactly what you're getting. Cheap devices are more likely to have underpowered processors, lackluster battery life, or some other trade-off that limits their usefulness. If you know you're going to be editing film projects or creating detailed graphic designs, don't go for the bargain bin. Make sure you choose a device that can handle whatever you want to throw at it.
2. Paying for more than is needed
Be wary of buying cheap, but be equally wary of paying for features you will never use. New does not necessarily mean better. Most students (i.e. anyone majoring in areas like English, political science, or history) don't need expensive graphics cards or hybrids with detachable touchscreens, for instance. If you are a hard-core gamer or you need to run demanding software, then yes, you might need the latest and greatest technology, and you can expect to fork out some serious cash. But shop around and watch for sales before you commit to a major purchase.
3. Forgetting about connectivity
Are you a photography student who needs to download digital images onto your device? You might want one with an SD card slot. Do you need to share presentations with your class? An HDMI port might come in handy. Are you looking to sync your laptop or tablet with your phone? You might want the same operating system across all your devices. Think about the peripherals and the functions you might want to have later on before making your final decision about a device.
4. Focusing on only one spec
Sometimes people get so focused on one particular aspect of a device that they fail to consider its other characteristics. A laptop that includes 1TB of storage space sounds great, but it might not help you if it comes with an outdated processor or sub-standard graphics capabilities. You need to look at the overall picture to make sure the device you choose will meet your needs.
5. Not futureproofing
There's a balancing act between meeting your present needs and being prepared for what's coming in the next few years. Many colleges have minimum and preferred requirements; if your budget allows it, the preferred specs might be the way to go. There's a reason many colleges require you to buy the extended warranty on your laptop or tablet: You don't want a machine that will crap out on you after only two years.
The Best Devices for Most College Students
The best laptop for college will be the one that meets your needs and fits your budget. First and foremost, you'll want to make sure you choose a device that satisfies your college's requirements, so definitely do your research. Some tablets can be full laptop replacements; other tablets function well as portable supplements to laptops that stay in your dorm room. Depending on your needs (and your budget), you have a variety of options.
Apple makes solid machines, and the tenth-generation Core i5 processor makes the 2020 version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro blisteringly fast. It also features a high-resolution Retina display and impressive speakers, so media arts students can find a lot to love here. The Touch Bar, which replaces the standard function key row, dynamically adapts to whatever application you are currently using. This machine offers four Thunderbolt 3 ports but no others, so you will need an adapter to connect any legacy devices (including iPhones).
With a speedy Core i7 processor, a 13.3-inch full-HD display, and up to 22 hours of battery life, the Spectre x360 is a solid choice among devices that convert from laptop to tablet modes. Unlike many other stylus-enabled models, this one comes with the pen. It also comes with 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and two USB-C ports (which also support Thunderbolt 3).
At just over three pounds, the Yoga 920 is slightly heavier than the HP Spectre x360, but it comes with slightly longer battery life. This 2-in-1 features a 13.9-inch full-HD display, backlit keyboard, Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. It also has a USB-A port as well as two USB-C ports that support Thunderbolt 3. The touchscreen is very responsive, and as an added bonus, the stylus is included.
The MateBook 13 features excellent performance, a high-quality display, and a comfortable, spill-resistant keyboard. Its 13-inch touchscreen is powered by a speedy Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. There are two USB-C ports, although neither of them support Thunderbolt 3. Battery life is below average, but if speed is your main concern, this machine is a good choice.
The ZenBook 13 is an ultraportable laptop that offers good performance and outstanding battery life. Its Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB SSD give it plenty of zip, and the display is refreshingly close to bezel-free. The machine even includes a discrete graphics chip. However, the keyboard is a bit cramped, and there are no ports that support Thunderbolt 3.
Apple's largest iPad is a seriously powerful tablet that some students may be able to use as a laptop replacement, particularly since it can be paired with a Smart Keyboard and an Apple Pencil (sold separately). All versions since 2018 even include a USB-C port rather than Apple's proprietary Lightning connector, meaning you can connect to external devices like USB keyboards or monitors.
