5 Tips for Buying the Perfect Student Laptop

Back-to-School sales are starting to appear at major retailers even though it’s still the middle of summer.

That’s good news if you can use a new laptop, because big retailers like Amazon and Best Buy are going to be running big sales to save on some of the best laptops from companies like Apple, Dell, and Lenovo.

To help you figure out which laptop is best for your needs, we’ve put together this list of quick tips for finding the perfect school laptop, based both on conversations with parents and my own experience reviewing dozens and dozens of laptops. Keep this tip in mind as you browse the best deals and sales for school laptops this summer.

Here at Tom’s Guide, we work hard to help you find the right tech at a great price, and you can check out our comprehensive school guide for the latest deals on laptops, tablets, phones and more.

Weight plays a key role when carrying a laptop between classes

While more students than ever are participating in distance learning activities these days, there are still many who regularly carry a backpack to the classroom or lecture hall. If there’s a chance you’ll have to carry this laptop around campus for long periods of time or to different classes, make sure you consider how much it weighs before hitting the buy button.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano Gen 1 on the table

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano weighs approximately 2 pounds and is one of the lightest laptops you can buy. (Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

In my experience, something around 3 pounds is fairly easy to carry for several hours, at least for an adult in relatively good health. However, go well beyond 3 pounds and you’ll start to notice when you’re lugging this thing around. This is a common problem with the best gaming laptops, which can be great for demanding engineering courses but kill on the shoulders when carried around.

If you really go for the light weight of a laptop, you can even get ones that weigh just 2 pounds. Lenovo has some really lightweight models that are great for coursework, like the 2.5-pound Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga (which also folds into a tablet if you need a 2-in-1 laptop for school) or the 2-pound laptop . Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano.

Don’t skimp on battery life

Again, if there’s a chance you’ll have to rely on this laptop all day, you need to make sure you’re buying a laptop with a long battery life. There is nothing worse than coming to the last class of the day and finding out that your laptop is dead and you forgot to bring your charger.

Ideally, you don’t want to lug around a charger, power bank, or anything other than what you need, so be sure to check your laptop’s battery life before you buy. Also, don’t believe the battery life advertised by the manufacturer; while some laptops (mostly MacBooks) last as long as advertised, the vast majority don’t.

We know this because here at Tom’s Guide we put every laptop we review through a series of performance tests, including a battery drain test that requires the laptop to surf the Internet endlessly over Wi-Fi with the screen brightness set to 150 nit.

While you shouldn’t take our battery test results as a promise that you’ll get the same usage time between charges (because, for one thing, you’ll probably have a brighter screen than ours in our test), you can use that as a more accurate overall estimate and use it to compare laptops to see which one lasts the longest. In fact, we’ve compiled a list of the most durable laptops we’ve ever tested, which you can check out below:

Tom’s Guide Laptop Battery Life Test Results Notebook Battery Life (Tested)Dell XPS 13 OLED7:59Asus Zenbook 13 OLED15:00MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022) Review18:20M1 MacBook Air14:41MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)14: 09Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio10:30Framework Laptop10:17Microsoft Surface Laptop 410:46Acer Swift 311:09Microsoft Surface Pro 89:06Dell XPS 15 OLED6:58MacBook Pro 2021 (16″)15:31Lenovo Yoga 9i11:15Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano12:00Alienware m15 R44 Elite Dragonfly12:25Asus Zenbook Duo 1410:37Lenovo IdeaPad Chromebook Duet12:47Google Pixelbook Go11:29Acer Chromebook Spin 71311:54

As you can see, the Dell XPS 13 is a little behind the rest, and I only included it because the 8-hour battery life is really the bare minimum you should expect from a good laptop. However, for a full day of activities, this is a bit small, so I recommend that you choose something lighter and more durable, such as the MacBook Air (2020, M1) or the Asus Zenbook 13 OLED.

Make sure you have enough power for your needs

There are plenty of laptops out there waiting to be purchased, and they range from being powerful enough to run Chrome to being powerful enough to let you play the best PC games at all max settings. But you usually get what you pay for, so make sure you don’t pay too much (or too little) for a laptop with components that don’t fit your needs.

