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

Student laptops
Image Credit: TechRadar

As Back to school 2023 is ramping up for college students, you might be considering what kind of laptop is best to handle coursework. But it isn’t as easy of a decision as one might think, even with some of the best back to school sales going on.

The best student laptops have different requirements than a premium machine for a professional or a gamer. You may be tempted to buy a maxed-out 16-inch 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 CPUs and GPUs 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.

HP Chromebook 15: was

HP Chromebook 15: was $399 now $199 at Best Buy
This basic budget HP Chromebook 15 is down to a terrific low price if you need a device for light use, such as general browsing and schoolwork. It offers a 15.6-inch display, impressive battery life, and decent performance thanks to the Chrome OS – all for under $200. A bargain for students and those with basic needs.

Dell Inspiron 15: was

Dell Inspiron 15: was $599.99 now $399.99 at Best Buy
We rarely see devices at this price with an Intel i5 processor, 8GB of performance-boosting RAM, and 256GB SSD. You'd usually expect to pay at least $500 for this sort of power, plus there's a responsive and bright full HD 15.6-inch screen, so it's terrific value for money. Get it if you need an all-around laptop to blast through your everyday computing work.

Apple MacBook Air (M1): was

Apple MacBook Air (M1): was $999.99 now $749.99 at Amazon
The 2020 Apple MacBook Air with an M1 chip is older now, but it's still one of the best laptops ever made. With this deal, the device that we awarded 4.5 stars out of five in our MacBook Air M1 review is down to its lowest-ever price at Amazon's back to school sale, beating the previous record by $50. Apple's premium device is fast, responsive, beautifully designed, and has a long-lasting battery life.

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 the best processor. If you’ve been shopping around for a laptop for a while, you’ve likely seen plenty that advertises 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 11th or 12th-Gen 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 oomph to get through your general schoolwork. It doesn’t hurt that the best 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 13 Ventura or Windows 11, 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.

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 computing 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 processor and even a strong graphics card is a must. While this does mean that Engineering students have an excuse to buy the best gaming laptops or best laptops, there are plenty of laptops that are designed for compute-heavy workloads.

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 the M1 MacBook Air should be able to get the job done, too.

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 schoolwork 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 4080 or RTX 4090 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 an RTX 3000-series GPU like the RTX 3060 or higher, 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 the best 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.

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 the best 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.

Allisa James
Computing Staff Writer

Named by the CTA as a CES 2023 Media Trailblazer, Allisa is a Computing Staff Writer who covers breaking news and rumors in the computing industry, as well as reviews, hands-on previews, featured articles, and the latest deals and trends. In her spare time you can find her chatting it up on her two podcasts, Megaten Marathon and Combo Chain, as well as playing any JRPGs she can get her hands on.

With contributions from