While a smart-aleck dad might be inclined to say, “In my day, we didn’t need a laptop to go to high school,” the reality is that these days, no one can survive secondary school without a computer and that dads knows it. And a desktop PC probably can’t get the job done, since students are inherently mobile. Whether it’s taking notes in class (which might not be relevant for this particular school year in many places) or moving to a quiet spot to get some homework done, the ability to unplug a laptop and go mobile is essential for high school students.
The good news is you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a perfectly serviceable computer for classwork. What you choose depends in part on who’s paying for it; if you’re a teen student buying your own machine, you’ll probably need to find the cheapest laptop that’ll get the job done; if mom and dad are footing the bill, there’s probably enough wiggle room in the budget to get a more robust computer. Take into consideration what else the laptop might need to do; if it’s also for gaming, for example, that’ll determine the specs and capabilities. Likewise, your high schooler might be interested in a processor-heavy task like video streaming to YouTube or Twitch. A laptop chosen for streaming to Twitch might end up looking a lot different than one that’s only used for schoolwork.
In this article, I’ve rounded up a collection of laptops that reflect solid choices for a high school student with prices that range from around $300 at the low end to about $1000 at the high end — with one pricey outlier thrown in for good measure. (And if you have younger kids, you can also check out the roundup of best laptops for middle school students, since the recommendations are a little different.)
Not sure exactly what criteria to use for this purchase? Flip down to the end of this article, where I explain everything you need to know to make a solid laptop purchase — with a focus on one with specs adequate for a high schooler. Stick with these recommendations, and you won’t over-spend. But you’ll have enough computing power and features to get the job done, too.
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1. Acer Aspire 5Pros:
- Fast and spacious specifications
- Lots of connectors
- Good battery life
- No media card reader
- No a good choice for gaming
- Near the top end of the price range
Processor Intel Core i5 8th Gen 8265U | RAM 8 GB | Display 15.6 inches | GPU GeForce eForce MX250 | Hard drive 256GB SSD | Dimensions 15 x 10.3 x 0.82 inches | Weight 4.2 pounds
In many ways, the Acer Aspire 5 is the perfect laptop for most high school students. It has just the right mix of components at a solidly reasonable price. While I’d suggest thinking hard about getting a laptop for school use that cost more than $1000, this one is a good value. You start with an Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM; this will give good performance for most any routine task. The 512GB SSD means you’ll also get fast access to a large amount of storage.
The display measures 15.6 inches, which is also the sweet spot for a school-bound portable. It’s large enough to comfortably work and even multi-task with multiple windows open, but not so big that it’s hard to tote around. The screen is a full 1920 x 1080-pixel full HD display. Speaking of portability, the Aspire 5 weighs in at very lightweight 4.2 pounds and you can expect to get close to eight hours of runtime from the battery. And the backlit keyboard makes it easy to work anywhere, even in dim lighting. You also get a webcam, which is an essential accessory these days for Zoom calls and other video conferencing — but you can always upgrade to a better webcam, especially if you want to use it for streaming to services like Twitch or YouTube.
When it comes to connectivity, the laptop is missing just one feature you might consider important: A media card reader — so if you need to transfer files from an SD card, for example, you’ll have to jump through hoops, like adding an external reader. But otherwise, you’re covered, with Ethernet, HDMI, two USB-A ports and even a USB-C connector. Of course, it comes with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
2. Acer Chromebook 15Pros:
- Lightweight and portable
- Chromebook simplicity
- 32GB SD card
- Can't install or use Windows apps
- Not a speed demon, no gaming
- Not a full HD display
Processor Intel Celeron N3060 | RAM 4 GB | Display 15.6 inches | Hard drive 16GB SSD | | GPU Intel HD Graphics 400 | Dimensions 15.1 x 10.1 x 0.95 inches | Weight 4.2 pounds
If you don’t specifically need a Windows laptop or a Mac because of school requirements — such as the need to install a particular program or use Microsoft Office — you can save a small fortune by getting a Chromebook. As an added bonus, many people find the Chromebook experience to be better anyway, with more trouble-free computing overall. The downside of a Chromebook, of course, is that you are limited to using online services like Google Docs, Google Drive, and other cloud-based apps. If you can live with those limitations, the Acer Chromebook 15 is a superb alternative.
