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The Best Cheap Laptops for College, According to Experts

Photo Courtesy of MGM Distribution Co.

For college freshmen, picking the right laptop can be as important a decision as any they make during those first few weeks of school. Jacob Swanson, a technology buyer at the University of Pittsburgh bookstore, recommends a machine with at least an Intel Core i5 processor, 8 to 16 gigs of RAM, and 128 to 265 gigs of hard-drive space for the average incoming freshman. Most students won’t require much beyond the ability to take notes, email, surf the web, and do word processing, and a laptop with those specs is more than sufficient.

And while it may be tempting to opt for something more affordable (something in the $500 range, for example), we were advised that, in the world of laptops, you really get what you pay for. To help you choose the best one to suit your needs, we spoke to ten university computer stores about what to look for in a machine and what you should expect to pay.

The best Windows laptops

Dell Inspiron 13 5000 2-in-1
Photo: Courtesy of the Retailer
Dell Inspiron 13 5000 2-in-1
$610 at Walmart

Tech specialists and sales associates we spoke to at Arizona State University, University of California, San Diego, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of Texas at Austin bookstores recommended the Dell Inspiron 2-in-1 (a touchscreen computer that is both a laptop and a tablet) as their budget choice. The 5000 series starts at around $700 for the 13-inch model and features a 360-degree hinge that can be configured into four different setups, including tent, stand, laptop, and tablet modes. A good, well-built machine with decent battery life, the Inspiron would meet most students’ needs.

Dell XPS 13
Photo: Courtesy of the Retailer
Dell XPS 13
$800 at Amazon

For a machine with a little more power, the Dell XPS 13- and 15-inch models come highly recommended by specialists at the University of Pittsburgh, ASU, University of Illinois, UTA, and University of Virginia computer stores. Joseph Sacchi, a tech associate at the ASU bookstore, highlights the XPS’s dedicated graphics and video card, which allows for more graphical capabilities — essential for students in majors like engineering. Brandon, a sales manager at UVA’s Cavalier Computers, recommends the XPS for its “portability, performance, and design,” while Andrew Garcia, the retail manager at UTA’s Campus Computer Store, calls it a “premier laptop.”

Microsoft Surface Pro 12.3” 128GB Multi-Touch Tablet
Photo: Ro, Lauren
Microsoft Surface Pro 12.3” 128GB Multi-Touch Tablet
$999 at Amazon

Although the Microsoft Surface Pro is not technically a laptop, it came up as another affordable entry-level option for students. Essentially a souped-up tablet with an option to add a physical keyboard, the Surface Pro is great for students on the go who don’t need to log too much screen time. (Note that the keyboard is sold separately.)

Microsoft Surface Pro Signature Type Cover
$160 at Amazon

The best Mac laptops

Apple MacBook Air
$999 at Jet

It’s no secret that MacBooks are a popular choice among students, and virtually every university computer store we spoke to recommended the MacBook Air as a solid option for students for its sleek design and portability. Will Tham, a technology specialist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Computer Connection, warns that Apple may soon be phasing it out of its lineup.

Apple 13.3” MacBook Pro
$1,299 at Jet

Then there’s the MacBook Pro, of course, which is not only great for everyday use, but also for more advanced programs like video and photo-editing. For most students, the non-touch-bar version would more than suffice for everyday use (and is the more affordable option).

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The Best Cheap Laptops for College, According to Experts