This 14-inch laptop offers a full-HD screen and highly responsive keyboard, and it comes with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB solid-state drive. Designed to withstand extreme temperatures, shocks, and vibrations, this machine is very durable. It also comes with multiple USB-A ports, an HDMI port, an SD card reader, and a Thunderbolt 3 port, so you can connect to universal chargers and docking stations. The removable extended battery allows it to go over 17 hours without recharging.
Microsoft's 2-in-1 may be the best detachable in terms of display, performance, and design. That's why some people think it's the best 2-in-1 laptop for college students. It features a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and your choice of either a 128GB or 256GB solid-state drive. Its graphics capabilities are good, but they won't stand up to serious gaming. It's not quite as thin and light as the iPad Pro, but it's a more powerful machine that can run real Windows applications. However, you have to buy both the Signature Type Cover keyboard and the stylus separately, which adds to the cost.
9. Dell XPS 13
The 2020 version of this ultraportable laptop features a 13-inch full-HD screen that is nearly border-free. Backed by a Core i7 processor, the XPS 13 includes 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. It offers numerous ports (including two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 support as well as an SD card slot) and can go more than 12 hours on a single battery charge.
Featuring a quad-core i7 processor, 15.6-inch 4K screen, and NVIDIA graphics chip, the Inspiron 7559 is a laptop that has enough muscle to handle anything from games to video editing. It's not super portable—at 5.6 pounds, you won't want to be dragging it around too much—but it has decent performance. Dell also made it easy to access the hard drive and add more RAM, so you could upgrade its capabilities.
11. Lenovo Flex 6 14
A 2-in-1 that runs Windows 10, the Flex 6 14 offers amazing value at this price point. It manages to be both thin and light while featuring a 14-inch full-HD touchscreen, Core i5 processor, and 8GB of RAM. It also includes an HDMI port, an SD card reader, two USB-A ports, and one USB-C port (though it doesn't support Thunderbolt 3).
Among the thinnest and lightest Chromebooks, this 2-in-1 has a 12.3-inch 2400 x 1600 touchscreen, a Core m3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a keyboard that can fold all the way back (though the keys themselves can be a bit spongy). It also includes a microSD card reader for expanded storage and two USB-C ports, plus a slot to hold the included stylus. The Samsung Chromebook Pro also supports Android apps out of the box.
This 2-in-1 Chromebook's aluminum-and-glass body makes it look a lot like a MacBook Pro. It has a 12.5-inch full-HD display, a Core m3 processor, and 4GB of RAM. It weighs just 2.6 pounds, measures 0.6 inches thick, and offers almost nine hours of battery life, so it's great for portability. It also features a full-size backlit keyboard, a microSD slot for expanded memory storage, and two USB-C ports (but no USB-A, so you'll need adapters for older peripherals).
14. Acer Aspire E 15
With a 15.6-inch full-HD display, solid build quality, and over 13 hours of battery life, this may well be the best laptop for college students under $500. This model includes multiple USB ports (both USB-A and USB-C), an HDMI port, and an SD card reader. At a little over five pounds, it's a bit bulky, and the Core i3 processor and 4GB RAM mean it's OK for light multitasking only. However, you can upgrade the RAM and storage drive fairly easily if you need to.
Arguably the best cheap laptop for college, the Acer Chromebook 14 has a 14-inch full-HD screen and quad-core Intel Celeron processor (which is fine for lightweight tasks), and it offers almost 12 hours of battery life. It also has an HDMI jack and a couple of USB-A ports. There is no SD card slot, but as with most Chromebooks, this one is designed to run and store everything in the cloud, and Wi-Fi access shouldn't be a problem on campus.
If you're looking for a cheap ultraportable laptop that can handle simple tasks like browsing or typing papers, this one might be up your alley. Lightweight yet sturdy, the IdeaPad's 11.6-inch display features a 1366 x 768 resolution, which is typical for a budget laptop. This one comes with excellent battery life, lasting over 11 hours on a single charge. It also includes two USB-A ports, an HDMI port, and an SD card reader that allows you to expand its otherwise limited built-in memory.
The Best Devices for Engineering Students
In order to qualify as the best laptop for college engineering students, a machine needs a decently large screen, plenty of RAM, and a powerful processor that can handle demanding 3D modeling software. You're likely not going to have the thinnest or lightest machine on campus; you need a real workhorse. Your college probably has specific requirements for student devices, so be sure you understand what those are. Here are four solid options for this category.
