Ask LH: Which Laptop Should I Get For Uni?

Ask LH: Which Laptop Should I Get For Uni?

Dear Lifehacker, I just finished the HSC this year and am starting university next year. I’ve been told that the average student takes a laptop to university, that a large majority use Macs, and that I should seriously consider getting one. However, I’ve used PCs all my life and while I am quite decent with using Windows, I have never spent the time getting accustomed to a Mac.

So I’ve got three questions:

  • Do you think I need to get a laptop for uni?
  • If yes, since I have quite a bit of time between now and the start of uni, do you think I should get a Mac and accustom myself to using it, or should I stay with what I know?
  • Which specific laptops would you recommend?

Thanks, Starting Out

Picture by Catherine

Dear SO,

Your first question is the easy one. Should you get a laptop for university? Absolutely (providing you can afford it). No matter what subject you’re studying, taking notes, recording lectures, doing research and writing essays are all far easier if you have your own portable computer. But which kind of machine you get is up to you.

How many students in any given university (or university course) use Macs or Windows machines will depend on a bunch of factors, including what’s been historically used at that campus and the subjects being studied. Apple’s market share in education is often said to be higher than in the general market. But to suggest a “large majority” of students use Macs is clearly an exaggeration.

Apple’s overall market share in Australia in the most recent quarter was 13 per cent, according to IDC; if every student in Australia had a Mac, Apple wouldn’t be selling too many to anyone else. I suspect there will be commenters arguing both sides of this coin, but suffice to say that experience on a single campus doesn’t necessarily represent what’s happening Australia-wide. And debating that point obscures the more important issue here: it’s more important to have a machine you’re comfortable with than to switch merely for the sake of switching or so you have the same device as everyone else.

A new MacBook will make an excellent choice for many students, but so will a new notebook running Windows 7, or a netbook running Linux. Unless your specific course strongly recommends using a particular machine, I’d say it was more useful to stick with an operating system you know (in this case, Windows), and concentrate your learning energies on your new university environment.

Recommending a specific machine is trickier, because there are a lot of factors to consider, starting with your budget. But make sure you factor the following issues in:

  • I’d keep away from a machine with a super-large screen (17 inches or more), as you’ll notice the weight difference when you have to lug it around all day. If you want a larger screen (say for a design subject), consider a smaller notebook and a separate external monitor for home use.
  • While getting Office bundled with a machine can be cheap, buying it at student prices may be even cheaper.
  • Get plenty of memory — it often makes more difference to performance than the processor.

Recommendations from current or recent students would, of course, be very welcome in the comments. Good luck with university!

Cheers Lifehacker

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.


  • If you already know Windows, there’s no real reason to switch. And whoever told you that the majority of students use Macs is full of shit. Certainly, the percentage of students using Macs is higher than the equivalent statistic for the rest of the population, however Windows is still the most popular by far.

    That said, in most cases, either Windows or Mac (or hell, even Linux) will be perfectly fine.

    • There is no advantage using Macs, unless you need to use specific software that doesn’t run on Windows. And unless you become a graphics designer or sound engineer, there is little reason to use a Mac.

      Macs, like other Apple products look good, but don’t have any technological advantages whatsoever. They might appear to be ‘cool’ but don’t give you anything you can’t get elsewhere.

      My advice is stick with what you know.

      • You’re an idiot.
        For starters, there is less sh*t to worry about on Macs (e.g. viruses, although not non-existent, are a far less troubling issue). Their out-of-the-box usability and elegant UI make them better for focused study. The slim MBA is particularly appropriate for a lightweight backpack kit, so much so that several PC vendors are blatantly producing their own ‘ultrabooks’.

        • Mac’s are useless if your a power user. Apples made the UI ridiculously fancy and oversimplisticly featureless ever since they only started caring about technophobes. And about viruses, I’ve had Microsoft Security Essentials installed on my Windows 7 for years now and have never had any problems whatsoever.

          • really…..ahhh….Crackers will always focus on whatever operating system is prevalent and open to attack. You could have said a few years ago that Mac’s were not a target, but to say that now is beyond wishful thinking.. Its also fair to say that all latptops etc. are usable “out of the box” and that they all have the same basic UI, so no real plus’s there… making something white with rounded edges dosen’t make it any more usable im sorry. Also the difference in weight is always in proportion to the screen and add ons like battory.., and there are definitely other units with similar weight, but not so heavy a price tag. Finally, other venders “blatantly” producing their own ultra books allows for similar if not new innovation, and also keeps company’s pricing in check, although not as much as one might hope =/ Please don’t ear bash inquiring minds with mindless Mac propaganda. Every unit deserves heavy consideration, not a blind fold and an empty wallet.

