Whether you’re off to immerse yourself in fluid dynamics or Gide, need a lightweight laptop for lectures or a powerhouse for creative software, or simply want something cheap for your fourth child’s GCSEs, there’s a laptop here for you. You may also want to take a look at our guide to the best tablets as well.
What’s the best student laptop to buy in 2020?
Surprise, surprise, Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro is the best laptop for students in our book. It’s what they want and for once, with good reason – this is a stylish, capable machine with a stunning display and long battery life.
Our pick for the best budget laptop for students is Acer’s nifty Aspire 3. This mid-range laptop is available in a few configurations around the £300-£400 mark, all of which will see students nicely for a few years.
And if your student isn’t quite at bachelors level yet, the HP Stream 14 (from £170) is our best laptop for schoolchildren. Great for kids and tweens, this is a very affordable entry into basic computing and web browsing.
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Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch
WIRED Recommends: Apple’s MacBook Pro is still the ideal companion for campus life
Weight: 1.37kg | Size: 14.9mm thick | Battery life: Up to 10 hours Screen: 13.3-inch 2560×1600 | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB-2TB SSD CPU: 1.4GHz Core i5 – 1.7GHz Core i7 | OS: macOS
The MacBook Pro 13 (from £1,299) is the ideal option for students: it has the power to handle work assignments, from essay writing and photo work to content creation and video tasks, and it’s got the screen quality to make films and TV shows look fantastic. Couple that with stunning design, world-class ergonomics and a light, sturdy body, and it’s our overall recommendation for students.
A Mac is never going to be a cheap option, but if you’re after a hugely powerful laptop that can handle any task, from writing essays to graphic design, from video editing to coding, the MacBook Pro is it.
The entry-level is no longer available without the Touch Bar – slightly controversial – hence the slight hike from the almost-reasonable £1,249 to £1,299 this year. For that, though, you get an Intel Core i5 processor with a base speed of 1.4GHz and a 3.9GHz Boost peak, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a beautiful 2,560 x 1,600-pixel screen.
Those planning to use their Mac for creative work (and anything to do with 4K video) may want to budget for a larger SSD. And it’s worth mentioning that the MacBook Pro comes with two Thunderbolt ports as standard at the lower end, whereas the more expensive models come with four Thunderbolt ports.
Apple also sells a 15-inch variant of this machine, which is ideal for anyone who wants a larger screen – especially for photography or video projects. The 15-inch version has a slightly higher-res Retina resolution, quicker processors and dedicated AMD graphics, so, while it’s larger and heavier, it’s also a more capable workhorse.
Finally, it’s well worth considering that Apple offers a student discount that’s worth checking out.
Pros: Powerful; gorgeous; brilliant screen
Cons: Expensive – up to £1,999; expensive upgrades too
Acer Aspire 3
The best budget laptop for students
Weight: 2.1kg | Size: 21mm thick | Battery life: Up to 7 hours Screen: 15.6-inch 1080p | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 128GB/256GB SSD | CPU: 2.2GHz Intel Core i3/2.6GHz AMD Ryzen 3 | OS: Windows 10
Acer’s Aspire 3 range of machines is huge, with dozens of different specification options and prices. While that makes it potentially confusing when you’re picking a machine, there’s plenty of great value to be found here – more than on any other affordable laptop.
No matter what specification you pick, the Aspire 3 (from £329) does deliver some constants. The Full HD screen offers good punchy, with crisp detail and vibrant colours – great for some casual gaming, TV streaming or movie watching.
The ergonomics are always decent: the keyboard is snappy and crisp, which makes it great for hammering through assignments. It’s got a full numberpad alongside, and the trackpad is good enough for casual use.
The Aspire is always affordable, though, which does mean limitations elsewhere. The battery lasts long enough to get through a couple of lectures, but its lifespan isn’t great. The speakers are a bit tinny, too – you’d get a solid upgrade with affordable external units, or a headset.
Build quality can be inconsistent thanks to the sturdy base and weak screen. We’d definitely invest in a protective sleeve before slinging this in a backpack. The common factors are good, though, especially at these prices.
Before you delve in, take a closer look at the specifications. The Aspire 3’s cheaper models do sometimes rely on slow hard disks rather than fast SSDs, so we’d skip those models if possible.
Instead, we recommend the Aspire 3 A315-53 or A315-42. The former costs £399 and includes an Intel Core i3 CPU alongside 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD. The latter costs between £329 and £449 and includes an AMD CPU and 4GB of memory – along with 128GB or 256GB SSDs.
Both are available in a multitude of colours, and both have the speed for surfing through student life without breaking the bank. The Aspire 3 is a great choice for slim budgets.
Pros: Solid AMD and Intel options; decent screen; good keyboard
Cons: Underwhelming design; middling battery life; no quad-core
Dell XPS 13
The MacBook alternative
Weight: 1.2kg | Size: 11.6mm thick | Battery life: Up to 21 hours Screen: 13.3-inch 1080p/4K | RAM: 8/16GB | Storage: Up to 1TB | CPU: Up to 8th gen Core i7 | OS: Windows 10 Home
Dell’s latest slim laptop looks just as good as Apple’s machines thanks to its mix of aluminium and carbon fibre, and its 1.2kg weight and 12mm body mean you’ll barely notice it in your bag. It’s still available in the traditional silver/black colour combination as well as newer rose gold and white options.
