The 15 Best Laptops For Grad Students in 2021

Pursuing graduate study course is no joke. Students pursuing doctorate or master’s degrees deal with a truckload (and seemingly endless) paperwork! Professors require research papers, dissertations, or essays. These entail long hours of data gathering and a series of fact-checking methods. A laptop with high-quality performance that doesn’t give up any time of the day is what they need.

Regardless of the college students academic level, a portable electronic device is necessary to make learning a lot easier. About 90% of college students are in favor of using laptops in class because they find it useful for note-taking, researching, and other word processing. A trusted laptop helps them accomplish all these tasks. 

As you are working on your new laptop, check out these tips for making the most of your time: 8 Ways to Be Productive in Grad School

Key Features of a Good Laptop for Postgraduate Students

Screen

Postgraduate students both in their studies and free time will likely spend a ton of time looking at a computer screen, so with that in mind, getting the best screen you can afford will be key. Some people prefer matte screens while others love glossy screens, but more important is the resolution and peak brightness of the screen. You do not need to buy a 4K laptop! Screens between 13 and 17 inches don’t need to have a better than 1440p resolution to look amazing, but if you come across a laptop with less than a 1080p display, move on! So if you see 720p or a resolution where the second number is lower than 1000 pixels, then you know to stay away.

As for brightness, 250 nits of maximum brightness is the absolute minimum I’d recommend. Anything lower and in a bright room or outside, the screen will be totally washed out, so more is better here and some machines come with screens that can go as high as 400 and 500 nits of brightness.

Keyboard

We recommend putting fingers to keys if possible and testing out the keyboard of the machine you are going to be using as you type pages and pages of documentation, messages, emails, and search for various articles, the last thing you want is to have your hands tire or endless spelling mistakes because the keys don’t feel quite right. It is completely subjective, but most brands these days sell laptops with higher end keyboards that will make an impact on your overall experience while using your laptop, especially over the course of the years of ownership.

Battery Life

Laptop manufacturers have been providing inflated battery life numbers for a very long time and so it can be difficult to know if you are getting a good battery, but typically, buried somewhere in their technical specifications, you’ll find the capacity of the battery in Watt hours. I recommend not purchasing a laptop with less than 35 Wh of battery capacity, no matter how long they advertise it will last! Don’t buy a laptop because it says it will last up to 20 hours because what they typically mean is that under ideal conditions, where you can barely see what’s on the screen as well as many other compromises. Battery life is one of the most frustrating purchasing metrics, but if you know you are going to need to be away from a power outlet more than two or three hours at a time, it’s a feature to really take the time to research.

CPU and RAM

We are fortunate that computer processors, even in laptops, have improved immensely over the last few years due to a high level of competition between the two key players: AMD and Intel, so choosing a processor is less stressful than ever. If you are going to do difficult math calculations, physics simulations or other complicated math, art or video, then taking some time to make sure you have something from the higher end of the latest generation is key. Beyond that, almost any CPU will work well for typical workloads.

For RAM, you’ll want to stick to a very simple rule: more is better. I don’t recommend people get machines with less than 8GB of RAM. RAM is often not user upgradable and so what you buy today will likely be all the machine has. RAM often determines how many things you can run at one time and often comes in capacities between 4GB and 32GB. This is not storage on your machine, but there are tablets and some laptops with hard drives that are 32GB, even today, so make sure you are looking at the right specification.

Looking for the best laptops for your Ph.D. needs? Check out our top picks!

Microsoft Surface Pro X

Microsoft Surface Pro is known for its versatility. Microsoft has equipped this model with their own processor called the Microsoft SQ 1 and SQ 2. Combined with a built-in GPU called the Adreno 685 or 690 depending on which model you choose and either 8GB or 16GB of LPDDR4x.