        • The only idiot here is you.
          Mac’s are for people who fail at basic finance and maths skills.
          I’ve never had an issue with malware and I’ve been using windows since 1994.
          Windows is more customizable than a mac, both in the operating system and with it’s hardware. Windows also has better performance in a majority of programs and applications, whether it’s rendering files, benchmarks or gaming.

          Only a “no-brainer” would spend more money for less performance.

  • My finacee`, who is a nursing student that needs to travel 2 hours (each way) to her campus, has a 14″ laptop. It’s a HP Dv4-3029tx. Very good laptop, powerful enough even for a bit of light gaming and HD video playback but is actually fairly cheap. JB Hifi have these, though they are now a discontinued model so get in quick:

    14″ laptop with Intel Core i5-2410M 2.3 GHz CPU, 4GB RAM, 640GB HDD, ATI Radeon HD 6750M 1GB Graphics, Wireless 802.11b/g/n + Bluetooth, Webcam, Windows 7 Home Premium


    • Totally agree. My sister was stung there. Bought a Macbook Pro for $3000 because she was told by all her uni mates that you have to have a Mac lol… gets to her lecture, and the free software they handed out for the course was for Windows only, Mac users had to source it themselves, aka pay for it. I think she’s the only Mac user there with a Win 7 VM running now 🙂 There’s not much a Macbook will do that a Windows laptop cant, but let me know what your Professor thinks of your essay when your Word for Mac document looks screwy in his Windows version of Word 2010 or the uni website says your document is corrupt when you go to submit it…been there with my sister too.

    • Actually I can agree with this. Good old pen and paper works fine for most note taking. I found myself never bringing the laptop in, especially since what I studied is very maths based.

    • He might be doing an IT Degree? My laptop got smashed in the 5 years I was at uni doing a masters of IT. Windows is the best bet for a cheap skate uni student who doesn’t like to ‘pay’ for software. 😉

      • I was given a Macbook Pro for xmas and found it to be perfect while studying IT. Dual boot gives me OSX or Windows.

        Additionally, you imply that it’s difficult to find “free” software for Mac compared to Windows. If anything, I found it easier to find and install “free” software on OSX.

        Note: “Free” software may or may not be free.


        • Using a Mac for IT is great: Unix tools built-in (which are required for quite a lot of the early stuff), followed by a stable testing rig that is pretty hard to screw up, and in the end you start getting told that software is hideously easy to get without worrying about viruses and trojans. That said the new Mac App store has probably been a kick in the face to Piracy.

          Wherever you get it, Keynote (iWork ’09) is a kick-ass presentation app that works wonders with either a remote or the iPhone remote app and knocks the socks off Powerpoint presentations. Just focus on movement of objects not transitions to wow an audience.

  • I’ll second going a Lenovo, primarily a ThinkPad. They will cost more than a Dell or HP, but its worth it. If you’ve never used a Mac, then you have zero reason to move to them for Uni. I’ve worked for Lenovo and IBM for the passed few years and personal owned dozens of their products, as well as Toshibas, HP, Apple, Alienware, etc etc. Only recently I sent one of my 3 year old Thinkpads back under warranty because a key stopped working, and it was picked up, fixed with a newer backlit keyboard (previously not backlit)and returned to my home in under 24 hours. Thats why I buy Lenovo, because I dont have time to be waiting 2-6 weeks to get my gear back, and neither do my clients.

    Go for a Lenovo X series Thinkpad, they start at $539 for the X121e. Its 11.6 inch screen, weighs 1.5kg, more than enough grunt to do everything required for uni and more, and will have enough battery life for days of lectures. Plus add $150 and grab an SSD. You wont be disappointed. I’m sure there are dozens of good solutions out there, but that’d be the route I’d take…well I have 🙂

  • @Charles, Students are likely to be distracted in lectures if they have their own laptop – agreed. I remember seeing students playing WoW during lectures (they were rude enough NOT to sit up the back)
    I found my course quite helpful having my own laptop; not having to look for a free computer or line up in the computer labs or even risk germ ridden keyboards! After my 3 years of study, I gave my laptop to my sister, she replaced the battery and she is still using it to this day!

