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.


  • The best of both worlds is a netbook with an external monitor and keyboard… means you can use the small size for quick note-taking in class, then use it as a “desktop” pc at home by connecting the monitor/KB/Mouse for longer-term use…

    • I’m finishing off my final year, and this is what I’ve just started doing (having only bought the netbook recently, but already having the external monitor and keyboard) and it’s brilliant. My uni also has spots where you can plug in your own laptop/netbook to external keyboards/mice, which is very useful if you work better by not being at home.

  • Tomorrow is the first day of my third year of uni. I am currently using a netbook as my primary computer. When I am at home I plug it into an external monitor and keyboard and mouse and hide it out of the way. For most assignments a netbook is fine I have even done photoshop on it!! I plan to buy a new laptop come April and although a netbook is a good size to carry I would like a nice 13″ laptop that is more powerful but still portable.

  • I have a laptop, but I could probably manage with a desktop honestly.

    I don’t take notes in class at all (pen or PC), since engineering isn’t really a “note-learning” course.

  • A portable computer is nice at uni, but depending on the facilities available to you on campus, is not necessarily the best way to spend a few hundred dollars if you’re short on cash and also need textbooks. I got along fine through my degree without a portable computer until I did honours, which would have been nigh impossible without one. That year I grabbed a ~2 year old Toshiba Satellite off ebay and it’s still (three years later) serving me well as my travel/work computer.
    My advice, if a portable computer is NOT an option right now, is to scope out where the good labs are, find out if your particular study area gives you access to certain labs (if you’re studying CS/IT this is almost certainly the case) and take note of the times they’re free to use. Also load up a thumb drive with any portable versions of any software you need to make your computing experience bareable

    • Speaking of portable apps, Cameyo monitors what changes occur after you install an application and will create a portable version of that program. It’s very useful if there isn’t already a portable version of that program around.

  • For computer science/software engn/3d modelling student like me I prefer a mid-range CPU with a powerful(ish) GPU. I got an i5 with ati 5730
    Added an extra 4 GB RAM and sandboxing is under control.
    Really depends on what you study and what you want it for since I take mine to MW2 LAN nights 😉

  • I’m starting Uni this year and leaning towards a 13″ notebook, as it will still have decently nippy performance but remain relatively small and light.

    Toshiba’s R700 looks very nice – 13″ with a core iX for some power and only 1.3kg! (1.1kg if you fork out for the i7 and SSD model, but that’s an insane price) Though I’m hoping for a Sandy Bridge equivalent to come out soon…

  • I got through my first 2 years of uni (multimedia) without having a netbook/notebook/etc. Ended up purchasing a 15″ laptop in my last year. Was handy to have, but still wasn’t a necessity, all tutorials were done in computer rooms anyway. Besides, especially during the last semester, all assignments were group ones, not worthwhile crowding four people around a laptop – much better off going into a lab room for a desktop for a while.
    I think the biggest positive was using it in boring lectures to get some other assignment done (and I’ll admit, playing the odd game here and there too…).
    Honestly, there were only a handful of people who ever bought their laptops to Uni in my course anyway. I’d get one (or two) trusty USB sticks – far more worthwhile.

  • Well I have a 12.1 inch convertible laptop, its not too heavy (at 2kg, it could be lighter though) and I get around 5 hours reading pdfs, 4-3 hours on the web. Typing is pretty easy too.

    But it depends what degree/subject you do. I find myself reading pdfs for tutorial and homework alot rather than extensive typing. i usually need to write up formulas and calculations so a laptop/netbook doesn’t help either way. I usually do heavy typing (for reports) on the uni desktops or at home.

    I’ve now chose to just get a galaxy tab to read my pdfs and docs, battery life is much better and my backpack lighter!

  • I use a netbook and have ext. Monitor/KB at home. No problem coding, coding is not processor intensive. I study maths and have no problem with Sagemath, Maple, R, Matlab. My next computer will be a better netbook, would not consider anything else.

