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19 October 2020

Best laptops for students

We round up the best laptops from our expert lab tests to help you find the very best laptop for school, college or university life
Best laptops for students
MP
Michael Passingham

Heading to uni or college brings new challenges, both academic and social. Our laptop guide can't give your social life a boost (sorry), but we can 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, and give recommendations for the best student laptops for a given task.

See also: Best cheap laptops under £500 | Best MacBooks to choose | Answer three questions to find your perfect laptop | The best laptops from our tests

Top five student laptop considerations

To start, here are five of the top things to think about when buying a laptop to use as a student:

  • Battery life: If you’re going to be out at lectures and seminars all day, and you can’t guarantee you’ll have access to a plug socket, you’ll want a laptop that can achieve at least 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 dragging you down late in the day.
  • Screen size: If you don’t plan on taking your laptop out of halls, go for a bigger screen size, from 15.6 inches up to 17.3 inches.
  • Fast wi-fi: Some laptops have better wi-fi connections than others, 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. Similarly, you don’t want to underspend on a laptop that won't deliver the performance you need if you’re going to be editing videos. Our guide on how to buy the best laptop explains more.

Go to our full list of independent laptop reviews.

How much should you spend on a student laptop?

Generally speaking, these are the prices you can expect to see when buying a new laptop. This should help you avoid overpaying or, indeed, underpaying for a device that won't meet your needs.

Basic note-taking and occasional documents: £200-£250 should be enough, look out for Intel Celeron-powered Windows 10 laptops and Chromebooks.

Heavy web browsing, documents: £300-£500 will net you either an Intel Pentium Gold laptop with plenty of Ram, or even an Intel Core i3/AMD Ryzen 3 laptop. 

Editing photos, videos: Beyond £500 you can start looking at laptops with Intel Core i5 and i7 processors that are capable of editing photos and videos without much lag. 

Gaming: A good gaming laptop will set you back at least £600. The more you spend, the better the graphics settings to run your games on will be.

Best laptops for essay writing and research

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 if you simply need a machine for writing words. Below, we’ve recommended a few options at different price points, depending on your budget.  

What to look for 

Chromebooks are usually excellent little writing devices with very basic operating systems and web browser-centric software. That said, very cheap laptops struggle if they're pushed hard, so make sure your course isn’t going to become more technologically demanding in later terms. 

It pays to buy the best laptop you can afford, especially if you know that you're going to need extra performance later. See our guides to budget laptops and the best Chromebooks for more. 

Last updated: September 2020

Top essay and research laptops

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71%
Best Buy
£699.00
Reviewed

This thin and light 14-inch laptop is the perfect choice for the student who's out-and-about a lot but still needs the performance and power to multitask with loads of programs and windows open.

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70%
Best Buy
£400.00
Reviewed

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.

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68%
£380.00
Reviewed

For the money, there’s not much better than this laptop that can deliver this level of speed along with a decent screen and solid keyboard and touchpad. For the money, this is one of our favourites.

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68%
£599.00
Reviewed

This is a great thin and light laptop that's priced reasonably. It's fast enough for multi-tasking and is comfortable and easy to use.

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64%
£224.99
Reviewed

This budget 11-inch laptop is an attractive choice if you only want a laptop for the very basics. It's tiny and very light at just over 1kg, making it easily portable. It isn't fast, but for the price it is hard to complain.

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62%
£180.00
Reviewed

This Chromebook set the world alight with its speed, but if you’re after a laptop that does the basics without putting up a fuss and prioritise portability above all else, then you can do a lot worse.

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60%
£299.00
Reviewed

You get a lot of laptop for your money, with this large 15-incher ideal to replace an ageing desktop. It runs on ChromeOS, so its slightly slow processor doesn't feel as clunky as it would on a Windows 10 machine. You get what you pay for, but the price is so low that it's worth considering purely on that basis.

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Best laptops for film buffs and media students

These laptops offer fast performance and excellent screens for eking out every last detail of your films. They also excel in other important areas, including speed and build quality, so are great all-rounders for any kind of student.

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 film on a screen that lacks contrast and brightness.

Media and movie laptops

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85%
Best Buy
£919.95
Reviewed

This absolute cracker of a Windows laptop sets the standard for devices running on Microsoft's software. Its excellent screen, lovely speakers and fast performance mean it ticks practically every box you can imagine, and starts from under a grand.

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81%
Best Buy
£1,185.00
Reviewed

This high-end laptop packs a top-quality design and build, as well as excellent speakers and a fantastic screen.

