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Heading To University? The Best Student Laptops In 2021

Published 13th July 2021
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Halls are booked, you’ve checked out the top freshers venues, and got your packing checklist ready to go. But wait, is that old laptop with the crack in the corner of the screen and missing Caps Lock key really going to cut it for the next three years? We think not, which is why it’s time to take a look at the best student laptops available on OnBuy!

While some form of normality is returning to university life, you need to make sure you’ve got a reliable laptop that you can count on if remote learning makes a return and you’ve got to stream your lectures from your bedroom! But while justifying the need for a student laptop is one thing, buying one is quite another. A quick browse online will show you dozens of laptops, their descriptions packed with a dizzying list of barely comprehensible technical terms - picking the best one for you may seem like a three-year course all of its own!

Thankfully, we’re here to teach you how to find the best laptops for uni students in the form of this buyer’s guide. We’ll help you cut through the tech jargon and find out what you really need from the best laptops for university, explore some of the pros and cons of buying used and refurbished laptops, and even suggest some of the top picks from OnBuy’s online shelves to save you the hassle. So pay attention - class is in session!

What should I look for in a top student laptop?

lady with notepad and laptop

Answering this question depends entirely on what you will be using the laptop for. If you need a laptop solely for writing documents, answering emails, researching course topics on the internet, and accessing the university’s intranet, then you won’t need anything more powerful than a budget laptop. You might want to buy the cheapest laptop you can find and save your money for other essential expenses like textbooks (or let’s be honest, parties!). Alternatively, you can spend a little extra cash and get a slightly higher spec, which will let you work faster and more efficiently. 

That said, if you’re studying film or video production at university, buying an expensive gaming laptop might be the only way you can edit your projects at home as the components important for gaming are the same as those used for video editing. Fortunately, OnBuy is home to some of the best brands when it comes to gaming laptops; if that’s what you’re looking for, we’d recommend checking out the MSI and Gigabyte storefronts on OnBuy.

Are there any budget-friendly options?

woman writing notes

Given your uni life is going to be a struggle for your overdraft and there’s lots of things to buy before the big move, cost is probably going to be a big factor when it comes to picking out your new laptop; depending on just how tight that budget is, there are other options open to you. When you’re browsing for the best laptops for university, you’ll certainly come across some attractive deals on OnBuy for used and refurbished laptops - with prices slashed by 50% or more, these are some mouth-watering prospects, but are they too good to be true?

It’s best to begin with a brief explanation of the difference between used and refurbished. Used products have already had a fairly long life in another owner’s care and they’ve been traded in at a store, usually because the original owner has upgraded to something new. They’re all in working condition, but their age and quality can differ. Refurbished products are brand new items that have been returned to the store or manufacturer because they had a fault, but the fault could be completely repaired and the product is now fit for sale again. For legal reasons, these products can’t be called ‘new’, so sellers use the term ‘refurbished’ instead.

So should you buy used or refurbished laptops for university? While we must stress that buying a used or refurbished laptop does not come with the same guarantees or warranties that buying a brand new laptop does, it’s usually a pretty safe bet. They’re especially useful if you need a device with quality components, but haven’t got the budget for something brand new.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the best student laptops available on OnBuy’s shelves. Whether you’re on a tight budget or looking for something with the best specifications, this handy buyer’s guide will ensure you pick out a new laptop that’s just right for you!

Premium student laptops: bigger, better and much more powerful

computer shop

If you can afford to allocate a bit more money towards a laptop for uni, we have some top tech on our online shelves that will give you a bigger boost to your studies than a can of Red Bull after a long night out! Whether you want something sleek with a spectacular screen and instant load-times, or a laptop with enough power behind it to cope with your course’s computing demands, there’s a top laptop hand-picked for you below.

