Laptop Buying Tips for Students
Going off to high school or college without a decent laptop is like refusing to use pencil and paper. It instantly puts a ceiling on how much students can learn, how far they can go and how many lifelong abilities they can acquire. But don't just buy whatever is on sale; you need the right laptop for your specific needs.
Whether you're a student yourself or are shopping on behalf of a student, we've compiled eight tips on choosing the right student laptop to enhance learning now and in the future. Here are our quick tips, plus all the details you need to know.
- Go portable: 11- to 14-inch screen size, less than 4 pounds
- Durability matters: Spill-resistant keyboards, MIL-SPEC tested are pluses.
- Recommended specs: Intel Core m or Core i CPU, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD, 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Chromebooks can have less.
- OS Options: Chromebooks are good for kids. Windows is best for productivity, but OS X is for art/design students.
- Battery life: 8+ hours is ideal; 6+ hours is required.
- Keyboard and touchpad: Look for responsive keys with deep travel.
- Consider a 2-in-1: Great for drawing, pen-based note taking, working while standing up
1. Pick a portable size
The whole point of buying a student laptop is that you can carry the device to class. Unless you're an engineering student who needs a CAD workstation, look for a laptop that weighs under 4 pounds and has an 11- to 14-inch display.
A younger student can get by with a laptop that has an 11-inch screen, but typing space and screen visibility are often a concern at that size. Thirteen inches is the sweet spot between portability and usability, although students in the arts or engineering may put more value on a bigger screen.
2. Pay for better design
If you have more to spend, shop for laptops made from aluminum, magnesium alloy or carbon fiber, for sturdiness you can count on. Also, look to see if the manufacturer has made any durability claims. Some student laptops, like the Asus C202, are specifically made to survive drops from a particular height. Many business laptops are made to pass MIL-SPEC 810G durability tests, and they work just as well in the classroom as in the boardroom. A spill-resistant keyboard is a big plus.
3. Get specs for the long haul
You want something that isn't going to be obsolete before graduation, so keep an eye on the key internal components.
Display: Most budget and many mainstream laptops have low-res, 1366 x 768 displays that aren't very sharp and can't fit a lot of text on the screen, which makes them poor choices for writing papers or doing research. Unless you're buying a really inexpensive laptop or one with an 11-inch screen, getting a display that's at least 1920 x 1080 (1080p) resolution should be a priority.
You can go even higher, too, with resolutions of 2560 x 1440 (QHD) or 3840 x 2160 (UHD). These are great for photo and video students who need to view high-res source material, but those display specs add to the price and subtract from the battery life. Touch screens add functionality to your laptop, but they consume a ton of power, shortening your battery life by 10 to 25 percent, so don't get one unless you really need it.
CPU: If you want a system that provides solid performance for today and tomorrow, get an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 CPU. Make sure the processor model number has a 6000 in it (ex; Core i5-6200U), which means that you have the latest Intel 6th Generation (aka Skylake) chip. If you're on a tight budget, a Core i3, Pentium or Celeron CPU will suffice for light productivity work, and Intel's Core M processor delivers decent performance in slim-and-light designs.
RAM: Unless you're buying a cheap laptop for a younger child, 4GB is the bare minimum amount of RAM you should have in a laptop, and 8GB is ideal. That will run everything you need without dragging you down or interfering with multitasking.
Storage Drive/Hard Drive: Getting an SSD (solid-state drive) rather than a mechanical hard drive has a more significant effect on performance than buying a fast processor. Because SSDs have no moving parts, they run three to four times faster than typical 5,400 rpm or 7,200 rpm hard drives. That means faster app opens, start times and task switching, along with much better responsiveness. SSDs do cost a lot more while offering less storage, so if you have a lot of media files, you may need to store some in the cloud or on an external drive.
Wi-Fi: Make sure you get a laptop with 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, rather than the older 802.11n.
Ports: USB Type-C ports are the future, but regular USB Type-A ports are the present. If you can get a laptop with a mix of both, that's ideal. Definitely try to get a laptop with multiple USB ports, so you don't need to carry a lot of dongles with you.
4. Get the right OS
Consider the operating system. If you're heading off to college, check with the university about software requirements. Sometimes schools will need you to have a specific type of software or operating system to ensure compliance with future workloads. Windows 10 is the most popular operating system and most versatile; Microsoft's platform has millions of applications, supports both touch-friendly tablet mode and keyboard-friendly desktop mode and offers the helpful Cortana digital assistant.
Recently, Apple announced that OS X will now be known as macOS and that OS X users will be getting a free update sometime this fall. New features in macOS make it even easier to send things back and forth between your Mac and iPhone, while also bringing Apple's digital assistant, Siri, to desktops.
Chromebooks, while offering limited software options, could be just the thing for the truly budget-conscious shopper who is comfortable doing everything online. These devices start at just $149 and are increasingly accepted by some school districts.
5. Look for 8 hours or more of battery life
Don't tether yourself to an outlet. Get a laptop that promises quality battery life, and look for systems with optional extended batteries for the longest run times. In general, you're better off buying a system with more than 8 hours of juice, regardless of the price. The average for ultraportable laptops is 7 hours, 55 minutes, based on the Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi). However, some models, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad T460, can last for as long as 17 hours, with the right battery.
6. Check the keyboard and touchpad
The keyboard should be springy and comfortable, not mushy. Look for deep travel and strong feedback. The touchpad is equally important; you'll want to make sure the responsiveness is smooth and that multitouch gestures like pinch-to-zoom are appropriately reactive. Business laptops — such as Lenovo ThinkPads, Dell Latitudes and HP EliteBooks — offer some of the best keyboards and touchpads.
7. Consider a 2-in-1
2-in-1s can handle a lot of work while giving you the flexibility of a tablet. There are two kinds of hybrids: laptops with lids that flip back 360 degrees, and detachable tablets. Amongst bend-back 2-in-1s, the Lenovo Yoga 900 is our favorite, thanks its lightweight design, gorgeous screen and solid battery life. Our favorite detachable, the Surface Pro 4 starts at $899 (another $129 for the keyboard cover) and offers a great design, vibrant screen and powerful performance. However, if you're looking for something cheaper, Acer's Switch Alpha 12 offers a similar design and performance, though a bit less battery life, for just $669 (keyboard included).
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