Our pick: Lenovo Yoga C740 (14″)
|Processor:||Intel Core i5-10210U||Screen:||14-inch 1920×1080 touch|
|Memory:||8 GB||Weight:||3.09 pounds|
|Storage:||256 GB SSD||Tested battery life:||9.5 hours|
Who these are for: Budget ultrabooks—thin and light laptops with good performance and long battery life and a price tag in the $700 to $800 range—are ideal for high school and college students because they provide the best value. These cheaper ultrabooks tend to make minor trade-offs compared with ultrabooks in the $1,100 to $1,300 range: They may be a bit larger and heavier, may not last quite as long on a charge, may have worse build quality, or may lack convenient features such as a fingerprint reader or USB-C charging. But even with those drawbacks, budget ultrabooks still provide far better performance and overall quality compared with $500 laptops.
Why we like this one: Most high school or college students shopping for a laptop to last through graduation should get the Lenovo Yoga C740 (14″). It’s powerful and portable enough to use for a full day of classes, and it has a solid keyboard and trackpad. Unlike most cheap ultrabooks, the C740 is sturdy and equipped with a fingerprint reader, and it comes with a USB-C charger, which you can use to charge more devices and is generally cheaper to replace than specialty non–USB-C chargers. Spending around $500 more for a better ultrabook like the Dell XPS 13 (9300) gets you a lighter, more compact laptop with longer battery life and a more enjoyable keyboard, but those small differences aren’t worth $500 for most students.
You can read more about the Lenovo Yoga C740 and our other picks in our guide to Windows ultrabooks.
A Windows upgrade: Dell XPS 13 (9300)
|Processor:||Intel Core i5-1035G1||Screen:||13.4-inch 1920×1200 non-touch|
|Memory:||8 GB||Weight:||2.65 pounds|
|Storage:||256 GB SSD||Tested battery life:||10.5 hours|
Who these are for: If you’re willing and able to pay more, get an ultrabook. They have great keyboards, screens, and battery life, as well as enough power to do everything most people need a computer for, and they’re thin, light, and portable. Because great ultrabooks provide a better experience and last longer than cheaper alternatives, they can cost more than many students can spend on a laptop—expect to pay between $1,100 and $1,300 for a great one that will last for years. But they lack the processing power to play high-end games or to handle demanding tasks like video editing or 3D modeling.
Why we like this one: The Dell XPS 13 (9300) offers the best balance of what makes an ultrabook great: It’s exceptionally light and compact, its battery will last through a full day of classes, and it has a good keyboard and trackpad. It also offers fast performance and a spacious screen with a taller aspect ratio that’s ideal for browsing the web and writing papers. It has only two Thunderbolt 3 ports that you can use to transfer data, connect an external display, or charge the laptop. We wish the XPS 13 also had a USB-A port, but it does come with a USB-C–to–A adapter, and if you need more ports you can get a USB-C hub or dock.
You can read more about the Dell XPS 13 and our other picks in our guide to Windows ultrabooks.
A Mac upgrade: MacBook Air (2020)
|Processor:||quad-core Intel Core i5-1030NG7||Screen:||13.3-inch 2560×1600 IPS|
|Memory:||8 GB||Weight:||2.8 pounds|
|Storage:||256 GB SSD||Tested battery life:||8.17 hours|
Who these are for: If you prefer macOS or need exceptional tech support, a MacBook is a safe bet; the 13-inch models usually offer the best combination of size, weight, and speed. They’re great for most types of schoolwork, including writing, researching, and basic video and photo editing and coding. Once you factor in Apple’s education discount, you can expect to pay around $1,000 for one with good enough specs and storage to last three to four years. MacBooks are usually more expensive than Windows ultrabooks, especially if you want to upgrade the memory or storage; Apple’s SSD upgrade prices are so high that we usually recommend looking into cloud storage or an external SSD instead. But a revised keyboard design and more generous storage make MacBooks easier to recommend than they have been for the past few years.
Why we liked this one: The 2020 MacBook Air is Apple’s best laptop in years. Its performance is solid, its price is reasonable, and you don’t have to pay extra to get a usable amount of storage. Apple traded out the shallow and failure-prone butterfly-switch keyboards of its previous MacBook Air for springier and more satisfying scissor switches. Like Apple’s other laptops, the Air has only a small number of homogenous ports (in this case, two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports) that may require the use of USB-C hubs or new cables. But the Air’s light weight, solid construction, and industry-leading support make it a great laptop, especially if you also own an iPhone or other Apple devices.
If you need a more powerful Mac with a larger screen, take a look at our full guide to MacBook models.
