Back when I was in school I bought myself my first small laptop and I’ve been using sub 12.5-inch such devices ever since. I don’t know about you, but I used to constantly lug my laptop with me to classes, library and then back to my dorm and I was absolutely delighted when I finally replaced my bulky 15 inch machine with a compact 11 incher at that time.
Anyway, I digress. If you’re also a student and need a computer for school, this article is going to come in handy. There are quite a few ultrabooks available out there, but not all of them check the right boxes for a potential laptop for school.
Note: Excuse me for interrupting, I'm gathering my favorite Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals on ultraportable laptops over here, if you're interested.
We’re going to have a look at a few different options though, starting with the affordable models, continuing with some very light options and some 2-in-1 convertibles with touchscreens, considering the premium models and last but not least, we’ll also check out the powerful ultra-portables, for those of you that actually require the extra performance. In other words, all the ultrabooks for college students and school listed in here are solid picks, they just address different needs.
Affordable ultrabooks for school
This section is for those of you who only have up to $600 for a brand new portable laptop. If you want something even cheaper, you should also check out this list of the most affordable ultrabooks, as well as this selection of good ultrabook alternatives.
The sub-$400 mini-laptops
If you want to spend up to $400 for your next computer, then the Acer Aspire E3 and Aspire V3, the Asus K200MA and the Lenovo IdeaPad S210 are the ones to look at. They are built on noise-free Intel Atom BayTrail-M hardware platforms which are only powerful enough to cope with basic daily activities, they run Windows and usually last for between 4 to 6 hours of standard use on a charge. You’ll find more about these devices in this article.
Chromebooks are other affordable options you should consider, selling for between $199 and $399 right now and you’ll find 11, 13 and 14 inch such devices. They run ChromeOS, a simple operating system built around the Chrome browser, and they are easier to set-up, simple and safe to use, but also snappier than regular Windows laptops in this price range.
However, they need to be connected to the Internet to function at full capacity. This post explains what you need to know before buying a Chromebook and this list contains a selection of the best Chromebooks available right now.
Then you could check out a few 2-in-1 mini laptops, starting with the very popular Asus Transformer Book T100 and Acer Aspire Switch 10 (both 10 inchers) and continuing with the Dell Venue Pro 11, the HP Pavilion x360 and the Asus Transformer Book T200TA. These are all stand-alone tablets built on Intel BayTrail-T hardware platforms, bundled with matching docking stations that include a keyboard, trackpad, extra ports and extra storage space.
When you need a bit more power
There are also the Lenovo Yoga 2 11 (reviewed here) and the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 to consider, 2-in-1 mini laptops with 360 degrees convertible screens, slightly more robust and more powerful than the units mentioned above, but also somewhat more expensive. These are available with either Intel BayTrail-M hardware or step-up to Intel Haswell Y-series platforms, thus are capable of more than just basic activities.
In fact, all the devices mentioned above can handle daily tasks well, including browsing, watching video content, listening to music, editing documents, etc , but they will start to choke when pushed heavier, when running more demanding tasks or multitasking between multiple apps at once.
If you do need the extra power, you should look for at least an Intel Core running laptop, and in this class you’ve got the Core Y-series devices (like the ones mentioned above or the Dell XPS 11) and the faster Core U-series units that we’ll address from this point onwards.
One of your first stops should be the Asus Vivobook X200LA, another 11 incher, but this time packing an Intel Core-i3-4010U processor, 4 GB of RAM and hybrid storage for roughly $500 (or even less online). It also bundles a touchscreen, albeit with only a TN panel, while the 2-in-1s mentioned before packed IPS displays. But for the money, you won’t find any compact laptop better than this one.
Stepping it up a notch more, there are a few 13-15 inchers to consider (you’ll find out more about the best 13 inch ultrabooks of the moment from this post). Most of them sell for more than $600, but you could squeeze some of the lower-end configurations within your budget.
The Asus Vivobook Q301LA is available for roughly $550 these days in a configuration that includes an Intel Core i5-4200U processor, 6 GB of RAM and a 500 GB HDD. This laptop is not without flaws, as you can find from my detailed review over here, but it is nonetheless a good deal for that kind of money.
The Lenovo Flex 2 series starts at under $600 as well, both the 14.1 and the 15.6 inch models. You’ll get the base versions, with an Intel Core-i5-4210U processor, 4 GB of RAM and hybrid storage for those $600, plus an HD touchscreen with a TN panel. However, the Flex 2 series is not very portable, with the Flex 2 14 weighing 4.2 lbs and the Flex 2 15 tipping the scales at about 5.1 lbs.
You could also look for some of last year’s launches, you might find them discounted or even refurbished. Check out the Asus Zenbook UX32A (reviewed here), the Asus Vivobook S400CA (reviewed here), the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, the Sony Vaio T (reviewed here) and maybe the Acer Aspire V5-131.
These are built on Intel IvyBridge hardware, while the newer laptops are built on Intel Haswell platforms, which do offer a slight boost in everyday performance and a big increase in efficiency, or in other words, the Haswell powered machines will last longer on a charge. But if you’re fine with these aspects, the older ultrabooks might do just fine for you.
