macOS or Windows? Multi-mode? Here are our favorite laptops for college

Story highlights

  • We tested a plethora of laptops to find the best ones for college.
  • The choice ultimately comes down to personal preference for macOS or Windows.
  • Check out our favorites.

College and the journey to higher education can be a time of high anxiety, from choosing a school to the process of finding a roommate. To a lesser degree, picking the right laptop is key. Besides your smartphone and wearable, a laptop is a device that you will increasingly be calling on.

They can be used for everything from taking notes, writing essays, creating PowerPoint presentations, running data and, of course, watching Netflix. So while it’s relatively easy to know what you need to do with one, the process of picking a laptop is more complicated than ever.

There are many brands, two operating systems and countless other determining factors, ranging from design to processors and even if it has a touch screen. Oh, and of course, since you’ll be carrying it from class to class, you’ll want a portable one.

Luckily, this handy dandy guide will make the decision of choosing a laptop a bit easier. And in case you’re crunched on time and running late for your next class, here’s a quick cheat sheet:

Durability and ultra portability are crucial

As smartphones have gotten bigger, laptops have gotten thinner. Remember when Steve Jobs pulled the MacBook Air out of the yellow manilla folder in 2009? That original model started a revolution, a sloped design that had designers, and ultimately, consumers thinking differently.

Weight is especially crucial for a student, as your laptop is a go-to tool that you’ll need throughout the day. You don’t want a massive piece of plastic and aluminum that weighs down your backpack. Most laptops — almost all the ones we’re recommending — have embraced this sleek and thin style. The 2019 MacBook Air and Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 each weigh less than 3 pounds with 13-inch sharp displays.

Additionally, the days of a white plastic MacBook are gone. Both the MacBook Air and Surface Laptop 2 have aluminum or metal builds. For starters, it gives you more value and a sleek looking computer that can handle a ding or scratch. The Surface Pro or Acer Switch 3, both 2-in-1s, offer a metal slab with a screen and a kickstand on the back.

While these devices are thinner and weigh less, it hasn’t lessened their durability rating.

The choice is yours: macOS or Windows

When it comes to operating systems, you likely have your allegiances, quite similar to the light side or dark side in “Star Wars.” Even so, that loyalty is a hard-fought battle that comes down to personal preference and how you use your computer. If you have an iPhone, you’ll likely go for a Mac since iMessage and FaceTime can work across the devices. At the same time, Windows 10 makes it easy to interact with other devices and likely has a more extensive selection of apps. It’s also wise to see if your specific program, major or school has a favorite.

Let’s go through our top picks for laptops that are ideal for college students.

Top choices in macOS and Windows

Apple MacBook Air 2018 (starting at $1,199;

  • Starting at $1,199
  • Key Specs: 13.3-inch display, 128GB SSD (starting storage), 8GB of RAM (starting) and an Intel i5 processor.

If you’re looking for an ultra-portable machine that looks sweet (gold is a personal favorite) and that is a part of the Apple ecosystem, look no further than the MacBook Air. It’s been a favorite with consumers for years, and late last year it received its first update in many years with a refreshed design and upgrade hardware. Plus, for those long hours in class, working from the dorm and inevitably streaming Netflix, the crisp and clear Retina display will impress.

You will also need to get adjusted to the dongle life thanks to the MacBook Air only having two USB-C ports and a headphone jack. Luckily, Apple and third parties sell adpaters for almost anything you could think about connecting. But when it comes down to it, the MacBook Air is a great laptop for college students.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 (starting at $899;

  • Starting at $899
  • Key Specs: 13.5-inch display, 128GB (starting storage), 8GB of RAM (starting) and an Intel i5 processor.

Microsoft doesn’t just make Windows; it’s also back in the hardware game. Surface, a tablet and laptop combo, has taken off the past few years and makes this list a bit lower, but the Surface Laptop 2 is a traditional laptop with a twist. It certainly stands out from the crowd, thanks to its variety of colors: black, platinum, burgundy and cobalt blue. Plus, the inside of the computer has a fabric build that’s a joy to use, especially for typing. It’s like a next generation palm rest.

