Best laptops for students
There’s aren’t many specifically student laptops, but many fit the bill.
Although some of us are old enough to remember when you had to handwrite your undergraduate dissertation, those times are behind us now. Even secondary school pupils can work on tablets and computers for exams these days, so most students have a keen eye on a new laptop (parent bank account permitting in some instances).
But there are a lot of laptops, and a lot of budgets. While expensive MacBooks and Surface Pros are more
than adequate for relatively basic student needs, you can spend much less and still do most things, such as stream Netflix until four in the morning.
There are a few things to consider when buying a student laptop besides price though, and we have a range of prices here to suit all budgets.
Ports and drives
Do you need a CD drive? Probably not, but if you want to play DVDs rather than stream or if you want to copy files to a disc, then go for it – just remember they are now fairly hard to come by and also add a lot of bulk and weight. The more moving parts in a laptop the more can go wrong, too.
How large a screen do you need? You may not want to type 10,000 word essays on an 11in display, but 15in may be too big. We think that anywhere between the 12- and 14 inches is the sweet spot, but it’s worth carefully considering.
Keyboard and trackpad
Not all keyboard and trackpads are made equal. MacBook trackpads, for example, are best in class, but you pay for the privilege, while what type of keyboard you prefer is quite a personal thing.
Do you want a lot of travel on your keys, or something flatter and slim? Do you need a full-size keyboard with a number pad? Sacrificing that will allow you to get a more compact design handy for toting round campus.
It depends what you do on your laptop, but look out for what the expected battery life is. Word processing without Wi-Fi is likely to let it last for ages, but if you’re going to be away from a plug on Wi-Fi and streaming video lots, then a laptop conking out after three hours isn’t much fun. Manufacturers will tell you in the small print under what conditions they tested the laptop to get the projected battery life, so take a look. It’s best to get one that quotes at least 10 hours to be safe.
Ah yes, budget. Do you need a £1,000 laptop? Will it get broken or worse, stolen? While more expensive laptops will give you better gaming performance,
should you really be playing Fortnite for that many hours with those deadlines? Then again, it’s not our place to patronise. But, you can get a solid performing laptop for less than half a grand these days, so you might want to save the cash for all those books you still need to buy. A lot to consider then.
1. Acer Swift 1 £329 inc VAT from fave.co/2kGNt4V
Acer’s Swift 1 is one of the cheapest laptop you can buy that looks a little like an Apple MacBook. It’s slim, and has a metal frame with plenty of bright aluminium on show. Whereas MacBooks start at £949 for the arguably out-of-date Air, the Swift 1 costs £349 in the variant we’re using. Let that sink in: just over a third the price of Apple’s cheapest alternative. Low CPU power and minimal storage make the Acer Swift 1 suitable for only light jobs like writing documents, surfing the web and streaming video. However, given the price, its impersonation of a £700- to £1,000 slim and light laptop is almost convincing.
If a laptop costs £350 or less, we normally expect to see a somewhat thick plastic shell. The aim should be a solid, practical laptop, not a flashy one, right?
The Acer Swift 1 is nothing like that. It’s affordable, but still has a full aluminium shell. Its lid, the keyboard surround and the underside all use plates of real aluminium. This is the sort of look that makes you expect a £650-plus price tag, not a £350 one.
Acer has a history of providing that expensive aluminium look and feel at a low price, having used the same tactic (and a similar shell) in its 13in Chromebook.
For the price, the Swift 1 looks and feels lovely, and there’s no obvious sign Acer has done the job on the cheap. The panels don’t flex like cardboard at the first sign of pressure and the aluminium has an anodized finish just like several of the popular expensive alternatives. It’s a brighter, shinier finish than some, but still looks great.
Let’s not just gush, though. There are a few signs the Swift 1 isn’t really an expensive laptop. The display has a black border around it, which isn’t the prettiest look. And the screen surround is that of a classic laptop. Many new models (including some cheaper ones) only have a few millimetres of redundant border around
them. This one has – shock, horror – about an inch to the left and right. Its thickness and weight let it easily slide into the ‘thin and light’ category, though. The Swift 1 weighs 1.3kg and is just under 15mm thick.
The Swift 1 also has all the main connections we like to see in a laptop, including some you’ll miss by choosing a much more expensive model. There are two USB 3.0 ports – great for the price – and one USB 2.0 socket. A USB-C port complements these, although it’s predictably only specified to the 3.1 standard, not the much faster Thunderbolt 3.0. A full-size HDMI and full-size SD card slot finish off what is a connections array fit for a more powerful laptop than the Swift 1.
Keyboard and trackpad
There are no nasty surprises in the keyboard and trackpad either. Some super-affordable laptops
have keys that feel cheap, often with hollow-feeling feedback or too much wobble. There’s none of this in the Swift 1. This is a rock-solid semi-shallow chiclet design. Buying this entry-level model, you benefit from the fact there are significantly pricier models with the same shell and keyboard.
We used the Swift 1 as our main work computer for a while, and came across no issues. There is, and this came as no surprise, no keyboard backlight. While some surprisingly affordable laptops have backlit keyboards, we don’t expect one in a £350 laptop that already has budget siphoned off to accommodate an aluminium shell.
The trackpad is similar: not high-end ,but great for the price. Its surface is plastic rather than textured glass, but then some laptops at twice the price still use plastic. Swipes are relatively smooth and the click action is solid. It’s not too stiff, not too deep, not too loud and not broken. As in so many other aspects, the Swift 1 trackpad doesn’t seem like a melted Madame Tussauds mock-up even when stacked up against ‘real deal’ £1,000 laptops.
Acer has – although we’re not entirely sure why – also crammed in a fingerprint scanner to the right of the trackpad. This is a little mad in a £350 laptop. It’s a little fiddly compared to that of high-end laptops, but does let you log in with your finger as promised. It just may take a couple of attempts.
If the scanner is a case of Acer showing off unnecessarily, the screen is the sort of grandstanding
we’re a sucker for. The Swift 1 may be cheap, but it still packs in a perfectly respectable 1080p IPS LCD display, one 13.3in across.
At first it might seem the ‘1080p’ part is most important, but ‘IPS’ is. Plenty of cheap laptops still use ‘TN’ screens that look bad from even a slight angle, while even an entry-level IPS panel like this looks good from almost any angle.