1. Dell XPS 15
The XPS 15 features a 15.6-inch full-HD display that maximizes space through the use of super-thin bezels. It offers good all-day performance, lasting over seven hours before running out of juice. It has a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB solid-state drive for storage.
This laptop's Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and NVIDIA Quadro graphics card means it can handle programs like AutoCAD or Photoshop. The ThinkPad P52s can go more than eight hours on a single charge, which isn't too shabby for a mobile workstation. It also stands up to bumps and drops, and it includes a splash-proof keyboard. It does tend to run hot on the bottom, though.
3. HP Envy 17t
With a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a dedicated NVIDIA graphics card, and a 512GB SSD, this 17-inch laptop has enough power to handle demanding workloads. It also offers a whole host of connectivity ports: USB-A, USB-C, HDMI, and more. It charges quickly, too: You can get 50-percent battery life in about 45 minutes.
The Precision 3540 comes with a 15.6-inch display, solid keyboard, and responsive touchpad. With its Core i5 processor, extra slots for RAM, and AMD Radeon Pro graphics card, this machine was built to handle spreadsheets and CAD design. You also get a 256GB solid-state hard drive and plenty of ports.
The Best Devices for Creative Arts Students
Film students, graphic designers, animators, video game designers, and other creative types need a high-resolution screen and powerful processor to handle high-end design, editing, and rendering programs. A dedicated graphics chip (as opposed to integrated graphics) can also be important. Always check with your college about computing requirements; they may have specific devices they want you to use. If you're free to choose, here are a few options.
This is the best Apple laptop for college students in the creative arts. It's the biggest and most powerful laptop in the Apple lineup, with a ninth-generation Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a discrete high-performance graphics chip. This MacBook Pro also features four Thunderbolt 3 ports (but no others) along with an enormous and highly responsive trackpad.
2. HP OMEN 15
This gaming powerhouse comes with a Core i7 processor, 32GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and a hugely powerful NVIDIA GTX graphics chip, which could make it an attractive option for creative arts students. You get great performance, a sharp display, and excellent speakers. Battery life is on the short side, though.
The MateBook X Pro offers a ton of value with its Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a dedicated graphics chip. The keyboard is both spill-proof and backlit, and the dual side speakers feature impressive audio performance. The power button is also a fingerprint scanner, so you can power on and log in with just one touch. However, the pop-up webcam on the keyboard isn't super useful; you can tuck it away for privacy, but you can't tilt it, and it basically only shows your chin.
Featuring a Core i7 processor, NVIDIA discrete graphics, a 256GB SSD plus 1TB HDD, and a lightweight frame, the VivoBook S offers a solid combination of power and portability. This laptop weighs just 3.7 pounds. The 15.6-inch screen is designed to maximize the display area, with an ultrathin bezel surround. For connectivity, you get multiple USB ports (including one USB-C) as well as an HDMI output. However, there is no Thunderbolt 3 support.
How to Find Discounts on Laptops or Tablets for College
Believe it or not, there are ways to get a cheap or even free laptop for college. Students are often eligible for significant discounts on computer purchases through their schools. Your school might also offer educational grants to help pay for student laptops, so it's worth your while to check.
Many online colleges provide new students with free laptops or tablets that are configured with the program's exact requirements, so choosing the best laptop for online college may be a non-issue. Some colleges allow students to keep the devices after graduation; others expect the devices to be returned. Note that you may have to pay a laptop usage fee, which basically means you'll be paying for the device in installments over time. Be sure to read the fine print so you understand the total costs involved.
At some brick-and-mortar colleges, particularly in design and computer science programs, a laptop or tablet is sometimes included as part of your tuition costs—it's not technically "free," but at least it isn't an extra expense that you have to worry about.
Make a Plan
Choosing the best laptop for college (or the best tablet for college) can be tricky, but the task is much easier if you know what kind of career you want and what type of training would be best for you. Maybe career college would be a good choice. It's easy to explore vocational schools in your area that offer convenient job-focused training. Enter your zip code into the school finder below to get started!