Equipped with an Intel Celeron N3060, it would be woefully underpowered by Windows standards, but perfectly adequate to run Chrome OS — though don’t expect this to be a speed demon regardless, and you won’t be playing any games on this laptop. It has 4GB of RAM and a 16GB SSD (but again, remember that virtually all your storage is online, not on the laptop itself). That said, this system comes bundled with a 32GB SD card, which offers massive amounts of additional portable storage. You also get a webcam, essential these days for Zoom calls and other video conferencing.
The 15.6-inch display has a less-than HD display, unfortunately — 1366 x 768 pixels. The lower resolution screen helps extend the battery life, though, and the Chromebook 15 can muster as much as 11 hours of runtime between charges. It’s also quite portable, weighing in at just 4.3 pounds. When itn comes to connectivity, you probably don’t need a lot for a Chromebook, but you’ll get a pair of USB-A and USB-C ports (that’s two each).
3. Apple MacBook AirPros:
- Improved keyboard
- Retina display
- Good price (for an Apple laptop)
- Limited ports
- Might limit your access to traditional Windows apps
Processor Intel Core i3 | RAM 8GB | Display 13 inches | GPU Intel Iris Plus | Hard drive 256GB SSD | Dimensions 11.9 x 8.3 x 0.6 inches | Weight 2.8 pounds
Owning an Apple laptop — whether it’s this Apple MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro, also in this list, is 50% status symbol and 50% function. Here’s my advice: Don’t invest in a MacBook Air because it’s chic, cool, or a status symbol. Only get one if you genuinely need it. Yes, it’s lightweight, slim, and gorgeous. But at the same time, it might also limit what you can do; the world still revolves around Windows-based computers, and you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner, and spend a premium to do it.
All that said, if a MacBook is recommended by your school, can help you work better, or your family is already a “MacBook tribe” and it simply makes sense to get one, the MacBook Air is the smart Apple laptop choice for a high school students — both for cost and portability.
In addition, after years of lackluster designs, this latest version of Apple’s MacBook Air is finally worthy of buying on its own merits again. If you’re a student who needs a reliable, user friendly, and highly portable laptop, you could do much worse than this system — particularly if you’re already a part of the Apple ecosystem and prefer Mac’s OS X to Windows.
This MacBook Air is equipped with Apple’s own M1 chip, which offers remarkable performance, along with 8GB RAM and a 512GB SSD hard drive. Even with these impressive spcs, you still get more than 12 hours of battery life, which is excellent. And the 13.3-inch screen is a full Retina display, pushing 2560×1600 pixels. Apple knows how to do displays well, and it shows here. As for connectivity, you don’t get a lot. There are a pair of Thunderbolt USB-C ports and a wired headphone jacks.
For a lot of people, aside from the new M1 CPU the real star of the show is the MacBook Air’s redesigned keyboard. If you know anything about last year’s Air, you probably know that people really hated the butterfly keyboard, which felt bad and was prone to failure. This one has a redesigned scissor keyboard, and it is a dramatic improvement.
Also on board is Touch ID to log in quickly and efficiently, as well as an HD webcam for FaceTime and video conferencing — and that might be one of the laptop’s weakest links, greatly in need of an upgrade to better resolution and image quality. But the bottom line is that it’s a return to form for Apple, and represents an excellent value for its price.
4. Apple MacBook ProPros:
- Improved keyboard
- Touch Bar
- Four USB-C ports
- 8th generation CPU
- Limited ports
- Limited support some mainstream applications
Processor Intel Core i7 | RAM 16GB | Display 16 inches | GPU Intel Iris Plus | Hard drive 512GB SSD | Dimensions 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches | Weight 4.3 pounds
Let’s be real for a moment: For a lot of high schoolers, a $2,000 MacBook Pro is an inspirational purchase, whether the cash is coming from the student or the parents. But there are some situations in which it genuinely makes sense for a high schooler to sit in front of a MacBook Pro. And if he or she is already deep in creative studies and tapping into graphic design, photography, video editing, or similar studies, a MacBook Pro might be the perfect choice.