Not every aspect of the Swift 1 is amazing, of course. Colour is visibly a little undersaturated, covering just 61.2 percent of the sRGB colour gamut. Tones don’t pop off the screen as they might in a £350 tablet, but this is undoubtedly among the best laptop displays at the price. Solid contrast of 985:1 also helps makes the most of this colour capability. For a £350 laptop, the display looks very good to us.
It’s a matte screen too, which is better if you’re going to use the Swift 1 out in daylight, or on a train with light streaming right through a window onto your Excel spreadsheet. However, brightness is only just good enough to reach an acceptable level for any
sort of outdoor use. The Swift 1’s maximum brightness is 266cd/m2. You’ll really want to see 350cd/m2 or above for best results on a sunny day. But just by saying that we’re (once again) comparing the Swift 1 to laptops twice the price.
This isn’t a touchscreen, but the display folds back almost 180 degrees, rather than the usual 130. It’s not useful in that many situations, but does make sharing what’s on screen easier. Performance If you’re waiting for the reason why the Swift 1 is so cheap when we keep comparing it to models twice the price, the best answer is the CPU. Our version of the laptop has an Intel Pentium N4200 processor. This is a quad-core CPU with a clock speed of 1.1GHz and a ‘burst’ of 2.5GHz. However, compared to Core series processors, even the Core i3, this is a bit of a weakling.
Using the Swift 1 as we would any other laptop, we found installing and loading apps took significantly longer than with a Core-powered system. And any intense applications such as video editing or highlevel 3D gaming are off the cards. However, with this generation of Pentium CPU, we’re finally past what has put off recommending most budget Windows laptops in recent years. Until this generation, Atom and Pentium-powered laptops could be borderline painful to use at times even with light duties.
The Swift 1 and its Pentium N4200 feel just fine, with minimal lag when you’re just coasting across the surface of Windows 10 and, say, using the browser or WordPad. This is the level at which the laptop is
comfortable. But it’s important as it wrestles away some of the appeal of ‘premium’ Chromebooks, which we’ve often recommended over rock-bottom laptops.
You’ll need a little patience, but not anything like some older entry-level laptops require.
The Swift 1’s benchmark results are, of course, pretty poor, though. It scores 1,134 points in PC Mark 10, where a Core i5 will push 2,700.
There’s a more telling comparison, though. The Intel Pentium 4450U Lenovo used in its IdeaPad 320S (see
page 91) scores 2,295, making it much more like a lower-power alternative to a Core-series computer. Of course, the 320S is more expensive, made of plastic and has a much, much worse screen. Comparing the two on performance is just one side of the story.
Gaming performance is poor, again worse than the IdeaPad 320S, but no worse than we expect from a Pentium CPU, which has a low-end Intel HD 505 GPU. Alien: Isolation runs at an average 9.8fps at 720p, minimum graphics. At 1080p with the settings maxed you’re looking at 3.3fps. We’re miles away from playable speeds.
We couldn’t even try our usual Deus Ex: Mankind Divided as there’s no enough room on the Swift 1’s paltry 64GB solid state storage. But we’d be looking at single figure frame rates no matter the setting.
Gaming is not a total bust, though. The Swift 1 can play Skyrim at 720p resolution, Low settings well.
One benefit of using such a low-end CPU is the Swift 1 doesn’t need fans. It uses passive cooling, like a tablet. It’ll be silent (or near silent) no matter what you do. Putting an ear up to the ports, we can hear a
slight almost HDD-like noise from the Swift’s insides. It’s likely to be noise from the power supply or another component. Your Swift 1 may not suffer from it, and in ours it’s only audible if you go listening for it.
A CPU that barely uses any power makes you expect a battery that lasts forever. Acer says the 42Wh battery lasts 10 hours, but in our experience it’s not quite as long-lasting.
Playing a 90-minute video on loop at 120cd/m2 brightness, the Swift 1 lasts seven hours, 49 minutes. While not a mind-blowing result, it’s very close to what we tend to look for: a full day of work.
The speakers too are sufficient, but not special. While clear and largely undistorted at higher output, they don’t have the volume, mid-range bulk or bass of the best laptop speakers.
The Acer Swift 1 is perhaps the most expensive-looking and feeling laptop Windows 10 laptop you can get for £350. A metal shell, solid keyboard and trackpad, and a display that simply flattens more at the price in terms of perceptual image quality are all to be celebrated.
There’s only one worry: performance. While the Pentium processor used here is significantly better than that of previous generations, it’s a low-end chipset that will make more demanding tasks seem a real chore.
However, for light use – emails, browsing, some casual gaming – the Swift 1 performs fine. It’s also a great choice for humanities students, as the sort of essay-making machine you can comfortably carry around all day, every day. Andrew Williams
• 13.3in (1920x1080) 1080p IPS LCD matt anti-glare display • 1.1GHz Intel Pentium N4200 (2.5GHz boost) four cores, four threads • Windows 10 Home (64-bit) • Intel HD 505 GPU • 4GB DDR3 RAM • 64GB solid state memory • 802.11b/g/n/ac single-band 2x2 MIMO • Bluetooth 4.1 • 1x USB-C 3.1 • 2x USB 3.0 • 1x USB 2.0 • HDMI • SDXC card slot
• Stereo speakers • HD webcam • Single mic • 3.5mm headset jack • UK tiled keyboard with numberpad • Two-button trackpad • 57Wh lithium-ion battery, removable • 319x225x14.9mm • 1.3kg • 1-year carry-in warranty
2. HP 250 GS £339 inc VAT from fave.co/2o7xdMm
Compared to some of the colourful and stylish budget laptops around, the HP 250 G5 is a plain-looking machine, with no fancy design features, and a style that positively wants to be ignored.
It’s one of the cheapest laptops you’ll find to use an Intel Core-series processor, instantly solving many of the most serious day-to-day problems you’ll run into using a cheap computer. If your laptop fund is limited, you can’t argue with this bargain machine.
If you’re thinking this laptop looks quite familiar, that’s because it has been around for a long time. HP has retained the same design for a couple of years: it isn’t out to thrill, it’s a tool, a workhorse. None of this matters one jot though, if you’re simply after a basic laptop with good performance for little money.
