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.
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What’s the best student laptop to buy in 2020?
Surprise, surprise, Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro (from £1,189) 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 Lenovo’s nifty IdeaPad 5 (from £429). This mid-range laptop puts in the performance with comfortable typing and a light but sturdy design.
And if your student isn’t quite at bachelors level yet, the Lenovo IdeaPad 3 (£299) is our best laptop for schoolchildren. It’s an affordable entry into basic computing and web browsing.
Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch
WIRED Recommends: Apple’s MacBook Pro is still the ideal companion for campus life
Weight: 1.4kg | Size: 15mm thick | Battery life: Up to 10 hours Screen: 13.3-inch 2560×1600 | RAM: 8/16GB | Storage: 256GB-1TB SSD CPU: 1.4GHz Intel 8th gen Core i5/2 GHz 10th gen Core i5 | OS: macOS
The MacBook Pro 13 (from £1,189) 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, again, no longer available without the Touch Bar. 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.
The entry-level model and the £1,499 option still rely on Intel’s 8th Gen CPUs, though. They’re fine for everyday work, but not good enough for tougher creative tasks. If you need more power, you’ll have to spend more. The £1,799 and £1,999 models are equipped with tremendous Intel 10th Gen CPUs that deliver a solid performance boost for multi-tasking and productivity. And, no matter which MacBook Pro 13 you buy, you’re getting the improved Magic Keyboard rather than the divisive butterfly design of recent years.
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.
Also consider: Apple has ditched the 15in option and replaced it with a 16in MacBook Pro (from £2,149). The larger screen has a higher resolution than its predecessor, and on the inside, you get AMD dedicated graphics, loads of memory and capacious SSDs. These 16in machines still use the same Intel 9th Gen CPUs as the older, smaller models, but they’re still processing powerhouses – easily capable of handling high-end photography, music and video work. This larger laptop is 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
Lenovo IdeaPad 5
The best budget laptop for students
Weight: 1.4kg | Size: 19mm thick | Battery life: Up to 10 hours Screen: 14in 1080p | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB SSD | CPU: 2.7 GHz AMD Ryzen 3 4300U | OS: Windows 10
The brand-new Lenovo IdeaPad 5 (From £429) steals a march in a busy budget marketplace by combining new components with a surprisingly good sense of style. On the outside, this machine is made from aluminium and plastic, and its body is just 19mm thick and weighs 1.4kg. So it’s easy enough to carry to lectures and robust quality means that it should withstand the rigours of student life. It’s got two USB 3 ports, an SD card slot and a USB-C connector that provides charging, and the IdeaPad also has a fingerprint reader and HDMI.
At this price, that’s impressive versatility, with the only omissions being faster USB 3.2 ports and Gigabit Ethernet.
Lenovo’s famed keyboard quality stands up on this affordable device, too: the buttons don’t have a huge amount of travel, but they’re fast, quiet, soft and comfortable – easily able to handle long typing sessions. The trackpad is fine, if a little rattly, but that’s no surprise at this price.
The IdeaPad deploys a new AMD Ryzen 3 4300U processor. It’s got four cores and AMD’s Vega 5 graphics, and it’s paired with 8GB of memory, a 128GB SSD and future proofed Wi-Fi 6. It’s solid hardware that can easily handle day-to-day computing and multi-tasking, from running Office applications to handling browsers with loads of open tabs.
When compared to equivalent Intel Core i3 chips, it offers twice as much grunt in productivity applications. For gaming, it’ll run casual titles and low-end esports games, like Fortnite, Overwatch and League of Legends. The speakers are fine – they don’t have any bass, but they have enough clarity to handle YouTube and boxset viewing.
The Lenovo’s 57Wh battery lasts around eight hours when working and ten hours when playing video, so it’ll handle a full day of lectures. The biggest issue here is the 14in screen. It’s a Full HD panel with a webcam and a privacy shutter, and it’s bright with decent contrast, but its colours are washed-out. For everyday use it’s fine, but that’s it.
If you want to spend a little more, pricier IdeaPad 5 models include Ryzen 5 CPUs (£529), and models are coming with 15.6in screens, and a Flex 2-in-1 option is also on the way.
For all-round campus use, though, this IdeaPad is solid: small and light enough to carry, with a good keyboard, impressive internals and reasonable battery life. It’s a lot of laptop for a low price.