This model assumes that’s the case and so it is going more-or-less all out with an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM, and a generously large 16-inch display. Even with great components, though, Apple isn’t known for packing its laptops with a lot of connectivity. You get four USB-C ports — two on each side. And those are all the ports you get — no Ethernet, for example. One way to look at this configuration is that while Apple laptops have always been objects of desire, they’re rarely good values. You can get a faster, better equipped WIndows-based laptop for the same price or less.
Instead, what you’re paying for here is a stew of elegant features. First and foremost is the Magic Keyboard, a dramatic improvement over the badly flawed butterfly keyboard used in last year’s model. The Magic Keyboard is a more traditional scissor-style keyboard that’s comfortable to type on and more reliable overall. There’s also the Touch Bar that sits atop the keyboard, which gives you a customizable set of shortcut icons that change depending upon what you are doing and what program is running — along with Touch ID biometric sign-in.
And then there’s gorgeous Retina display, which features a 2560×1600-pixel resolution and bright, vivid colors with a higher-than-average 500 nit rating, ideal for the very graphic and design work you’re probably choosing this laptop for. In addition, the battery life is good for about a dozen hours, it’s also quite portable as well.
5. Asus ZenBook 13Pros:
- Mil-spec rugged design
- Touchpad doubles as number pad
- Portable with all-day battery
- On the expensive side
- Limited number of ports
- Some folks might find the 13-inch display too small
Processor Intel Core i7-8565U | RAM 16GB | Display 13 inches | GPU NVidia GeForce MX250 | Hard drive 512GB SSD | Dimensions 11.9 x 7.4 x 0.7 inches | Weight 2.6 pounds
Because the Asus ZenBook 13 is priced similarly to an Apple MacBook Pro, one way to look at this laptop is to compare how much computing power and how many features a typical Windows computer delivers compared to Apple. Unless you have specific needs for an Apple laptop, the calculus comes out very much in favor of a laptop like the ZenBook for most high schoolers. Case in point: The webcam is WIndows-Hello compatible, so you can log in just by opening the lid and looking at the screen.
The ZenBook might be pricey, but it has a wealth of power and features to justify that. It’s powered with an Intel Core i7 processor and a generous 16GB of RAM, and features a 512GB hard drive for a lot of on-board storage. The 13.3-inch display makes the laptop compact enough for lots of portability, and in fact, it weighs just 2.6 pounds. But because students aren’t known for being the most careful with their belongings, it’s good that this laptop is particularly rugged; it is rated with MIL-STD 810G. This mil-spec means the laptop has passed a series of shock, vibration, and drop tests. It’s not invulnerable to damage, but should be able to stand up to a lot of abuse.
The lid flips up with Asus’s ErgoLift hinge, which elevates the back of the laptop for ergonomics while also allowing air to pass underneath for additional cooling and to let the speakers perform better. Another killer feature: The laptop, like most, does not have a number pad beside the main keys, but the touchpad does double duty as a touchpad number pad. Add in an all-day battery, and this is a compelling choice if you are able to invest in a laptop on the upper end of the pricing spectrum. But while it has a fair number of ports, including HDMI, a could of USB ports and one USB-C, it’s too bad it’s missing an Ethernet port and doesn’t have at least a third USB connection.
6. Dell XPS 13 9380Pros:
- Good Core i5 performance
- Dual USB-C ports`
- micro SD slot
- Few connectivity options
- Screen might be too small for some users
- No unqiue features to distinguish this laptop
Processor Intel Core I5-8265U | RAM 8GB | Display 13 inches | GPU Intel UHD | Hard drive 256GB SSD | Dimensions 11.9 x 7.8 x 0.5 inches | Weight 3.9 pounds
Dell is a dependable laptop manufacturer, and if you’re shopping for a system that absolutely needs to reliable day in and day out for the entire school year and then some, you should consider a system like the Dell XPS 13 9380. This laptop won’t turn heads like a gaming laptop, but it brings the goods where it counts. Powered with a solid Intel Core i5 CPU and backed with 8GB of RAM, it’s fast enough for pretty much anything you could need. The 256GB hard drive gives you plenty of storage for coursework, though it’s sized for productivity — it won’t be able to hold much in the way of games. And that’s okay; this laptop isn’t really intended for gaming, and the Intel UHD Graphics 620 chipset isn’t up to the challenge. That said, the 13-inch display is sharp thanks to the full HD 1920 x 1080-pixel display.