Decked out in black and very dark grey, many will think it’s boring. But there are some little aesthetic gems. There’s an embossed pattern on the lid and a texture on the keyboard surround. Both look great when they catch the light, but their biggest benefit is in putting a sensory layer between your fingers and the basic plastic that makes up the HP 250 G5’s shell.
You’d guess this was a cheaper laptop, but it doesn’t feel so. No part of the laptop flexes much under finger pressure and the hinge feels very solid. Treat it rough though, and the mechanical hard drive would probably fail before the shell becomes too damaged.
You won’t want to take it out too often anyway. This is not a hugely portable laptop. It weighs 2.14kg and the 15.6in frame just isn’t going to fit easily into a lot of bags. If you’re after something to use on-the-go, check out a 13.3in display computer or smaller first.
This is the sort of laptop you can use as your main machine, not least because it has a good spread of
connections for a cheaper model. There are three USB ports (1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0), an SD card slot, and an Ethernet port and both VGA and HDMI video outputs.
HP has clearly designed this machine knowing that some of you will want to plug in a monitor and keyboard/mouse.
Keyboard and trackpad
Typical of the practical style, the keyboard and trackpad are decent. The keyboard is a standard design, also fitting a number pad to the right side of the normal keys. Key travel is a little shallow and feedback on the soft side, but it’s still clearly-defined and non-spongy. None of the G5’s keys have been radically shaved down or moved too silly positions either.
Like the build, the keyboard is not fancy, but solid. Like other laptops at this price there’s no backlight. At first glance, the trackpad appears far more unusual. The pad isn’t separated from the keyboard surround.
It’s part of it. This is not the nicest surface for a trackpad, and is one of the few disappointments of this laptop. Something a bit smoother would give the machine a much less budget feel. From a pure practical perspective, the trackpad is fine, though. Its buttons are separated out, sitting below the pad in a plastic bar. A nice little touch is that the right button requires a much lighter press than the left one – a conscious nod to the fact you’re more likely to be pressing it with a digit other than your index finger.
Typical of an entry-level laptop, G5 has a basic screen. It’s 15.6 inches across and 1,366x768 resolution. This is the sort of screen that has been used in laptops for well over a decade. It’s not very sharp.
Its colour is clearly undersaturated, making the display look a little anaemic. Our colorimeter tells us it hits just 55.2 percent of the sRGB gamut, which is poor but predictable given we’re looking at a pocket-money PC. Horizontal viewing angles are passable, suffering from some loss of brightness, but it’s only the vertical angle that causes the contrast shift we associate with the TN LCD panel used here.
If you need more proof that this isn’t a laptop to get if you want to avoid having to buy a TV, its native contrast is just 200:1, which is pretty dismal. However, when used in a lit room, all you will notice is that the colours are a bit weak. The screen looks its best when there’s a decent amount of ambient light, letting the reflection-busting matt finish show off what it can do. Maximum brightness is pretty good, and the fact that
the screen has a matte finish means you can use the laptop nearby a bright window or outdoors.
A bad screen is something you are just going to have to accept if you want to spend well under £500. But the 250 G5 does have great internals for the money, regardless of which precise model you choose.
With an Intel Core i3-5005U (dual-core, 2GHz) processor and 8GB of RAM, there are almost no creaky pauses as Windows 10 goes about its daily business. It’s refreshing to see such an affordable laptop whose general performance does not feel compromised, a legitimate budget machine that can handle genuine multitasking without becoming a chore to use. And as we mentioned at the top, you can pay a little extra and get a Core i5 version or even i7 that should see performance increase by a good chunk.
For the Core i3 version we tested, its PCMark 8 score of 2,171 is much closer to that of a high-end laptop than the circa-1,000 score you might see from some of the Celeron-based laptops that sit around the £200 to £250 mark.
As long as you’re not expecting a powerhouse PC, you should be very happy. We can’t overstate the difference between the performance of an Intel Core i3 with 8GB RAM and a Celeron with 2/4GB RAM.
The Core i3 here is a 5th-gen processor rather than a newer 6th- or 7th-gen one. But there are models of the 250 G5 that do have 6th-gen Skylake chips, and we recommend hunting down those models if you can handle the extra price. Also, a Skylake CPU would get you slightly better gaming performance.
At lowest settings, 720p resolution, Alien: Isolation is almost playable, reaching an average 18.6fps. Really cut the settings down to their bare bones and you can reach 24.5fps (average). Some might consider that acceptable, but this isn’t meant to be a gaming laptop. Our other standard gaming test, Thief, is a bust, too. At Low settings you’ll get 12.8fps, which is really too low to be any fun. If you only have a few hundred pounds and want to do some gaming, buy a PS4 or Xbox One.
Although it may be tempting to save money and go for a model with a 1TB hard drive, this is much slower at juggling bits and pieces of data, and makes Windows 10 noticeably less responsive.
This laptop isn’t designed for amazing battery life. The battery unit can be removed though, held in place
with a clip at the back of the underside. This is a very traditional design. Battery life is on the higher-end of what you might expect for from a very conventional 15.6in laptops. It lasts for five hours when playing a 720p MP4 video, which is similar stamina to what you would get while writing documents and doing the odd bit of browsing. It’s not all-day stamina, but is respectable for a full-size machine.
Audio and other considerations
Finally, we come to sound quality. The HP 250 G4 has two speakers that sit on the underside of the laptop, and their output varies hugely on whether you use the Dolby DSP software or not. Without it, the output is weak and quiet. With it, the sound has a lot more mid-range power, and seems fuller.
However, it also involves a lot of compression, meaning the volume of parts of a music track seems to go up and down as the arrangement becomes busier or more sparse. It also sounds boxy, but the extra weight to the sound is welcome.
There are no such positive notes for the webcam, though, which is VGA and produces a very soft-looking image. It seems HP has bunged a camera in here expecting very few people to use it.