    I agree with Angus by keeping size to a 13″ or 14″ 15+ is not so portable IMO.

  • Mac’s tend to be more popular at my uni in particular, not because they perform any better or are better suited, but rather they are the current trend. There is no reason to get a mac over a PC, however depending on what you study generally the older software that some courses use only supports windows.

    As Charles said you don’t need a laptop, you can get away with having a desktop at home. But should a situation arise where you need a computer at uni, its often very hard to find a spare in a computer lab, especially during exams. Perhaps a small netbook just for those situations?

    Either way good luck with the transition from High School to uni.

  • Moved to a MacBook Pro this year and haven’t looked back, especially compared to the woeful HP laptop I previously had. With the rise of Ultrabook’s though, I wouldn’t automatically reject a Windows PC though.

    Take Angus’ advice and get a smaller laptop. Anything larger than 13′ isn’t going to be much use on those tiny little tables provided in lecture theatre’s anyway. Download Evernote and Dropbox to ensure your year starts on an organised note.

  • I bought a netbook to take to uni, as I had a full size laptop at home to do all the media / dvd stuff with.

    Best thing I ever did. I can carry it around all day as it’s so light, and it fits easily on those tiny lecture theater flip out armrest desk things. I have dropbox on both machines, so all I have to do when I get home is turn on the big lappy and wait 2 minutes for it to sync before I can continue working.

    Easy as.

  • If you are planning on spending $1400 dollars on a mac, save yourself the trouble and buy a 16gb Ipad, for reading slides etc in class, and buy a Windows based laptop, where very good laptops can be had for around $800. That way you have the extreme portability, but also the functional use of a laptop when you need it for the same amount of money. When I was at uni, I found a mix of books/laptop worked best for me, however I did find it tiresome lugging it around when I didn’t need to use it everyday. A tablet computer would have been much more useful if they were around when I was there.

  • Angus mentioned a netbook in his response.
    Whatever you do, don’t get a netbook. While it might seem cheap, a netbook is far too underpowered and restricted in what it can do, especially for student use.
    I got a netbook last year. It was a complete waste of money and is now gathering dust.
    Unless the university specifically requires students to have Macs (highly unlikely), a decent Core i5 or Core i7 2xxx series (Sandy Bridge CPU) based laptop running Windows 7 will be just fine. As Mike says above, it is worth it just to have MS OneNote. Make sure it has at least one USB3 port, Gigabit LAN port and 802.11n Wifi.
    Do a bit of research. Read APC Mag Notebook Hunter and other publications. Then go and play with the Laptops at your nearest Dick Smith, Harvey Norman etc & see which one you like.
    While there, pay attention to the screens. Glossy screens look great in the shop, but are annoying in brightly backlit situations and outdoors.

  • Small
    Long Battery Life
    would be my criteria. I use the Asus Eee 1005pe (the 1015p is the closest equiv. current model). 10″ Netbook, single core Atom 1.6ghz, 2gig RAM, 7-8Hr battery (Claims 11 or something).

    • Agreed on small, light and long battery life. All very important as you are going to be carrying it around, and you want it to last during the lectures without having to plug it in. The Asus Eee PCs are VERY cheap with long battery life, sometimes up to 10 hours (it differs for different models). I used to have one for uni and was very happy with it.

      I now have a Macbook Air 11″ which lasts for about 4-5 hours if I’m typing and recording the lecture at the same time. The bigger version of the Macbook Air has a longer battery life, and is still very light. I adjusted very quickly to using a mac despite using PCs all my life. I got a mac because they are stylish and I wanted something that would last longer than one year at a time. You also get a 10% student discount for apple products.

      So I think either one would be OK, unless you are doing some kind of design course, in this case you should get a mac, or you will be disadvantaged.

  • Once you get your .edu email address from the university, you can get Office 2010 (Windows)/2011 (Mac) from Microsoft for $99.
    OneNote is available on Windows, online, Windows Phones and iPhones. When used with the Skydrive sync feature, it becomes really useful, keeping your notes up-to-date on your devices (though you need to have a Windows Live ID, which you should already have if you’ve used Hotmail, MSN Messenger or Xbox Live).
    As stated earlier, the kind of laptop that best suits you will be dependent on what you need it for. If you are required to do any graphical design (e.g. Photoshop) or programming, then a netbook will not cut it- you’ll need something with more CPU power and RAM (4GB should be your minimum for any notebook). If you have the money, consider investing in a spare battery just in case, though most unis should have enough power outlets for you to charge up your laptop.

