Here are our go-to laptops for students

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Mon August 26, 2019

One essential piece of equipment for any college student in 2019 is a good computer. But you may be trying to decide whether to get a laptop, desktop, tablet or even a 2-in-1, which has features of both laptops and tablets -- as well as which operating system you want.

Your decision should depend in part on what you study and how you'll use the machine. A graphic design student, for instance, might get more from an Apple computer, while an accounting or economics student might be better off with a classic Windows 10-based device. It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition, which is why we broke up this guide by student type, to address the different needs of different students.

Before we dig into the nuances, a few universal baselines: First, you're going to want a computer with at least 128GB of storage. You can fill those gigabytes up pretty fast, and 128 is a good minimum. Those doing video editing or playing with large files and even spreadsheets might want to opt for a larger drive. Or you can go the cloud storage route, but keep in mind you'll need a connection to access it.

Also, chances are, if you're going for a recent model, you'll see an Intel Core processor paired with either 8GB or 16GB of RAM. If you're doing video or photo editing, or just want the ability to run a ton of apps, go with 16GB. That will ensure your system can handle tasks and operations that require a more substantial lift and save you from frustrating slowdowns. For the everyday student who is using the laptop for productivity, personal and streaming cases, 8GB should be plenty.

It's a good idea to check with your college, university or institution to see if it has a preferred OS. Generally, it's good to be in line with other students, but you can also go down your own path. And as a rule of thumb, for a major purchase like this, we'd recommend you get the extended warranty. You never know what might happen. 

For the liberal arts student

It's been a busy summer for Apple, and the Mac laptop line has been slimmed. You can now choose a 13-inch MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro or 15-inch MacBook Pro. For any student, the latest MacBook Air is a great option in terms of bang for your buck. You get the basic macOS laptop with a reliable processor, paired with enough RAM and storage for most students' needs, and at a price that makes a Mac affordable.

Even better, Apple offers students a discount. In general, students save $100 off the price of Apple laptops -- so the MacBook Air is just $999, while it's $1,099 for everyone else. Even the base model has a peppy 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, 128GB solid-state drive, and a 13-inch Retina display with True Tone (tech that makes the screen easier on your eyes). It comes with two Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports, Touch ID for secure unlocking and a nice-sized trackpad. It runs macOS and comes loaded with Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Photos, iMovie and GarageBand.

If you're a liberal arts student who is more comfortable with the world of Windows, or if that's what your campus favors, you might prefer the Surface Laptop 2 from Microsoft, a traditional laptop that adds in a touchscreen.

The case contains a 13.5-inch touchscreen display and a pretty terrific keyboard. The base model features 8GB of RAM, an Intel Core i5 processor and 128GB of storage. It gets up to 14.5 hours of battery life, depending on use, and comes in four colors: black, burgundy, cobalt blue and platinum. And the Surface Laptop 2 is light, at under 3 pounds, so it's easy to toss in a backpack. It starts at $999 and is currently on sale for just $799 from Microsoft.

Both will give you plenty of power for essay writing, presentations and much more. They can also efficiently pump out jams for your dorm room party or be there for a Netflix-and-chill kind of night.

For someone who wants a "pen"

While keyboards and trackpads have become standard ways to interact with computers, there's still something about putting pen to paper. Writing utensil-computing is having a bit of a resurgence: Microsoft is pushing the Surface Pro 6, which has a stylus, and Apple's iPad Pro can be paired with an Apple Pencil. Many students and professors still think taking notes with a pen or pencil is the best way to learn, (some professors don't even want computers in class, although their number is getting smaller and smaller), so if you're among their ranks, consider a Surface.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 6 is a real 2-in-1 to a degree, but it's also a new category. It's basically a tablet but supercharged with the internals of a laptop, and the result is many modes to use it in. You can use it in laptop, studio or tablet mode. It has the full power of Windows 10 behind it and is powered by an Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage in the base model. It starts at $699, and for another $100 you can add a Type Cover, which gives you a keyboard and a trackpad.

You can also go with the iPad Pro, but be aware that this is an iOS machine, soon to be iPadOS when it drops this fall. Yes, the Apple Pencil is great and a really good writing tool, and yes, the iPad Pro is a great tablet, but you don't get the power of a full operating system, and you risk compatibility with some major applications (namely a full editing suite). If you're already in the Apple ecosystem, it might be the option for you, but know what you're getting into if your primary computing machine is a tablet.

For visual creatives

If you're into graphic design, video editing, website creation or photo editing, a good choice is the MacBook Pro. They aren't the cheapest, but they're tested and trusted by designers everywhere. The 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,199, or $1,099 for students, while the 15-inch starts at $2,249.

The 13-inch has an impressive 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor paired with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive. It would have been nice to see the latter two a bit higher, but you can upgrade the RAM and storage when purchasing the machine. Definitely bump up the RAM to 16GB, and upgrading to 256GB of storage is likely a wise move, too.

These are both competent machines that can handle traditional school tasks like writing, researching and slide making. They're also ideally suited to video edit, photo edit and take on more intensive processes. When I was in college I had the original Retina MacBook Pro and the upgraded one with a TouchBar from 2016 — they both performed well for a media and communication major. 

On the Windows side, if you have the necessary software licenses, the Surface Book 2 is impressive, given that it's a full 2-in-1. The display, either the 13.5-inch or 15-inch, can physically detach from the rest of the device. Microsoft was strategic with the design, as a majority of the internals are in the display — the team flipped the traditional design of a laptop. Both of these start with an Intel Core i5 processor, and either 8GB or 16GB of RAM. 

The starting storage is the same as the MacBook Air with 128GB. The 13-inch Surface Book 2 starts at $1,149 and the 15-inch at $1,999.

For business students

ThinkPads have long been the business laptops of choice, and Lenovo is keeping that tradition alive with the ThinkPad Carbon X. It keeps the durability, but in a slimmer design, and updates the heritage design for 2019. And yes, it retains the classic red mouse control in the center of the keyboard. Now in its sixth generation, the ThinkPad Carbon X features a 14-inch display and a battery life of around 15 hours, making this one dependable laptop for a student. 

The base model starts with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. It has the speed for business tasks, especially enormous spreadsheets, and it's quite portable at under 2.5 pounds. And it starts at just $999, so it's roughly inline with our other picks.

For coders

Being able to dive deep into your code is crucial when you're working in C++ and Java for many hours, and many laptops are opting for thinner bezels, so you can focus better on what's on the screen.

HP's Envy 13 is a dependable Windows 10 laptop that starts at just $999, although it's regularly on sale. The base model includes an Intel Core i7 processor with 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage and a 13.3-inch 1920 x 1080 display. It's also quite portable, just 0.57 inches thick and under 3 pounds. It comes with a USB-C port, and HP left on a traditional USB-A port as well.

Similar to the HP Envy 13 is the Dell XPS 13, although presentation is more the focus here. It features a 13.3-inch InfinityEdge display that is touch-enabled and powered by an Intel Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Dell has managed to keep legacy ports, like USB-A. It should be up to snuff for most productivity, and you might even be able to game a bit on this device. It's available from the Microsoft Store in this configuration for $999.99.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed prices at the time of publication.