Those after something flashy may not find a lot of appeal in the HP 250 G5. However, it’s one of the bestvalue, low-cost laptops you can get. Andrew Williams
• 15.6in (1,366x768, 100dpi) TN LCD matt • Windows 10 Home 64-bit • 2GHz Intel Core i3-5005U dual core • Intel HD Graphics • 8GB RAM • 256GB SSD • 802.11ac 1x1 • Bluetooth 4.2 • 2x USB 2.0 port • 1x USB 3.0 port • Ethernet port • HDMI + VGA video outputs • SDXC card slot • Stereo speakers • VGA webcam, single mic • 3.5mm headset jack
• UK tiled keyboard • 31Wh lithium-ion battery • 384x254x24mm • 2.14kg 3. Lenovo IdeaPad 320S £349 inc VAT from fave.co/2o5XL0z The Lenovo IdeaPad 320S is an entry-level laptop that looks, from arm’s length at least, similar to ones costing £600 to £1,000. Sub-£400 models don’t have to be dumpy or ugly anymore. Normally we struggle to recommend a laptop as low-power as the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S. However, we’ve finally reached the point where Windows 10 and a low-end Pentium processor can get along. It’s time to celebrate.
From a distance you could easily believe it costs a lot more. It doesn’t have the thick frame or unsophisticated lines of the average budget laptop. Instead, the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S has an ultrabook-like shell, but one made mostly of plastic rather than aluminium.
The lid is aluminium, but Lenovo has sensibly chosen to favour a classy look instead of
showing this off, using the same block colour for the entire shell. It feels sturdy, too. There’s minimal flex to the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S screen and only a small part of the keyboard flexes under pressure, and even then you have to be looking for faults to notice it.
Look closer and you’ll notice the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S isn’t quite as slim or as light as a premium slim laptop, though. At 19.2mm thick, it’s portable but thick enough to be a noticeable presence in your rucksack.
That said, we’d be happy to use it as a laptop carried around daily. Lenovo also says the 320S weighs 1.7kg, but that must relate to the higher-spec version as this one is just 1.435kg according to our scales.
Until now we’ve been recommending the HP 250 G5 as one of our top budget laptop buys. While more powerful than the IdeaPad 320S, this Lenovo is certainly far better-looking and more portable.
It even offers the latest laptop design trend: very slim screen surrounds. While not as slim as those of, say, the Dell XPS 13, the slimmed-down borders do give the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S a very sharp and modern look. For a budget laptop that is.
The Lenovo IdeaPad 320S has what is fast becoming the crowd-pleasing standard of connectivity. There’s one USB-C port, the new style of connector, and two older full-size USBs.
As you might guess given the price, these are not all top-spec connectors. One of the USB ports is a 2.0 socket rather than 3.0, and the USB-C does not support the ultra-high bandwidth Thunderbolt 3 standard.
None of this matter too much in a £350 laptop like the Lenovo IdeaPad 320, though.
The full-size HDMI and SD card slot are far more important. For the average buyer the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S has much more useful connectivity than a £1,500 MacBook, even without truly high-end ports.
There’s no fingerprint scanner, an increasingly common feature in laptops. However, we don’t expect to see one in a machine this cheap.
Keyboard and touchpad
The Lenovo IdeaPad 320S keyboard and trackpad don’t feel radically worse than those of the much more expensive IdeaPad 720S. There are budget-related compromises, but none are too glaring in this area.
Like other slim laptops, the keys are a little shallow and their resistance a little lower than the IdeaPad 720S’s, but typing is comfortable. This is one of the benefits of getting a 14in laptop like this rather than a much smaller model: the keys feel well-spaced. There is no backlight, though, meaning you need to touch
type at night. The trackpad below is a fairly standard plastic pad, with buttons built into the surface. Its click sound is a bit loud, and the surface not as smooth as a glass pad. However, like the rest of the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S, it’s a convincing impersonation of a much more expensive machine’s touchpad.
The Lenovo IdeaPad 320S’s 14in screen is the one part that instantly marks this out as cheap laptop. It uses a TN-style screen rather than the IPS LCD kind seen in almost all more expensive laptops at this point. When tilted back too far, the colours invert and the screen appears cast in shadow. Tilt it towards you and the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S looks washed-out. Vertical viewing angles are poor, making the screen look bad unless viewed dead-on. Resolution is limited too at 1,366x768 pixels. However, this is currently the most common resolution at the price. And it doesn’t appear aggressively pixellated. Colour performance is relatively poor, covering just 56 percent of sRGB, 39 percent of Adobe RGB and 40 percent of DCI P3. This is low enough to make undersaturation
immediately apparent. Playing a movie on the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S right next to the IdeaPad 720S, the latter appears far richer.
Contrast is very poor too, another characteristic typical of a standard TN panel, at 205:1. Black levels are clearly imperfect even in a well-lit room.
And finally, brightness isn’t very good either, with maximum intensity of 263cd/m2. We like to see levels over 300cd/m2.
The display is the 320S’s biggest disappointment, and perhaps the best reason to consider spending a little more on a laptop with an IPS screen. More expensive models in this range use IPS panels too. However, if your budget is limited to £350 you’ll likely have to put up with a lower-quality display like this unless you switch to a Chromebook or Android hybrid instead of a Windows 10 computer.
Its matte finish is the display’s lone saving grace. This makes the screen easier to see outside, or when near reflection-causing windows.
The Lenovo IdeaPad 320S is a low-end laptop. It uses the Intel Pentium 4415U CPU a dual-core with four threads and a base clock speed of 2.3GHz.
We normally advise against buying a Windows 10 laptop with a Pentium or Intel Atom processor, as they are often a chore to use. Even system navigation can be slow to the point of annoyance.
However, the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S proves we’re back at a point where an Intel Pentium laptop can be a good buy. Windows 10 feels fast, there’s no waiting
for basic elements of the OS to appear and general responsiveness is remarkably close to that of a Core i3 laptop. This is, in part, thanks to the use of a 128GB SSD rather than a slower hard drive.
Conscious that there’s still a question of how much an Intel Pentium CPU with 4GB of RAM can take, we tried opening a dozen browser windows, a few documents and running Minecraft in the background. The Lenovo IdeaPad 320S still didn’t fall over, although looking at Windows 10 Task Manager’s CPU usage stats it’s clear the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S is made for light tasks. Processor usage was fairly high with this kind of low-level multi-tasking.
If you want to do video editing, use Photoshop or music production software, we’d highly recommend a Core i-series laptop instead. That said, for the kind of work we tend to do: browsing, writing documents and relatively simply editing of photos, the Lenovo fares surprisingly well.
