8 Laptop Buying Tips for Students

sf-student-laptop-guide

In 2013, every student — from the first-grader learning to read to the graduate student writing a thesis — needs a full-fledged Mac or PC laptop. Tablets can be helpful for taking notes in class or doing some quick research, but when you want to get that term paper done, you need the real keyboard, screen and operating system that only a laptop can provide. Here are 8 tips to help you find the right student laptop for any age and course of study.

1. Pick a portable size

Although 15-inch laptops tend to be the cheapest, 11- to 14-inch models are better for students on the go because they usually weigh under 5 pounds, making them much easier to transport to and from class. If you’re shopping for a high school student who will be using the system mostly at home, a 15-incher will be fine, but even then, they’ll probably want to easily move it from room to room.

For maximum portability, choose a system that’s under 4 pounds and 13-inches or smaller. An 11-inch laptop will often do the trick and is particularly helpful for young students with small hands. However, some 11-inchers are a bit too small for an older student to have a great typing or viewing experience.

MORE: Top 10 Ultrabooks

2. Pay for premium design

One feature back-to-school shoppers tend to overlook is the look and feel of the laptop and materials used. After all, your student will want to be seen around campus carrying something that’s sleek, not clunky. At the same time, the notebook should feel like it’s built to last.

When possible, opt for a design that at least has a carbon fiber or aluminum lid, which will help protect the display and resist wear and tear during those years away at school. Another tip: If you press down on the lid or keyboard and you see a lot of flex, keep on looking.

MORE: 20 Sexiest Laptops of All Time

3. Get specs for the long haul

Despite what you may have heard, the CPU can make a big difference. For instance, Intel’s fourth-generation Core processor (also called Haswell) uses significantly less power than last year’s CPUs, allowing you to get more battery life on a system of the same size.

If you’re looking to save money, though, a third-generation Core processor will do the trick. Stay away from Pentium or Celeron CPUs, though, as they’re just not fast enough for intense multitasking. Laptops with AMD processors tend to be a lot cheaper, with the A series providing mainstream level performance while the E series appears mainly in low-end systems.

As for memory, 4GB is sufficient, but if you can find a notebook for the same price with 6 or 8GB of RAM, get it. A notebook’s storage drive has almost as much impact on its performance as its CPU. While more expensive and lower in capacity than hard drives, Solid State Drives (SSDs) dramatically improve the performance of the entire system, so consider a system that has one.

If you’re buying a laptop with a traditional hard drive, go for one that operates at the faster 7,200 rpm speed and, when possible, opt for a minimum of 500GB. Getting a 16 or 24GB flash cache, if available, will also help improve your speed.

MORE: Intel Haswell Launched: 5 Things You Need to Know

4. Consider a touch screen hybrid

Windows 8 sports an interface that works a lot better with a touch screen, so consider buying a laptop with a touch screen. Many new budget laptops come with touch screens, including the ASUS VivoBook X202E, which costs under $500.

However, if you want the full touch experience, consider a hybrid laptop such as the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11s, which bends into four positions, allowing you to use the device as a laptop or tablet. Another good choice is the Dell XPS 12.

MORE: Top 8 Windows Tablet-Laptop Hybrids

5. Go for at least 5.5 hours of battery life

It’s not always easy for students to plug in when they’re going to class or finishing up a paper in the campus coffee shop. So get them a notebook that lasts at least 5 hours and 30 minutes on a charge. How can you tell? Our reviews include results from our homegrown battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi.

While it’s too pricey for some, the 13-inch MacBook Air blew us away with its 11-plus hours of endurance in our tests (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi). 

MORE: 10 Laptops with the Longest Battery Life

6. Pick a good keyboard and touchpad

photos of dell lenovo apple laptop keyboard

Your student will be doing lots of typing, from writing reports to Facebook updates, so they should try it out to make sure there’s enough travel and springy feedback instead of a cramped or mushy keyboard. And don’t ignore the touchpad, which is just as important. Make sure navigating the desktop is smooth instead of jerky and that multitouch gestures like pinch- to-zoom and two-finger scroll are responsive. If the buttons are integrated into the pad, make sure they’re easy to press and not too stiff.

MORE: 5 Things to Look For in Your Next Notebook Keyboard

7. Consider both Macs and Windows PCs

Doing more computing online has indeed made choosing an OS less important, but there are still fundamental differences in the overall user experience. For example, some may like the fact that Apple’s OS X Mavericks lets you tag files with keywords, while some will prefer the way Windows 8 lets you run touch-friendly, full-screen apps. Generally speaking, Macs are more secure and are typically better designed machines, while Windows’ systems tend to be cheaper and offer a wider array of programs (especially games).

