Your Uni PC: Netbook Versus Notebook

There’s pretty much no question that you’ll want a portable computer for use at university, but should you go the cheap and cheerful netbook route or splurge on a powerhouse that will see you through your degree? Lifehacker student readers weigh up the alternatives.

When we asked readers for their thoughts on technology at university, the topic of what kind of machine you need was a common one, and there were vocal advocates for both approaches. Brodie was a big fan of using a netbook as the main computer:

Having spent a few years at uni, I have to say that netbooks are king. Unlike a tablet, you can actually type an essay on them, and they’re cheap as chips, very light and portable, and more than capable for the sort of work you do at uni.

One obvious factor to consider is the subject you’re doing: if you need to write code or edit video, then processing power will definitely help and a netbook might not be ideal. But if you are mostly simply producing essays and other documents, a netbook will be lighter, often have better battery life, will strain your shoulders less when you carry it around all day, and will be a less desirable target for thieves. It will also potentially create fewer elbow room issues in crowded lecture theatres, which are often a feature of first-year subjects in particular.

That said, other readers argue ferociously for a fuller-featured machine. As reader Will put it:

From experience, you’ll want a laptop that is portable, large enough to type on and lasts for a long time on each charge. Nothing is more uncomfortable than trying to type notes – or a paper – on a netbook, or on the other hand lugging around a 17″ desktop replacement. Personally, the sweet spot is in the 13″ to 15″ range, with a battery that holds around 4-5 hours charge. Performance, features and brand will make up the rest of your budget, so knock yourself out. “Extended” batteries are a great option to utilise if you have the ability to choose, but beware, they’ll add extra bulk to your laptop.

Both sides of this argument often presume that you’ll be using a PC as your main note-taking device in lectures. Not everyone thinks that’s such a wise idea in the first place, as reader trideceth12 argues:

Laptops in class are only ever used for social networking, games, and other pointless distractions. Not only are they distracting you, they distract others around you. If the class is that boring then leave or take a nap, at least then you won’t distract others. Yes, in some classes you need a computer. They are variously called labs, or pracs, or whatever your school calls them. For these you are provided with a desktop computer. Laptops are great for between classes, but not during class.

Your experience of the machine remains important as well. As Simon explained:

I wrote my MA on a Thinkpad, loved the keyboard, rebuilt it a dozen times due to beer spills, lightning strikes and the like. Retired it after the MA and bought a cheapo Toshiba. Hated it.

If there’s a lesson we can all draw from that, it’s that you’ll be using this machine for a while, so ordering it sight unseen online might be risky. Test out potential choices before you buy.

My main thought on the matter is this: netbooks are cheap — you can easily acquire one for $300 without too much shopping around. Trying one out as your main machine for a semester won’t be an expensive exercise, and if you conclude you need more power, you’ll still have a spare backup machine. Spending thousands on a machine that exceeds you needs could be a riskier start to the year.

Where have you landed in the netbooks versus notebooks debate? Tell us in the comments.

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