Compared to our earlier reviews of older Pentium laptops, the IdeaPad 320S performs reasonably well in benchmarks. It scores 4,995 points in Geekbench 4, compared to the 3211 of the older-generation Pentium CPU Asus VivoBook Max X541SA and the 6,000-plus of a Core i5 system.
We’re rather impressed with the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S, and could happily use it as our main work machine. Until we needed to edit video or do some serious image editing, at any rate.
Gaming performance is much worse than a Core i5 alternative, though. Where a Core i5 laptop like the Acer Swift 3 can play Alien: Isolation at 720p and
manage an acceptable 30fps average, the Lenovo IdeaPad 320S averages an unplayable 16.7fps.
At 1366p this slows to 11.6fps. We’d normally test at 1080p, but the IdeaPad 320’s screen isn’t that high resolution. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is unplayable no matter the setting. At 720p Low, it shuffles along at 7.7fps, dropping to a painful 2.7fps at native resolution, Ultra settings. The Lenovo can play Minecraft happily. We tried it. But don’t expect too much more than that.
One benefit of using such a low-end CPU is that while there is a fan, it’s never remotely loud. Even after a series of gaming tests, the 320S was very quiet.
This laptop doesn’t get into the teens of hours of battery life like some low-power laptops. However, it does nudge its way towards all-day
stamina when simply playing locally stored video, at 120cd/m2 brightness.
It lasts just over eight hours of 720p movie playback, which is a fairly light task even for an Intel Pentium CPU. You should see similar results when simply catching up on emails or writing docs, with seven to eight hours perfectly feasible at the sort of screen brightness level you might use indoors. Lenovo promises seven hours of use, and delivers.
The Lenovo IdeaPad 320S proves cheap laptops don’t have to be undesirable. A portable frame and modern design make this a laptop you could be proud to take out at the local coffee shop.
We’re also glad to see a Pentium-based system run Windows 10 so well, with performance in basic tasks similar to that of an Intel Core machine,
The screen is very poor though, thanks to its use of a basic TN panel. If you’re looking for something that’ll double as a portable Netflix/iPlayer, you might want to save up for something with an IPS screen. You’re unlikely to find many Windows 10 laptops as attractive and slick at £350, though. Andrew Williams
• 14in (1,366x768) anti-glare TN display • Windows 10 Home • 7th gen Intel Core i7 processor • Intel HD Graphics • 4GB RAM • 128GB SSD
• 802.11ac • Bluetooth 4.1 • 1x USB Type-C • 1x USB 2.0 • 1x USB 3.0 • 4-in-1 card reader • HDMI • 327x236x19mm • 1.435kg 4. Microsoft Surface Laptop £999 inc VAT from fave.co/2BTZ1O1 Our Surface Laptop review looks at Microsoft’s notebook in two ways: as a stylish ultrabook, designed and priced to compete with Apple’s MacBook Air for university students’ favour. But it’s also a machine
purpose-built for Windows 10 S, which restricts users to Windows Store apps but allows an upgrade to Windows 10 Pro. We’ve therefore reviewed the Surface Laptop using its native Windows 10 S.
After using the Surface Laptop for several days as a Windows 10 S machine, though, we can already say it does a great job of addressing exactly what students need. For other users intrigued by it, though, we recommend looking a bit further afield, or at least bail out of Windows 10 S early on.
An ultrabook with style
The Surface Laptop follows in the formidable footsteps of the Surface Pro, Surface Book, and Surface Studio – all category-defining products with prices to match. It’s a striking ultrabook with prices that are attainable, if not exactly affordable. For now, it in four configurations: £949: 128GB SSD, Intel Core i5, 4GB RAM £1,249: 256GB SSD, Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM £1,549: 256GB SSD, Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM £2,149: 512GB SSD, Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM
Microsoft also separately ships a Surface Arc Mouse (priced £79 from fave.co/2MHiMxt), which is colour-coordinated to match the Surface Laptop. The Surface Pen (priced £99 from fave.co/2rkBIqM) and Surface Dial (priced £89 from fave.co/2rTQHVx) will work with the Laptop, but they’re not required.
We reviewed the £1,249 model, which we’d consider to be the price/performance sweet spot, assuming a college student with generous parents.
Though gamers want 16GB of RAM, 8GB is sufficient for web browsing and some basic apps, and 256GB of storage is finally becoming more of the norm.
Just as important as what’s inside is the Surface Laptop’s outside, which is dressed to kill MacBook Airs. Lifting the tinted aluminium veneer of the lid to reveal the softer Alcantara fabric of the keyboard tray beneath evokes the elegance of a jewellery box. Microsoft also streamlined the exterior by eliminating the volume control rocker switch and power button, moving them to the keyboard.
The Surface Laptop is very thin, just 14.47mm at most, compared to the MacBook Air’s 17mm profile. At 308x223.2mm, it’s also a little smaller than the MacBook Air. Grab the Surface Laptop by its keyboard, and its 1.25kg weight will feel impressively light. There’s one catch: the base £949 Core i5 model ships only in
the silvery ‘platinum’ colour. The only configuration to offer the three other colour options (graphite gold, burgundy, cobalt blue) is the model we tested. While Microsoft should eventually offer the extra colours across the entire product line, it hasn’t yet – a situation that’s sure to frustrate some consumers.
A surprising lack of ports
Thin ultrabooks have to give up something, and the Surface Laptop’s configuration is no different. Most of it is good: our unit houses a 2.5GHz Core i5-7200U, part of the 7th-generation Kaby Lake family. Each of the Core i5 options includes an Intel HD 620 graphics core, while the Core i7 version includes the powerful (for integrated graphics, that is) Iris Plus 640 core which we tested on the new Surface Pro. For essays and web browsing, an HD 620 core will be just fine.
One of the hallmarks of the Surface line-up is the display, and we enjoy Microsoft’s bright PixelSense 10-point touchscreens. The 13.5in (2256x1504, 201ppi) version, aligned in Microsoft’s standard 3:2 ratio, lives up to the name. The IPS panel pumps out 365 lumens, enough even for outdoor use.