Asus Zenbook 13 OLED

The Asus Zenbook 13 OLED ($899) is a lightweight, durable ultraportable laptop with enough processor power, RAM, and storage to make a great student laptop. (Image credit: Future)

In particular, try to stay away from anything with a processor smaller than an Intel Core i5 (or AMD Ryzen 5), 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB drive. The aforementioned Asus Zenbook 13 fits that bill and is fairly affordable.

You’ll get even better performance if you get something with a newer or more powerful processor, more RAM, or a discrete graphics card, but unless you plan on doing more than just browsing the web and writing articles, you won’t have much the need for more power.

That said, if you’re after something powerful that’s relatively easy to carry around all day, I recommend the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14. It’s a gaming laptop, but unlike most gaming laptops, it’s relatively light and compact, has decent battery life (when you’re not playing games), and has enough power to do some serious engineering work, video editing, and game development. Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro M2 is also a great investment if you want something powerful, great at photo/video editing, and with a long battery life.

MacBook Air with M1 on the table

These days, the lightest and thinnest laptops usually have nothing more than a pair of USB-C ports and a headphone jack, as is the case with the MacBook Air M1. (Image credit: Henry T. Casey/Tom’s Guide)

Conversely, if you get something with less than impressive specs, you may experience poor performance. Laptops with an Intel Core i3 processor or something less powerful tend to be pretty hard at work with demanding applications, and if you have less than 8GB of RAM, you may find that your laptop has a hard time multitasking or takes a long time to boot of things.

256GB of storage is less important, especially if you plan on doing mostly homework and web browsing on this laptop, but if you get much less, you’ll probably have to spend time cleaning your hard drive regularly to free up space. for new things. Keep in mind that the operating system (usually Windows or Mac) takes up quite a bit of space on your drive by itself, so you won’t be able to use all the storage you pay for. If you buy a laptop with 128GB or even (God forbid) 64GB, you will quickly see how painful this juggling can be.

Do you want a touch screen and/or 2-in-1?

Laptop designs are no longer limited to traditional clamshells, and there are now plenty of great touchscreen laptops that fold onto the laptop, turning it into a heavy tablet.

Such functionality might be overkill if you plan to use the laptop exclusively for writing, but if you want to do any digital work, the 2-in-1 convertible is a great choice. Personally, I like them simply because you can “hang” them at different angles for more comfortable viewing, which is very convenient when you take a break between classes and movie streaming.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio on the table

2-in-1s like the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio are great because you can fold the screen (or, in this case, slide it down over the keyboard) and use it like a tablet. (Image credit: Future)

I’ve also heard from parents that some schools require their students to have touchscreen laptops that support a stylus. If that’s what you’re looking for, make sure all the laptops you’re considering have touchscreens and offer USI (Universal Stylus Initiative) support. This means you can buy a USI certified stylus and be sure it will work with your new laptop.

I remember one parent in particular mentioning that their child attended an engineering program that encouraged students to bring laptops with a discrete GPU and an active stylus (an active stylus is one that connects via Bluetooth, a passive stylus is not). Few laptops meet this requirement, but the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio does it, and it’s a great ultra-portable 2-in-1 to boot.

Port selection is important

You will most likely want to connect more than a charger to your laptop, so make sure it has the right ports for your needs before you buy. Headphone jacks, for example, are great when you want to listen to music while doing your homework in the classroom, but some laptops have now ditched the headphone jack (looking at you, Dell XPS 13 Plus) in the name of being both as thin as possible. and as bright as possible. Of course, you can always use Bluetooth headphones, but then you have to worry about constantly charging another device.

Similarly, if you want to use accessories like a keyboard or mouse with your laptop, you need to make sure it has the right USB ports in sufficient numbers to meet your needs. These days, most modern accessories connect via USB-C (which looks like a flat, wide oval), but there are still a bunch of gadgets that connect via the older USB-A (which looks like a rectangle). Check what hardware you plan to connect to your laptop and then test it to make sure you can connect everything without too much trouble.

If you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world, as you can still use dongles and adapters to connect your accessories. However, this again means that you will carry more equipment in the bag, which can be easily lost.

bottom line

If you keep these 5 tips in mind, you should be well prepared to find the perfect laptop for you during school shopping season. For more recommendations on great student laptops, check out our guide to the best college laptops.

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