A sleek and stylish all-rounder | Apple Macbook Air

macbook air laptop

Pros: Macbooks are famously reliable, new high-performance processor, fanless design makes it practically silent, gorgeous retina display for a super sharp picture

Cons: MacOS is a poor choice for games, more expensive than Windows equivalents

The first entry in our list of the best laptops for university is the Macbook Air. This chic, streamlined Apple laptop has proved popular with customers and tech journalists alike since it was first released, and with good reason. This is the 2020 version of the Macbook Air; that’s important because Apple has upgraded the processor to their new W1 chip. This Macbook Air is faster, more responsive, and can handle intensive tasks like video editing with gusto. The W1 chip runs much cooler than the old CPU - so cool, in fact, that it doesn’t even need a fan! If the constant whirring from a fan drives you to distraction while you’re working, this laptop is definitely for you.

Another typically brilliant part of Apple laptop design is the 2560 x 1600 resolution retina display. Apple retina displays are special because they have such a high pixel density you can’t actually see the individual pixels. This makes everything super sharp, particularly text. If you have to read a lot of PDF documents or e-books for your degree, your eyes will never get tired reading on the Macbook Air (unless you’re pulling an all-nighter to hit your dissertation deadline, of course!).

One of the biggest disasters that can happen when you’re working on your degree is your computer dying. Whether it’s a hard drive failure, dead RAM, or a glitch in your operating system, if your laptop suddenly stops working, you can’t work properly. You don’t need to worry as much when you buy a MacBook Air. With their excellent build quality and the super stable MacOS operating system, Apple computers are famously reliable. You can trust this laptop to make it all the way to your graduation and beyond without a hiccup.

That reliability and high-spec technology comes at a price, though. Apple is well known for making expensive premium tech, and the 2020 MacBook Air is no different. Considering all the positives above, we wouldn’t say that it’s overpriced by any means, but in terms of raw power, equivalent Windows laptops are cheaper. 

And while it’s certainly one of the best laptops for uni students, it’s far from a great gaming laptop. Because MacOS is fundamentally different from the more popular Windows operating system, it costs extra money and time to release Mac versions of PC games - that means fewer top releases end up on Macbooks. If you want to know what sort of games you can play on Macs, check out our Mac games category.

A simple and speedy option | ASUS Chromebook Flip

asus laptop flip tablet

Pros: Beautiful high-performance screen, brilliant typing experience, ChromeOS is very fast, flip design lets you use the keyboard as a stand

Cons: Chrome OS has limited program options versus Mac and Windows, fairly expensive

This ASUS laptop is called a Chromebook because it runs Google’s custom PC operating system, ChromeOS, which is stripped down and focused on doing basic computing tasks really well. However, this is a bit of a double-edged sword: on the one hand, this laptop is lightning quick when browsing the web and working on collaborative documents like Google Drive, but it doesn’t give you the same amount of control as Windows or MacOS. You can install plenty of Android apps from the Google Play Store, but many familiar PC programs aren’t available. 

Since you’ll be writing coursework on them, the best laptops for university need to have decent keyboards. Typing on the ASUS Chromebook Flip is better than decent - it’s great! The keys are quiet, responsive, and they require little downforce to actuate so you don’t need to hammer at them for it to register. Whether you’re tapping out a dissertation or a social media post, the ASUS Chromebook Flip writes like a dream. 

This pick is also fantastic for watching videos. The fact that you can flip the screen and fold the keyboard away makes it much nicer to use as a video streaming platform than other uni-suitable laptops. Keep it in standard laptop mode for watching in bed or use the keyboard as a stand to prop it up on a desk. Either way, the full HD screen is very sharp with great colour dynamics and enough brightness to work well inside or outside. If you love binge watching the latest Netflix must-sees, this is definitely one of the best student laptops you can buy.

The more expensive option that can tackle anything | Lenovo Legion 5i

lenovo legion 5i laptop black

Pros: Powerful graphics card for video rendering, extremely fast processor, will run the latest video games, powerful fan prevents overheating

Cons: The most expensive laptop in our pick, 256GB SSD is small for gaming

Up next is our solitary pick for a student’s gaming laptop, the Lenovo Legion 5i. This laptop from leading PC manufacturer, Lenovo, is a true powerhouse. It runs on a 10th Generation Intel i5-10300H processor, which gives you a blisteringly fast performance. For graphics, it uses a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti, a powerful graphics card that’s compatible with Nvidia Turing, the company’s revolutionary ray tracing technology. Pair these with a bucket load of RAM and you'll consistently get over 30fps from most games, even when playing with graphics set to Ultra! Tweak the game’s settings a bit and you’ll soon hit that 60fps sweet spot.