Some competing devices offer 4K displays. Keep in mind, though, that pushing more pixels requires more power, and one of the strengths of the Surface Laptop is its excellent battery life.
On the right side of the Laptop is Microsoft’s Surface connector, maintaining compatibility with older chargers as well as optional peripherals such as the Surface Dock. The other ports – USB 3.0 Type A, Mini DisplayPort, headphone – appear on the left side of
the chassis. There is no miniSD or other removable storage slot, recognition that photos and other files are more often stored online or on USB sticks. We can agree with that rationale, though the single USB-A port looks awfully lonely, and the lack of USB-C is the opposite of future-proofing.
The Surface Laptop reclines about as far as the Surface Book, about 50 degrees or so off the horizontal. Unlike the Surface Book, however, there’s no accordion hinge. Instead, an barely-visible hinge smoothly moves the display back and forth. The screen tends to wobble a bit when inking or when the keyboard moves sharply.
You can sum up the Surface Laptop’s keyboard simply: aside from one small modification, Microsoft bundled the Surface Pro’s backlit keyboard with the Surface Book’s touchpad. The space allocated to the keyboard
on both devices is literally the same – 4x 10.75in – and the touchpad dimensions on both the Book and the Laptop are identical. That said, the Surface Laptop’s typing experience falls slightly short of the Surface Book’s. We prefer the fluidity of the Surface Book’s keys. There’s also a bit of structural give in the Laptop’s keyboard that isn’t present on the Book. To test it, we placed a small screw between the R, T, F, and G keys. On the Laptop, we noticed a bit of bowing that wasn’t present on the Surface Book, which expresses itself as a slightly mushy feel that’s independent of the keys.
The Surface Laptop’s touchpad feels great, slightly oilier than the Book’s aluminium surface. Clicking and gestures worked as expected.
A pair of ‘omnisonic’ speakers are buried beneath the keyboard. The volume reaches satisfactory levels, slightly vibrating the keys as you type upon them. Naturally, there’s not a lot of bass, and we’d recommend headphones.
Windows 10 S
In a bid to make the Surface Laptop as manageable as Chromebooks powered by Google’s Chrome OS, Microsoft designed the Surface Laptop and other education-minded PCs around Windows 10 S, an optimized version of Windows 10. Windows 10 S restricts Surface Laptop users to apps found within the Windows Store, and adds a few manageability features found in Windows 10 Pro to help administrators keep tabs on the devices.
Windows 10 S provides an extra layer of security, Microsoft says, as well as quicker boot times than
Windows 10 Pro. Holes have already been poked through these claims: the operating system was breached by a researcher using Word macros, which are only blocked if you have an Office 365 subscription. And in our tests, the Surface Laptop took 19 seconds to cold-boot to the desktop, compared to 14 seconds for a Surface Book running Windows 10 Pro. Our Surface Laptop did, however, come with device encryption enabled, helping protect files from unauthorized access. That’s a feature normally associated with Windows 10 Pro.
Restricting Windows 10 S users to the Windows Store understandably concerns some users. For
one, you’re subject to the whims of Microsoft: as longtime users know, Microsoft’s Store has ranged from abysmal to where it is now, an adequate to decent experience.
Unfortunately, not every app within the Store can be used by Windows 10 S, including some Win32 applications that Microsoft has begun publishing. If you do try to use a prohibited app, you’ll know it: a pop-up window will appear, with a link to the Windows 10 Pro upgrade at the bottom.
Microsoft recently made its Office apps accessible through the Store in preview, and they worked
smoothly, without any bugs that we could find. The Surface Laptop ships with a year’s subscription to Office 365 Personal, good for a single device like the Laptop.
The biggest app hurdle that Windows 10 S users will likely encounter, though, is something rather prosaic: their choice of browser. Because browsers such as Chrome, Firefox and Opera aren’t found within the Store, you’ll be forced to use Edge. Exporting bookmarks from another browser and importing them into Edge is simply a pain – and forget about saved passwords. Worse, Edge Favourites we’d saved in a Windows 10 Pro machine refused to carry over to Windows 10 S. Windows 10 S also returns search results from Bing alone, though nothing prevents you from bookmarking Google.co.uk.
That web-based approach works well for some apps that haven’t made it into the Store. We’ve never been a fan of using a dedicated Windows app for Twitter, for example, though we use Slack’s app. With Edge, we could put both services into a tab and snap them to a corner of our screen.
We were a little shocked to discover that apps we didn’t consider to be apps were also blocked, namely the Command Line. It doesn’t appear within Windows 10 S, and commands that would normally launch Command Line or PowerShell simply don’t work – or, if they do, a Command Line window will blink into existence and then ‘pop’, or crash.
For those users who want a little more, Windows 10 S does provide an escape hatch: a built-in upgrade path to Windows 10 Pro.
Because we couldn’t run many of our conventional benchmarks on Windows 10 S, we selected browserbased tests that could stress the Surface Laptop.
We compared it to machines including the Surface Book and the recent Surface Pro. Recall that Microsoft also claims the Core i5 Surface Laptop is 50 percent faster than the Core i7 MacBook Air. We didn’t have a recent MacBook Air to test, so we compared it to the 15in MacBook Pro, as well as a Core m3-based MacBook. The Surface Laptop was slower than all of them, at least where these browser-based benchmarks were concerned.
Just for fun, we also ran a built-in benchmark from Rise of the Tomb Raider, an game that’s available via the Windows Store. Thirty frames per second is considered to be the minimum for gameplay; the Surface Laptop’s 4fps is not remotely playable.
One of the areas in which the Surface Laptop absolutely shines, however, is battery life. We were a little sceptical at Microsoft’s claims of 13.5 hours for the Surface Pro proved to be only eight hours. We’re beginning to think that this may have been the fault of the Iris Plus chip, for the battery inside the Surface Laptop with Intel’s HD 620 lasted a whopping 12 hours
and 45 minutes, continually stressed as we looped a 4K video. That stamina is what a student needs as they go from class to class and then to the library.