MORE: Windows 8.1 vs OS X Mavericks: Which OS is Best?

8. Don’t eliminate business laptops

While your favorite college freshman may not be a business major, she might still benefit a great deal from using a laptop that’s marketed to businesses. Business laptops from Dell, HP and Lenovo often provide better keyboards, more durable designs and a bevy of customization options for the same price as their consumer-oriented siblings.

When configuring a business laptop online, you can often opt for an extended battery, a higher-resolution screen and your choice of storage drives. The Dell Latitude 3330 and Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E431 are both sub-$600 business laptops that provide a better user experience than similarly priced consumer offerings.

MORE: Best & Worst Notebook Brands 2013

AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. dominik Says:

    so which one is the ideal student laptop ?

  2. dan Says:

    Interesting, you’re using images of Lenovo Thinkpad but never mention this excellent machine in your biased article!

  3. Art Says:

    My God, have you actually ever used a laptop?

    You are so disconnected that your article seems like a copy /paste or plain dump from any laptop manufacturer brochure. Next time saves yourself some time and just post the link to the brochure.

  4. Meowzer Says:

    So you talk about bad buying guides and then offer a bad buying guide yourself? LOL!

    Please…anyone buying your kid a computer, DO NOT buy an Apple. Apple is a patent troll killing innovation. That will have a serious negative effect on your child’s future. Lenovo, Asus and others Windows laptop manufacturers offer cutting edge technology compared to Apple.

  5. Ezekiel Carsella Says:

    meowzer is right. second the lenovo ideapad U310 is the best laptop for back to school kids. good keyboard and trackpad combo, with ultrabook specs mean perfection.

  6. Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief Says:

    Here’s a link to our Best Back to School Laptops for 2012. This includes a ThinkPad. http://blog.laptopmag.com/top-10-back-to-school-laptops-for-2012

  7. kudin Says:

    http://www.laptopmag.com/review/tablets/asus-eee-pad-transformer-tf101.aspx

    this laptop@tablet suitable for students or not??

  8. altern Says:

    Who says mac is more secure than windows?!!!

  9. AUDITOR SEKAR Says:

    lenovo think pad, hp, dell, Toshiba, ASUS and APPLE are just mixed in this brochure!!!!!

  10. Dass Says:

    Well I want to game too at school so I picked this HP one with a pretty good Nvidia graphics card http://goo.gl/XT3Oj

  11. Janice Says:

    I am looking for a very light weight laptop to take between home and office each work day, and use for travel too. Haven’t had a laptop since the days of Texas Instruments (my first) in ’96, so I’m out of touch. I want a comfortable keypad as I will no a lot of reports, and plenty of memory for software and apps. The Gateway Atom looks fair — not too crazy about the keypad, but I like the price! Any other suggestions?

  12. Legan Gray Says:

    on the windows vs OS debate, throw in that some schools have software that only runs in one or the other only.
    In my engineering school some programs ran in both systems but there were a couple of classes where the software only had windows version.

  13. Kasper Says:

    I was also seriously confounded on his remarks on battery life. Today, a good laptop should have at least seven hours of idle battery life.

    However, your remarks on processing power (including graphics) are ridiculous. If you play games then yes, but as far as office tasks, music, watching video, you don’t need serious processing power, most processors will be adequate. Considering the pace of processor development, you can always buy a better machine WHEN you actually need one, and at that time price/performance/battery life will be much better. Only if you play games or do anything that really challenge your system, should you consider the present performance options. But a lot of people don’t, and Pentium as well as AMD A- and E-series, will perfectly satisfactory for their needs.

    Lastly 7200 rpm over 5400 rpm is a terrible recommendation. As a student you want a quiet pc, and the potential performance increase is simply not worth the noise and increased energy consumption. The only serious improvement a student should consider is a Solid State Drive (SSD). Save all that video and maybe music on external drives, and save money by installing the drive by yourself, there are plenty of (video) guides out there.

  14. chetankumar Says:

    i want a mini laptop which runs on windows 7. my price range is maximum 16000rs. plz help me which is better for me

  15. kabi nonia Says:

    I m a college student and buy a laptop.

  16. kabi nonia Says:

    I m college student and buy a laptop.

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