Computers / Buying Guide

Back to School Cool: 5 Recommended Laptops or Tablets for Students

You want to pare down a tricky list? Try finding out what the top recommended laptops are for students. The reason it’s so tricky is because it depends on the laptop’s intended use. Design students need graphic power, film and video students need 4K resolution and a high-end processor, liberal arts majors need a serious gaming machine... But in order to hone that list even further, you have to parse through hundreds of options.

For back-to-school purposes, we’re going to concentrate on laptops or tablets that have a specific student in mind, and speak briefly about what that device does for that discipline we choose. This list is great for students, but speaks mostly to parents looking to get their kids tech-ready for the new school year. Here are our choices.

Simple, Quick, and Cheap

Oh, so many jokes to be made with that headline, but in all seriousness, if you’re looking for something under $300 and your student hasn't selected a major, then a Chromebook fits the bill. Because they’re stripped-down machines with a decidedly underpowered processor, these are perfect word processors and basic Web surfers. The Toshiba CB35-B3340 Chromebook is a 13.3" laptop with a 2.16GHz Intel® Celeron™ Processor N2840, 4GB of RAM and a Full HD 1920 x 1080 13.3" screen. What’s the standout? Dual-band wireless support is unique, as is two years of up to 100GB of Google storage. Be aware that because it is a Chromebook, it needs a constant Internet connection to function fully.

To Pro or Not to Pro

The Microsoft Surface series comes in two distinct flavors. The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is the ultimate hybrid laptop, with great power and awesome amenities. The Core™ i7 version (the Core i3 and Core i5 are too underpowered) can be used for high-end functions like video editing, 3D design, and music production. Unfortunately, the graphics are stock Intel HD, so you’ll need to sacrifice a little glitz from the glamour and (*grumble*) the type cover keyboard is an extra purchase, but absolutely necessary to turn this from a hobby horse into a workhorse. The Surface 3, which strips the processor down to an Intel Atom CPU, can still function as a great laptop (also with an optional purchase of keyboard), and is one of the better tablets available today. But what makes both of these shine is the Microsoft Surface Pen (free with the Surface Pro 3 and an optional purchase for the Surface 3), which turns each of these into a note-taking, design-sketching, doodling powerhouse. The stylus pen makes all the difference in the battle for student laptop supremacy, and is the main reason that Samsung made this list, as well.

The New MacBook

Top of the line for students who work better in an Apple ecosystem, the new Apple 12" 2015 MacBook is perfect for design students and techies who love MAC OS and all its amenities (including one of the most intuitive GUIs for an OS, so far). There has been some grumbling that the processor, the semi-experimental Intel® Core™ M Broadwell series, is a step down from the early 2014 MacBook Air models’ Intel Core i7 CPUs, but the 2304 x 1440 Retina display, Intel HD 5300 graphics, and new one-port USB C connectivity may be the deal breaker (oh, and if you want to bling out, some come in a faux-gold finish as well). If you’re one of those parents or guardians who insist your child should be as teched-up as possible, then this is the laptop for them.

Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2

This may seem like a pricey choice for some, but if you don’t want to go whole hog and buy a laptop, the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 is a great tablet backup. It features a good processor; 3GB of RAM (as opposed to the paltry RAM offerings of other popular tablets); and a fantastic 12.2" multitouch screen with 2560 x 1600 native resolution—but the sell for students here is the S Pen. Similar to the Microsoft Surface Pen, the S Pen integrates note taking, sketching, and annotating and takes them to new dimensions, and while other tablets work fine with styli, the Samsung Note Pro and Surface enhance the experience, adding real-feel pen pressure to mimic natural writing and drawing styles. Here’s a tip: buy the 32GB version and a 64GB memory card. You’ll pay less than you would for the 64GB model and save while expanding the storage. Also, it has to be the Note Pro model—the Tab pro, which looks similar, does not have the S pen functionality.

Apple iPad Air 2

Again, if you don’t want to shell out for a MacBook, but your student is totally immersed in the Apple zen, then consider scaling it down with an Apple iPad Air 2. There’s a reason the iPad Air 2 is still so popular. The iPad Air 2 boasts a new Tri-Core Apple A8X CPU with M8 Chip, which completely speeds up the computing power over older model iPads. Its thin, light form factor also figures into your purchase, and so does the 2048 x 1536 native resolution of the Retina screen. If you’re worried that your student will mostly use this for games and social networking, well, your fears are justified, but there are suites of productivity software and work can be done. Invest in an optional Bluetooth keyboard and you can turn this into a somewhat capable machine. For taking notes, live video, Internet research, and some productivity, this is a great gift with which to send your young ’uns off to class.

So, these are our picks for back-to-school laptops and tablets. There are probably loads of other choices, but these are our top picks. If your wee ones are also going to game, consider at least an i7 processor and a dedicated graphics card. If it’s mostly word processing, you can go lower in power. If your future Matisse needs a more visually arresting screen, look at models with higher-end resolution. In any case, these five run the gamut, from perfectly suitable to tuition-friendly to powerful mobile devices. Good luck.