Laptops for back-to-school students: best budget to top-tier models

Brittany A. Roston - Aug 14, 2017
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Laptops for back-to-school students: best budget to top-tier models

Later this month, thousands of students will return to college, and thousands more will be heading out for their first semester. Just as necessary as dorm room mini-fridges and a comfortable backpack is a laptop, the tool through which you will complete seemingly endless course work and Netflix binging. Whether you’re in the market for a top-tier laptop that’ll last you four plus years or just something cheap to get you through your first semester, this list has got you covered.

Chromebooks

An increasing number of students are choosing to pick up a Chromebook versus a Windows or Mac laptop due to a combination of affordability, simplicity, and portability. You should evaluate your needs before jumping onto the Chromebook bandwagon — if you’re going to find yourself in courses that requiring running any software, such as a mathematics or modeling program, a Chromebook isn’t for you. If your degree only requires online access, word processing, spreadsheets, and basic photo-editing, though, a Chromebook will do just fine.

1. Acer Chromebook 14

If you’re looking for Chromebook that’ll keep up with your projects but won’t break the bank, the market is full of many, many options, and the Acer Chromebook 14 is merely one of them. We chose this laptop for multiple reasons, but primarily because despite the model’s ~$250 price tag (it varies by retailer), this laptop sports an aluminum body that gives it a trump card over plastic models both in terms of durability and style.

As well, Acer packed a Full HD 1080p 14-inch display into this model, giving a larger screen than most Chromebooks at this price point. Users are also given a 12-hour battery life and decent enough processing power, though there are some comprises — you’re only getting 32GB of internal storage, for example, whereas some models offer 64GB. Still, given that this is a Chromebook, you get 100GB of Google Drive storage space for free, so that’s not a huge deal.

2. HP Chromebook 13

As far as price goes, the HP Chromebook 13 lies between the Acer Chromebook above and the Samsung model below with a starting price of $519 USD. Unlike some Chromebooks, HP’s Chromebook 13 puts a large emphasis on design, offering a premium brushed metal look on an anodized aluminum chassis alongside a backlit keyboard. That’s a lot to like, and it only gets better when you consider the QHD+ display (3200 x 1800), 11.5 hours of battery life, B&O Play audio, and USB-C audio.

3. Samsung Chromebook Pro

Most expensive in the Chromebook category (on this list) is the Samsung Chromebook Pro, a model that sports high-end features like an LED backlight, 2600 x 1600 display resolution, slim 0.55″ thickness, and decent battery life of 9 hours. This model, despite being a Chromebook, doesn’t feel cheap; it is light and sleek, something that’ll look great on the desk, feel comfortable in the backpack, and work well during late night sessions. This model starts at $549 USD.

Windows

1. Lenovo Ideapad 110s

If you need a Windows laptop that is both very small and very cheap, look no further than the Lenovo Ideapad 110s. This model sports an 11.6-inch display and an overall weight of only 2.5lbs, making it one of the most inexpensive and portable laptops you can buy that still offers Windows 10. As with most Chromebooks, though, this model only has 32GB of flash storage, meaning you’ll need to be okay using either a flash drive or online cloud storage for your data-saving needs.

2. Dell XPS 13

Lying between these two Windows PCs (in terms of price) is the highly-rated, ultra-sleek Dell XPS 13. This 13.3-inch laptop has the slimmest bezels you’ll find on a laptop thanks to its InfinityEdge display. Dell also managed to pack this display into an 11-inch laptop frame, meaning you get a ton of display real estate without a bulky laptop. The QHD+ resolution coupled with Dell’s UltraSharp technology makes this laptop an excellent option for anyone who needs high-end visuals without a completely high-end price. The Dell XPS 13 starts at $799 USD.

3. Lenovo X1 Carbon

READ: Lenovo X1 Carbon Review: Almost Perfect

Topping out the highest end of our list is the ThinkPad X1 Carbon from Lenovo, the fifth-generation version of this popular model. The latest X1 Carbon features a touch bar at the top of the keyboard not dissimilar from the one found on Apple’s newest MacBook Pros. There’s also a QHD display, ultra-slim body, and latest Intel processors. As you’d expect, though, the X1 Carbon doesn’t come cheap with a starting price of $1,400 USD.

Apple Mac

1. MacBook Air

While I’d hesitate to call the MacBook Air a budget laptop, it is the cheapest option you’ll find if you’re set on using macOS. This model is getting up there in years and hasn’t seen any significant updates in a long while, and as such prices are getting pretty reasonable.

The MacBook Air was once offered in an 11-inch form factor, making it the most portable of all Apple laptops; you’ll have to buy used if that’s your choice, and you’ll be able to get one for around $400. Used MacBook Air 13 models start around $600 if you’re looking for a newer one in good condition, while refurbished models are parked around $700 and a new unit starts at $999.

There are a few things to keep in mind here: the MacBook Air is quickly becoming a dated device, and you run the risk of expensive repairs if you buy used. Replacing a MacBook Air’s motherboard is going to cost you somewhere around $450 — possibly as much as you pay for the laptop itself — and buying an older model means less years before you have to upgrade. Buying a new model with higher-end specs could mean being able to use the same laptop for your entire college career versus having to upgrade halfway through.

READ: MacBook 2016 Review – Still controversial

2. MacBook

Here to slowly take over the MacBook Air’s position in the Apple laptop family is the simple, slim 12-inch MacBook. This model lies, in terms of display size, between the MacBook Air 11 and MacBook Air 13, though with better hardware and the inclusion of USB-C.

There’s a lot to like about this model, but some points to take note about: 1) the starting price is higher than the Air at $1,299, and 2) it sheds the ports you get with the Air.

While the MacBook Air features things like an SD card slot and a couple USB ports, the 12in MacBook has a USB-C port… and nothing else. That means you’ll have to make sure you have the dongle on you if you’re planning to connect more than one thing at a time. Whether that is a problem depends entirely on you.

3. MacBook Pro

READ: MacBook Pro with Touch Bar Review (late-2016)

Depending on both your needs and your budget, you may want to jump straight to the highest-end Apple laptops, the new MacBook Pro lineup. These models are designed for those who need something more powerful, and they come with their own perks: more ports, not to mention the Touch Bar feature not found in either of the others.

The MacBook Pro lineup is offered in both 13-inch and 15-inch sizes, two different colors, and multiple configurations. The cheapest of the bunch is the base model 13″ MacBook Pro at $1,299, while on the opposite end of the spectrum is the 15-inch 2.9GHz/512GB model at $2,799 USD. Be sure to read our review (above) for all the details!

Wrap-up

The market is packed full of laptops that cover every shape, size, weight, and specs you can imagine; here we have only nine of them, but nine excellent options regardless. Whether you’ve budgeted for an expensive Windows laptop, a cheap Apple laptop, or a spare Chromebook, any of the above options will serve you well.


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