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!


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