What kind of laptop do you need for college work, really?

Student laptops
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You might be thinking about what kind of laptop you need for college work as you get ready to go back to school in 2021. It isn’t as easy of a decision as one might think. A good student laptop has different requirements than a premium machine for a professional or a gamer. You may be tempted to buy a maxed-out MacBook Pro, for instance, but considering the price, it might not be the most ideal solution. 

A powerful laptop might be needed for college work depending on your major. Engineering students will need powerful CPU and GPU to handle their projects, as will anyone doing video editing or 3D design. However, a Chromebook with just 4GB of RAM should be more than enough for any student whose biggest projects consist of term papers.

To help you figure out what kind of laptop you need for college work (and possibly some gaming on the side), we’ve gathered some tips to guide your search. That way, you can find the perfect notebook for your specific needs, especially since what works for one student might not work for another. In fact, you may end up saving some money by buying a more appropriate laptop for your specific studies.

Microsoft Surface Go

Microsoft's Surface Go should be an affordable dream for liberal arts students. (Image Credit: TechRadar)

 You don’t need a powerful laptop for writing 

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Here at TechRadar, we do a lot of writing, so you can take it from us: you don’t need an absolute beast of a laptop to get your writing done. As long as you have 8GB of RAM – even 4GB if you're cash-strapped – you should be more than fine most of the time. This is especially true if you’re only working on one or two projects at a time, as individual Google Docs tabs won’t really eat up too much of your system resources. 

However, we will acknowledge that there are certain people that like to have 30 browser tabs open while listening to Apple Music (we’re certainly guilty). If that’s a luxury you can’t live without, the bump up to 16GB of RAM is worth the price of admission.

Then, let’s talk about your processor. If you’ve been shopping around for a laptop for a while, you’ve likely seen plenty that advertise an Intel Core i7 or Core i9 processor, likely coupled with a four-figure price tag.

You don’t need one of those, either.

For most people, an Intel Core i5 processor is going to be more than enough to get your work done, especially if you get an 8th-generation Intel Kaby Lake Refresh or Whiskey Lake Ultrabook chip. You’ll get four cores and high enough clock speeds to power through whatever you need to do.

Case in point: the Microsoft Surface Go is one of our favorite laptops for students – especially those majoring in liberal arts fields. It’s not exceptionally powerful, but it still has enough umph to get through your general schoolwork. It doesn’t hurt that the Windows tablet is basically designed to work perfectly with Windows, since it was designed by Microsoft, but it still serves as proof that a less-powerful laptop is more than good enough.

And, don’t feel like you’re locked into macOS Catalina or Windows 10, either. The best Chromebooks make for awesome general student laptops, as they pack only what’s necessary. If all you do for school is within a web browser, you really don’t need anything more than a Chromebook. Plus, there are plenty of them out there these days that have gorgeous displays that are great for catching some Netflix in your downtime.

Microsoft Surface Go
Microsoft Surface Go (opens in new tab)

The Microsoft Surface Go (opens in new tab), with a Type Cover keyboard to go with it, should be your ultimate companion in fields of study in the liberal arts and possibly even design, thanks to its touchscreen and surprisingly large storage for its size.

Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon

The latest Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon is a powerhouse. (Image Credit: TechRadar)

 Blinded by science 

However, there are plenty of scenarios where you might actually need more power. Not everyone’s college workload begins and ends with writing a paper.

Heavy compute workloads, like those that Engineering and Computer Science students are going to run into will require, well, heavier computing. For these students, picking up a laptop with a powerful CPU and even a strong graphics processor is a must. While this does mean that Engineering students have an excuse to go with one of the latest gaming laptops, but there are plenty of laptops that are designed with compute-heavy workloads.

Laptops like the Lenovo ThinkPad P73 mobile workstation come equipped with Nvidia Quadro graphics and Intel Xeon processors to better facilitate compute-heavy workloads. They’re kind of pricey, and not the most attractive devices, but a mobile workstation might be perfect for engineering students.

The same goes for any students who need to cut their teeth on creative workloads, too. If you’re doing a lot of video editing or 3D work, a thin and light Ultrabook just isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to need a workstation-class device in that situation as well.

We get that students don’t have the money to drop on a pro-level device, though, so something like the Dell XPS 15 or a 15-inch MacBook Pro should be able to get the job done, too.

15-inch MacBook Pro (opens in new tab)

The 15-inch MacBook Pro (opens in new tab) for 2019 comes rocking 9th-Generation Intel Core CPUs and AMD Radeon Pro GPUs for handling intense workloads for all sorts of study areas. Plus, the Retina display is sure nice to look at, and you can keep your device secure with Touch ID.

Razer Blade

The brand-new Razer Blade is a stylish gaming beast. (Image Credit: TechRadar)

 Have some fun, though 

College isn’t all about getting school work done, though, we know that. If all you did was put your head down and get work done, you’d get burnt out pretty quickly, and no one should have to go through that. So, you should also take entertainment into consideration.

If you need to sit down and watch Netflix to give your brain a break, there’s absolutely no shame in that. Luckily, these days most laptops are capable of powering Netflix, so the trick will be to find one with a display that’s up to your standards. If you’re a resolution snob like we are, there are plenty of laptops with 4K displays so you can watch your favorite shows in all their glory. Even if the laptop you pick up doesn’t have a 4K display built in, pretty much every laptop on the market will let you connect to your dorm room TV and support 4K over HDMI or USB-C.

But, what about gaming? If PC gaming is more your speed, one thing you need to realize right out of the bat is that picking up a laptop with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 is going to be very expensive. However, if you just want to play some Overwatch in 1080p between classes, you can pick out a laptop with a GTX 1660 Ti or GTX 1650, and that will be plenty. If you have the cash to burn, we won’t judge you for picking out the best gaming laptops, so you can play PC games like Cyberpunk 2077 with ray tracing enabled. 

You don’t need to buy the most powerful laptop to get your schoolwork done, but there’s no shame in admitting that you want the most powerful laptop. Life is more than schoolwork, so, like, enjoy yourself.

Razer Blade 15 (opens in new tab)

The Razer Blade 15 (opens in new tab) will both look attractive and serious in the campus library and be ready to rumble when it's time to throw down in Fortnite. You can thank the 144Hz display, RTX 2060 GPU and 9th-Generation Intel Core i7 CPU for that.

Asus Chromebook Flip C302

Looking to save cash? Try a Chromebook. (Image Credit: TechRadar)

 So, what should I buy? 

If there’s one thing you take away from this, it’s that you should consider what you actually need before you jump on the hype train for that new MacBook that everyone else has. You can save a ton of money by just picking up what you actually need. 

That being said, if you want to do some heavier computing stuff for fun, there’s no shame in picking up a beefier computer. Just realize that opting for more power will often result in an inflated price tag.

At the end of the day, there is a lot of misinformation out there about what you need to get your work done. If your budget is just a few hundred bucks, there are plenty of options out there for you. Keep in mind that the best Chromebooks still exist in 2019, and might be the perfect choice for your schoolwork needs, especially if you just need to do some word processing in Google Docs.

Bill Thomas (Twitter) is TechRadar's computing editor. They are fat, queer and extremely online. Computers are the devil, but they just happen to be a satanist. If you need to know anything about computing components, PC gaming or the best laptop on the market, don't be afraid to drop them a line on Twitter or through email.