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

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    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.

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