by Caroline Stewart on
Having an organized bag can make or break your productivity levels—so why not spend more time getting work done, enjoying yourself, or anything but looking for your lost stuff?
It’s time to head back to class once again. If you or your child needs a new machine for school, there are a nigh-infinite supply of choices. Here are the best ones available this year.
Most students rely on a single machine to pull double duty as a primary desktop and a portable laptop for taking notes, studying, or labs. That being the case, it needs to be at least somewhat portable with a decent battery, and solid enough to survive years of mild bumps in a backpack or messenger bag. Beyond that, a solid keyboard and a good screen to avoid eye strain are important, as are enough RAM to handle multitasking between browser windows, word processors, and such specific programs as their classes require.
Despite their excellent value and efficiency, we’ve decided not to feature any Chromebook machines among these selections; some classes, especially advanced math and engineering, require programs that aren’t available on the web-heavy ChromeOS.
Beyond that, we’ve made selections for a reliable laptop that should fit within a frugal student or parent’s budget, an upgrade for those who can splurge on a better experience, choices for those who specifically want macOS or a detachable tablet, and those who want extra power for gaming. Check ‘em out below.
For most students, this Acer mid-range laptop will allow for a comfy, efficient Windows experience without breaking the bank. The Swift 3 in its 14-inch configuration features a full 1920×1080 screen with a more readable, color-accurate IPS panel that can’t be found on cheaper models. Crucially it includes 8GB of speedy DDR4 RAM in this base model, and the latest 8th generation Core i5 processor, which will be able to handle anything short of gaming without breaking a sweat.
A 256GB SSD, enough for most users if you don’t fill it to the brim with local music or photo files, will make performance considerably snappier than the hard drives that can still sometimes be found at this price point. The model lacks premium features like a convertible hinge and touchscreen, but its aluminum body and backlit keyboard are nice extras. The $630 price of the i5/8GB model is an excellent value, but if your budget will stretch, you can bump it up with more RAM or storage or a faster i7 processor.
Years after Dell introduced its revitalized XPS line with aluminum/carbon fiber bodies and tiny screen bezels, they remain the gold standard for Windows laptops. The 13-inch and 15-inch versions share design DNA and a wide variety of upgrade options, but all of them are excellently portable, powerful, and efficient. The standard 13-inch model is a good place to start, but we recommend stepping up to a version with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD at the very least ($1050 at the time of writing). The standard 1080p screen is less straining and more battery-friendly at this size, as is the integrated Intel graphics chip. If you want a bigger screen or more power, upgrade to the XPS 15.
On the larger body the extra resolution of an optional 4K screen really shines, and a discrete GTX 1050ti card can take advantage of it. The $1500 package, with 16GB of RAM, an SSD upgrade, the latest 8th-gen Core i7 processor, and the aforementioned graphics card is a particularly attractive package if you’ll need your laptop for more demanding projects with media applications. If you want a convertible experience, both the XPS 13 and XPS 15 are available in 2-in-1 configurations with a fold-back touchscreen for a substantial bump in price.
If you insist on macOS for your school machine, the base model 13-inch MacBook Pro is the sweet spot. At $1300 it’s the same price as the tiny entry-level MacBook, but it gets access to a more powerful Core i5 processor (sadly a generation behind at the time of writing) and an extra USB-C port for using storage drives and a charger at the same time. The cheaper MacBook Air design, with its much older processor and low-resolution screen, makes a poor value proposition in comparison. Perhaps just as important, the cheapest Pro opts for a conventional six-row keyboard instead of the finicky Touch Bar replacing the function keys. While some of the Touch Bar’s applications are novel, we don’t think it’s worth sacrificing the comfort and speed of standard keys.
The Pro 13’s 2560×1600 screen resolution is a good compromise between sharpness and readability, and if its 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage don’t impress, you can upgrade them for $200 each before jumping to the TouchBar model. If you find yourself in need of a Windows-only program, remember that Bootcamp can install Windows 10 in your leftover drive space easily, and most universities provide free or cheap copies of Microsoft’s operating system.
Note than when we recommend a “full power” tablet, we means something that runs a desktop operating system—iOS on the iPad isn’t quite powerful enough to cover all the bases a full-time student needs covered, even the bigger pro models. The Lenovo Miix 510 is a take on the form factor popularized by the Surface Pro does a few things that Microsoft’s flagship line has refused to for years. Chief among them: it includes a detachable chicklet keyboard and a stylus pen in the box, no separate purchases required.
The Miix 510 is a step behind the latest model in the series, but still easy to find and worth considering for its cheaper price tag, despite starting with a seventh-gen Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. 128GB of SSD storage is a little snug, but you can expand it with an inexpensive MicroSD card. The Miix 510 includes a USB-C port, another feature the Surface Pro still lacks, and its 1920×1200 screen is still plenty sharp for its 12-inch size. Note that the Miix does make some sacrifices for its svelte design and sub-two-pound weight: expansion options are limited to a single USB-A port, and you’ll need an adapter to output video via USB-C. At $700, this model is a hundred bucks cheaper than the most inexpensive Surface Pro, with a faster processor and double the RAM.
Psst. Hey. If you want to convince your parents that you definitely need MSI’s exercise in laptop extravagance for your education, you might need to break out the PowerPoint. Explain to them how you just can’t do without the latest 8th-generation Core i7 processor, because Word is just a beast of a program these days. And you can’t work with less than 16GB of RAM, because everyone knows that Chrome chews through memory when you have more than three Wikipedia tabs open at once.
Oh what’s that? A discrete GTX 1060 graphics card? No, that’s not for playing the latest games on a gorgeous 144hz 15.6-inch screen with super-thin bezels, it’s for… blockchain research? And sure, maybe a student doesn’t need a crazy-powerful gaming machine (with an RGB keyboard built in) to fit into a body under three quarters of an inch and just a hair over four pounds. But imagine how much more studying you’ll get done when you can easily take it to
LAN parties group study sessions! Of course that’s just the presentation you’ll have to give for the basic $1749 model. If you want to bump up the graphics card to a GTX 1070, boost the RAM to 32GB, or upgrade the SSD to a full terabyte, you’re on your own. You might start with the fact that, even fully decked out, the GS65 Stealth Thin is still cheaper, smaller, and better-looking than most of its competition.
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