  • This year will mark my 3rd year at university studying computer science, prior to last August I used to take my laptop to uni every day, but I found myself getting annoyed with it’s awful battery life and it’s weight, so I purchased a cheap 8″ ARM based tablet last August and have been taking it to university ever since, it runs Debian quite well so I can compile any light code I need on it without much worry, and whenever I need true power I use a VNC viewer to connect to my network at home and use my server to compile the code. If you are really concerned about typing on a tablet buy a keyboard that rolls up and fits in your bag.

    • What tablet is that as I am looking to do something similar to you but was considering getting an iPad. I think a linux tablet would be a better alternative though.

      • It is an eken m003, a lot of people consider it underpowered and cheap but once you put some time into it (install custom ROM etc) it is so much better, my only complaint is it is very fussy about networking in debian, but considering I get around 8-10 hours battery life I can live with that.

  • I’m starting my third year of my BSc and I haven’t used either. There are times when all the computers in the library are used when I wished I had a notebook/netbook but other than that, pen and paper do me fine.
    However, a friend of mine has a laptop that has a swivel screen which folds down and turns the notebook into a tablet that he can write on. It would probably be the only notebook I’d recommend for someone studying Science because you often need to be able to draw diagrams.

  • I bought a mac and loved it but once I started doing 3rd year stats subjects SPSS and Excel for Mac didn’t perform very well. Had to run virtual box with XP.

  • The new HP DM1Z looks to be the goods, slightly more expensive than a netbook, with 11inch screen that has a 5-6 hour battery, but has the new AMD APU that is pretty awesome…

    Engadget has a review of it, I would highly recommend it.

  • When I hit writer’s block for essays I used to love being able to jump in my car with my netbook, driving like 30 minutes out of Melbourne and finding a random spot to sit and write uninterrupted for a few hours.

    Having said that, I used a 10″ netbook and I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller than that. And no matter what laptop/netbook you go for, make sure the keyboard is comfortable for you.

  • Mac’s are definitely the best computers for Uni (in my opinion-it depends what your preferences are).
    They have few hardcore games to tempt you; they have the best apps for writing out there; they rarely crash so you don’t lose that assignment; and they make you look like your a independent, a free thinker (to make you less stupid among all your pals at uni).
    That last point is debatable, i get hammered from my uni pals for having a mac.
    Problems with the mac: no Onenote and they are expensive Although they have a damn good resale value: macbook pro= $1500, same macbook pro 4 years later=$700 so in effect the macbook pro cost you $800 unless you drop it or spill coffee.

    I don’t recommend at the moment the white plastic macbook or any of the desktop macs. Macbook Air’s or Macbook Pro’s are the best for uni. One more thing on the mac topic, there is nothing wrong with getting a second hand one (ebay is your friend), my macbook is second hand and its as zippy as any PC and its 4 years old now (although it doesn’t have the same wow factor as a new one).

    And if you don’t want a mac, get notebook or netbook with ubuntu netbook edition on it (unity is the future man).

  • Last year I sold my netbook with its 8hr battery for a 6hr Thinkpad X200. It’s a lot heavier, but I haven’t looked back since. The 12″ size means it’s still on the portable side, and it isn’t so heavy I need a back support (for now). Perfect laptop and perfect keys.

  • I work for a university as a tech, one of my roles is the IT Walk-up counter, and I see hundreds of Uni students’ laptops each day. in the last 10 years I’ve seen trends of laptops come and go;
    IBM ThinkPad or a MacBook/Pro would have to be equal 1st with the most popular, reliable and ‘I’m happy with it’ students.
    The Mac Air is “Oh it’s fantastic but not enough batteries for my whole 3 hour lecture”
    The Toshiba is “It’s fast but it’s really heavy”
    The ASUS is “It’s OK, but I wanted a Mac” <- (two students in a row said this today)
    The Acer Aspire ONE/Pro "I love it, very small and I get 8 hours battery out of it" <- very popular model
    The Mitac "This old thing is still going, I'm going to get every last drop out of it" <- it had to be 7 years old, it still had a floppy drive in it, I was amazed it had internal wireless, and it actually ran WindowsXPLite very well.
    The NEW Mac Air "My Daddy bought it for me, you know, for school" <- She had a licence, and a Student card so she must have been at least 18, probably Ricky Nixons' friend.

