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. Don’t just buy whatever is on sale; you need the right laptop for your student’s purposes.
Whether you’re a student yourself or are shopping for one, 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.
The No. 1 complaint among students regarding their laptops is weight. Lugging around a 17-inch, 7-pound monstrosity is impractical, so don’t assume you need a massive machine. Try to keep weight to a minimum. For the portable academic, look for laptops that weigh 4 to 5 pounds at most and that have screens 11 to 14 inches in size.
Younger students can get by with an 11-inch laptop, but typing space and screen visibility are often a concern at that size. The bigger the student, the larger the laptop he or she is likely to need for comfortable use. If you want to go with the smallest choice available, either to save money or to increase portability, consider a 2-in-1 hybrid or a Chromebook such as the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 or Toshiba Chromebook 2. Hybrids offer touch-screen capabilities, and you can use them as notebooks or tablets.
Whatever the size, ensure the laptop can use external peripherals. Having plenty of USB ports allow for mice and bigger keyboards to be attached later, while an HDMI port or monitor output lets you connect to a bigger display when not in the classroom.
Of course, cost is a concern, particularly for the cash-strapped college student. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy toting around a chintzy machine. Our advice? Push-test the laptop. Just give it a shove with your fingers. The more it flexes, the more you should avoid it. Not all plastics are created equal, so if the machine reacts like it’s cheap or wiggles and bends, it’s probably not going to last.
If you have more to spend, look for aluminum, magnesium-alloy or carbon-fiber bodies for sturdiness you can count on. Also consider uni-body construction, a la the Apple MacBook Air 13, in which the entire chassis is made from a single piece of durable metal.
You want something that isn’t going to be obsolete the minute you walk off the showroom floor. A faster CPU not only improves speed, but is also better for multitasking. Ramping up the RAM will improve performance, while the type of hard drive can also add performance, as well as reliability. Here’s what to look for in those areas:
CPU: If you want a system that will still be going strong after a couple years, opt for one of Intel’s 5th generation Core processors, also known as Broadwell. You should look to Intel’s Core i3, i5 or i7 line of processors, since those will give you the most for your money. To save a little cash, you can also go with AMD’s A-line, as they provide comparable performance to Intel, though they can also drain the laptop’s battery more quickly.
If you’re on a tight budget, a Pentium or Celeron CPU will suffice for light productivity work, and Intel’s Core M processor delivers good performance in slim and light designs. However, Core M models haven’t offered the longest battery life.
RAM: 4GB is the bare minimum RAM you should have in a laptop, but you’re better off with 6GB. That will run everything you need without dragging you down or interfering with multitasking. Pick computers with upgradeable RAM wherever possible, so that down the line you can ramp it up to 8, or even 16GB. RAM is reasonably inexpensive and easy to install, so starting low with the option to upgrade will give you a lot more flexibility and power in the years to come.
Hard Drive: Aim for speed over size. You can store stuff on a cheap external drive, in a thumb drive or in the cloud if need be. What you can’t do is get better performance out of your laptop thanks to a glut of storage space. For starters, 5,400-rpms is what you want in a drive speed, but if you can find a 7,200-rpm model, then you will get faster boot times, better loading speed and more rapid data retrieval. Going with a hard disk drive (HDD) is fine. A hybrid drive that combines HDD and solid-state drive (SSD) specs is better. Best of all, go with a SSD if you can. They tend to cost more, but there are no moving parts so failure is less frequent and everything runs significantly faster.
Wi-Fi: Look for a dual-band Wi-Fi card that can handle both older routers and the more modern ones (802.11b/g/n/ac). The newest AC standard is three times faster than the previous N standard.
USB Ports: You should have at least two USB ports, preferably one that supports faster USB 3.0 speeds.
Display: A 1366 x 768-pixel resolution is fine for most tasks, but opt for 1600 x 900-pixel resolution or higher if you want to fit two windows comfortably side by side. At the high end of the spectrum, for the 4K consumer, you’ll want something like the 3840 x 2160-pixels on the Asus ZenBook Pro UX501, but that’ll cost you.
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 kind of operating system.
Windows 8 and 8.1 machines come with a free upgrade to Windows 10, so you’ll be totally up to date. Windows 10 revives the traditional Start button and integrates Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana.
OS X aficionados are going to need to stick with MacBooks. El Capitan, Apple’s fall update to OS X, does have a lot going for it. New features include Split View and an improved Spotlight. If you own an iPhone, it will integrate well with your Mac, including text messages and calls.
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.
Don’t tether yourself to an outlet. Get a laptop that promises quality battery life, and opt for an extended or secondary battery whenever possible. In general, you’re better off buying a system with more than 6 hours of juice, regardless of the price. The average for mainstream laptops is 6 hours, 52 minutes, based on the Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi). However, some models, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad T450s, can last for 15:26, with the right battery.
The keyboard should be springy and comfortable, not mushy. 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. It’s best if you can try before you buy to confirm your personal preferences are taken into account.
Laptop-tablet hybrids can handle a lot of work while giving you the flexibility and low cost of a tablet. The $499 Microsoft Surface 3 ($629 with the keyboard cover) is our top pick in this category. If you prefer a flip-around design to a detachable, the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 is another great option. It costs $449 for a Pentium CPU and $549 for Core i3, and includes the keyboard.