How to choose a laptop for college 2024

MacBook Air 13 M3 top down photo on a slatted table showing the full keyboard
(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Looking for a college laptop can be challenging if you don't know what is required of you in class. You also need to look for something effective and within your budget. Laptop Mag reviews more than 100 laptops a year, and we can help you answer both questions.

The best laptops for college are those that can do the most for as little money as possible. Listen, I didn't have enough spare change to even afford the bus ride to college back in the day, so I get the struggle is real.

You need something that works and won't add to what feels like insurmountable college debt, so let me guide you through some key features to look out for when buying a laptop for college.

4 key features a college laptop should have

Asus Zenbook 14 OLED (Q425M) open on a wood desk angled away from the camera with lid slightly open

(Image credit: Future)

There are quite a few aspects that determine if a laptop is good or not, and I'll talk about them further down below, but for right now, you should prioritize four things when shopping for a college laptop:

Battery life

The last thing you need is to run around class or the library looking for somewhere to plug your laptop in because it's about to die. No, thank you. I've spent way too much time suffering this fate to wish it upon anyone else. Want to survive college? 

Get a laptop with at least 10 hours of battery life. That should get you through your classes for the day without issue. Don't take a company's word for it, we test the battery life in laptops ourselves. Just keep in mind that Laptop Mag battery tests account for laptops set to 150 nits of brightness, so as a rule of thumb, keep that display brightness at 50%.

Portability

You could argue for lumping this in with battery life, but this is about size. You don't need to be pulling out an 18-inch monster on a small desk in the middle of class. Or worse, if you're in an auditorium, folks are going to glare at you for taking up both armrests. 

Stick to a reasonable size, like 14 inches. You might get away with a larger laptop since companies managed to fit larger displays in smaller chassis, but keep an eye out for the actual device width in the spec sheet.

Performance

My worst fear is my laptop freezing up when I'm trying to take notes in class. I've had a few close encounters with classes that require certain specs in laptops, and even specific laptops, like MacBooks. 

I can help you choose what you need on the performance end — the bare minimum should be a Core i5 or Ryzen 5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. However, if you want to guarantee you won't run into trouble, find a Core i7 or Ryzen 7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD. 

An RTX 4060 GPU will take you far for classes involving graphically intensive tasks. However, if you know you're going into a field that might be intense on your laptop (like computer science or cinema), email your professors beforehand to ask about the minimum requirements to use the required software if those requirements aren't listed on any registration materials.

Operating System

An operating system is a critical feature you need to keep in mind because your classes might require specific laptops. And if not, they might require the use of specific software which may not be available on all operating systems.\

 One film class I took required us to use Adboe's video editor Final Cut Pro. Thankfully, I already had access to a MacBook at the time, so it wasn't a big deal for me. But it's rough if you don't have a readily available macOS device. 

If you're in a technical class, ask about software!

4 college laptops to buy for varying budgets

Asus Zephyrus G14 (2024) review

(Image credit: Future)

Premium college laptop Asus Zenbook 14 OLED (Q425)

Excluding those who need a graphic-intensive laptop, my top choice is the Zenbook 1. It offers nearly 16 hours of battery life in a compact 12.3-inch chassis with a 14-inch display. Top that off with snappy performance thanks to its Intel Core Ultra 7 155H, 16GB RAM, and 1TB SSD. It also comes in just under $1,000. It's the cheapest premium laptop you can buy to last you through your college experience. But it also offers great secondary features, like a pretty display, a comfortable keyboard, great speakers, and a privacy shutter for its webcam.

Budget college laptop Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5i Chromebook Plus

I'm not a fan of Chromebooks, but if you find that your college life takes place mostly on the web (meaning that you don't use particular Windows apps), this is a solid choice. It's $499 and offers a Core i3 CPU with 8GB of RAM for that minimum speedy performance. Since it's a 14-inch laptop, it also keeps it light and compact. 

The battery life is solid as well, at 9:43, which is just a few minutes shorter than my 10-hour recommendation. A nice bonus is its great keyboard. However, keep in mind that since this is a Chromebook, you won't have access to the usual apps you would with Windows.

Gaming college laptop Asus Zephyrus G14 (2024)

I say gaming, but this applies to any field requiring you to use a discrete graphics chip to run apps. But it definitely doesn't hurt to be able to game after a long day of schooling. The Zephyrus G14 is an excellent choice for college students. It supports a powerful AMD Ryzen 9 8945HS CPU and Nvidia GeForce RTX 4060 8GB GPU. 

It lasts 8:16 on a single charge (impressive for a gaming laptop). It's an incredibly compact 14-inch gaming laptop, measuring 12.3 inches wide and 0.6 inches thin. Other great features are its springy keyboard and stunning OLED display. You also really don't need to pay that much more for it compared with our top option, which currently runs for $1,299.

MacBook — The Macbook Air M3 is a great choice, and it's at the top of our best college laptops list for a reason. It checks all of the boxes: 15:21 of battery life, 12-inch wide and 0.4-inch thin design, and killer Apple M3 performance. And it's not nearly as expensive as you might think. 

You can find it on sale for $999, just barely staying within a three-digit budget. If a class requires you to use macOS apps, this is the device for you.

Outlook

Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5i Chromebook Plus review

(Image credit: Future)

Above are four great laptops that (mostly) fall into the four criteria I set earlier. Naturally, you know what works best for you, but the most important thing is to research when buying a laptop. 

Not everything a company writes in its specs is technically true. Battery life estimates are often run for unrealistic scenarios, and unit weight also differs based on the configuration you purchase. 

It's important to read our reviews to see what's what.

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Rami Tabari
Editor

Rami Tabari is an Editor for Laptop Mag. He reviews every shape and form of a laptop as well as all sorts of cool tech. You can find him sitting at his desk surrounded by a hoarder's dream of laptops, and when he navigates his way out to civilization, you can catch him watching really bad anime or playing some kind of painfully difficult game. He’s the best at every game and he just doesn’t lose. That’s why you’ll occasionally catch his byline attached to the latest Souls-like challenge.