It’s back to school, college and university season, which means plenty of people are looking for the best student laptop of 2020. Well, here you can take the stress and strain out of choosing a great system with T3’s guide to the best laptops for students, which covers just about every need and budget imaginable.
The good news is that retailers are keen to shift laptops to students, and will usually offer a host of tempting deals and discounts to get you to part with your cash, so keep your eyes peeled for the best student discounts on laptops while you shop – you just might end up spending less than you budgeted for.
So whether you’re heading off to university, picking up your studies at home, or anything in between, our guide is here to help you find the overall best student laptop and narrow down a device that’s perfect for you – one that has the features you need at a price that suits.
We hope our student laptop guide proves invaluable for anyone out there shopping for a system that’s capable, decent value, and a boon to your productivity.
Be sure to keep checking back regularly, as we’ll be constantly updating this list with newer models and updated information, and we’ll also include some clutch buying advice to help you narrow down the ideal learning tool.
What is the best student laptop?
If you just want one single recommendation, then our top choice of best student laptop right now is the Dell XPS 13. This system has a powerful 10th Gen. CPU, a quality screen and a great design. The entry level Core i5 unit is also available for slightly less than Apple’s latest MacBook Air offering (if you can live with a 128GB SSD).
Alternatively there’s the always-popular Apple MacBook Air to consider, which we’d say is the equal best premium student choice on the market, as well as the Acer Aspire 3 15”, which is a great all-round device that is a lot less expensive than the first two contenders. The Aspire 3 15″ performs perfectly well for anyone happy to use Google’s Chrome OS rather than Windows 10 or macOS.
For more information about the best student laptops in 2020, then read on, but before we get to the main list, let’s cover how to choose the best student laptop for you.
How to choose the best student laptop for you
Today’s computers need to be able to do much more than the primitive number-crunchers of old. They need to support a huge range of software, given that several courses have special requirements, as well as the standard office packages.
When it comes to software, Microsoft’s Office 365 suite is free for students, and there are also Google’s Chromebooks and the associated Google Docs suite to consider as well.
Many students will need their laptops to be able to run HD video lectures without juddering of course, while a set of good speakers always comes in handy when the university day is done. These machines have to be affordable too, given the increased cost of schooling all round the world.
Integrated webcams are important as well, for web lectures and broadcast media-related courses especially in our increasingly online context, but these are now included as standard on every laptop. You’d be hard pushed to find a model without one.
Assuming that a student’s main workload is based around the web and document processing, this roundup also allows for the odd use of processor-heavy professional applications on some of the more premium systems.
If you have lots of big data-sets to crunch or your studies require you to to work with graphically intensive software, you might want to check out our best ultrabook or best gaming laptops roundups for a slightly more powerful PC.
Given all that, these are our pick of the best student laptops currently available, ranging from humble typing machines to top-of-the-line ultrabooks capable of both work and play.
The best student laptops you can buy today
Dell revises its XPS range frequently and while you’re usually forced to pay a premium for the most current XPS units, you can generally grab a good deal on the recently ousted XPS units. Dell’s latest XPS range has a 11th generation CPU, but while the latest ‘New’ labeled devices start at over AU$2,000, you can pick up an i5/8GB RAM/256GB storage model for AU$1,400 when it’s on sale ($1,749 RRP) or an i7/8GB/512GB XPS 13 for the sale price of AU$1,784 ($2,099 RRP).
The new Dell XPS 13 (9310) is a top contender for best Ultrabook for good reason, but savvy students can get this premium unit for a steal by pairing back the optional extras and keeping an eye out for sales.
The XPS 13 (9310) features an all new integrated Iris Xe Graphics processor that is powerful enough for light 1080p gaming on current titles like Metro: Exodus, Sid Myer’s Civilisation VI, Total War Saga: Troy and F1 2020. All of these games have playable averages of between 30 and 60fps when using low graphical settings on an i7/16GB RAM XPS 13 (9310), so it’ll churn through lighter games like Fortnite and Rocket League.
The 11th-generation Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs also get a slight generational performance bump, which means they are more than capable of efficiently taking on even the more demanding software your school or university course requires.
The 16 by 10, 13.4-inch display can be configured with either a 500 nitt Full HD+ or a 4K HDR screen with a DCI P3 colour gamut. The 4K model has touchscreen capabilities and you can opt for a non-touch variation of the 1080p screen, but all three offer Dolby Vision for HDR media playback.
The Intel Core i5-1135G7 which has an RRP of $2,399 will be more than enough for most student’s requirements, but you can upgrade this to an Core i7-1165G7 CPU for $2,899 for the non touch FullHD model. If you want the touch panel it’ll cost an extra $100 while the 4K screen will add $500 to the bill. The i5 variant comes with 8GB of RAM and the i7 model comes with either 16GB or 32GB and can expand the included PCIe SSD storage from 512 GB to 1TB, as long as you’ve already forked out for the upgraded 4K display.