The 13″ touchscreen display and high-resolution of 2880 x 1920 pixels gives you sharp text on a 3:2 aspect ratio, great for working on documents or viewing long web pages. For postgraduate students that require advanced digital-related reports, Microsoft Surface Pro X is something to consider. The tablet like form factor with a keyboard cover makes the Surface Pro X very portable, and the option to add a nan SIM to it provides cellular data connectivity options, even when you are out in the field.

The 38 Wh battery should provide enough for full day use and it’s advertised at being able to last around thirteen hours in ideal conditions.

Add in a Surface Pen allows you to draw, write, or sketch directly on the screen, providing versatility not found in many other devices on this list.

MacBook Pro 13″ – M1

The MacBook Pro is being refreshed using their new Apple built M1 processors and the change is being highly regarded as a new golden age for Apple. The 13″ MacBook Pro is the first to get this updated processor, but if you are reading this and the 15″ version now has an M1 or later Apple chip in it, pick up that one instead as the better screen real estate will be beneficial.

Until then, the 13.3″ screen with its 2560 by 1600 resolution and 500 nits of peak brightness will have to do. You won’t feel hard done by with this well designed, powerful machine. The 13″ MacBook Pro comes with a 58.2 Wh battery that provides full day use and advertises up to 20 hours under ideal conditions. The base model comes with 8GB of RAM but you can also get it in 16GB which is what we’d recommend.

It comes with one of the best keyboards and trackpads in the market and while people have mixed feelings about the touch bar, we think it could be useful for task switching as it’s a small touch screen with endless programmable buttons.

The MacBook Pro comes with Wi-Fi 6, the latest in wireless networking standards which will likely allow you to download or upload information faster than those using the more common standard wireless chips in most non-Apple laptops today.

Dell Precision 5750 Mobile Workstation

Almost anything in Dell’s business or gaming line of laptops will work well for postgraduate students to do nearly any workload required of them. The advantage of their business line is that the build quality is better and as such, protects the expensive components within better than their consumer line. The Dell Precision 5750 has a 17″ screen but doesn’t weigh you down like some other 17″ laptops on the market.

It comes in a wide variety of configurations from different CPUs, to different amounts of RAM and with integrated or discrete graphics, so what you get from this machine depends on the money you spend, but even the lowest end Precision 5750 is a great machine with 8GB of RAM, a 10th generation Intel i5 processor and a high quality 1920 x 1200 pixel screen. The battery on the base model is a bit small for the size of the screen at “only” 56 Wh so we’d recommend upgrading to get the 97 Wh battery of the more up market configurations.

Did you know that the maximum battery size you can carry on a plane is 100 Wh? Most of Dell’s Precision 5750 models nearly touch that mark.

ASUS ZenBook ProDuo 15 OLED

If you are looking for a laptop that feels more traditional than a Microsoft Surface, but still manages to turn heads from time to time, then the ASUS ZenBook ProDuo 15 OLED will do just that with it’s secondary tilting touch sensitive display. I love the idea of having a touch screen that isn’t my primary display because when I’m in the zone working, the last thing I want is fingerprints all over my display.

Don’t let the potentially gimmicky second screen fool you though, this is a potential powerhouse with models including up to an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 GPU, making this a multi-tasking, gaming, productivity powerhouse.

The main screen provides a 4K OLED HD cinema quality screen perfect for editing videos and photos for your presentations. They are aiming the marketing of this machine at photographers, programmers, video editors, musicians, animators and game streamers, but I think you’ll agree that sometimes when working on your postgraduate school work, you need to take skills from all those industries to succeed.

HP ZBook Firefly

Like Dell, HP has a whole range of systems for any and every budget, but that can also make it feel complicated to pick out the best machine for your needs. I recommend looking at their ZBook Firefly line as they are well built mobile workstations with specifications that can handle almost any kind of work load you can throw at it and they still fit in a wide range of budgets.

A strong system comes with a 14″ touchscreen display, 16GB of RAM, 512 GB of NVMe SSD, and a 10th generation Intel CPU as well as a NVIDIA Quadro graphics card which while not great for gaming, can be super helpful for physics, engineering, math, and more.

