Although some of us are old enough to remember when you had to handwrite your undergraduate dissertation, those times are very much behind us. Even secondary school pupils can work on tablets and computers for exams these days, so most students have a keen eye on a new laptop (parent bank account permitting in some instances).
But there are a lot of laptops, and a lot of budgets. While expensive MacBooks and Surface Pros are more than adequate for relatively basic student needs, you can spend much less and still get that first. And stream Netflix until 4am.
There are a few things to consider when buying a student laptop besides price, though.
Ports and drives
Do you need a CD drive? Probably not, but if you want to play DVDs rather than stream or if you want to copy files to a disc then go for it – just remember they are now fairly hard to come by and also add a lot of bulk and weight. The more moving parts in a laptop the more can go wrong, too.
How large a screen do you need? You may not want to type 10,000 word essays on an 11in screen, but 15in may be too big. We think anywhere between 12in and 14in is the sweet spot, but it’s worth carefully considering.
Keyboard and trackpad
Not all keyboard and trackpads are equal. MacBook trackpads are best in class, but you pay for the privilege, while what type of keyboard you prefer is quite a personal thing.
Do you want a lot of travel on your keys, or something flatter and slim? Do you need a full size keyboard with a numberpad? Sacrificing that will allow you to get a more compact design handy for toting round campus.
It depends what you do on your laptop, but look out for what the expected battery life is. Word processing without Wi-Fi is likely to let it last for ages, but if you’re going to be away from a plug on Wi-Fi and streaming video lots then a laptop conking out after three hours isn’t much fun.
Manufacturers will tell you in the small print under what conditions they tested the laptop to get the projected battery life, so take a look. It’s best to get one that quotes at least ten hours to be safe.
Ah yes, budget. Do you need a £1,000 laptop? Will it get broken or worse, stolen? While more expensive laptops will give you better gaming performance, should you really be playing World of Warcraft for that many hours with those deadlines?
Then again, it’s not our place to patronise. But, you can get a solid performing laptop for less than half a grand these days, so you might want to save the cash for all those books you still need to buy.
A lot to consider then! Good luck with the degree.
The Asus VivoBook Max X541SA is a laptop made for those who want a solid, cheap computer. It has some neat extras such as a large hard drive, a fake brushed metal finish and speakers that sound much better than most at the price. If you need a computer you’ll use extensively most days, though, we’d strongly advise getting one with an Intel Core i3 CPU rather than the Intel Pentium used here. While it’s the “next best” option, it is noticeably slower, regardless of what you’re doing. If £300, or even £400, is your max budget you also have to accept that you won’t get a dazzling screen. The VivoBook’s dated display technology ensures image quality is, at best, passable. Still not put off? We won’t deny there’s a good amount on offer here for those on a very tight budget, with plenty of storage, wide-ranging connectivity and reasonable build quality.
Read our Asus VivoBook Max X541SA review.
The Lenovo IdeaPad 320S proves cheap laptops don’t have to be undesirable. A portable frame and modern look make this a laptop you could be proud to take out at the local coffee shop.
We’re also glad to see a Pentium-based system run Windows 10 so well, with performance in basic tasks similar to that of an Intel Core machine,
The screen is very poor, however, thanks to its use of a basic TN panel. If you’re looking for something that’ll double as a portable Netflix/iPlayer, you might want to save up for something with an IPS screen. You’re unlikely to find many Windows 10 laptops as attractive and slick at £350, though.
Read our Lenovo IdeaPad 320S review.
The Surface Laptop isn’t the most affordable but it’s not outrageously expensive compared to rivals. Microsoft has done a great job of creating a well-made, thin and desirable laptop. We’d tweak the ports on offer and upgrade from Windows 10 S to Pro, but we can live with the niggles considering the specs and excellent battery life.
Read our Microsoft Surface Laptop review.
If you’re after a budget laptop that’ll let you work on the go and last all day, the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 is one of your best options. It’s comfortable to type on, has a practical screen and its battery life is great among Windows laptops. Just make sure you’re ready for its humble performance first. Windows 10 does feel quite slow, making the Dell Inspiron 11 3000’s best-fit use as a typewriter for checking your emails as you nip between free Wi-Fi spots across town. If you can’t put up with a bit of lag, consider getting a Chromebook instead.
Read our Dell Inspiron 11 3000 review.
5. Acer Swift 3
The Acer Swift 3 is a near-perfect laptop for those who want an ultraportable, but don’t want to fork out £1000+. Build quality is great, battery life very good, and performance a match for much more expensive laptops. There are just two areas where the low price shows. First, it’s a little thicker and heavier than some ultrabooks. It looks good enough, but limited maximum brightness and fairly poor colour reproduction limits its usefulness in certain situations.
Read our Acer Swift 3 review.
Available at the same price as the Chuwi LapBook 14.1 but with a metal shell and slightly faster performance (though significantly slower startup times) the EZBook 3 Pro is a great budget buy. It’s capable for day-to-day computing tasks and low-intensity gaming, and does a good job of balancing portability with a usable size screen. You get just 64GB of storage, though this can be expanded.
Read our Jumper EZBook 3 Pro review.
7. MacBook 2016
There’s no escaping the fact that this is a very similar laptop to its 2015 predecessor, which so divided the tech community. But we think the problems have been overblown. The engineering on show is superb, and the performance is completely acceptable for a modern-day computer of this size. The arguments that there should be more ports on the MacBook only exist because people want one, and are frustrated that their current set-up needs will not allow for it. Apple has undoubtedly improved the MacBook for 2016.
Just remember it only has one USB-C port, so you’re going to probably have to buy some dongles.
Read our MacBook 2016 review.
Though it might be nearly as expensive as its more powerful sibling, the Mi Air 12 wins on portability and battery life. It’s a great-looking budget laptop that could easily be mistaken for a MacBook, with astonishing startup times, capable performance and a great screen. Our main concern is that it comes preinstalled with the Chinese edition of Windows 10 Home, which really will be a problem for UK users. This is fixable, but at additional cost.
Read our Xiaomi Air 12 review.
The new Surface Pro is a superb 2-in-1. It’s beautifully built and performs well. The screen is excellent and even the speakers sound good. However, it’s very expensive, especially when you add the cost of the Type Cover and – if you need one – the Surface Pen. Few will opt for the base model, and you’ll pay a heck of a lot more for a Core i7. Ultimately, while a fantastic device, it’s hard to recommend the Surface Pro unless money is no object.
Read our Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) review.
There’s a lot to like about the Acer, including it’s smart design, larger screen size, and impressively long battery life. These are offset by a few less than desirable components. The display is adequate at best, the keyboard is also average, and performance feels hampered by the low memory allocation. It’s a solid machine, but the compromises may be too much for some.
Read our Acer Chromebook 14 review.