Budget Chromebook pick: Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 (13″)
|Processor:||Intel Core i3-10110U||Screen:||13.3-inch 1920×1080 touch|
|Memory:||4 GB||Weight:||2.97 pounds|
|Storage:||64 GB SSD||Tested battery life:||10 hours|
Who these are for: Chromebooks are ideal for students who don’t need Windows or macOS for specific programs. A good Chromebook can do almost anything a regular laptop can do, including document work, video calls, and streaming video—as long as it’s possible in a web browser or via Android apps. And Chromebooks are cheap: A $400 Chromebook is faster, lighter, and sleeker than a $500 Windows laptop and blessed with better battery life. Plus, Chromebooks are secure and easy to maintain. But Chromebooks may have trouble connecting to campus printers, they can’t play Windows games, and they’re not good for people who need access to Mac or Windows apps for photo, video, or audio editing, or other specialized software like MatLab.
Why we like this one: If you can complete all of your coursework on a Chromebook—you can learn more about ChromeOS in our guide if you’re not sure—we recommend the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 (13″). It has fast performance and an excellent keyboard and trackpad, it’s compact and light, and its 1080p touchscreen is vivid and bright. Plus, it’s comparatively inexpensive, despite being faster than most Chromebooks in this price range. The Flex 5’s battery life is just long enough to last through a day of work or classes, but it can be a tight squeeze. If you need longer battery life, consider spending more for one of our top picks.
For more, you can read our full guide to Chromebooks.
Budget Windows pick: Acer Aspire 5
The Acer Aspire 5 has an excellent screen for a cheap Windows laptop, a comfortable keyboard, and a reliable trackpad. It’ll struggle with more than a couple apps open, but adding memory is cheap and easy.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $400.
|Processor:||Intel Core i3-1005G1||Screen:||15-inch 1920×1080 non-touch|
|Memory:||4 GB||Weight:||4.19 pounds|
|Storage:||128 GB SSD||Tested battery life:||6.5 hours|
Who these are for: If you need a Windows laptop for school and you can’t afford to spend a lot, you can find a decent one for $450 to $600. These models are best suited for grade or middle school students and people who don’t multitask a lot on their computer. The cheaper, lighter laptops in this price range are too slow, and to get a notebook that doesn’t feel slow for a moderate price, you have to make a lot of compromises. Most budget laptops with decent specs have 15-inch screens, weigh 5 or 6 pounds, and have much shorter battery life compared with more expensive ultrabooks. And computers that use a solid-state drive will feel faster than cheap models with hard drives, even with the same processor and memory.
Why we like this one: The Acer Aspire 5 A515-55-378V is the best Windows laptop you can find for the price, but we strongly recommend saving up for our top pick if you can—it’s better in nearly every way. The Aspire 5 has a 15-inch 1920×1080 IPS screen that’s much nicer to look at than any other cheap Windows laptop we tested, and it has a comfortable keyboard and a reliable trackpad. But its 4 GB of memory limits how many programs and browser tabs you can have open at once (though it’s easy to upgrade), and its battery won’t last a full day. As with many cheap Windows laptops, we recommend running Microsoft’s Refresh Windows tool to get rid of the unnecessary bloatware apps that come preloaded. And you can follow these instructions to switch to Windows 10 Home for free instead of using the default Windows 10 in S mode—a version of Windows 10 that allows apps only from the Microsoft Store and limits you to Microsoft Edge for Web browsing.
Choosing a budget laptop is tricky, because you can find dozens—even hundreds—of configurations at a given time. Their prices fluctuate constantly, too, and companies release and discontinue models with no warning. If our pick isn’t available, check our full guide for other available options. If those aren’t available, look for the following specs: eighth- or 10th-generation Intel Core i5 processor (they’ll have model names that start with “i5” and end with “8xxx” or “10xxx,” respectively) or a 3000-series or 4000-series AMD Ryzen 3 or 5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, a solid-state drive (SSD), and a 1920×1080 screen resolution (often called 1080p or “Full HD”).
For more, you can read our full guide to Chromebooks.
Budget tablet pick: Apple iPad
Who these are for: Windows laptops and Chromebooks that cost around $300 are almost uniformly unpleasant to use—washed-out screens and crappy performance are the two biggest problems. A tablet isn’t good at all the things a laptop is good at, and if you’re taking programming classes or learning how to do high-end photo and video editing with apps such as Photoshop or Premiere, a tablet probably wouldn’t work for you. But if you mainly need to browse the internet, write papers, stream videos, draw, and take handwritten notes, an iPad can be a workable, inexpensive substitute for a traditional laptop. iPads feel faster than cheap laptops, they run the App Store’s huge selection of games (in addition to productivity apps), and their light weight makes them more convenient to use in bed or on a couch when your homework is done and you want to unwind.
Why we like this one: The 10.2-inch iPad isn’t as fast as the much-more-expensive iPad Pro models, but it is responsive and pleasant to use, its screen is bright and colorful, it has good battery life, and the Apple Pencil is great for drawing or taking notes. And Apple has made big strides forward in keyboard and mouse support in iPadOS 13, which makes the iPad feel a lot more like a traditional laptop when you put it in a case and pair it to a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse (or one of Apple’s Magic Trackpads). If you can afford it, and especially if your iPad will be your only computer, consider the 128 GB version instead of the 32 GB version; with that version, you’ll need to rely on cloud storage less, and you’ll have more space for apps and other files.