  • It interesting to see how many posts here persist with the outdated quoting of CPU speed, ram, etc. Technical specs are not the way to chose a laptop (or any computing device for that matter). About the only spec discussion that still has relevance is around battery life.
    Ask yourself “what do I want to use it for” rather than “how high specs can I afford). That is the only accurate guide to the type of device (if any) that you need.

  • As a current business student, I agree that having a laptop with you at all times is often not useful. However since I got my Xoom I’ve been using that to go through slides and write notes because of how light it is.

    What any student needs to be aware of is how heavy the laptop is because once you need to chuck a couple of textbooks in your bag with notebooks and writing implements it can get really heavy!

    I’m personally waiting for Chromebooks to be released in Australia as I have no need for special programs and all my work currently is being done through Google Docs.

    And I agree with Charles since I saw my fair share of people on Facebook or playing LOL when they should have really been listening to lecturers.

  • As a current first year student (2012 is my second year), I’d say that 90% of the students I see with computers in lectures or study areas are on Facebook or something very similar. It’s very distracting to see someone continually changing their wallpapers or note-backgrounds in front of you in a lecture theatre!

    Of the courses I’ve taken this year, several had course provided software that was Mac incompatible. My textbooks were more likely to have Apple apps associated with them than Android apps (some textbooks have digital extensions, practice-tests etc). As a Languages student I’ve seen that there are plenty of flashcard type apps and programs out there for Apple and Windows. I’ve not seen anyone other than IT and Engineering students using Linux.

    All that being said, I’d wait until you have your Uni offer, and then see what the on campus computing facilities are like and if there are any offers on for buying computers during O-week. And remember, writing is said to work better for retention than typing anyway, so maybe it’s not a necessary money outlay (

  • In my three years at Uni, I’ve lived with a 10 inch netbook with Windows. My recommendation is just a 10-13inch netbook with a long battery life (unless all your classes have access to powerpoints).

    I installed OneNote, printed my PDF slides to it, and used that to take notes – 3 years of that, was much better carrying pages of lecture notes with me.

    In terms of Mac Vs Windows, in one of my lecturers, we were debating this. The outcome is that people like Windows better, but they bring in Mac’s because they are considered “cool”. If you want to be someone who is “cool” upon your peers, get a Mac. If you don’t get a hoot what others think of you, or you think Mac users a D**ks anyway, use Windows.

  • The Mac v PC question at Uni is simply answered with another question. What are people using in your profession in the real world? I’m sick to death of Sydney Uni and UNSW sending me graduates who only know ho to work on Macs. They get here and have no idea how to use a real computer.

    I am not saying PCs are better than Macs. But you dont learn to speak French if you are going to live in Russia.

  • FTR, the following impressions come from my and my family’s experience:
    – Don’t get anything larger than 13″. Just not worth the bulk.
    – If your studies include media and film, it’s easier to grab a good MBA just so you can still afford software and you’re not left out. You can always upgrade to a MBP *if* you need to after you graduate, but unis have labs for you to do real work in.
    – All other courses (stats, science, w/e) will assume you have a Windows PC.
    – Don’t forget the cost of software. Office (basic) is pretty cheap these days, but if I’d had it back in my day Office Live would have been sufficient for almost everything I had to do.
    – Learn to touch-type.

    An ASUS “ultrabook” would be what I’d get if I were kitting up for uni. All the power, build quality and flexibility you really need for a 3-5 year degree and light enough to take everywhere.

    • Don’t get anything smaller than 13″ you mean? peering at a small screen that’s impossible to read off is pointless. More and more uni content is thrown on-line to save on paper/printing.

      The are called Asus ‘zenbooks’ not ultra books.

      I’ve managed a fleet of over 200 laptops, all of various varities and I can recommend these as pretty good laptops:

      – Asus Zenbook UX31E
      – Toshiba R830
      – Toshiba Z830
      – Macbook Air 13″

      If you’re really keen on smaller laptops (though I worry for your eyes):
      – Alienware M11xR3 (with an ssd!)

  • A lot of people have mentioned that laptops in lectures are a bad idea.

    While I agree with that completely—I personally never take notes on my laptop—it’s important to consider the fact that getting hold of a physical computer on campus during certain periods of the day can be a nightmare. Also, many subjects (at my university at least) have online assessment, some of which isn’t exactly bandwidth friendly, and is time-sensitive.

