Even for those who feel at home with their nose in a textbook, the end of summer break (or Winter recess) is a big bummer. But as much as it’s a return to school and schedules, it’s an opportunity. This is a fine excuse to invest in some fresh tech to make the coming academia-addled year a little more bearable.
If you’re still reliant on a desktop, or if your laptop winces at the sight of a high-definition video lecture, it’s time to look into an upgrade. And thankfully if you know where to look, it’s possible to get a sleek and impressive notebook without blowing through your savings (or student loans).
We’ve pored through our archives from the past several months and picked the best laptops for school. Our short list spans a variety of budgets that range from power-sipping Chromebooks to help you with that 1,000 page dissertation to more powerful machines that’ll do better at a dorm room lan party.
Update: CES 2016 kicked off with several new Chromebook announcements that are made for the education market. Acer debuted the Chromebook C202 that’s made durable with a drop-resistant, rubberized shell. Additionally, the C202 comes with easily replaceable components, making it feel modular. If the keyboard or battery stops working, you can replace just the malfunctioning component rather than your entire notebook. Samsung also announced its Chromebook 3, which comes with a more durable build to withstand daily use in the hands of students.
1. Asus Zenbook UX305
A most affordable and excellent Ultrabook
CPU: 800MHz Intel Core M 5Y10 (dual-core, 4MB cache, 2GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5300 | RAM: 8GB DDR3 | Screen: 13.3-inch FHD 1,920 x 1,080 (matte) | Storage: 256GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11n Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 1.2MP HD | Weight: 2.6 pounds |Dimensions: 12.8 x 8.9 x 0.5 inches (W x D x H)
Call it a MacBook Air knockoff all you want, the Asus ZenBook UX305 is one of the best and most affordable Ultrabooks available now.
Read the full review: Zenbook UX305
2. Acer Chromebook 15
Chrome OS comes to the big screen
CPU: 1.5GHz Intel Celeron 3205U (dual core, 2MB cache) | Graphics: Intel HD graphics | RAM: 4GB DDR3 | Screen: 15.6-inch Full HD 1,920 x 1,080 resolution | Storage: 32GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 720p HD | Weight: 4.85 pounds | Dimensions: 15.08 x 9.65 x 0.95 inches
The Acer Chromebook 15 asks if you need a big machine to just run a Chrome browser, and I say ‘oh, yes.’ The Chromebook 15 takes Chrome OS to new places as it’s the first device to arrive with a 15.6-inch display and the first to come with Intel’s newest Broadwell processor.
Read the full review: Acer Chromebook 15
3. Apple MacBook Pro 13.3-inch with Retina Display
The fastest small MacBook Pro yet is a force of nature
CPU: 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with 3MB L3 cache (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) | Graphics: Intel Iris Graphics 6100 | RAM: 8GB | Screen: 13.3-inch IPS, 2,560 x 1,600 pixels | Storage: 128GB SSD |Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: FaceTime HD | Weight: 3.48lbs (1.58kg) |Dimensions: 12.35 x 8.62 x 0.71-inches (W x D x H)
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is an excellent option for students who may need more power than a Chromebook or a MacBook Air without sacrificing portability thanks to its long battery life, relatively light weight, and high resolution display. Students on a budget will be happy to know that they can get started right away as the MacBook Pro with Retina display ships with free copies of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote out of the box as well as iMovie, Photos, and GarageBand for basic, creative projects.
Read the full review: MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display
4. Acer Chromebook 15 C910
The colossus of Chromebooks
CPU: 2.2GHz Intel Core i5-5200 dual-core processor | Graphics: Intel HD 5500 graphics | RAM: 4GB, DDR3L SDRAM | Screen: 15.6-inch Full HD 1,920 x 1,080 resolution | Storage: 32GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 720p HD | Weight: 4.85 pounds | Dimensions: 1.0 x 15.1 x 10.1 inches inches
Don’t be fooled by this fatso. The Acer Chromebook 15 C910 is a durable workhorse that will reward you for looking past its size in favor of its performance, long battery life and stylish good looks.
Read the full review: Acer Chromebook 15 C910
5. Apple MacBook Air 13-inch
Finally, battery life within our grasp
CPU: Dual-core 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 (2.6GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5000 | RAM: 4GB | Screen: 13.3-inch 1440 by 900 | Storage: 128GB SSD | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: FaceTime HD | Weight: 2.96 pounds (1.35 kg) | Dimensions: 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.68 inches (W x D x H)
While it has yet to make the leap into Retina, this is still the laptop that the ultrabook aspires to, thanks to incredible battery life and AC Wi-Fi.