The ZBook Firefly comes with fast charging that can get the machine back to around fifty percent of battery capacity in just thirty minutes.

LG Gram 16

If weight is one of your biggest concerns but you don’t want to give up any features or functionality, than LG’s Gram line-up of laptops is where you should look. With a 16 inch laptop screen machine coming in under three pounds, but including a 80 Wh battery that can provide up to 22 hours of battery life in ideal conditions, you won’t be giving up anything with the LG Gram.

The screen is 16:10 for a bit of extra document height real estate making the resolution a crisp 2560 x 1600 pixels, but don’t worry about the light weight and large size meaning it isn’t durable, LG has thought of that too and the Gram 16 is MIL-STD-810G, meaning it passed seven durability tests including shock, vibration, pressure changes and more.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

IBM ThinkPad used to be synonymous with durability when it came to laptops, and Lenovo is working hard to keep the ThinkPad brand on track, especially with their X1 Carbon series. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon comes with a 14 inch 1080p screen with 400 nits of maximum brightness, a 10th generation Intel processor, and either 8GB or 16GB of RAM.

It includes a fast charging battery that can get back to 80% capacity in under an hour and they advertise up to 19.5 hours of battery life in ideal situations. The X1 Carbon comes with the latest wireless connection option with a WiFi 6 card, and has the option to add an LTE-A card so you can connect to cellular data. They keyboard on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is top of the line and if you are typing a lot, you’ll want to test this keyboard before you decide which laptop you want to purchase and like the LG Gram, the ThinkPad has its MIL-STD-810G certification meaning it is tough!

Acer TravelMate P6

Sometimes we overlook certain brands because they are known for inexpensive machines, but the Acer TravelMate P6 deserves a second look as a very balanced machine with nothing necessarily standing out that makes it best in class, but it also doesn’t lag behind anywhere. It has high quality components, a solid screen, good storage, RAM and CPU options, and it is one of the less expensive options on this list. If you are looking for good value for performance, you won’t find anything better than most mid to high tier Acer offerings.

The main TravelMate P6 worth considering ships with 8GB of RAM, a 14″ 1080p screen, 256GB of storage, and a battery that is rated for 16 hours under ideal circumstances with a weight under 2.5 pounds.

Microsoft Surface Pro 7

One of the disadvantages of the Surface Pro X is that it uses an ARM processor, and this means that sometimes the fringe applications won’t work on the version of Windows that the Surface Pro X runs, but the Surface Pro 7 is just as capable, and uses normal Intel processors, meaning that it runs the normal version of Windows and is compatible with all of the applications you might need to use to complete your postgraduate degree.

The Surface Pro 7 comes with a slightly smaller screen at 12.3″, but you won’t really notice the difference as the resolution of the screen at 2736 x 1824 pixels means it has the same number of pixels per inch as the Surface Pro X.

If you need more storage than the Surface Pro X provides, then the Surface Pro 7 also meets your needs here with up to 1TB of storage space.

The one downside of the Surface Pro 7 over the Surface Pro X in our experience is the battery life though with a rated battery life of around 10.5 hours, but the biggest advantage is that it is priced at a lower cost than the Surface Pro X, making it easier to afford the accessories that make this even more of a productivity system.

MSI Modern 15

MSI makes some amazing high value, high performance laptops, and their Modern 15 line is no different. With the latest Intel 11th generation processors, GeForce MX450 graphics cards, a slim and light design and a high quality screen, the MSI Modern 15 should be on your list to consider if you want a machine that can handle any workload thrown at it for your postgraduate work.

The Modern 15 comes with Wi-Fi 6 wireless cards, fast charging, and a 52 Wh battery for all day use. Personally, I’m a big fan of the 3.5 pound weight and like other son this list, the Modern 15 is MIL-STD-810G certified. Machines that are mil-spec deserve extra points!