That said, this laptop is minimalist in some surprising ways. It has so few ports you might almost be forgiven for thinking it was designed by Apple; it has two (count them, two) USB-C ports, and… that’s it. No USB-A, no HDMI, no Ethernet. Well, it does have a micro SD slot, which is good — there are a lot of situations in which you need to copy files to born from an SD card. Yes, there is a webcam for video conferencing, as well as the usual Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. For taking the laptop on the go, it weighs a middling 3.9 pounds. All that’s great, but this laptop has one significant shortcoming: There’s nothing particularly remarkable here. Yes, it’s a solid laptop that covered all the bases. But it feels a little generic, which might not delight a high schooler in search of novelty.
7. Dell Inspiron 14 3000Pros:
- Good assortment of ports
- Good size screen
- No USB-C
- Slow CPU -- laptop limited to non-gaming tasks
- Display is not full HD
Processor Intel Pentium Gold 5405U | RAM 8GB | Display 14 inches | GPU Intel UHD Graphics 610 | Hard drive 256GB SSD | Dimensions 13.3 x 9.5 x 0.8 inches | Weight 3.7 pounds
The Dell Inspiron 14 3000 is priced reasonably well — this model comes in around $600, and you can spend a little more or less depending upon the configuration. For example, here you get a laptop running the Intel Pentium Gold 5405U CPU, one of Intel’s new ultra-low-voltage processors. The main takeaway here is that it’s designed for low power for basic document writing and web surfing — in other words, just the sort of thing a high schooler needs a laptop for. Dell pairs that CPU with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD for data storage.
For connectivity, the laptop has a lot of ports — Ethernet and HDMI, along with three USB-A ports and a media card reader. The only thing it’s missing — and this might be a dealbreaker for you — is a USB-C port. That said, if you can live without the USB-C, you get a 14-inch display, which is a good compromise between a small 13-inch ultraportable and a larger, but harder-to-carry 15-inch screen. Unfortunately, that display is just 1366 x 768 pixels.
8. HP Envy x360Pros:
- Great price/performance ratio
- 2-in-1 convertible with touchscreen
- Long battery life
- No Ethernet
- Stylus no included
- Off senter, small touchpad
Processor AMD Ryzen 5 4500U | RAM 8GB | Display 15.6 inches | GPU AMD Radeon | Hard drive 512GB SSD | Dimensions 14.1 x 9.6 x 0.7 inches | Weight 4.5 pounds
Don’t stay so focused on traditional laptops that you fail to consider some other superb options. For example, the 2-in-1 convertible. In many ways, the HP Envy x360 is perhaps the best laptop under $1000; it is a powerful computer that can do double duty as a tablet. But first, let’s talk about what makes it a standard laptop: It is powered by an AMD Ryzen 5 4500U processor, which lets HP pack in extra performance at a cheaper sticker price, since AMD CPUs are generally cheaper than Intel. It comes with 8GB RAM and a spacious 512GB SSD. The screen is a large 15.6-inch display running at full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels).
Here’s where it gets interesting, though. The screen is a touchscreen, and you can continue folding the screen back until the laptop tents — you can stand it up with the laptop shaped into a “V,” which is great for delivering presentations. Or fold it all the way back and you have a tablet. The laptop comes with a stylus, which you can use to control the computer or draw and write. If you’re so inclined, you can use a stylus in with the laptop in tablet mode to take notes in class. If you do, you’ll probably be in the minority, since most people taking notes by typing. But studies show you retain information better when you write things down rather than typing. Unfortunately, the stylus isn’t included, so you’ll need to buy that separately.
The laptop includes a webcam and a fingerprint reader, and the sides of the laptop include USB-A, USB-C, HDMI, and an SD card reader. The only kind of connection that’s missing is Ethernet. And for trying in dim light, the keyboard is backlit. Even so, the battery should keep the laptop running all day, with about 11 hours of runtime between charges.
