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Back To School Laptop Buying Guide

Getting ready to go back to school or University? A laptop is pretty much must have these days, but there are a bewildering array of options available. So we have put together a guide to help you find the perfect model.

Before going laptop shopping there are two vitally important bits of information. First of all, what will you mostly use the laptop for? Are you just taking notes and writing up assignments? Or do you need to be able to edit video, or do 3D modelling? Personal use can be important too, such as gaming.

Secondly, what is your price range? There are plenty of very usable laptops available on a small budget, but they often sacrifice higher end performance. Laptops range from under $300, to many thousands of dollars. For some, a cheap model is more than enough, but for others, higher end performance is needed. It’s possible to get a powerful model fairly cheaply, but it’s likely to be much less portable, and have a lower battery life. Slim, powerful and with an all day battery is possible too, but costs a lot more.

There are also other factors – do you want a large keyboard for easier typing, or something ultra slim and small? Is a touchscreen important?


Laptop Size

Laptops typically range from 10” models, up to 17”. There are larger screens available, but they are less common and are not generally portable. If screen realestate is critical, consider a second USB monitor.

10” laptops are very portable, and often have excellent battery lives. But the keyboards can be a bit smaller, and they are not as comfortable for longer work sessions. These smaller laptops also typically have much lower end hardware.

13” is the sweet spot between portability and still being able to get higher end performance and battery life.

15” screens are where the real workhorse laptops enter the equation, with extras such as discrete videocards. You also get full sized keyboards and a screen big enough to view two documents side by side at a decent size.

17” laptops can still be thin, but are starting to add a lot of extra heft. But the extra screen real estate can be critical for some uses, such as video editing. You also tend to find more extras, such as gaming ability, is this size, without going too overboard in price.


Battery Life

Getting through a day of school and Uni is hard enough without having to hunt for power plugs.

Ensuring a long enough battery life to make it through the entire day without recharging is ideal.

Ditching an unnecessary charger can also lighten your backpack load. That said, having to grab a charge occasionally is not the end of the world.

In our experience, a 10 hour battery life is the minimum needed for constant use. 5 Hours will suffice for those lower usage, whilst 15 hours + is useful for those with long travel time.

One option to extend the time away from the wall socket is to use a laptop Power Bank. The Comsol 20,000 mAh Notebook Power Bank costs $149 and can give your laptop (as well as other devices) a second wind.


Important Specs

When laptop shopping, it’s a good idea to know what specs are important. Lower end Celeron CPUs are just fine for basic word processing, but an Intel Core i5 or i7 is needed for more intensive tasks.

2GB of RAM is the bare minimum, whilst 4GB is good and 8GB is great. More is only needed on specialist high end machines.

Touchscreens and convertible tablet style laptops can be handy, but think carefully about your possible uses before paying extra for these features. The two major options are screens that detach, and ones that fold or twist around behind the laptop.

USB 3.0 is a must for fast file transfers. An SSD is best, but not a deal breaker on a more affordable model.

A 1920 x 1080 screen resolution is ideal, and while higher is nice, it tends to sap battery life. 1366 x 768 is very common, but still ok on 13” or smaller laptops.

Don’t forget to check the laptop thickness and footprint, not to mention the weight.


Operating Systems

Many people have a loyalty to a specific OS, and each has it’s own advantages. While other options such as Linux are available, most laptops run Windows, followed by Mac OS, and Chrome OS.

Apple laptops are typically extremely well built, with great service and support options. Some software is only available on Mac OS, while other programs are not available at all.

Apple laptops are only available as more expensive models, which range from ultra portable to more powerful. On the plus side, Macs generally have excellent battery life.

Windows laptops are built by a huge range of manufacturers, and can be ultra cheap through to super high end. Most schools and Universities use Windows based computers for students, so cross compatibility is good. Most (good) systems run Windows 10.

Chrome OS is a simplified operating system mostly available on more affordable hardware. It has excellent productivity options (word processing etc) for no extra cost, but can’t run many third party programs. Chrome OS is well optimised for low end hardware, and can feel fast and snappy on even very cheap laptops.


Brands

There is no hard and fast rule to laptop brands, to say some are good or bad. Apple laptops are generally excellent at what they do, but are not considered the most affordable.

Dell has recently made massive improvements in their laptops, and now sell some of the best high end models around. The lower end offers vary though.

Lenovo has a huge range of laptops, many of which give excellent bang for buck. That said, they are not always the slimest or most portable, though generally have good battery life.

ASUS is especially good at affordable but very usable lower end laptops, with quite a few favour models available.