Since Windows 10 is optimized for touch screens, the 13.5-inch display can be controlled with the built-in trackpad or with your finger, as it’s touch enabled. It’s effortless to switch back and forth between input controls. Unlike the MacBook Air which has only USB-C ports, Microsoft put several in the Laptop 2. Notably, no USB-C, but you get a charging port, USB-A, mini display and a headphone jack.

Portable powerhouses

Surface Book 2 (starting at $1,149;

  • Starting at $1,149
  • Key Specs: 13- or 15-inch display, 256GB SSD (starting storage), 8GB of RAM in 13-inch or 16GB of RAM in 15-inch, and an Intel i5 processor in 13-inch or Intel i7 processor in 15-inch.

Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 combines the best of tablets and a laptop into one device. It’s a true 2-in-1 device since you can disconnect the screen from the keyboard. Most of the hardware is actually in the screen since you can use it on its own with the optional Surface Pen. Even when it’s in laptop mode, the hinge allows you to flip it all the way around. Even better, Microsoft lets you choose between a 13- or 15-inch size.

The Intel i5 or i7 processor will let you handle productivity tasks like email, essays and slide decks like a champ. The Surface Book can also edit 4K video footage in Adobe Premiere, as well as let you complete late night coding sessions.

Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro (starting at $2,099, originally $2,399;

  • Starting at $2,399
  • Key Specs: 15-inch display, 256GB SSD (starting storage), 16GB of RAM (starting) and an Intel Core i7 processor.

Mac laptops tend to find themselves in the higher price spectrum. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is no different with a $2,399 starting price. That gets you a 15-inch Retina display, an Intel Core i7 processor, a dedicated graphics processing unit, 256GB of storage and 16GB of RAM. You can also spec it out with a faster processor, up to 32GB of RAM — which is a whole lot of processing power — and up to 2TB of storage.

It can be a portable powerhouse and should handle essays and notes like a champ. Plus for graphic design or art majors, you can run programs like AutoDesk, Final Cut, the Adobe Suite and other taxing apps.

Our favorite 2-in-1s

Surface Pro 6 (starting at $799;

  • Starting at $799
  • Key Specs: 12.3-inch display, 128GB SSD (starting storage), 8 or 16GB of RAM and Intel i5 processor.

I was a bit skeptical when Microsoft launched the Surface, but that device essentially kickstarted the 2-in-1 category. The Surface Pro 6 with Type Cover has been a joy to use. Like the Surface Book 2’s screen, the Surface Pro 6 is essentially a high-performance 12.3-inch tablet. The Type Cover goes a different route than Apple’s Smart Keyboard for the iPad by including a trackpad.

Ultimately this attachment allows you to use the Pro 6 as a laptop. It meets the necessary specs for productivity uses, light gaming and even light photo editing. The best part is the built-in kickstand on the back that allows you to find the perfect angle. Students who find themselves working on couches or in bed will like this added functionality.

Acer Switch 3 ($399;

  • Starting at $399.99
  • Key Specs: 12.2-inch display, 64GB of storage, 4GB of RAM and an Intel Pentium processor.

To me, the Acer Switch 3 seems like a more affordable Surface Pro that can still handle high-performance tasks. You get a slightly smaller 12.2-inch display, but the keyboard attachment and active pen are included. It only has an Intel Pentium processor inside, but it’s ideal for lighter tasks like productivity, essay writing, taking notes and, of course, web browsing or streaming. Acer also includes a built-in kickstand. Overall it’s an excellent solution.

Traditional laptops that perform

ASUS VivoBook S15 (starting at $699;

  • Starting at $699
  • Key Specs: 15.6-inch display, 256SSD (starting storage), 8GB of RAM (starting) and an Intel i5 processor.

If you want a 15-inch laptop that’s as stylish as it is affordable, the ASUS VivoBook S15 is an excellent option. You can pick from Gun Metal, Firmament Green, Star Grey and Silver Blue. All of these will let your personality shine through, and when you open it, you’ll see a 15-inch display that spans almost the entire length, thanks to a Nano-Edge design. The bottom portion of the VivoBook has an ergonomic lift built in that will raise it a bit. I think some users will find this helpful for typing for long hours and overall comfort.

While it’s a big laptop with a larger display, it’s still portable at less than 4 pounds, so it won’t hurt to haul it around campus. ASUS also starts with an Intel Core i5 that should handle all student needs, from school work to enjoyment.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed price at the time of publication.

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