9. HP Pavilion 14Pros:
- Enormous 1TB hard drive
- Good array of ports
- Portable size and weight
- Shorter than average batftery life
- No backlit keyboard
- Unremarkable webcam
Processor Intel Core i5-8250U | RAM 8GB | Display 14 inches | Hard drive 1TB SSD | Dimensions 12.9 x 8.9 x 0.7 inches | Weight 3.7 pounds
Most of the laptops we’ve looked at have small or moderately sized hard drives. But there will always be situations in which you need an enormous amount of storage — such as if a laptop is being used both for schoolwork and extra-curricular video production projects. If you’re producing content for the football team after school, then a laptop like the HP Pavilion 14 might be just what the doctor ordered.
This laptop comes with a mid-level CPU, the Intel Core i5-8250U, which helps keep the price in check, especially when you factor in 8GB RAM and a full 1TB SSD. Keep in mind that most high school students won’t need anything even close to a full terabyte of storage — this is for people with very specific needs like video production.
The laptop is built around a 14-inch full HD display (1920 x 1080 pixels) and comes with a good assortment of ports. On the left side, you’ll find a pair of USB-A ports and a convenient SD Card slot; the right side boasts USB-C as well as HDMI and Ethernet. The bottom line: There’s pretty much no port you might need on this laptop that you won’t find on board.
It’s reasonably portable, with modest dimensions thanks to the 14-inch screen and a total weight of just 3.7 pounds. Unfortunately, the battery isn’t quite as powerful as similar models, with perhaps six hours of runtime. If you don’t go anywhere with the laptop — or don’t mind going with the power brick, though, that might not be an issue.
How to Shop for a Laptop Ideal for a High School Student
Shopping for a laptop that'll get the job done for a high schooler? The good news is that their computing needs are modest. For tasks like note-taking, online research, writing reports, and creating simple presentations and graphics, you don't need more than a basic CPU (like an Intel Core i3), though (and this is always true...) faster is better. Schoolwork will never demand an advanced graphics card or fancy sound, and most sorts of school projects won't consume so much storage that even a small 128GB hard drive should be enough. I'd never recommended these very minimal specs for a business laptop or even a college-bound student, but high schoolers can get by with simple machines. That said, it's a good idea to invest in a newer laptop rather than buying an older one. Your student will almost always get the benefit of a better performing, more hassle-free PC this way.
You do need to address a critical question before you get too far into shopping, though: Do you need a Mac, PC, or Chromebook? The answer may be determined by school or curriculum requirements. For example, if the majority of the classwork is online and there are no specific requirements to use, for example, Microsoft Word, then a Chromebook might be the perfect solution: inexpensive, lightweight, long battery life, and almost hassle-free.
But if the school has requirements for Microsoft Office or other apps that much be installed on the computer, then you might need to invest in a Windows PC (or, in some rare cases, a Mac). Best to ask the teacher or the school's front office before the school year kicks off, if you don't get specific guidance on computer requirements ahead of time.
The Best Value in a Laptop for a High School Student
So you're shopping for a laptop to get through your next year or two of high school. If you're on a budget and, as I mentioned elsewhere, you don't have specific requirements for a Windows or Mac laptop, I'd err on the side of Chrome. The Acer Chromebook 15 is an excellent choice that will save you significant bank while giving you all the tools you need to do classwork and get stuff done online.
If you're on a budget but have to stick with a traditional laptop, my money is on the Acer Aspire 5. That 15.6-inch display clocks in well under $1000 and has everything you are likely to need in a laptop. It's speedy enough to last you for several years; it's conceivably the only laptop you'll need through all of secondary school.
Shopping for a Mac? The MacBook Air is the smart and practical choice; don't even think about the MacBook Pro unless you're going to a private school and your valet is the one actually researching laptops for you right now.
Finally, it's worth pointing out the HP Envy x360. This 2-in-1 convertible works like both a laptop and a tablet, and it can help you in ways you'd never imagine with a traditional laptop. If I had about $700 to spend, I'd put it on a convertible.
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