The XPS 13 (9310) is a great update that offers excellent power at a very fair price. As one of the top contenders for our best laptop pick it’ll last students for years to come and won’t be under-powered if you transition into a workplace in that time.
If you need a laptop, but can’t afford to get the best of the best, there are actually quite a few impressive options at the budget end of the spectrum. Our favourite is the Acer Aspire 3 – while it’s a close call between this unit and Dell’s Inspiron 15 3000, the Aspire 3 offers slightly better boost speed on its Intel variation which should smooth out any spikes in performance to mean you don’t notice it lagging under light workloads.
In addition to better performance, the Aspire 3 15’’ is also 13% lighter than the Dell Inspiron 3000 15 and it comes in at $150 less at some retailers, which is a great deal for anyone that can’t afford to pay extra for unnecessary luxuries.
While the Acer Aspire 3’s CPU offers better performance, it is less efficient and this combines with a smaller 45Wh battery to mean that it won’t last as long as Dell’s offering. If battery life is important to you then Dell’s offering will be a better option on balance, but if you’re happy to carry a cable around, the Aspire 3 is the best budget option.
We weren’t expecting Microsoft to release a Go variation of its Surface Laptop range in 2020, or ever really, but we’re certainly glad it did.
The more mid-range Surface Laptop Go has a 12.45-inch touchscreen display and it feels super portable and compact, weighing in at 1.11kg. The resolution isn’t quite FullHD at 1,536 by 1,024 pixels, but it maintains a pixel density of 148 PPI which manages to look surprisingly good when the brightness is cranked up.
Out of the box the Surface Laptop Go comes with the streamlined Windows 10S OS, but the various configurations are all running on an Intel Core i5-1035G1 processor, which is more than capable of handling full-fat Windows 10 Home.
The range starts with models featuring 4GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC storage for $999, but we’d probably recommend upping this to a $1,249, 8GB, 128GB SSD configuration for those looking to do anything more than browser-based work. If you’re reluctant to move to a modern cloud-based workflow then you might want to expand that storage further to 256GB for a total of $1,549, but this unit isn’t the best value of the three.
Testing of the 8GB, 256GB SSD variation revealed that the Surface Laptop Go’s CPU is up to three and a half times faster than Intel Pentium processor on the Surface Go 2, with all benchmarks showing at least 60 percent better performance. Combine this with between 30 and 57 percent better graphical performance and you’ve got a similarly priced product that outperforms other Go devices considerably.
Apple has made some adjustments to the MacBook Air lineup, dropping the price for the base-spec model to just AU$1,599 and boosting the internal components to offer both power and portability.
For students, it’s hard to do better than the MacBook Air: a beautiful design, the latest version of macOS, and enough oomph to play Minecraft to your heart’s desire — or to do uni work… Both models also feature what Apple describes as an updated ‘Magic’ keyboard, which seeks to fix some of the reliability issues that plagued the previous generations.
Those seeking more power or storage alongside the thin design will be pleased to know that Apple offers a range of upgrades. The AU$1,999 model, for example, doubles the base storage to 512GB.
This leads up to what is perhaps the best perk of all – that Apple offers a 10% discount on the MacBook Air range for students, meaning the entry-level Intel Core i3 model will set you back just AU$1,439.
While earlier Surface Laptops have been a little under-powered for anything other than the lightest of workloads, the 2019 Surface Laptop 3 13 manages to balance power and price to be a great solution for students. While Microsoft’s clamshell offering hasn’t come down in price since its launch late last year, the models start at a reasonable AU$1,699 for a Core i5 CPU, 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD configuration, which you can get away with if your school or uni uses the Google or Office 365 online suites.
There’s more than enough power in the entry-level Intel Core i5 configuration, but you have the option to upgrade to an Intel Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage space for AU$2,649.
For those that need some local space there are models with 512GB or 1TB of onboard storage, but the price point on these more spacious units becomes a little too high to still be good value. We’d suggest you only go for the larger capacity units if you’re happy to pay a premium.
The Surface Laptop 3’s screen is vibrant and the unit is capable of 4 hours and 37 minutes of lifespan under heavy workloads, so you should be able to stretch this to a full study day if you’re just doing web browsing and document processing.
Dell’s latest Inspiron 15 3000s are perfectly positioned for students. The units start with entry level Intel Core i3-1005G1 processors that are powerful enough to run Windows 10 Home S applications and cost less than AU$900. The Windows 10 S interface is basically just a streamlined version of Windows that will only allow you to download applications from the Microsoft Store (similar to the App Store for Mac users), but this optimised interface means you can run a wide range of student software on less powerful systems.
If you want to run a full version of Windows 10 Home you’ll have to look at the Core i5-1035G1 models, which come with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB PCIe SSD for under AU$1,000. While this is good value, you can get the Inspiron 15 3000 with a Core i7-1065G7 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB of fast SSD storage for just AU$1,299, which is a lot of power at a pretty amazing price point.