Best-Buy ultrabooks for college students
If you’d like something a bit snappier and with extra features, but don’t want to spend more than $1000, then you should have a look at the ultrabooks listed in this category.
The classic clamshell-type laptops
If you only need a standard laptop, with a clamshell body, then this section is for you. If however you’re interested in modern hybrids with convertible touchscreens, we’ll address those a bit further below.
- Macbook Air 11 and 13 – the MBAs are the most popular ultraportables of the moment and for a good reason: they don’t have any major flaws. In fact, except for the screen, they best most, if not all the available ultrabooks. They offer an excellent keyboard and touchpad, a sturdy and beautiful case, powerful Intel Haswell hardware with Intel Iris graphics and can go for many hours on a charge (9 hours the 11 inch model, 13 hours the 13 inch model). On top of these, they aren’t that expensive. The Macbook Air 11 starts at $899 for an Intel Core i5 CPU/4GB RAM/128 GB SSD configuration, and is actually even cheaper online, while the Macbook Air 13 starts at $999, but you can also find it discounted in select webstores.
- Asus Zenbook UX303LA – this is Asus’s 2014 line of premium ultrabooks, now more affordable than ever before. The UX303LA is built from aluminum, offers a good keyboard and trackpad, a large number of ports, a FHD touchscreen with an IPS panel and a few different Intel Haswell configurations to choose from. The base version starts at around $700, while an Intel Core i5/8GB/128 GB SSD sells for roughly $900, but all versions are available slightly cheaper online. Asus also offer the UX303LN Zenbook, with Nvidia 840M graphics; I’ve reviewed it in this post and I’ve also compared it to the UX303LA model over here.
- Asus Vivobook V551LA – if you want a thin and light 15 inch laptop with an affordable price tag, this Vivobook should be on your list. I’ve reviewed it over here and didn’t have much to complain about, except for the HD screen with a TN panel. At the time of my review though, the V551 series was a bit pricey, but these days you can get Haswell Core i5 configurations for under $700 and Core i7s for under $800, which are pretty good deals. Follow this link for more details and potential discounts.
- Dell Inspiron 5000 and 7000 Series – These are slightly bulkier and heavier 14 and 15 inch laptops, but Haswell powered and still more slender than an average laptop. Both series are available in a bunch of different configurations, but the 7000s sport a completely metallic unibody, larger batteries and an option for dedicated Nvidia graphics, while selling for a bit more than the 5000s. Even so, the two lines start at roughly $600 for Core i3 configurations, with beefier versions selling for around 1G.
- HP TouchSmart 15T Series – HP’s alternative to the Dell’s above, with similar specs and prices. These too are rather heavy for this class, the 15 incher tipping the scales at 5.6-5.7 pounds.
- Acer Aspire V7 482PG and 582PG – The V7’s sell for between $600 and $1100 and are available with 14.1 and 15.6 inches screens, plus a myriad of different configurations. The top version of the V7 582PG offers an Intel Core i7-4500U processor, 8 GB of RAM and Nvidia GT 850M graphics for a little over one grand, which is really an offer you must consider if you want this kind of fire-power and only have a limited budget. Follow this link for more details.
- Lenovo IdeaPad U330 and U430 – These are Lenovo’s affordable IdeaPads, starting at around $700 (but you can found both of these discounted online, especially the more popular U430 model). For that, you’re getting solid built cases, a nice classic design, the Lenovo AccuType keyboard, a touchscreen (although some versions offer standard non-touch displays) and several different Haswell configurations. The U330 comes with a 13.3 inch screen, while on the U430 there’s a larger 14,1 inch one, both with HD TN panels. The U430 also gets an option for dedicated graphics, so it will handle some light gaming as well.
The 2-in-1 ultrabooks
- Lenovo Yoga 2 13 – the updated version of the classic Yoga, now sporting Intel Haswell hardware, a new body design (made out of plastic), an IPS FHD screen and a 50 Wh battery. The Core i5-4210U / 4 GB RAM / hybrid storage version of the Yoga 2 13 sells for about $850 these days, but you might be able to find it discounted online.
- Asus Transformer Book Flip series – 13.3, 14.1 and 15.6 inch versions of these laptops are available in stores, and I’ve already reviewed several of them here on the site, like the 13 inch TP300 and the 15 inch TP500. These laptops are even cheaper than the Lenovo’s Yogas and sure offer a lot for what you’re going to pay for them, but they are a bit massive and heavy for devices that you’d supposedly carry around everyday. See the reviews for more details.
- Dell Inspiron 13 7000 series (check out my review here) – a close match to those mentioned above, with what I consider a better looking and better built case, with a very good IPS screen and a comfortable keyboard. It can’t get hybrid storage though and only packs s 43 Wh battery, which translates in about 4 hours of use, and these might steer you away. But at the same time this Dell is really affordable, starting at $600 on Dell’s website, and you can find it even cheaper online.