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79%
Best Buy
£1,100.00
Reviewed

This Best Buy is a small, thin and light 14-inch laptop that can also double as a tablet, courtesy of its swivelling touchscreen. Its responsive crystal-clear display will make your digital movie collection pop and its speedy processor makes all but the most processor-intensive tasks a breeze.

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Best laptops for production and design students, and gamers

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. 

These have higher-end internals that 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 if you want a smooth experience editing multimedia projects, whatever they may be. 

An added bonus would be 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. Our reviews will mention if a laptop has dedicated graphics to help you with whatever 3D task you are looking to undertake. 

Powerful laptops for students

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83%
Best Buy
£1,249.00
Reviewed

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.

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71%
Best Buy
£899.00
Reviewed

This gaming laptop has everything you need for a good experience when playing the latest titles. There are various more powerful specifications available but we've tested the cheapest we could find.

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62%
£899.00
Reviewed

This is a good all-rounder for anybody after a laptop for the latest eSports games such as Fortnite, and PUBG. It doesn’t hit all its marks, though, with the screen leaving quite a lot to be desired.

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How to effectively manage remote learning

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted some learning online. If you’ve opted to study remotely – whether because of COVID-19 or for other reasons – or some parts of your course are no longer taking place in person, there's some tech that's worth investing in to make this way of learning easier.

  • A decent webcam. This is essential for interactive online seminars. We don’t currently rate laptop webcams, but our labs check each laptop they test to make sure the webcam works. They typically find that while laptop webcams rarely deliver movie-worthy video, they're perfectly adequate for most people. 
  • A headset with a built-in microphone. The audio quality of many laptops' built-in microphones and speakers often isn't particularly good. A headset with a built-in microphone should make your voice clearer, and also reduces the risk of echoey chats, since the sound you hear will be coming through your headset rather than your laptop’s speakers.
  • A good broadband service. If you’re finding that your wi-fi is slow wherever you’re planning on taking your classes, it might be time to check your internet connection. Ensure you’re on a proper ADSL broadband package with at least 10Mbps speeds (check our reviews of broadband providers if you’re looking to switch). 
  • A strong wi-fi signal. If your broadband is decent but you still struggle to connect, the wi-fi signal in your house may be weak. This is particularly likely in a large, shared student house with only one wi-fi router, particularly if it's far from your computer. A wi-fi extender, or even a mesh wi-fi network (a series of interlinking mini hubs) can help boost the signal. Read our buying guide on wi-fi routers or extenders.

Laptops to ignore

Not all laptops are created equal. Here are some Don’t Buys that aren’t worth the money.

Laptops to avoid

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45%
Don't buy
£329.00
Reviewed

This laptop failed to impress our testers in any area, with sluggish performance, a dull screen, atrocious speakers and awful battery life combining to create something that is increasingly rare: a Don’t Buy laptop. Steer clear.

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45%
Don't buy
£199.00
Reviewed

This brand is apparently popular on Amazon, but our tests reveal this budget laptop is a complete false economy. It’s slow, poorly made and the battery life is awful. Other than that, it’s great.

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44%
Don't buy
£299.00
Reviewed

This sub-standard laptop isn't terribly slow, but it lacks skills in any other area, with poor battery life, fiddly keyboard and touchpad, dull screen and terrible speakers.

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43%
Don't buy
£199.00
Reviewed

This budget laptop has some pretty major flaws that mean even its low price doesn't make it an attractive prospect. Terrible battery life and very slow performance are but two of its many downsides.

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43%
Don't buy
£299.00
Reviewed

This giant laptop is also a giant pain in the neck, thanks to poor battery life, slow performance and a dire screen.

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Student tech deals

Read our tips below to get the best deal on your new laptop, or check out our full guide to the best laptop deals from major retailers.

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 a 10% discount to students buying devices from its Surface Range, including the Surface Laptop, Surface Pro or Surface Book. Bear in mind that the 10% price reduction may not apply if there’s already another offer on the product you’re buying.

You’ll need to verify that you’re a school or university student, but beyond that you won’t have to jump through any 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 AirPods headphones (offer available at time of writing in September 2020), 20% off AppleCare+, and differing levels of discount 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.

  • Asus: up to 15% off Asus products
  • HP: up to 35% off HP products
  • Dell: up to 15% off Dell and Alienware laptops
  • Lenovo: 20% of Lenovo laptops and accessories
  • Samsung: up to 10% off tablets and laptops

Keep in mind that while you can get some great discounts directly 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, so 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 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 Creative 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). Alternatively you can access all Adobe Creative Cloud apps for £16 a month, which is a 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.

We test laptops more thoroughly than anyone else

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.

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