    I’d recommend getting a laptop, if only so you can get to a computer when you need one. It absolutely needs Wi-Fi, and, unless your university will give you IT support setting up Linux, (and you aren’t experienced with Linux yourself) stick to Mac or Windows.

  • Bringing a laptop to Uni for use in lectures and tutorials can be extremely distracting so unless you have the self discipline not to go on facebook in lectures don’t bother. They tend to be more useful if you struggle to find a computer to use on campus or to work on assignments in breaks.

    As far as which laptop to buy it is really up to whatever the person feels comfortable with, I personally use a MacBook dual booting OS X Snow Leopard and Windows 7, this provides me with the best of both worlds and the size and battery life is perfect and it is powerful enough for what I do at uni. I find at my uni more people have a PC then they do a Mac and the uni has a mix of both.

    • +1. I use a dual booting 13″ MBP. The main reason for getting it was build quality (lots of lugging it around will take it’s toll over 5 years) and battery length. I never need take to take my power adapter with me, which saves weight and space.
      Mac vs Windows? No big deal. Their both good and both have their pros and cons…

  • I switched from PC to mac for uni, partially because a lot of people recomded it as a good uni laptop, and partially because I hated my pc so much that I wanted to get as far as possible away from in, and I would definitely recommend switching to mac, because I absolutly love it, its light, got great processing power, and its reliable! I think its a great uni computer, with enough power to do practically all of your needs, but still being very portable

    however for more general advice, go for long battery life (6 hours at a bare minimum) and I think a 13 inch screen, or 13.3 is a really good choice of screen, because a really small screen is extremly annoying when your using your laptop at home, when your at the shop, pick the laptop up and walk around with it, because after your walking home after a long day, the weight makes a huge difference, i’d also recomend something with at least 500gb of storage, unless you want to get a portable harddrive

  • Ha, the amount of students who were at my uni with a brand new macbook pro, running windows 7 was ridiculous. For an IT Degree I would recommend any laptop you can dual boot linux / windows. But for me as a programmer you can’t go past osx. all the benefits of a supported os with the back-end just like linux.

  • I got a laptop half way through my uni degree, and yes, it’s really nice to be able to do stuff on a computer at uni. I have mild RSI issues that using the Macbook keyboard doesn’t aggravate.

    I took my best notes on paper, but sometimes lectures are badly presented. It was in these classes I tried to use my laptop to get some work done and keep half an ear out on the lecture. (There is lecture laptop etiquette which you should look up)

    Other reasons for using the laptop:
    * Pulling up my own copy of the slides, so I could flick back if I wanted, and mostly because sometimes projected images were fuzzy.
    * Researching something I didn’t understand- a quick google to clarify a term. Sometimes there is one thing you need to get to grok the whole lecture.
    * checking out resources mentioned in the lecture.
    * requesting mentioned library books or checking if the book was in the library.
    * trying out code examples and writing code during lectures.
    * tweeting questions to one very cool lecturer (@Podonnel) – tweets would run at the bottom of the slides. (also would do revision questions and get answers via tweet, and be able to see if the majority got it right)
    * last minute assignment/prac work.

    Get a light one, you will be lugging it and other things around lots. Mac or PC-depends on what you like and what you use. (and what you can afford.)

    I have a mac- not because it was the most popular thing- but because I prefer the unix feel and the solidity of the hardware- I’ve had this mac for 3 years now, and intend to keep using it until it dies a death.

    It also depends on what course you’ll be doing- don’t buy one until you know what course you’ll be in – (January) – because my sister bought one, then realised she needed to rent the official one for all the software required for her media degree. nnng.

  • I just finished my first year of Engineering and I bought a 13″ MacBook Pro at the start of the year. I can honestly say that it was a waste of money, there was absolutely no advantage of buying it over a PC, the extra amount I paid for getting a Mac, Windows, Office and Parallels (I needed Windows for some programs).

    If you want a laptop I would go for the Microsoft Student Offer if they do it again, my classmates that went for it had less problems with their laptops which came with office and they paid a much cheaper price.

    I ended up selling my laptop as it was a distraction during lectures, it’s much better taking notes by hand as you can draw diagrams, maths, etc. Also some of my leturers banned laptops during their lectures. I ended up selling my laptop towards the end of the year and I found that there were plenty of free computers at Uni and that I wasn’t disadvantaged by not having a laptop anymore.

    Also if you plan to run Windows, buy a PC and not a Mac.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!