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Best cheap laptops for college students

Alvina Wang/BestReviews

Laptops are essential in most productive environments, and that includes college students. However, finding a laptop to fit a student’s needs while staying within a budget can be difficult. Different classes require different tools and programs, and it's important to know what you're looking for. Purchasing the cheapest laptop you can find may seem appealing, but not if it can't keep up with your needs. It's helpful to get started with some tips for purchasing the best laptop for college students, and review some of the best picks currently available.

Shop this article: Apple MacBook Air M1, Acer Aspire 5, Lenovo IdeaPad 3

What to look for in a college laptop

Picking the right laptop for college students doesn't have to be arduous. There are several things you should consider to find a great laptop that won't break your budget. You may be surprised how close you can get to a prototypical selection while shopping for laptops under $500.


Random Access Memory helps run multiple applications smoothly at the same time. For users needing high performance while performing several tasks at once, the RAM capacity on a laptop is important to pay attention to.

College students want laptops with at least 8GB of RAM for usable multitasking, and those with research-intensive or graphically demanding coursework should double that to 16GB.

Processing power

The processing power of a laptop contributes to the smoothness and performance of the device. Especially for programs that require more power from the laptop, a strong Intel Core (try to go Core i3 or higher) or AMD Ryzen (Ryzen 3 or higher) brand processor can make a significant difference.

Storage capacity

For students who need to keep a lot of files, videos or images on their laptop at all times, having a large storage capacity is hugely convenient. However, with external hard drives and cloud storage being an option, storage capacity may not be a major priority.

Most students find 256GB a common starting option among many mid-tier laptops, and that's plenty to store files, apps, music and even a few games. You can get away with 64GB or 128GB if you're mostly working within the browser and word processing.

Build quality and battery life

When shopping for a laptop, consider something that feels sturdy to withstand going to and fro. Lighter and thinner is better, and that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be flimsy. 

Opt for a laptop with all-day battery life. Laptops with the best battery longevity can go upwards of 18 hours on a single charge. On the other hand, if you want a gaming laptop, you'll want to make extra room in your bag for a charging cable.

Operating system

The three main operating systems available are Windows, MacOS and Chrome OS. Some schools have IT support for a specific operating system, which may be important to know when shopping for a college laptop. Windows and MacOS offer more options and programs, while Chrome OS laptops are often cheaper for students who just need to run basic programs and search the web. 

Best cheap laptops for college students

Acer Aspire 5

This Acer Aspire 5 is a solid pick for a best bang for the buck laptop for college students. It offers a Ryzen 5 chipset with built-in AMD graphics, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage for under $500. While it won't satisfy gaming needs, the chipset handles productivity and research-intensive workloads while enabling light graphical work, such as video and photo editing. The roomy 15.6-inch IPS display offers full HD resolution.

Sold by Amazon

Apple MacBook Air M1

While this MacBook isn't an example of a cheap laptop, it's affordable by Apple's standards, and it's your best alternative if Windows laptops are out of the question. Now regularly available for less than $800, the original M1 MacBook Air is the cheapest modern MacBook you can buy. Thanks to Apple's efficient processor that chews through any basic task, it boasts all-day battery life and blazing-fast speeds.

Sold by Amazon

Lenovo IdeaPad 3

This is a solid starter laptop for students, especially at this attractive sub-$300 price. With an Intel Core i3 processor and 8GB of RAM, it has more than enough power for web browsing and basic document editing. You won't be able to store a ton of videos, music and apps on the 128GB SSD, however.

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Asus TUF F17

Many students can appreciate a machine that's all work in the classroom and fun around campus. This 17-inch, full HD ASUS TUF gaming laptop has NVIDIA's RTX 3050 graphics card paired with an Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM, a combination capable of running any game at high fidelity. The power also lends itself well to 3D modeling and 4K video editing for those enrolled in creative courses. It's worth noting that it's on the heavier side, and you'll want to keep the charging cable with you while mobile.

Sold by Amazon

HP Stream

This $212 laptop can't handle complex tasks and workloads, but it's great for new students with courses that don't require more than a browser and word processor. It's limited in storage space (64GB) and RAM (4GB), but that's enough to access educational websites in the browser and offers enough room for a few fun apps, which you can only get from the Microsoft Store on account of it using Windows 10 in S mode.

Sold by Amazon

Microsoft Surface Go 2

Microsoft's official laptops are svelte, and they've recently become a little more affordable. This Surface Laptop Go 2 is just over $500 and offers a premium laptop experience underscored by Intel's Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. It'd be nice to have a roomier hard drive at this price — the SSD is just 128GB. The 12.4-inch touchscreen may be just a tad smaller than some would appreciate, but that also makes it easily transportable in your backpack or arms.

Sold by Amazon

Samsung Chromebook Plus V2

This 2-in-1 laptop offers all the basic functionality an average college student needs, costing less than $400. That's an attractive price considering it offers tablet capabilities with a touchscreen that flexes backward. This is a Chromebook, so you won't get a full computing experience that can run advanced apps like Windows, but countless web apps are available to help bridge the gap.

Sold by Amazon

Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5

The Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 offers a lot of versatility. It's another touch-enabled laptop with a full HD display that you can use in tablet mode. The Core i3 processor is more than most Chromebooks bear, which should make for a smooth browsing experience. You'll feel limited by the 64GB of storage, but this shouldn't be much of an issue considering it's using the web-based Chrome OS. 

Sold by Amazon

Gateway Ultra Slim Notebook

Gateway is now a Walmart-exclusive brand for the value-conscious shopper, and you get a lot for your money. At $399, you're getting an Intel Core i5, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, a fingerprint sensor and THX-tuned speakers. The 14-inch display also has full HD resolution, making this a solid laptop for both schoolwork and entertainment.

Sold by Walmart

HP Pavilion Aero

This solid laptop from HP's modest Pavilion lineup offers a great balance of performance, features and price. This $530 laptop has a Ryzen 5 chipset, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. You also get Wi-Fi 6 radios for wireless connectivity, plus a USB-C port that supports faster transfer speeds, external displays and Power Delivery charging capabilities in one reversible connector. 

Sold by HP

Worth checking out

  • Lenovo IdeaPad 5 is a great all-around device with solid processing power, 16GB of RAM and a full HD screen perfect for nearly every situation.
  • The HP Chromebook x360 is equipped with an HD display and a touchscreen and otherwise meets the basic needs of a college student.

  • For under $500, this ASUS VivoBook is slim and powerful enough to handle all your coursework.

  • This 17-inch HP laptop offers a massive screen without breaking the bank. 

  • Lenovo's 2022 version of the IdeaPad 3i is now less than $500 with an Intel Core i5 and 512GB of storage, plus it runs Windows 11 Pro on a 15.6-inch full HD display.

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Quentyn Kennemer writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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