Oddly, the Surface Laptop feels like progress forward and back, all at once. Microsoft originally designed the Surface lineup to hustle its hardware partners faster into the future, implicitly stripping Apple of its design cachet and encouraging consumers to buy new PCs. Now, the Surface Laptop has stepped down a rung, challenging some of the cheaper, more mainstream product lines of its hardware partners to keep up. Laptops such as HP’s latest Spectre x360 already do, but other vendors could use a push. Mark Hachman
13.5in (2256x1504, 201ppi) PixelSense Display, Windows 10 S with option to switch to Windows 10 Pro for free until 31 December, 2017 Includes 1 year of Office 365 Personal 7th Gen Intel Core i5 or i7 4-, 8- or 16GB RAM 128-, 256- or 512GB SSD Intel HD 620 (i5)/Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 (i7) 720p HD camera (front-facing) Stereo microphones 3.5mm headphone jack USB 3.0 Mini DisplayPort Surface Connect 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless networking Bluetooth 4.0 LE 308x223.2x14.47mm i5, 1.25kg; i7, 1.28kg 5. Acer Swift 3 £529 inc VAT from fave.co/2BQkMOR The Acer Swift 3 is a 14in laptop for normal people, not those with the spare cash for something extravagant like a MacBook Pro or HP Spectre. And, compared to those 13in laptops, the Acer’s screen is an inch larger. Thanks to the falling cost of making a laptop thin and light, the Swift 3 is no brick. No, it’s fairly slim, fairly light and quite attractive. Aside from a few issues that show why it is only half the price of its attentiongrabbing rivals, this is a laptop that really has it all.
The Swift 3 is one of the cheapest ‘all-metal’ laptops around. In this sense it is even a step up from the great Acer S 13, which has a plastic lid.
To clarify: the underside, the keyboard surround, the lid and even the silvery parts of the area around the screen are all aluminium. One of the only non-metal parts on show apart from the keyboard keys is the black part of the hinge you see when using the laptop. It’s plastic. It’s a very clean-looking, stripped-back laptop. There are no flashy textures or embellishments to make it instantly recognizable, and the black hinge detracts from the all-metal look a little, but it’s fairly attractive regardless. Perhaps more so than the Acer S13, whose less plain style is more of an audience-divider.
Acer also makes a gold version of the Swift 3, and judging by images online, the two-tone black/gold look may actually work better in that finish.
Now it is time to see whether there are any obvious cut corners in the build made to get the price as low as it is. Obvious things you don’t want include a keyboard that flexes under the pressure of your fingers, wide seams and a casing so flexible that the trackpad clicker stops working when the laptop isn’t on a flat surface. We’ve see all these issues in laptops more expensive than the Swift 3.
Acer has nailed it, though. The laptop remains rigid even when held just by one edge and the keyboard is remarkably stiff. While the underside seam isn’t Apple-grade perfect, there are no worrying gaps. We’re impressed.
There are just a few obvious signs this is a midrange laptop design rather than a high-end one. The Swift 3 is only moderately thin and light. It weighs 1.5kg, which is light enough to carry around in a bag all day, but not notable when some 13in laptops now weigh under a kilogram. Similarly, 18mm thickness is slim but not ultra-slim by current standards, despite Acer calling it an Ultrabook.
We’d advise not getting too wrapped-up in these figures if you’re on a budget. The Swift 3 still gets you the key benefits of an ultraportable: moving it from room
to room doesn’t take much effort and you can carry it around every day without earning shoulder ache. The other sign this is a cheaper model is the aluminium finish. It’s shinier and coarser than a MacBook, which looks less pretty when it catches the light.
All of these niggles seem trifling when you consider the price, though.
One side benefit of being thicker than some is that Acer is able to fit in full-size slots and connectors rather than tiny ones that require adapters for most peripherals. On the right side are a USB 2.0, headphone jack, Kensington lock and full-size SD slot.
On the left are the cylindrical power socket and USB 3.0, USB-C 3.1 and full-size HDMI ports. This is a perfect ‘cover all bases’ array for most people. There’s no Ethernet port, but these are extremely rare in thinner models, and the USB-C 3.1 can take on this role with the right adaptor anyway.
There’s also an extra ‘surprise’ feature. A fingerprint scanner sits next to the keyboard. This can be used with Windows 10 Hello to let you log in with your finger instead of a pin or password.
It is, unfortunately, an older style of finger scanner that makes you swipe your digit across a slim sensor rather than the kind seen on mobile phones. These simply make you place a finger on the pad. However, in our testing it actually appears to work better with Windows Hello in its current state than most. It works reliably most of the time, where others we’ve used recently often require multiple attempts.
This may be because the swipe scanner forces you to be a bit more considered, though.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard is also remarkably good for the money, primarily because it is backlit. This makes typing in dark rooms much easier, with sub-key LEDs that shine through the little characters on each key. You can’t alter the intensity of the light, it’s either on or off, but is a great feature often left out of cheaper laptops.
Key feel is good, too. There’s solid travel for a slim laptop, and key resistance is well-defined. It’s not too loud either, and has a soft character that’s much nicer to type on for long periods than the ultra-shallow, more clicky keys used in an increasing number of ultra-premium models. As seen in the Acer S 13, it’s one of the nicer keyboards you’ll find in a mid-price portable laptop.
The trackpad has one of the tell-tale signs of a cheaper laptop, in that its surface is plastic rather than textured glass. However, we were actually hard-pressed to tell the difference in terms of pure feel.
Most plastic trackpads are a lot less smooth than glass, creating a sort of squeaky creak when your finger’s glide changes direction, but here the feel is very similar to glass. We’d prefer glass, of course, but you can’t have everything on a budget. It’s fairly large too, and has a solid click feel. We would suggest changing how the pad operates in Windows 10, though. While it is effectively a copy of a MacBook pad, around a sixth of the pad is used for the right button, making it easy to accidentally fire off a right-click.
Just like the trackpad, the screen is great in some respects but also reveals the Swift 3’s lower-price status. We’ll start with the good and finish with the bad.
This display is much better than that of a MacBook Air because it uses a Full HD IPS panel. It’s fairly sharp, and doesn’t have issues with contrast shift from any angle. Almost all Core i-series laptops cheaper than this still use TN screens, which simply do not look anywhere near as nice because the display character changes after shifting your viewing angle by just a few degrees.
Contrast is also excellent. At 1051:1, it’s better than a lot of £1,000+ laptops. This makes the Acer Swift 3 look punchy, with deep blacks.
