Laptop Buying Tips for Students

sf-student-laptop-guide

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.

Quick Tips

  1. Go portable: 11 to 14 inches in size is good for students. 
  2. Durability matters: Push on the design to see if it flexes too much. Metal is preferred over plastic if you have the budget.
  3. Recommended specs: Intel Core i3, 6GB of RAM, 500GB hard drive or larger (but SSD is better), 802.11ac Wi-Fi if possible . 
  4. OS Options: Chromebooks are good for younger students; Windows is great for productivity, and OS X is easy to use and best for iPhone owners (if you can afford a Mac). 
  5. Battery life: Shoot for 6 hours or more, and read Laptop Mag’s reviews for the results of our testing. 
  6. Keyboard and touchpad: Test-drive these controls in the store when possible for key feel and a smooth or jerky performance in the pad.
  7. Consider a 2-in-1: A hybrid laptop and tablet gives you more flexibility, and prices are coming down.

MORE: Best Laptops for College Students

1. Pick a portable size

toshiba chromebook 2 g01

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.

2. Pay for better design

apple macbook air 11inch w g02

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. 

3. Get specs for the long haul

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.

MORE: 10 Best Back-to-School Laptop Backpacks

4. Get the right OS

windows10

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.

mission control

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.

5. Look for 6 hours or more of battery life

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.

 6. Check the keyboard and touchpad

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.

7. Consider a tablet hybrid

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.


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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.

  17. Grammar Man Says:

    In the second paragraph, you say there are 8 tips, but there are only 7 on the list. Outstanding editing.

  18. UConnRon Says:

    Chromebooks are an excellent choice. Most students use their computers for word processing and email. Avoid paying a lot of money for power you do not need. I would recommend a 13″ to 15″ Chromebook. All the apps (software) are included as is virus protection. Battery life is 7 to 9 hours. My preference is the Toshiba Chromebook 2.

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