The only component that feels a little underwhelming is the 256GB SSD hard drive. While this is more than enough for most of the best laptops for uni students, it’s going to get mighty cramped once you’ve installed a few memory-hungry modern PC titles. It also comes with a 1080p screen instead of a super-high def 4K one, but 4K laptop monitors are eye-wateringly expensive and the Lenovo Legion’s screen is good enough that you won’t miss the extra resolution.

Lots of gaming hardware is covered in unnecessary plastic glyphs and LED light panels. That isn’t the case with this Lenovo laptop. It's sleek black body won’t look out of place in a lecture theatre, and its talcum-reinforced plastic body is surprisingly tough as well. It also has a powerful cooling system (vital in a gaming laptop) that means your lap won’t get burning hot while you’re playing and the machine won’t cook itself to death.

Of course, the biggest hurdle you’ll have to overcome is the cost, which is the biggest in our selected laptops. It’s a big ask, especially for a student’s laptop, but you simply can’t play the latest games for less. If you can’t afford this, but still need a gaming fix, buy one of the cheaper laptops in this guide and explore the retro games available in our PC games category.

Need a cheaper laptop that’ll support student life?

casual laptop use on sofa

The options you’ve seen so far could be described as the supercars; the best of the best laptops for uni. However, that doesn’t mean the rest of the selection are the beat-up bangers - these are simply great laptops that will give you everything you need as a student, but without the premium parts to help make it more budget-friendly. While they might not have everything that a high-end laptop includes, they’ll still have quality where it counts and compromise in the less important areas. So with that, let’s take a look at some of the amazing deals below.

The Lenovo Legion's little brother | Lenovo Ideapad S145 Laptop

Lenovo s145 laptop

Pros: Large screen for the price point with a narrow bezel, separate graphics card for better video performance, protective finish guards against wear and tear

Cons: Tinny speakers, screen has poor viewing angles

The second entry from Lenovo is the first of our budget student laptops. Despite being fairly cheap compared to the Apple MacBook Air or the other Lenovo laptop in this guide, the Ideapad S145 is still very competitive. For instance, it’s made from plastic, but that plastic is protected by a special finish that guards against wear and tear. 

Another mark in this laptop’s favour is its independent graphics card. Most budget laptops come with what’s called an ‘onboard graphics processor’. This means that all of the graphics are handled by a tiny chip annexed to the processor, making its performance rather weak. Having a proper graphics card means that the Ideapad S145 will handle older PC games much better than other budget laptops. And although the 14” screen isn't the largest among the laptops we’ve chosen, with the graphics card it’s pretty impressive for a budget laptop. It makes the most of that screen size too thanks to a small bezel around the edges. 

While the screen is big enough to have the sought-after 16:9 aspect ratio that’s perfect for watching movies on, it's in the fine details that the low cost starts to show. The resolution is HD, but it isn’t 1080p, instead capping out at 1366 x 768 pixels. The viewing angle (how far to either side of the monitor you can get before the picture gets warped) is also fairly poor. This makes it hard for other people to watch videos alongside you.

Another way that Lenovo has cut corners is in the speakers. Although Lenovo proudly states that their laptop has Dolby Audio, the software doesn’t get the hardware it deserves. The Ideapad S145’s speakers are very tinny. This is to be expected, as the speakers on budget laptops are normally very poor, although this can be easily solved with a decent pair of headphones. If you want help selecting the best cans for your budget, read through our guide on everything you need to buy the best headphones.