    But from my 13 years as a university student, nothing beats a good old moleskine notebook, a pen (and a spare) <- never runs out of batteries, doesn't distract the person next to you, no internet access to distract you, the only Power Point you need is behind the lecturer at the front of the class (I see what you did there) and it goes as fast as you can!

  • I used a netbook for almost 2 years in uni before moving up to my xps 13. I do all my work at home on a proper desktop and only use laptop a little bit in uni. I would say that I was more inclined to do more uni work on the laptop than the netbook because of the increased screen reso. Touching up source code on the netbook was pretty annoying cos of the small screen and the heavy java IDEs took a while to load on the netbook. Over the time I owned the netbook I took it to uni every day and did next to no work on it. Was still handy to have, check your email for course updates, quickly google something, transfer movies to friends etc.

    Having a laptop at uni is great but I honestly don’t think its that useful for learning at uni.

    The only exception was a robotics course that required bluetooth for a wireless connection. They did not give you a bluetooth adapter and the send interface was in windows and the compile environment was linux. Needed a powerful laptop to be able to run a virtual machine and conenct via bluetooth. Only reason i got a HD was cos of the my trusty Studio XPS 13.

  • I’ve just decided on a 10″ hp netbook with 6-8 hours battery life. Portable but with a keyboard big enough to use. Pen and paper got me through my first year of uni, but now I have long immovable gaps in most of my days and lots of journal articles to download and read, and it’s nigh impossible to find a spare computer at uni. I have an oversized old laptop with no battery life which I use at home as a desktop computer.

  • I’m about to head back to uni doing a post grad engineering degree. I was thinking of another alternative to the good ol’ pen and paper – a tablet (eg. iPad, andriod tablet).
    biggest advantage I can think of is actually taking notes in the lectures, given its input allows handwriting on the screen. Many classes I need to mix up words with diagrams, and a keyboard just doesn’t cut it. Also, having notes electronic means I can file things easier without losing paper notes.
    Has its limitations outside the classroom (eg. typing essays, running CAD software etc.) but thats what the home desktop beast is for.
    Mind you, its a bit “look at me, I’m a doosh” if I rocked up with an iPad.

    • @Paul, don’t waste your time with a tablet. pen and paper is the way to go in engineering. buy a <$100 black and white laser printer and print all the lectures out before you go.

  • I agree with Marc in thinking that the 11″ MBA is a great laptop for uni purposes.

    If you can afford to splurge, definitely consider it. It’s so light that I basically carry it around with me everywhere.

    Though I will miss Onenote…

  • I use an Asus UL50VT. It’s big enough to type, and fantastic on the battery (with right settings, 10hrs is not out of the question at all, and this thing is a year old). When I plug it in for non-curricular activities it fires up a decent GPU for most of my current games.

  • After recently graduating from uni studying IT (Network Systems) and using the pen/paper, 13″ laptop and 9″ netbook methods I was probably happiest using pen/paper and the netbook in tandem.

    The laptop was good, plentiful processing power but still a little heavy to carry around all day… The netbook was fantastic for running all day on battery, lighter weight; great for larger campuses and if you walk/cycle to uni. I also found myself less likely to get distracted due to the smaller screen stopping me from “multitasking” with facebook and the like. Even using IDEs like VS2005/2008 it didn’t feel sluggish.

    Despite having the netbook with me, for lectures I often just used a pen and a notebook for jotting down key points and diagrams. I personally seemed to absorb the information better through writing it down than typing or just listening, but YMMV.

    All in all, I think the netbook/ULV laptop is the best choice for portable computing around uni; lightweight but still flexible enough to run with a external kb, mouse and monitor for longer study stints at home. That said, it’s hard to fault pen and paper even studying in IT.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!