The screen has a matt finish, which makes it much better at coping with reflections than a glossy one. It’s not a touchscreen, but the hinge folds a full 180 degrees, so has another kind of flexibility. The hinge even opens without causing the base to lift, a touch of
class rare in sub-£1,000 laptops. A glossy display finish would have been a major mistake because maximum brightness is pretty poor at 195cd/m2. Bright laptops manage 350cd/m2, so the Swift 3 is dim
From our experience it’s bright enough to get by, the other display characteristics mitigating. We weren’t left wishing for more brightness indoors, with 50- to 60 percent doing the trick, but it’s worth thinking about if you’ll be working outdoors in the summer a lot.
The other weak point is colour. Covering just 55.6 percent off the sRGB standard and 38.6 of Adobe RGB, it’s not strong enough for photo retouching or digital art at a pro or semi-pro level.
We were slightly surprised the results were quite this bad because the Acer Swift 3 looks perfectly pleasant to our eyes, no doubt thanks to the solid resolution, great contrast and IPS panel tech. However, analysing it more closely it does fail to deliver the deeper red tones quite noticeably.
All versions of the Acer Swift 3 have Intel Core i-series processors. They are just starting to move to the latest Kaby Lake generation chipsets, but the model we were sent had the previous Skylake generation instead: a Core i5-6200U instead of the i5-7200U, which is available through Acer’s website.
The Core i5-6200U is a dual core chipset clocked at 2.3GHz. It’s the sort of chip used by plenty of more expensive machines, providing very good portable productivity power and excellent general responsiveness. The i5-7200U is a 2.5GHz chip which boosts to 3.1GHz and should be around 15- to 20 percent faster.
The use of an SSD rather than a hard drive is essential for general Windows 10 speed, meaning the Swift 3 feels almost exactly like a slim laptop costing twice the price day-to-day. You’ll actually get this with the cheaper Core i3 version of the Swift 3 too, the primary difference between the processors being their Turbo frequency,.
Our test model scored 2594 in PC Mark 8, which is around the performance we expect. Amusingly, its performance is actually significantly better than that of the much pricier Acer Swift 7, because that machine uses a Y-series processor designed to minimize energy use and heat.
Like any laptop with integrated graphics, this is not a great gaming machine. It’ll play titles a few years old if you set the visuals to minimum levels and, perhaps, reduce the resolution a little. But if you are going to be gaming every day you may be better off with a chunkier
laptop that has a dedicated chipset.
At minimum settings and 720p resolution, for example, Thief (2013) runs at 21.3fps. That’s far lower than ideal, and the frame rate drops to 5.2fps with the visuals maxed at the native 1080p resolution. Alien Isolation runs better, with an average 29.98fps at 720p, making the game playable. At 1080p with the visuals turned up it only runs at an average 13fps: definitely not fun.
We were pleasantly surprised by how quiet the Acer Swift 3 stays under pressure, though, seeming to ramp-up fan speed less quickly than some without it becoming too hot. However, it does use fans, and a pair of fairly small diameter ones too, which create a relatively high-pitch noise when spinning quickly. Most of the time it’s virtually silent, though.
If the main drawback is display quality in a few areas, sound quality is a minor side issue. Lots of smaller laptops have started sounding reasonably good – for a laptop – in the past 12 months, but this one doesn’t.
Sound is thin, with virtually no bass and weak mids. Max volume is limited and at high volume the tone takes on a slightly grating edge, which seems to be down to some off resonances.
However, the speakers do deliver sound that seems wider than the laptop itself as the drivers are placed on each edge of the underside, and there’s no full-on sound-ruining distortion at when the level is cranked.
But let’s not end on a downer. Acer promises up to 10 hours of use between charges with the Swift 3, and that’s consistent with what we’ve seen.
Playing a 720p video on loop at 120cd/m2, which is a relatively high 61 per cent backlight intensity in this laptop, the Swift 3 lasts nine hours 50 minutes. This is a great result, particularly as our model uses a Core i5 rather than a processor whose sole aim is to keep energy use to a minimum.
With mixed use you can expect a little less longevity, but it should be enough to see you sail through a day’s work unless you start gaming or doing more intensive tasks like processor-heavy image editing.
The Acer Swift 3 is a near-perfect laptop for those who want an ultraportable, but don’t want to fork out
£1000+. Build quality is great, battery life very good, and performance a match for much more expensive laptops. There are just two areas where the low price shows. First, it’s a little thicker and heavier than some ultrabooks. It looks good enough, but limited maximum brightness and fairly poor colour reproduction limits its usefulness in certain situations. Andrew Williams
14in (1,920x1,080, 157dpi) IPS LCD matt anti-glare 2.3 GHz, up to 2.8 GHz Turbo Intel Core i5-6200U, two cores four threads Windows 10 Home Intel HD 620 GPU 8GB RAM DDR4 128GB SSD 802.11b/g/n/ac 2x2 Bluetooth 4.0 2x USB-C 3.1 port Stereo speakers HD webcam Digital array mic 3.5mm headset jack UK tiled keyboard 3,220mAh 4-cell lithium-ion battery non-removable 340x236x18mm 1.5kg 1-year RTB warranty
If you’re going to be spending time away from mains power, you’ll need a laptop with decent battery life
The Acer has a stylish design
The 250 G5 has a solid keyboard
It’s refreshing to see such an affordable laptop whose performance doesn’t feel compromised
No part of the laptop flexes much under finger pressure and the hinge feels very solid
Lenovo IdeaPad 320S
Typing is comfortable on the Lenovo’s keyboard
The display’s matte finish makes it easier to see outside
The 320S is a very quiet laptop
Microsoft Surface Laptop
The Surface Laptop is a stylish machine
The Surface Laptop’s touchpad is a pleasure to use
You can move apps around like any other file, but you simply can’t run them unless they’re Microsoft-approved
Many common apps aren’t in the Microsoft Store. Fortunately, Microsoft Office is one of the exceptions – but you’ll need to use the built-in ‘Get Office’ app to find it
Acer Swift 3
The backlit keyboard makes typing in dark rooms easier
The Swift 3 has a Full HD IPS display
The Acer’s build quality is great, battery life very good, and performance a match for much more expensive laptops