Read the full review: MacBook Air 13-inch
6. Asus ROG GL551
The best entry-level gaming laptop available
CPU: 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-4710HQ Processor (quad-core, 6M cache, up to 3.5GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M (2GB GDDR5 RAM); Intel HD Graphics 4600 | RAM: 16GB DDR3L (2x 8GB at 1600MHz) | Screen: 15.6″ FHD (1920 x 1080), matte finish | Storage: 1TB HDD (7,200 rpm) | Connectivity: 802.11g Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 1.2MP, 720p webcam | Weight: 6 pounds | Dimensions: 15.0 x 10 x 1.3 inches (W x D x H)
With a surprising amount of horsepower under the hood, you couldn’t ask for more from the Asus GL551, save for maybe a better screen.
Read the full review: ROG GL551
7. Acer Aspire V7
Offering great all-round performance this is ideal for a student
CPU: 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U (dual-core, 3MB cache, up to 2.60 GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GT 750M (4GB DDR3 RAM); Intel HD Graphics 4400 | RAM: 8GB DDR3L RAM | Screen: 14-inch, 1920 x 1080 glossy IPS touchscreen | Storage: 500GB (5400 rpm with a 16GB SSD cache) | Connectivity: 802.11n Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 720p webcam | Weight: 4.41 pounds | Dimensions: 13.4 x 9.4 x 0.9 inches (W x D x H)
A short battery life and an obnoxious amount of bloatware hold back this otherwise excellent notebook that tows the line between Ultrabook and gaming laptop.
Read the full review: Aspire V7
8. Microsoft Surface 3
Thinner, lighter, quieter, cheaper
CPU: Quad Core Intel Atom x7-78700 processor (2MB Cache, 1.6GHz turbo boost to 2.4GHz) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics | RAM: 4GB | Screen: 10.8-inch ClearType Full HD Plus Display (1920 x 1200) | Storage: 128GB | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: 3.5 megapixel front-facing camera; 8.0 megapixel rear-facing camera with autofocus | Weight: 1.37 pounds | Dimensions: 10.52 x 7.36 x 0.34 inches (W x D x H)
If you want the cheapest and most portable Surface tablet money can buy for lightweight computing tasks, the Surface 3 fits the bill. Power-hungry users should consider the low-end Surface Pro 3 instead.
Read the full review: Surface 3
9. Microsoft Surface Pro 4
The tablet that can replace your laptop
CPU: 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U (dual-core, 3MB cache, up to 3GHz with Turbo Boost) | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520 | RAM: 8GB LPDDR3 | Screen: 12.3-inch, 2,736 x 1,824 PixelSense 3:2 aspect ratio display | Storage: 256GB PCIe 3.0 SSD | Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi (2 x 2 MIMO), Bluetooth 4.0 (Low Energy) | Camera: 8MP rear-facing (1080p HD); 5MP front-facing (1080p) HD camera | Weight: 1.73 pounds | Dimensions: 11.5 x 7.93 x 0.36 inches (W X H X D)
A higher resolution screen, a thinner design and a move to Intel’s more powerful Skylake processors all help to make this portable tablet a capable replacement for your laptop. Sadly, the Type Cover keyboard is still an optional necessity for this laptop replacement.
Read the full review: Microsoft Surface Pro 4
10. Lenovo ThinkPad E555
A ThinkPad, but without the price tag
CPU: AMD A8-7100 APU | Graphics: Radeon R5 | RAM: 4GB DDR3L 1600Mhz RAM (0.67GB allocated to graphics) | Screen: 15.6-inch AntiGlare display, 1366 x 768 pixel resolution | Storage: 500GB (7200RPM) | Connectivity: 802.11n Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0 | Camera: HD | Weight: 5.29lbs (2.54kg) | Dimensions: 14.76 x 10.04 x 1-inches (W x D x H)
Forget Lenovo’s Essentials range, the ThinkPad E555, bears all the qualities (well, almost) of the legendary ThinkPad family but without the price tag.
Read the full review: ThinkPad E555
Originally contributed by Joe Osborne and Kevin Lee.