The important thing to remember is that there is no single correct choice here. The laptop that’s best for your college experience depends on what you’re doing at college. An English major with long reading lists and many papers to write might do better with an iPad and a nice accessory keyboard. A computer science major who needs to compile software or run Linux will need a laptop they can tinker away on.
That said, here are some basic metrics to keep in mind for laptops:
- Windows: If you’re getting a Windows machine, your main options for the processor are Intel and AMD. Both will work, each have their different strengths and weaknesses. For a more complete guide to the differences, see our full guide to buying a laptop.
- Chromebooks: These browser-based machines use half a dozen different processors, most of which you’ve probably never heard of. There’s a reason for that: Those processors are slow. My recommendation when buying a Chromebook is to go with a more powerful processor if you can afford it. The Core m3 chip is the best choice for most students. If you want a more powerful, future-proof machine, get an i3 or i5 chip. There are also ARM-based Chromebooks, like the Lenovo Duet. They aren’t quite as speedy as the Intel Core chips, but in most cases they’re just fine for college workloads.
- macOS: Apple is making its own processors now, notably the M1 chip found inside the MacBook Air showcased above. Although Apple still sells Intel-based MacBooks, we suggest sticking with the M1 chip. Going forward, Apple software will be optimized for the M1, and Intel-based systems will likely be left behind.
Regardless of which OS you choose, the minimum amount of RAM you want in your laptop is 8 gigabytes. That’s enough memory to keep your computer feeling snappy even if it’s running under load. That much RAM will also keep the machine feeling spry longer into its life span. If you can afford it—especially if you plan to edit photos or videos as part of your coursework—go for 16 gigabytes.
Screens vary tremendously, but don’t settle for anything less than 1080p. For a 13-inch laptop, 1080p is sharp enough. If you’re going with a bigger laptop, 2.5K or even 4K screens will really improve the viewing experience. If you’re trying to play games as well, be sure to get something with a higher refresh rate—144 Hz works, but 240 Hz is where you really start to get those buttery smooth graphics.
Weight and Battery
Don’t forget you’ll be lugging this thing around campus. It may well be tugging on your back for 8 hours or more. While 1 pound may not seem like much, at the end of long day of walking, you will notice the difference between a 3-pound laptop and 4-pound laptop. Trust me. Also, maybe pick out a nice bag to carry your computer.
Similarly, battery life is very important when you’re (potentially) away from a wall outlet for extended periods of time. Whatever you end up getting, make sure it’s capable of lasting at least 8 hours under real-world use—browsing the web, editing documents, writing emails, and taking notes.