A portable student companion | Acer TravelMate TMB311

Acer travelmate laptop

Pros: Fantastic 12-hour battery life, Windows 10 Pro comes with extra security features, small screen is handy in lecture halls

Cons: Not great for watching video on, small storage capacity

Another of our best budget student laptops is the TravelMate TMB311 from Acer. This small, ultraportable laptop is an evolution of the now-defunct netbook category. Its screen is pretty small compared to the other laptops in this guide, measuring just 11” across. Not great for watching video then, but very handy for taking notes during a lecture as you can have it open alongside a paper notebook or textbooks without your deskspace getting cramped. It also means the laptop is energy efficient, resulting in a fantastic 12-hour battery life. 

This Acer laptop runs on an Intel Core i3 processor. It won’t play many video games, but with 4GB of RAM and a solid state drive (SSD), it will feel rather nippy when browsing the web, working on documents, or performing other low-intensity tasks. The only component that’s a bit lacking is the SSD’s storage space. It’s only 64GB, much smaller than the 256GB standard that’s common with the more expensive student laptops. Since online cloud storage has become so popular and easy to use, onboard storage isn’t as big a deal as it used to be, but it’s something to note.

One of the biggest advantages this laptop has is that it comes with Windows Pro 10 as standard. This more advanced version of Windows has a stack of features not present on the standard version, and you don’t need to be a computer mastermind to use them! One of the most useful for students is BitLocker, an easy to use security program that keeps all of your files encrypted until you enter a password. This prevents common ways of bypassing standard Windows security, like booting from a USB stick. If keeping your files private is a priority, this is definitely a good option for you.

A cheaper, but still brilliant option | Refurbished Dell Chromebook 11

dell chromebook 11 laptop cheap

Pros: Does everything you need to for a low price, 180° screen hinge cuts down on damage, Chrome OS makes the most of budget components

Cons: Refurbished is not risk free, not good for gaming or video

Even budget laptops are going to set you back around £300, which, while significantly cheaper than the premium products, is still a big sum of money. But don’t fret - there’s still a solution for you that isn’t just resorting to pen and paper. Buying used and refurbished tech can be a budget-savvy way to get a great laptop at a fraction of the retail price!

In our opinion, this refurbished Dell Chromebook 11 is the best laptop for uni that you can buy on a tight budget. Although buying used or refurbished laptops is never risk-free, this Chromebook is made by Dell, a brand renowned for its reliability and durability, which should help put your mind at ease. And while this laptop’s most attractive feature is that low, low price, that's far from the only reason to pick it up. One feature that we love is the highly flexible screen hinge, which can be set to any position within a 180° arc to allow easier collaboration and extra durability in the screen hinge.

We like the fact that this laptop uses ChromeOS as its operating system: while it can be constricting for more powerful machines, its stripped-back nature makes it ideal for laptops with less powerful components like this one. It’s particularly snappy when working on documents and browsing the web, the key tasks that the best laptops for students need. It’s not suitable for playing games and the 11” screen won’t wow you if you want to watch movies, but it’s a brilliant choice for most students.

Pens down! Time to look at the final grades...

student in laptops in lecure

And with that, our introductory lecture to the best laptops for uni is over! You’ll find all of the portable PCs we’ve mentioned, plus many other models, in our laptops category. From Apple to ASUS, Microsoft to MSI, our shelves are packed with products from all your favourite brands, available at prices to suit every student.

While you’re here, why not take a look at some other essentials to pair with your purchase, like a reliable printer? When your dissertation deadline is looming and you need to print out the last-minute edits, but there’s a huge queue to use the ones in your university library, you’ll be so grateful that you had your own at home! You’ll also want to pick up a bass-booming Bluetooth speaker for all those spontaneous socials and after parties, plus a pair of noise-cancelling headphones for when student shenanigans get a little too loud in the flat upstairs. For all your student tech supplies, check out our extensive selection of electronics.

As September looms ever closer, we can help you make the most of student life with the help of OnBuy’s handy blogs and buyer’s guides. We’ve taken a look at some ideas to turn your dorm from dull to deluxe, inspiration for improving a rented home that won’t cost you your deposit, and you can find more inspiration on the top tech you need in your life through our electronics and technology blogs

So what are you waiting for? Get on over to our online shelves and prepare to make the most of the fun and freedom that student life has to offer!

The information in this buyer's guide is correct at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.

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