Pros: Easily beats Intel for performance; comfortable, effective keyboard; light and sturdy design
Cons: Display slightly washed-out; no Gigabit Ethernet; exterior sometimes gets warm
Price: From £429 | Check price on Currys PC World
Dell XPS 13
The MacBook alternative
Weight: 1.2kg | Size: 15mm thick | Battery life: Up to 19 hours Screen: 13.4-inch 1,920 x 1,200 x 3,840 x 2,400 | RAM: 8/16GB | Storage: 512GB/1TB SSD | CPU: Up to 10th gen Core i7 | OS: Windows 10
Dell’s familiar mix of aluminium and carbon fibre sees the latest XPS 13 (£1,349) remain one of the best-looking laptops on the market. This machine is 15mm thick and weighs 1.2kg – so it’s lighter than the MacBook Pro 13 and barely noticeable when slipped into a bag. Build quality remains robust, and it’s available in the traditional silver and black design as well as a white design – there’s no rose gold on this 2020 version of the machine, however.
The Dell’s entry-level option costs £1,349, which is a little more expensive than last year’s model and a tad more than the cheapest MacBook. For that money, though, you get an awful lot of hardware: even the cheapest XPS 13s include Intel 10th Gen CPUs, and these machines have 8GB of memory, larger SSDs, updated Intel graphics and Wi-Fi 6 networking. This hardware means that the Dell can handle day-to-day multi-tasking and computing, and Dell’s vast customisation options means pricier models can be equipped with Core i7 CPUs that are capable of handling tougher creative tasks.
Dell has slimmed its screen bezels in order to include a slightly larger 13.4in display on this model, too, which means a 16:10 aspect ratio and a few more vertical pixels. The display also has great contrast and a 90 per cent DCI-P3 gamut coverage ratio – so colours are eye-poppingly vibrant.
The keyboard and touchpad are larger on this year’s model, and both remain superb. The Dell has a pair of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports that support power delivery and DisplayPort, and a microSD slot.
Elsewhere, Dell rounds off this package with a CNC-machined body, laser-cut logos, a smaller webcam and Gorilla Glass screens alongside crisp, punchy speakers, although there’s no Gigabit Ethernet and no full-size USB – just like on the MacBook.
Dell offers more versatility than Apple if the XPS 13 isn’t suitable, too. The XPS 15 (£1,900) and XPS 17 (£2,400) have both been refreshed with 10th Gen CPUs and are available with better Nvidia graphics cores for creative work and after-hours gaming, and the 2-in-1 version of the XPS 13 is also available.
Apple’s stunning design and prowess with creative tasks mean that the MacBook remains our favourite student laptop, but the XPS 13 is just as capable – so it’s great if you want to stick with Windows.
Pros: Loads of spec options; great ergonomics; stylish exterior
Cons: No dedicated graphics
Asus TUF A15
The best gaming laptop for students
Weight: 2.3kg | Size: 26mm thick | Battery life: Up to 8 hours Screen: 15.6in 1080p 144Hz | RAM: 8GB/16GB | Storage: 512GB/1TB SSD | CPU: Up to AMD Ryzen 9 4900H | OS: Windows 10
Few companies know how to make a gaming laptop quite like Asus, and its latest notebook delivers a better balance than most people would expect from a gaming notebook – which means it’s the best choice for work and play.
The Asus TUF A15 (£1,400) is underpinned by an AMD Ryzen 7 4800H processor, which has eight cores that support sixteen threads alongside a potential peak Turbo speed of 4.2GHz. Combine that with the excellent Zen 2 architecture and you’ve got a chip that can handle everyday computing, Office tasks, photo-editing and even video work. If you need a laptop for multi-tasking, tough workloads and content creation, the AMD CPU inside this machine is a better option than anything Intel offers at this price.
This version is equipped with Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti graphics that’ll play top single-player titles at a solid 60fps and fast-paced esports games at beyond 100fps – ideal for combining with the bright 144Hz display. The specification is rounded out with 8GB of memory and a 512GB SSD. The battery life is surprisingly good: the Asus will handle two hours of gaming and a day of work.
The keyboard is fast and comfortable, and the touchpad is reasonable – even if you’ll want a USB mouse if you’re a keen gamer. It’s easy to pop the base off this machine to upgrade the memory and storage.
At this price, though, there are compromises. The exterior has great build quality, but it’s made from plastic and looks a little dated. You get normal wireless rather than Wi-Fi 6, and there are two USB 3.2 ports – but they don’t use the faster Gen 2 standard – alongside a slower USB 2.0 connection. There’s a USB Type-C port that supports DisplayPort, but no Thunderbolt, and no card reader.
