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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.