How To & Guide

Best Student Laptop 2021: An Ultrabook For Every Budget

Is your laptop a bit worse for wear after slogging through those first term coursework deadlines? If you’re looking for a replacement so you can kick start the new year with a new super-charged ultrabook, then this Best Student laptop list is for you.

It’s not as simple as picking out the very best student laptop though. Each device suits different needs. A design student would be better off spending a little more on a convertible with a stylus and discrete graphics card (dGPU), for example, while someone studying mathematics or literature – or anyone who just needs to bash out essays, with maybe the odd Netflix session – won’t need a computer quite as powerful.

There’s plenty of recently released ultrabooks including Apple’s new MacBook Air and the incredibly light LG Gram. Then there’s the new Razer Blade Stealth 2019, a lightweight gaming laptop promising power and portability. Recently, Samsung and LG have announced that they’ll expanding their Notebook 9 Pen and Gram line-ups, bringing more convertible laptop-tablet devices to market. Both of these will work with styluses too, which means art and design students needing something to sketch, paint and take notes on will be spoiled for choice. Later this year, we should also start to see more laptops with Intel’s Whiskey Lake and Amber Lake CPUs, too.

Can’t wait that long? No problem, as there’s still plenty of alternative ultrabooks here that can handle the vigorous student life. Below you’ll find our definitive list of the best student laptop across different budgets and needs.

Best student laptop – £200-£500 Laptops for writing essays, reports (and Netflix binges)

If you just need a laptop for hammering out basic essays, then you should consider getting something from Dell’s Inspiron range, an Asus VivoBook or Acer Chromebook – prices range from around £130-£350.

These are very entry-level, but if you just need Microsoft Word/Google Docs and access to email in order to get your write on, these models should suffice. You may not enjoy using them much, but they should get the job done – just.

For a little more money we’d recommend the Lenovo IdeaPad 520S (£400), which comes with an HDMI port – useful if you have a monitor or TV you want to hook it up to.

If you’re on a tight budget then you should consider a Chromebook. Running Google’s Chrome OS, these light laptops are super-luggable and provide streamlined access to Google Docs and Sheets – which let you do everything you can do on Microsoft Word and Excel, for free. Plus, since almost everything is stored in the cloud, you won’t ever have to worry about carrying around several USB sticks between lectures.

The best low-cost Chromebook we’re recommending right now is the Asus Chromebook Flip C302C, which costs between £400-£600. Good alternatives to the Chromebook Flip C302C include Acer’s Chromebook R13 (£400), the Acer Chromebook 14 (£300) and the less impressive Chromebook Spin 11 (£330) if your budget is can’t stretch.

Although Chromebooks offer the advantage of being light, port inclusion tends to be pretty stingy. In many instances you’ll get a few USB ports, a SD card memory card slot and an HDMI out – and that’s it. Neither of these devices are terribly well suited for offline work, requiring a constant Wi-Fi connection for you to access your work, unless you’ve specifically chosen to keep specific files offline. Bear that in mind if your halls or second and third-year shared houses don’t benefit from decent internet access.

Don’t rule out tablets either, especially if you want to also do some drawing or note-taking by hand. We don’t recommend just getting the tablet though – you need a keyboard. Trust us, writing a 1000-word essay on a tablet screen is as impractical as it is uncomfortable.

The Apple iPad (£319) is a great option, but needs a keyboard if you intend to write essays. Apple sells some from its website, but you can pick up cheaper ones online from Amazon, eBay, Newegg, John Lewis and others, with prices ranging from £20-£100. If you decide to go down this route make sure you buy a Bluetooth keyboard case, which connects wirelessly to the iPad. It hasn’t got a trackpad or mouse support so don’t choose it if you intend to work with spreadsheets, but you can also buy the Apple Pencil for £89, if you intend to sketch, draw or write notes by hand.

Another recent addition is the Microsoft Surface Go (from £379), an inexpensive Windows tablet with a removable keyboard (an additional £100) and a USB-C port which lets you connect to an external monitor. Since it’s a little sluggish in terms of performance, you’ll probably want to upgrade to the model with 8GB of RAM (£509). Even then, the Go is certainly no media savvy powerhouse, but for browsing the web, Netflix marathons and whizzing through Microsoft Office tasks, this is a versatile ultra-portable machine.

Best student laptop – £500-£1000 Large, detailed displays for design and fine arts students

If you’re about to embark on any kind of visual arts course, whether that’s photography, design, illustration or fine art, you should have access to everything you need on campus, but you’ll also want to hone your craft and work on projects in your spare time.

