Best laptops for students
By Michael Passingham
Heading to uni or college brings new challenges, both academic and social. A laptop guide can't help with the latter, but we can definitely get you started in picking the right kit to help with your studies.
In this guide, we take you through some of the key laptop-buying decisions you'll have to make, then we'll provide our own recommendations for the best laptops for a given task.
Jump straight to our full list of independent laptop reviews.
Navigate this article by clicking on the sections below:
- Top 5 laptop considerations
- Laptops for essays and research
- Laptops for media and movies
- Laptops for production, design and gaming
- Avoid these Don't Buy laptops
- How to get a student deal on laptops and software
- Why choose Which? for laptop reviews?
- Battery life: If you’re going to be out at lectures and seminars all day, and you can’t guarantee you’ll get a much sought-after plug socket, you’ll want a laptop that can achieve eight hours of battery life in our tests.
- Weight: If you sling your laptop into a light bag or satchel, you’ll want one that weighs less than 1.5kg, so it doesn’t start weighing you down late in the day.
- Screen size: If you don’t plan on taking laptop out of halls, go for a bigger screen size, from 15.6in up to 17.3in.
- Fast wi-fi: Not all laptops are created equal when it comes to wi-fi performance, so check our reviews to see whether we comment on particularly slow wireless connectivity that could affect your work.
- Performance: Don’t overspend on a laptop that’s far too powerful for your needs. If you’re only going to be working on basic essays, you don’t need to spend £1,000 on an ultra-premium high-performance laptop, unless of course you want to. Similarly, you don’t want to spend £200 if you’re going to be editing videos. Our guide on how to buy the best laptop explains more.
If your work will predominantly be making notes and writing essays, you won’t need a powerful laptop. In fact, you can get away with spending very little indeed if you simply need a machine for writing words. Below, we’ve recommended a few options starting at ultra-cheap, as well as a few more premium options.
What to look for: Chromebooks are usually excellent little writing devices, with a very basic operating system and web browser-centric software. If you’re thinking about picking a very cheap laptop, make sure your course isn’t going to get more demanding in later terms as cheap laptops don’t adapt well to more advanced tasks. See our guides to budget laptops and the best Chromebooks for more.
All the recommendations, scores and prices in this article were correct in December 2019.
Top essay and research laptops
This 13-inch laptop is reasonably priced and ticks almost every box when it comes to portability and performance. Our main complaint is with the speakers, which are very poor, but there are very few laptops that actually succeed when it comes to sound.
If you’re looking for a laptop for less than £400, look no further than this one. It has a thin and lightweight design, a Full HD screen and performance that’s good enough for all your daily computing tasks. What’s more, it’s the cheapest Best Buy we’ve tested in almost three years. Read our full review for the verdict on this budget machine.
This Chromebook is great for the basics and has the added bonus of featuring a bend-over-backwards screen that means it can also be used as a tablet when you just want to kick back and watch some BBC iPlayer or Netflix. It’s not the fastest, but it will handle your essay assignments just fine.
These laptops offer fast performance and excellent screens for eking out every last detail of your films.
What to look for: High-resolution screens and Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processors are the must-haves here. Lesser processors might not play high-resolution films so smoothly (although there are exceptions), while there’s nothing worse than watching an atmospheric movie on a screen that lacks contrast and brightness.
Media and movie laptops
If your course involves editing multimedia or 3D work – such as media production, audio production, architecture, design or fashion design – you’ll benefit from picking a pricier laptop that has high-end internals that will step up to the plate whenever you need to get work done away from campus. The other benefit of these laptops is that they can be used for gaming – perfect for a bit of downtime.
What to look for: Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 processors are the bare minimum here if you want a smooth experience editing multimedia projects, whatever they may be. An added bonus would be to select a laptop with so-called ‘dedicated’ graphics from a brand such as AMD or Nvidia. Read our guide to gaming laptops for everything you need to know if you want to kick back with the latest titles on your laptop.
Powerful laptops for students
The quintessential laptop for everything from professional creatives to students on design courses, not much comes close to this pricey laptop. If your profession requires industry-standard software and you also want something portable with a great screen, and need a laptop for getting through complex tasks, this is the ultimate option.
This large laptop has a 17-inch screen, a powerful processor and a dedicated graphics card for gaming. It’s definitely too big and heavy to carry around campus with you, but you probably won’t mind lugging it from your desk to the sofa when you need to.
This mid-range gamer comes in at a decent price and performs well where it counts when it comes to gaming thanks to its decent graphics chip. Like other mid-range gaming laptops, though, its screen isn't up there with the best you can get for the money.
Top two laptops to avoid
It's worth looking at how you can get the best deal on your new laptop.
If you’re looking for a higher-end laptop – perhaps you’re doing a course that requires a laptop with video, photo or 3D-editing work, you could opt for a deal from either Apple or Microsoft, both of which offer discounts to students.
The Microsoft Store website offers 10% discounts to students buying devices from its Surface Range. Be it Surface Laptop, Surface Pro or Surface Book, you’ll get a 10% price reduction, although this may not apply if there’s another offer already applied to the product you’re buying.
You’ll need to verify that you’re a school or uni student, but beyond that you won’t have to jump through any other hoops to get the discount – it’s applied at checkout.
Apple also offers student discounts on Mac products. If you’re a verified university student, you can get free Beats headphones (as of July 2019), 20% off AppleCare+ and differing levels of discounts depending on the product you’re= buying.
Other laptop brand deals
All these laptop brands offer discounts if you buy direct from their online stores.
- 20% of Lenovo laptops and accessories
- Up to 20% off Dell and Alienware laptops (in July 2019)
- Up to 15% off Asus products
- Up to 15% off tablets and laptops from Samsung
- Up to 35% off HP products
Keep in mind that while you can get some great discounts from most laptop brands, other online retailers may have better prices on products and might be doing their own limited-time student (or non-student) deals.
Student software deals
You've found your perfect laptop, now you need some software to install on it.
Student software discounts and free alternatives
If your course requires you (or recommends) you use certain software, check to see whether any discounts or free offers are available.
For example, if your university subscribes to Microsoft Office365, you should be eligible for free Office software downloads, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint. You can find more information on the Microsoft website.
You can also subscribe to Adobe Create Cloud for £10 a month to get Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom: perfect if your course involves photography (you don't even need to be a student), or you can access all Adobe Creative Cloud apps for £16 a month, which is deal exclusive to students and teachers.
The 3D design software firm Autodesk also offers a three-year free licence to some of its software packages if you’re a student.
If you don’t want to pay for anything, there are free, open-source alternatives to popular software packages. These include GIMP or Pixlr for image editing, LibreOffice for productivity, Google Drive or Office 365 Free for web-based word processing and spreadsheets, and Blender for 3D modelling.
Our tests go further than those carried out by other organisations, and because Which? is independent and does not accept advertising or freebies (we buy all the products we test, unlike other sites), you can trust our reviews to give you the full, honest and impartial truth about a product.
When testing laptops in the Which? test lab we monitor, measure and test more than 260 different criteria to ensure that we have every base covered. Everything from battery life and screen brightness to button dimensions and USB data transfer rate is considered.