Huawei MateBook X Pro 2020

The Huawei Matebook X Pro has outstanding performance and portability. It has a 13.9″ touchscreen display with a high-resolution, 3000 x 2000 feature. Researching and multitasking with other programs all at once are feasible because it’s base model has a 10th generation Intel i5-10210U processor, 8GB RAM, and 512GB SSD.

To keep it interesting, this has a built-in NVIDIA GeForce MX250 GPU, which won’t allow you to play the latest games, but it will help with some basic CAD or physics simulations. The battery capacity is 56 Wh which should get you through a typical five to seven hour day without plugging in, though they do advertise up to thirteen hours of battery life in ideal conditions.

Dell XPS 15

Dell’s XPS line is upmarket from their Inspiron lineup and as such it provides a better build quality, and a nicer fit and finish. Their latest machines offer tenth generation Intel processors, up to 32GB of RAM and up to 1TB of M.2 NVMe storage.

One area where Dell has fairly consistently been great is their displays, and in the XPS line you get some of their best screens. The XPS 15 line typically includes a 15.6″ display at 1920 x 1200 pixels with an anti-glare coating at 500 nits of peak brightness. You can upgrade to a 3840 x 2400 pixel screen if you feel so inclined, but for all but the most tightly focused pixel peepers, I don’t think it’s worth the upgrade.

The screen includes Gorilla Glass 6 on the touch panel version, which is fairly durable and it’s set in a CNC machined aluminum frame with some carbon fiber composite pieces. Not words you typically hear with the budget friendly Dell.

The base model comes with a 56 Wh battery, but you can get an 86 Wh battery, which I’d recommend so you can have all day, worry free, away from a plug if you need. And like a few on this list, the Dell XPS 15 includes Wi-Fi 6 wireless connection.

Razer Blade 15

If you aren’t as concerned about battery life and want a machine that will work well for any multimedia or gaming options that you throw at it, then the Razer Blade 15 might be for you. Gaming laptops might not seem like the right option, but many of the features that make gaming laptops great, can also make them great productivity machines, especially if you are doing more than just writing or reading.

The Razer Blade 15 can come with a GeForce RTX 3080, a 360 Hz display, 1TB of storage, 32 GB of RAM and a Razer Chroma keyboard built-in. This does mean that it typically weighs a ton and and doesn’t have great battery life at all, but there are very few workloads this system won’t crush.

HP Spectre x360 15

Communication is key and that’s the focus of the HP Spectre x360 15 with its webcam kill switch and mic mute buttons. Beyond that, the x360 15 has a tenth generation Intel processor, can include discrete graphics, has a display brightness of 340 nits, includes 8 or 16 GB of RAM and up to 1TB of storage. One fancy feature on the upper end models is that it can also include 32 GB of Intel Optane memory which can make your applications load even faster!

It can include a 72.9 Wh battery which should provide all day use and is rate up to around 8 hours of video playback in ideal conditions. It supports fast charging to get you back to 50% batter in approximately 30 minutes and has great I/O ports including Thunderbolt 3.

Lenovo ThinkPad T15g

The ThinkPad T-series has been a staple in the business and higher academic world for decades, and the reason is simple: they are tanks! The T15g continues this with a tough exterior shell and MIL-STD-810G certification.

This iteration includes tenth generation Intel CPUs, 8, 16 or 32 GB of RAM, and 256, 512 or 1000 GB of storage. The base model includes a screen with 300 nits of brightness, but if you go up a model, you’ll get 500 nits peak brightness on the screen and Dolby Vision and HDR, which are fancy terms for great contrast, brightness and clarity.

They all include Wi-Fi 6 which will make your wireless connection fast, and they offer discrete graphics cards which will allow you to render animations, test artificial intelligence or play the odd game. If you are looking for a machine that will last beyond the three to five years most other laptops can handle, then a ThinkPad should be on your short list.

**********

How to Survive Grad School

8 Things Only A Grad Student Would Understand

Consider This: Why Go To Graduate School?