School’s starting, making this one of the best times of the year to shop for a new laptop.

This foundational academic tool is likely to be one of a student’s most significant investments. And that makes it well worth spending the time to seek out the best deal possible. These four laptops are among CNET’s top choices to get your favorite student back into the academic swing.

Dell XPS 13 (2019)

CNET rating: 4.5 stars out of 5 (outstanding)

The cost: Starting at $1,056 at dell.com

The good: Dell has fixed this laptop’s only remaining serious flaw, designing a super-slim 2mm webcam to fit into the thin screen bezel. Optional colors look great, as does the 4K touchscreen. Excellent keyboard, and decent battery life for a 4K laptop.

The bad: The entry-level configuration, while well-priced, cuts too many corners. We don’t love the woven texture on the wrist rest.

The bottom line: It’s nearly impossible to find anything to dislike about this 13-inch slim powerhouse, at least in the pricey high-end configuration we tested.

HP’s Chromebook x2 raises the bar for the two-in-one category, combining effective design, peppy performance and a fine display at a killer price. (CNET)
HP’s Chromebook x2 raises the bar for the two-in-one category, combining effective design, peppy performance and a fine display at a killer price. (CNET)

HP Chromebook x2

CNET rating: 4 stars out of 5 (excellent)

The cost: Starting at $600 at google.com

The good: The x2’s compelling design makes it simple to shift from laptop to tablet and back. Stylus and keyboard are included. The touchscreen looks good and is responsive. It has two cameras and great speakers. There’s a sufficient array of ports and connections. Battery life is respectable.

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The bad: Integrated storage is limited to a measly 32GB. The keyboard is a bit mushy. Awkward stylus holster.

The bottom line: HP’s Chromebook x2 raises the bar for the two-in-one category, combining effective design, peppy performance and a fine display at a killer price.

The latest Surface Pro tablet doesn’t make any radical design changes, but the performance jump makes it viable as a mainstream performance laptop replacement. (CNET)
The latest Surface Pro tablet doesn’t make any radical design changes, but the performance jump makes it viable as a mainstream performance laptop replacement. (CNET)

Microsoft Surface Pro 6

CNET rating: 4 stars out of 5 (excellent)

The cost: Starting at $699 at microsoft.com

The good: The Surface Pro 6’s jump to new quad-core processors pays off in big performance gains. The new black color option looks cool. Still the best kickstand and keyboard for Windows tablets.

The bad: Be ready to shell out extra for the keyboard cover, stylus and even for the new matte black design. CPU and color aside, it’s a very minimal upgrade over the previous version.

The bottom line: The latest Surface Pro tablet doesn’t make any radical design changes, but the performance jump makes it viable as a mainstream performance laptop replacement.

The MacBook Air’s long-overdue makeover adds welcome additions like a high-res screen and Touch ID. (CNET)
The MacBook Air’s long-overdue makeover adds welcome additions like a high-res screen and Touch ID. (CNET)

Apple MacBook Air (2018)

CNET rating: 4 stars out of 5 (excellent)

The cost: Starting at $1,099 at apple.com

The good: The MacBook is now smaller and lighter, with a better display, faster processors and a bigger touchpad. The MacOS experience and all-day battery are still big selling points.

The bad: The starting price has shot up significantly, despite sticking with dual-core CPUs. The shallow butterfly keyboard and limited ports may feel like a step back from the previous Air.

The bottom line: The MacBook Air’s long overdue makeover adds welcome additions like a high-res screen and Touch ID, but it includes some unwelcome trade-offs — including a higher price.