Other manufacturers such as HP, Toshiba, Acer, MSI and Gigabyte have laptops from excellent, to decent, to just mediocre.

There are also a large range of other laptops brands available. Manufacturers such as Kogan and Medion (via Aldi) have a range of offerings that are quite powerful and well specced for the price, but are generally not as thin and portable as the competition.

Another less commonly seen but worthwhile brand is Clevo – an OEM laptop builder, whose models are imported by some smaller Australian system builders. These laptops are based on specific chassis models, with a range of customisable hardware options available to kit them out.


Second Hand

Opting for a pre-loved laptop can save a fair chunk of money, or help afford a more powerful model on a smaller budget. Upgrading to an SSD over a mechanical hard drive can also help improve performance on a slighter older machine.

Be wary of buying anything too old – much more than a year or so and it’s a bit too out of date. An easy way to see when it was launched is to Google some reviews, and see when the first were published.

When buying second hand, aim to get copies of receipts, to ensure you can claim on the manufacturer’s warranty if need be.


Six Laptops

Juggling a huge range of variables and trying to find the best laptop is all well and good, but what are some good models? We have rounded up five of our favourites (from cheap to expensive) as a starting point.

We didn’t include any Apple products. Not because they aren’t a good choice, but because they are easy to compare directly.


HP Stream 11

Slightly long in the tooth nowadays, the Stream 11 is still one of the best sub $300 laptops.

It uses a low end Intel Celeron N2840 CPU and 2GB of RAM, but can handle word processing and internet browsing just fine.

It also has a 1366 x 768 resolution on the 11.6” screen, a 32GB eMMC SSD, SD card storage, and a 9+ hour battery life.

The Stream 11 is also just 19.8mm thick and weighs 1.25KG.


ASUS Transformer Flip TP200SA

This sub $500 laptop is one of the best small affordable Windows 10 laptops we have ever used.

Sure, it’s low end, with a Dual Core Celeron N3050 CPU and 2GB of RAM, but is still surprisingly capable for everyday tasks. It’s also fanless, and has a 8+ hour battery life.

The 11.6” screen has a 1366 x 768 resolution, but is IPS for better viewing angles and colour reproduction. It’s also touchscreen and can also fold around through 360 degrees, to create a convertible Windows 10 tablet.

The Flip has a 32GB eMMC SSD, 32GB SD card, 80.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth, and even USB 3.0 Type-C.

For a more in depth rundown, check out the review over at Gizmodo.


HP Chromebook 11

For those who want to skip Windows or Mac OS, Google has you covered with Chrome OS.

The HP Chromebook 11 is colourful, reasonably powerful and has up to a 6 hour battery life.

The hardware is low end – an Intel Celeron with 2GB of RAM – but it’s smooth to use.

It’s also quite affordable at under $350, and comes with 100GB of Google Drive Storage.

For those who need a bigger screen, there is also a slightly more expensive ($450), 14” model available.

All the major manufacturers, such as Dell, Toshiba and Acer also have a big range of affordable Chromebooks.


Microsoft Surface Pro 4

It’s pretty expensive, but as a tablet laptop hybrid, none come better than the Surface lineup.

The Pro 4 is ultra portable, yet still high end, with 12.3” 2736 x 1824 screen and up to an Intel i7 CPU.

It also boasts 9 hours or more battery life, yet weighs under a kilogram.

The older Surface Pro 3 is also still an excellent laptop, and can be found significantly cheaper.

The more laptop like Surface Book is also worth a look if your budget can support it.


Dell XPS Range

Probably the best laptops Dell has ever made, the new XPS range is an excellent high end choice.

Available in both a 15” and a 13”, the stand out feature is the skinny bezel Infinity screen, which lowers the overall footprint of the unit without sacrificing screen real estate.

The laptops are not cheap (damn weak Aussie dollar), and are available in a range of specs, from more mid range, to powerful i7s.

You can get both with a 4K resolution touchscreen, or for better battery life, a standard 1080 LCD.

Depending on spec, the 15” XPS can manage 17 hours on battery, and the 13” 18 hours.


HP Spectre x360

For those who want decent performance, plus backflipping tablet style convertibility, the x360 is hard to beat.

The 13.3” touchscreen has a 2560 x 1440 resolution and can fold back through 360 degrees.

It can be specced with up to a Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. The more affordable ($1500) version has a Core i5, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.

Importantly, it has a 12 hour battery life and weighs just 1.48 KG.


What’s your ideal Uni or school laptop? Tell us in the comments.


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