You can configure the XPS 13 2019 (from £1,195) with touchscreens, high-end processors and 4K panels. And, if you don’t want to spend loads of cash on this machine, the entry-level models start at £1,195 and include Core i5 processors, 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD.
The keyboard and touchpad remain excellent, and you get Thunderbolt and USB-C options. You can even switch it up and opt for the hybrid alternative if you’d like a little more versatility.
The XPS 13 is just as eye-catching and capable as a MacBook, and it’s often a lot cheaper. If you want to stick with Windows, it’s an excellent option for students.
Pros: Loads of spec options; great ergonomics; stylish exterior
Cons: No dedicated graphics
HP Pavilion Gaming 15
Ideal for work and gaming
Weight: 2.25kg | Size: 23mm thick | Battery life: Up to 10 hours Screen: 15.6-inch 1080p | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 256GB SSD | CPU: 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 | OS: Windows 10
The latest affordable gaming laptop from HP is a barnstormer, with the same decent chassis crammed full of new hardware for no extra cost.
HP’s previous models relied on graphics cores like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050, which is an older, entry-level part. This new version, the HP Pavilion Gaming 15-dk0010na (£799), uses the GTX 1650, which has a new architecture, more processing cores and higher clock speeds.
The GTX 1650 will still only play games at 1080p, but it represents a solid jump over last year’s GPUs: tough titles will run smoothly at higher graphics settings, any esports game will play easily, and this machine will handle games further into the future, too.
The Core i5 CPU has been swapped for a new 9th-generation Intel chip which delivers a small speed boost – so you’ve still got enough grunt for work and play. There’s still 8GB of memory, and this new machine has been fitted with an SSD – so boot and loading times will be far better on this laptop.
Elsewhere, not much had to change. The 1080p screen still offers enough quality for gaming, and the components are still slotted inside a chassis with eye-catching green accents, a decent keyboard and a good selection of ports, including USB Type-C.
The HP still weighs in at 2.3kg, and its build quality remains middling – we’d certainly use a sleeve for frequent transport. Battery life is still not great, but that’s to be expected from a gaming machine – these laptops don’t often stray far from the mains.
This updated version of the HP retains the same price as last year’s machine, and it delivers a better GPU, an upgraded CPU and a new SSD, that’s still great value. If you’re a student who still wants to tackle some serious gaming, this is a superb option.
Pros: Upgraded components; eye-catching chassis; decent keyboard
Cons: Average screen; poor battery life; inconsistent build quality
Acer Chromebook 14
The best option for pure portability
Weight: 1.68kg | Size: 11.6mm thick | Battery life: Up to 14 hours | Screen: 14-inch 720p/1080p | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 32GB | CPU: 1.6 GHz dual-core Celeron N3060 | OS: Chrome OS
A laptop thinner and lighter than a MacBook Air, with a Full HD screen and 10 hours of battery life, for £300? There must be a catch.
And there is, of sorts. This Acer Chromebook (£249) runs Google’s Chrome OS, a Linux-based operating system that mainly exists to launch the Chrome web browser.
For many students, this could be all they need. Google Docs can take care of your word processing and spreadsheets (and can import Word and Excel files), while Google Keep is great for notes. You can store all your files in the cloud in Google Drive, and the Chromebook can keep several gigabytes of documents in local storage so you can carry on working when offline.
Chrome OS even now works with USB printers, although setup can be fiddly. If web applications are all you need, a Chromebook is a great budget choice – and it can also work as a portable counterpart to a more versatile desktop PC.
Pros: Great value for money; light
Cons: Chrome OS might be too limiting for some
HP Stream 14
Designed for schoolchildren – and it works
Weight: 1.44kg | Size: 17.7mm thick | Battery life: Up to 13 hours Screen: 14-inch 1366 x 768 | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 32/64GB | CPU: 1.6GHz Intel Celeron | OS: Windows 10 Home
Astonishingly, HP will sell you a proper Windows laptop for the price of a cheap Android tablet. For just under £200 you get a dual-core Intel Celeron processor, 4GB RAM and a 14-inch, 1,366 x 768 display; not specifications to set the world alight, but fine for email and office applications.
The Stream 14 is attractive, and available in blue, purple, grey and white. There are three USB ports and a card reader, as well as an HDMI output, in a body just a couple of centimetres thick and weighing less than 1.5kg.
The main limitation is just 32GB of onboard storage, which will soon fill up if loaded with photos and videos and for 64GB you’re looking at over £250. There’s still plenty of room for documents, and anything bigger can be stored in the free (for a year, along with Office 365) terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage, and then streamed to the laptop.
Pros: Attractive; very, very cheap
Cons: Small onboard storage; keyboard and touchpad only adequate
Price: From £170 | Check price on Amazon