How to Choose a Laptop to Last Through School
If you’re a student, a laptop is as essential as your textbooks and school ID—and not just because of your school work. It should also be able to handle your big extracurricular activities: keeping up with your social networks, streaming movies, listening to music, posting photos, gaming, video chatting with the ‘rents back home. And of course, the best laptops for college students need to last for the long haul, preferably through four years of undergrad and maybe a year of grad work.
Lucky for you, we have a bunch below that fit that description perfectly—and they won’t drain your savings account. Here are the basics you should keep in mind while looking for a laptop for college.
First Off: Research Your College
Some colleges and universities want their students equipped with Windows-based laptops, to cut down on software incompatibility issues or to keep technical support concentrated on one platform. Others don’t care which operating system you use, whether it’s Windows, macOS, or even Linux if you’re a hard-core type. Some institutions have on-site computer repair centers that service only laptops purchased from the university or an affiliated computer store on campus; using one of these facilities, the turn-around time will be much quicker than if you were to send it overnight to the original manufacturer.
Also note that most schools offer price breaks for particular vendors and include extensive software bundles, which can shave off a good amount from your laptop purchase. So you might want to look into the campus store as a first shopping destination, before you hit your local superstore or favorite online seller.
Keeping It Light: Why Weight Matters
Not every student will agree, but depending on how far you’ll haul it every day, a big-screen notebook may not be such a good idea.
It’s nice to have a mini home theater in your dorm room or play the latest games in big-screen 1080p glory, but a 6-pound-plus laptop with a 15-inch or 17-inch screen will be a chore to haul across campus while you’re running from class to class. You’re better off with something that’s light: If screen size matters less to you than convenience, a super-thin ultraportable might be the way to go.
For most people, a maximum 13- or 14-inch widescreen panel is ideal, as it will make room for other items in your backpack and minimize the weight burden. Depending on your tolerance level, a smaller display works as long as you understand that full webpages and productivity applications will involve more scrolling, and fonts will appear smaller than they do on larger screens, assuming the same resolution and zoom level.
Essays, research papers, and chatting online with your classmates will take up most of your computing time, so a full-size keyboard and a comfortable touchpad are crucial. Also know: When you venture smaller than a 13-inch-class laptop, you run the risk of not getting the same typing experience. The easiest way to ensure that you have the best keyboard is to stop by a brick-and-mortar store and spend some time typing on prospective choices of different size classes.
If you do decide to buy a smaller, less expensive laptop, it’s probably worth investing in a standalone keyboard you can keep at home or in the dorm for when you need to do a lot of typing. A desktop monitor you attach via HDMI could be a nice complement, too.
How Much Power Do You Need?
Laptops offer a wide selection of processors across both budgets and usage cases—you can choose one that maximizes performance, or one that favors battery life. Or you can select one that plays to both strengths: Intel’s latest “Kaby Lake” and “Coffee Lake” Core CPUs (also known as 7th and 8th Generation Intel processors) confer the benefits of both power and battery efficiency.
If you desire all-day battery life, and spend almost all of your time in a web browser, you might want to consider going with a Chromebook. These typically run on low-powered processors (Intel Celeron and Pentium chips, in most cases), but these CPUs suffice for the kinds of workaday online tasks that Chromebooks excel at. (More about Chromebooks in a bit, below.) If performance, on the other hand, ranks high on the list, a Windows 10 or macOS machine with an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 CPU gives you the most oomph.
Note that not all Core i5 and i7 chips are created equal. The ones ending in “H” or “HQ” are the highest-performance chips, typically found in larger gaming-focused and power-user laptops, while the ones ending in “U” are efficient, low-power CPUs meant for use in thinner, more portable machines. More performance means more heat generated, which generally means the more substantial the chassis and supporting gear needed to cool the chip.
If you like playing games in your downtime, you might want to splurge on a more expensive gaming laptop. Most general-purpose machines, especially at under-$800 prices, won’t have the kind of discrete graphics chip (GPU) necessary to make the hottest AAA game titles look good and play smoothly. But if you hunt around a little, you can find gaming laptops these days starting at around $700 with a decent Nvidia GeForce GTX or (less commonly) AMD Radeon GPU for playing games at 1080p and moderate or better settings. (We’ve recommended one here at the moment, but similar models abound from Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo, MSI, and others. See our guide to the best cheap gaming laptops for lots more about budget GPUs and buying just enough gaming machine for your needs.) A powerful GPU can also help in certain high-end and scientific applications that can benefit from GPU acceleration, but, like a high-powered processor, they also feast on the battery.
The good news is that, in most other cases (unless, say, you’re an architecture major with a heavy reliance on CAD software), most integrated graphics solutions should be more than enough for the day-to-day tasks you’ll face. This is the graphics silicon built into the processors of most budget laptops. Today, that overwhelmingly means some form of Intel integrated graphics: Intel HD Graphics, Intel UHD Graphics, or Intel Iris or Iris Plus graphics. Our reviews will detail their comparative performance levels, but none is a match for even a moderate dedicated GPU.
Storage Solutions: SSDs Are Tops
With the increasing prevalence of cloud storage and web applications, having plentiful local storage space is somewhat less vital now than it used to be, but you should still make sure that your laptop meets your needs. If you plan to install a lot of programs or want to hang on to lots of large media files, you’ll need 500GB of space or more. If you don’t foresee needing all that local storage, or are content with leaving a lot of your work online, you can get by with a laptop with less space.
Whichever way you go, remember that storage affects speed, too. If you go with a hard drive because you get more storage for less money, know that it will be noticeably slower than a snappy-feeling solid-state drive (SSD). The higher cost and lower capacity of a faster SSD may be a trade-off that some people are willing to make. The good news is that by plugging an external hard driveinto your laptop’s USB port, you can add more space whenever you need it. Although you probably won’t have to do this unless you’re a video junkie or an aspiring filmmaker, it’s a good option to have.
Gamers may want to take an altogether different view. With many AAA game installations topping 40GB or 50GB each, a small SSD can get eaten up fast. You’ll want to think about that before you buy a machine, say, with a 256GB SSD alone, or at least be prepared to swap games on and off the drive as you complete them.
Battery Life: How Long Must It Hold Out?
A sizable battery can be your biggest ally on a day filled with classes and extracurricular activities. A few school-oriented laptops come with multiple battery options. Others have only one—and it’s non-removable.
In this case, figure out where battery life ranks in the grand scheme of things. If removable batteries are an option (increasingly they are not, alas), it might be a good idea to get a second one, or a larger “extended” one if available, at the time of purchase. The more “cells” the battery contains within a given model line, the better the battery life.