If you’re a budding digital photographer or designer then you’ll probably already have some knowledge of colour gamuts – the complete range of colours a device can capture and display. If you don’t, prepare to hear a lot about them on your degree.

Photographers love to argue about which is best: the sRGB gamut or Adobe RGB. Generally, sRGB is what you’ll be using much of the time, especially for design work. Adobe RGB is praised by some photographers, since it offers a wider range of colours, so your lecturers might want you to work with this more.

If you think that something you can sketch out ideas on will be useful for you, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro (£769-£1119) might be a good option if your budget can stretch. We reviewed Affinity Designer on the iPad Pro, and it worked fantastically with the accurate Apple Pencil stylus (£89). The iPad Pro is certainly a powerful device with solid battery life and, needless to say, perfect for Netflix sessions between essays. Not everyone will get on with the fabric feel of the expensive Smart Keyboard dock (£159-£169). For typing out long essays, you might be better off with a keyboard case from a third-party that provides a more traditional typing experience.

A good iPad Pro alternative is the Microsoft Surface Pro. The most recent version, the Surface Pro 6 (£879-£2149), has recently gone on sale, while last year’s Microsoft Surface Pro (£749-£1300), aka the Surface Pro 5, is a good, cheaper alternative.

The Surface Pros are some of the most flexible convertibles we’ve tested. On their own, they’re simply fancy Windows tablets. Combined with a Type Cover keyboard dock, it’s a decent stand in for a laptop. With a Surface Pen stylus, it’s also useful for art students or anyone who wants to sketch on the go. Downsides include the fact that the keyboard docks (£120-£150) and stylus (£100) are often sold separately. If you can pick up a Surface Pro bundle with these included for less, do so.

Finally, we should also draw your attention to the excellent Dell XPS 13 (£999), one of the best overall laptops we’ve seen this year. But because the display only covers 90% of the sRGB gamut and an even worse 65% of the Adobe RGB gamut, we can’t recommend it for anyone doing serious design work.

That said, for students on a bigger budget who want a more powerful laptop for essay writing and general use, this is a great option – it sits at the top our our current “best laptops 2019” list for a reason.

Best student laptop – £1000-£2000 Laptops for photography, videography and IT students

Photography and arts students who can afford something a little more pricey will want to check out the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 (£1479). This boasts an excellent display, covering 99.9% of the standard sRGB gamut and 94.2% of Adobe RGB, while a solid performance ensures close-up editing of detailed photos won’t cause any major slowdown.

Apple’s MacBook Pro 2018 line also boasts some of the best displays we’ve seen on a laptop, covering 100% of the sRGB colour gamut and 84% of the wider Adobe RGB gamut. The version we recently reviewed represents the best possible iteration of the 13-inch MacBook Pro – and it costs £3599. That said, Apple continues to offer a student discount program – which, let’s be honest, you’d be silly not to take advantage of.

If the MacBook Pros are a little out of your price range, note that Apple’s new MacBook Air 2018 range offers many of the key features of the MacBook Pro, but for less money. Read our MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air feature for a full breakdown and comparison.

The Huawei MateBook X Pro (£1250) covers 96.1% of the sRGB colour space, but just 67.2% of Adobe RGB, so not one for photography students. Honestly, photography-minded students are going to have to spend more cash to find the best student laptop for colour accuracy.

If you’re interested in getting on a game design course, it stands to reason that you’ll want a student laptop you can actually play PC games on as well as do your work. If you’re not planning on getting into the games industry and you just want to play some Fortnite between doing some actual work… we understand.

While we provide a full breakdown of the best gaming laptops elsewhere, for student purposes, we’d recommend the Razer Blade 15, an excellent gaming device in its own right which also happens to be reasonably light (weighing just over 2kg) and very portable, making it ideal for taking with you in the daytime and gaming at night. The screen of the top-specced Full HD version covers 92.6% of the sRGB gamut, so in a pinch this is great for art and design students too. Photographers might not appreciate the low 65.1% Adobe coverage though.

As great as the above three laptops are for chugging through work though, they can be back-breaking pains if you’ve got to walk a fair distance to lectures. The LG Gram is a fantastic back-relieving alternative, weighing in at a mere 1.09kg. This 15.6in laptop hasn’t had to sacrifice performance power to achieve this feather-light frame either, as it houses Intel’s super-speedy quad-core i5-8250U processor. It has had to cut corners on the GPU though with an integrated graphics card. Don’t even think about demanding gaming either. Simple video- and photo-editing tasks should be fine though. And with 99% of the sRGB gamut covered, arty students should be well pleased with the colour accuracy.