- Asus Transformer Book T300 – this one sports a different form-factor, it’s a detachable 2-in-1, a stand-alone tablet built on an Intel Haswell platform tuck inside a solid and good looking aluminum body, with a matching docking station that includes a keyboard, trackpad and extra ports. The Core i5-4200U / 4 GB RAM /128 GB SSD version of this hybrid sells for under $800 right now (follow this link for extra info and potential discounts)
- HP Spectre X2 – this is HP’s alternative to the Asus above, also a 13 inch detachable with a compatible dock. Unlike the Transformer Book though, this one is slightly more affordable, but is only powered by Intel Haswell Y-Series processors, which are not as fast as the U-Series CPUs, but are more efficient, thus this device is going to last longer on a charge.
It’s important to mention that none of these 2-in-1s are ideal for taking notes in class or sketching/drawing, as their touchscreens react fine to swipes and various finger commands, but are not optimized for pen-input. For inking you’d want a 2-in-1 that integrates a digitizer and those are usually more expensive, but we’ll cover them a bit further below.
For more options on 2-in-1s check out this article.
The best ultrabooks money can buy
This chapter could span over tens of pages, as there are plenty of premium ultrabooks out there, especially if the budget is not a concern. We’ll try to put them in a few different groups though.
Laptops with digitizers and active pens
You might want to use your new computer to take notes in class and if so, you should know that not all laptops with a touchscreen can properly handle this task.
You will need a device equipped with a digitizer that’s goign to track a pen far more accurately. I’ve yet to put together a list of all the ultrabooks equipped with digitizers, but I will soon enough. In the meantime, here are some of the devices you should consider:
- Windows 8.1 tablets:
- Surface Pro 2 (10.8 inch screen, Wacom digitizer, Haswell hardware);
- Surface Pro 3 (12 inch screen, N-Trig digitizer, Haswell hardware);
- Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet (10.1 inch screen, Wacom digitizer, BayTrail-T hardware);
- Dell Venue 11 Pro ( 10.8 inch screen, Synaptics digitizer, BayTrail-T hardware);
- Sony Vaio Tap 11 (10.1 inch screen, N-Trig digitizer, Haswell Y hardware).
- Windows 8.1 2-in-1 laptops:
- Sony Vaio Duo 11 (11 incher, older IvyBridge hardware, a few annoying quirks, more details);
- Dell XPS 11 (11 incher, Wacom digitizer, Haswell Y hardware);
- Lenovo ThinkPad Helix (IvyBridge hardware, standalone tablet with dock);
- Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga (12.5 incher, only high end configurations offer pen support, my detailed review);
- Sony Vaio Duo 13 (13 incher, Haswell hardware, long battery life, slider form factor – my detailed review);
- Fujitsu Lifebook T904 (13 incher, Haswell hardware, Wacom digitizer);
- Vaio Fit series (13,14 and 15 inchers, Haswell hardware, the pen is optional and only some versions are equipped with a digitizer);
- Acer Aspire R7 (15 incher, only the updated Haswell version offers a digitizer).
The lightest ultrabooks
You can find 11 inch ultrabooks that weigh just under 2 lbs and full-size 15.6 inchers under 4 lbs, but there are actually quite a bunch of light laptops available in stores these days. Thus, if the weight is a major criteria in your selection, this list of the lightest available ultrabooks will come in handy.
High performance ultraportables
Intel’s requirement for ultrabooks are restraining and results in a flood of thin (and somewhat light) laptops that are actually too powerful to be called ultrabooks, as they are usually built on full-voltage hardware platforms. The Apple Macbook Pro with Retina Display, the Dell XPS 15, the Samsung ATIV Book 9 2014 or the Asus Zenbook NX500 (reviewed here) are just some of the premium ultra-portables in this situation.
But there are many others, most bundling powerful processors with up to 16 GB of RAM, dedicated graphics and various storage solutions, and you’ll be able to read all about them in this post.
High-end 2-in-1 ultrabooks
A handful of modern laptops offer some sort of convertible form-factors. I’ve covered some of them above, like the Lenovo Yoga 2 13 or the Asus Transformer Book T300, but there are actually more of them, with sleeker bodies and extra features. You’ll find out more by following this link.
Laptops with 4G/LTE conectivity
If you need to be always connected to the Internet on the go, you might be interested in some of the laptops covered in this list. Keep in mind that integrated 4G modems are mainly found on business solutions and these are expensive. A much simpler way to be always connected would be to turn your mobile phone into a Hotspot.
At the end of the day, there are plenty of good ultrabooks you can choose between. Your budget is going to make the difference, but also what you want to do with such a device and how small and light do you need it to be.
More expensive devices are usually going to offer extra features (like touchscreens with pen support and SSD storage), better keyboards, thinner and lighter cases made from premium materials and larger batteries, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find something good within a more limited budget, as long as you keep your expectations realistic.
Anyway, hopefully this article shed some light on your search and if you need more help deciding what your next ultrabook for college or school is going to be, feel free to leave your replies and questions below, I’ll be around to reply.