While AMD is beating Intel in desktop CPUs, it’s still catching up in the laptop space. For those willing to swap out a few compatibility options for better raw CPU performance, you can get the Inspiron 15 3000 devices running full Windows 10 and AMD A6 or A9 processors for under AU$800.
If you’re a student and need a system that handles lightweight computing tasks, can be carried around easily, and will transform into a tablet for entertainment and creative sessions, then the Microsoft Surface Go is an excellent option – especially so if you’re shopping on a particularly tight budget.
Indeed, as we said in our Surface Go review, this system definitely delivers on the creativity chops. “The performance of the Surface Pen on the Go was impeccable,” we noted, and “responsiveness felt instant and lines appeared smoothly as we sketched – there was no lag at all, which can be a killer for a drawing device.”
It ticks all the boxes for one of the best student laptops in 2020 and the versatility of the Surface Go’s form factor really makes it stand out. You’ve got a choice of configurations to pick from to balance power and price.
If you like the HP brand but want to spend a little bit more than the Pavillion, the HP Envy x360 might be for you. It manages to marry some decent specs with some very nice looks at a price that’s not quite as exorbitant as you might think, looking at it.
With AMD powering the CPU and GPU, this is a laptop that’s going to handle most of the tasks you throw at it, besides intensive gaming and video editing – it’s perfect for writing up essays, or doing some research on the web, or putting together a budget spreadsheet to work out where all your money is going.
And as this is a 2-in-1, when the working day is over you can flip the HP Envy x360 into tent mode and enjoy some Netflix or YouTube on its bright, crisp 13.3-inch screen. Definitely one for your best student laptops shortlist.
If you can get everything you need done using a Chrome browser, then you might want to reconsider your need to pay for a premium laptop at all. HP’s Chromebook 14 G5 and its Intel Celleron processor doesn’t have a heap of CPU power, but when you are running an OS as streamlined as ChromeOS 64 there’s really no need for anything more.
In the same way that Android applications are smaller and require less processing power than their full PC counterparts, Chrome OS uses far less demanding software versions that mean it requires less power and can run longer. If you only need a simple suite of document processors, a browser and some education software then the Chromebook 14 G5 from HP is the device you’re after.
The Chromebook 14 G5 is less than 2cm thick and weighs just 1.54kg, making it compact enough for any age individual to carry it round in a day pack. It also comes with military grade MIL-STD 810G drop testing and 802.11ac wireless to mean it’s tough enough to keep up with kids and will offer a stable WiFi connection.
Google has plenty of apps on offer, and for most young students, there’s more than enough software available to work effectively, which makes the Chromebook 14 G5 one of our first choices for anyone that can use the streamlined OS.
The ThinkBook 14 is a little thicker than what you get from premium ultrabooks, but if you’re willing to carry around that little extra bulk you can get a lot more for your money.
If you are a student that needs extra processing power, but you don’t have the cash to splurge on one of the more premium devices above, you can get a ThinkBook 14s with an Intel Core i5-10210U CPU, 8GB of RAM and a speedy 256GB PCIe SSD for an RRP of AU$1,487.
Meanwhile, the Core i7 variant with 16GB of RAM is priced by Lenovo at AU$2,089, but we’ve seen it a few hundred dollars cheaper through third party vendors.
In terms of battery life, the ThinkBook 14 managed to last over 11 hours and 15 minutes in 1080p movie playback tests, but the CPU runs at a higher base clock rate than some competitors so for intensive applications it’ll only last around three and a half hours.
Part of the reason the ThinkBook 14’s 45Wh battery lasts so long in media playback is because the Full HD screen is really dull, but at 100% brightness it’s just enough to get you through your study quota.
Samsung is a master in the phone space and when you consider that top end phablets are almost as powerful as entry level laptops, it makes a lot of sense for Samsung to be dipping its toe into the 2-in-1 space.
The main benefit of using a mobile processor like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx is that it’s light on power consumption drawing just 7W, which means it doesn’t need any fans for active cooling. This is how Samsung can claim ‘multi-day battery life’ with the 42Wh battery apparently holding enough juice to offer 25 hours of movie playback.
Despite the efficient design, Qualcomm claims performance that approaches 15W Intel U series processors – chips that require an active thermal array. We struggled to benchmark this unit fully since it was running Windows 10 S (which limits applications to what you can get on the Microsoft Store), but based on Geekbench 4 results it basically lines up with the performance of the first Microsoft Surface Laptop from 2016… or the least powerful laptop chips currently available.
If you only plan to use your device for web browsing and watching movies, then the Galaxy Book S’s long battery life and option for constant 4G sim-card connectivity might be appealing enough to pay the $1,699 RRP. For this you get a 13.3-inch Full HD screen, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB SSD (with microSD expansion) in a package that’s less than 1.2cm thick and weighs under a kilogram.
Lead image credit: Getty