The Asus is not particularly svelte either, with a weight of 2.3kg and a thickness of 26mm, although those are not surprising. And, finally, it’s only got mediocre speakers. Even a budget headset would be better.
If you want more graphical power, a £1,299 model deploys an RTX 2060, which has more stream processors and Ray-Tracing alongside the same AMD CPU. The £1,399 option also adds a more powerful Ryzen 9 4900H processor.
For £999, though, this version of the A15 is the pick of the bunch. The AMD CPU offers Intel-beating work ability, the graphics card is a good mainstream option, and the Asus serves up solid build quality, ergonomics and longevity at a reasonable price. It’s impressive and versatile.
Pros: Superb all-round performance; smooth 144Hz display; robust design with good keyboard
Cons: Some high-end features missing; heavy and thick exterior; middling speakers
Acer Chromebook 314
The best student laptop for affordable portability
Weight: 1.7kg | Size: 20mm thick | Battery life: Up to 12 hours Screen: 14in 1080p | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 64GB SSD | CPU: Intel Celeron N4000 | OS: Chrome OS
Acer has long made good affordable Chromebooks, and its updated Chromebook 314 (£260) is another fine showcase of Google’s lightweight OS.
ChromeOS will sate many students: Google Docs handles word processing and spreadsheets and can import Word and Excel files, and elsewhere you can use everything else available in the Google Play store. If you’ve used an Android phone you’ll be familiar with this system, and it’s eminently useable if you frequently work in the browser.
Acer’s Chromebook 314 serves up a 14in Full HD touchscreen, and the Intel Celeron N4000 processor and 4GB of memory both deliver smooth performance. There’s 64GB of storage on-board, which is fine for document storage. A £229 version of this machine halves the storage capacity but also ditches the 1080p screen, and we don’t recommend that.
This £299 version has a battery that’ll last a whole day, speakers that can handle YouTube and boxsets, and there’s dual-band wireless, two USB Type-C ports, two full-size USB connectors, an HD webcam and a card reader. On the outside, the aluminium exterior is subtle and smart, the keyboard is crisp, and the touchpad is solid. The 20mm thickness is fine, and the 1.7kg weight is acceptable at this price.
You’ll need to spend more if you want a machine that can handle tougher work – but at that point it’s probably worth stepping up to Windows or OS X. But if you need an affordable laptop and you do most of your work in browser-based tools, this dirt-cheap machine is superb.
Pros: Extremely cheap; intuitive, browser-based OS; full HD touchscreen; smart exterior
Cons: Limited CPU power; could be lighter; Chrome OS might limit some users
Lenovo IdeaPad 3
The best laptop for schoolchildren
Weight: 1.6kg | Size: 20mm thick | Battery life: Up to 8 hours Screen: 15.6in 1080p | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 128GB SSD | CPU: 2.4GHz AMD Athlon Gold 3150U | OS: Chrome OS
The Lenovo IdeaPad 3 (£299) offers reasonable and uncomplicated computing for less than £300, so it’s an ideal introduction to the world of laptops for younger children and teens.
Lenovo’s machine looks the part, with metal-affect plastic used throughout, and it offers reasonable build quality – there is a little flex, but the Lenovo is robust enough to survive with a protective sleeve. It’s light, at 1.6kg, and it’s only 20mm thick. In short, it’s smart and well-built for a sub-£300 notebook.
The Lenovo has a soft, comfortable keyboard that will stand up to the rigours of essays and assignments, and the touchpad is good. Around the edges the HP serves up two USB 3.1 ports, a card slot and an audio jack, and there’s an HD webcam with a privacy shutter and Gigabit Ethernet alongside dual-band wireless. It’s versatile, even if there’s no USB Type-C.
This machine has a Full HD screen, which means plenty of room for web-browsers and word processors. Quality is only mediocre thanks to some middling contrast and washed-out colours, but it’s fine for work and for casual media use. The speakers are similar – tinny but useable.
On the inside, the Lenovo has an AMD Athlon Gold 3150U processor, 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD. This hardware won’t win any speed records, but itwill handle web browsing, word-processing and other Office tools – so it’s ideal for schoolwork. It’ll handle casual games, too, and the battery will last a full day in the classroom.
The Lenovo certainly isn’t perfect, but issues like the pallid screen and low-end components are not deal-breakers at this price, and this machine fights back with good quality in other areas. The IdeaPad is an affordable, versatile unit that’s suitable for younger users.
Pros: Very affordable; light and good-looking; solid ergonomics and connectivity
Cons: Underwhelming screen quality; entry-level components; mediocre speakers