Best student laptop – £1500+ For Computer Assisted Design, architecture and digital art students

If this is you, then – sadly – you’re looking at shelling out the big bucks. A Chromebook isn’t going to be able to handle large CAD files, so don’t even go there.

For 3D modelling, you’ll want as much storage as your budget can afford, a detailed screen to allow for a good close-up look at your work, and a decent GPU.

If you want something you can sketch with on the go, check out the Wacom Mobile Studio Pro, which comes with a super-responsive Pro Pen 2 stylus. The Mobile Studio Pro comes in two versions, one with a 13.3-inch WQHD (2560 x 1440) display and another with 15.6-inch 4K (3840 x 2160) screen.

While we’ve only reviewed the 15.6-inch edition, we’d recommend that digital artists after something powerful on which to sketch should opt for the cheaper 13.3-inch Mobile Studio Pro. The bigger, more versatile Mobile Studio Pro is intended for those who need to do CAD work.

Slow read/write speeds mean that you might want to opt for a MacBook Pro or Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and pair that with a separate Wacom Intuous tablet, so separating your storage/computing and drawing needs.

An alternative to the Wacom Mobile Studio Pro is the Microsoft Surface Book 2, one with an Intel Core i7 CPU, if your budget will allow. If not, you might be tempted by a cheaper Core i5 version – but you’ll lose out on the processing power that you’ll need. In this case, we’d recommend going for the higher priced option.

Thanks to the Surface Pen (£100) and Surface Dial peripherals, you can sketch and create models with a higher degree of precision than on a bog-standard tablet. These make working in something like Adobe Photoshop and 3D Studio Max a dream, although you might struggle with freeware apps that don’t support the Dial.

Buying a student laptop – Top Tips Don’t overspend

Just because it’s got a £1000 price tag, doesn’t mean it’s going to be amazing. Also, if you’re not studying Computer Assisted Design, photography, game design – and you’ll mainly be spending hours writing essays – you can make do with something a lot less powerful and save yourself hundreds. On the flipside…

Don’t underspend

Just because it’s cheap, doesn’t mean it’s a bargain. If you buy a £200 student laptop in your first year, only for it to break or slow to a crawl in your second year, it means you’ll have to buy a new one. As such, that £200 device isn’t as good value as a £500 laptop that lasts you to the completion of your degree.

A decent student laptop isn’t just a laptop, it’s an investment. It’s something that you’ll hopefully have with you for three to four years. It’s going to be your main companion device and you’ll want it to make that journey with you.

Internal hard drives drive up price

Generally speaking, what pushes up laptop prices more than anything is internal storage. If you need a laptop primarily for writing, why bother spending more on something with a 512GB or 1TB drive when a 256GB will do? Given that programs such as Microsoft OneNote and Google Docs let you store your documents in the cloud as well, for pure essay-writing huge amounts of storage shouldn’t even be a consideration.

On the other hand, if you’re doing photo and video editing, you should consider investing in a portable hard drive. This will allows you to back up your legacy projects and make room for new work. Just in case anything goes horribly wrong, it’s a good idea to back up your work anyway – trust us, you don’t want to be freaking out at the last minute because you dropped your laptop down the library steps and lost your final year project. We can’t emphasise this enough: back up your work.

Take advantage of student deals and finance options

If you’ve found the ideal laptop, but it has a price tag that’s making you feel faint, then you’ll be pleased to learn that retailers such as Currys PC World and John Lewis offer finance options that can help you spread payments over several months.

Your parents might be able to stick that bill on their credit card and you can pay them back at a more manageable rate than stumping up that big lump sum.

Whether or not that’s an option, note that Apple has also historically offered higher education discounts – something it now does in the UK via a company called Unidays, which also offers discounts on Dell hardware.

Bank Holiday Deals, Amazon Prime Day and Black Friday

Keep an eye out for seasonal bargain days such as the January Sales, Prime Day and Black Friday – you might be able to get what you need for a lot less.

While Black Friday takes place a few months after you’ve started, for first-year students who will spend most of September on induction, it might be wise to wait until November to see if there’s a deal to be had.

Also check out our laptop deals page to find discounted laptops available right now.

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