Ask LH: What’s A Good Choice For A Decent Uni Laptop?

Ask LH: What’s A Good Choice For A Decent Uni Laptop?

Dear Lifehacker, I am a uni student in the market for a new laptop. I belong to a small group of students who defy the cliche of students wanting “budget laptops”. However there is a upper limit on the spending: $2000. I am looking for a laptop with good battery life and top specs( not budget — the best out there). I don’t need the laptop for gaming, and I’d like it to be lightweight( though I can compromise on this). Any suggestions? Cheers, Performance Monitor

Dear PM,

$2000 will comfortably buy you a top-of-the-range laptop with plenty of grunt beneath the hood (and style to spare, if you care about that sort of thing).

Seeing as you aren’t fussed about high-end gaming, we’d recommend saving some money and spending around $1200-$1500: a laptop in this price range will still be powerful enough to handle most day-to-day application you care to throw at it.

If speed and portability are key requirements, the latest ultrabook offerings from major PC manufacturers are pretty good bets. Ultrabooks are essentially ‘premium’ ultraportable laptops that boast sleek form factors, strong battery life, fast SSD storage and the latest Intel Core mobile processors running on Windows 7 or 8. In other words, they’re tailor-made for university students with reasonably big wallets, like yourself.

Some of the better ultraportable models currently on the market include the HP Envy range, Dell XPS 15 and Samsung Series 9 (which is not technically an ‘ultrabook’ but shares the same core specifications).

If you’re a fan of touch screen UIs, you might also want to check out a laptop/tablet hybrid such as the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist or Asus Taichi, which both run on Windows 8 Pro. The Taichi even comes with a dual HD display on either side of the lid. These are very much an acquired taste however, so it’s definitely a good idea to try before you buy.

As a final tip, always take retailer discounts with a grain of salt, especially when it comes to buying online: often these sites will sell obsolete models while quoting the original RRP from when the laptop first went on sale. Always pay attention to the components such as the amount of RAM and CPU.

If you want more advice, pay a visit to Gizmodo’s back to school guide .

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • As a uni student several things matter:

    Are there ample power outlets in lecture theatres and where you would otherwise be using your laptop?
    If you have answered no, you will have to find a laptop with a long battery life otherwise you will have ended up with an expensive paperweight after a couple of hours of lectures, so say hello to your friends pen and paper. If there are a few outlets then you may be in luck, or you may be up for battle royale with the students sitting near you. If there are many outlets then lucky, lucky you. Keep in mind that lecture theatres often vary in power outlet numbers, from two under every seat to one at the end of each alternating row of seats.

    Does your university have computer labs where computers that meet your needs are regularly available?
    If you have answered yes, and you will be on campus on a regular basis you may be able to save yourself some money and get a lower spec laptop, or a tablet. Many students take notes on tablets, save them in the ‘cloud’ (eg Google Drive) and use university computers for assignments or work that requires high processing power.

    Does your degree/subjects require specific software that you will use frequently made only for Mac or PC?
    If a program is specifically for Mac you will either have to choose a Mac laptop or find a computer lab with Macs at your uni. If a program is specifically for PC you can either get a PC (or find one in a lab) or run Windows on your Mac laptop.

    Is Mac or PC more popular at your university?
    If one is resoundingly more popular than the other it may be easier to find IT help, as this OS will have received more attention.

    What type of laptop does your faculty/university recommend?
    Many universities and their faculties have laptop recommendations (more often than not a simple mac or PC preference). You should take this preference into account, as software and support provided may be tailored to this OS.

    What are you actually going to use the laptop for?
    If it’s just writing notes in lectures and labs then save yourself some money and get a tablet. There are plenty of word processing and note taking apps out there, and there are numerous full size wireless keyboards and tablets with removable keyboards (such as those in the Asus Transformer line ) available if a lack of keyboard bothers you. If you’re doing anything more extensive on a regular basis that requires a bit more processing power, like movie or photo editing, the laptop may well be worth it.

    What do I actually use?
    I’m a student at UOW studying a science course. I have a 13 inch Apple Macbook Pro, with an i7 processor. For lectures I more often than not print out lecture slides and make notes on them, or use a notepad and paper (as I find writing faster than typing in this situation). Many people in lectures (from one person to three quarters of a lecture theatre depending on the subject) use laptops or tablets and either use programs like OneNote or Evernote, or make annotations directly onto lecture slide PDFs. My laptop comes into use occasionally in labs and tutorials when analysing data or doing calculations, and more frequently when completing assignments (which most of the time I do at uni in the library, connecting to the wifi, and using the power points which are on more than half of the desks). I would estimate that anywhere from 1/2 to 3/4 of students have a Macbook Pro or iPad (they are everywhere), with the remainder using PC laptops or ultrabooks. Despite this figure the Uni labs and library seem to be loaded with PC’s, so when one is needed you can find one, and IT help is equally available for both OS. Honestly, I don’t need the processing power and other numerous features offered by my laptop and could get by quite easily with a tablet and a keyboard at uni, and using the uni computers for assignments. However, in the few times the laptop has been necessary it has definitely proven its value.

    • Some great advice there Cate. In regards to power outlets, bringing a power board to class is a very smart move: it will also make you exceedingly popular with other students!

    • Excellent comment. All too often I saw people with fancy laptops that died by lunchtime because they weren’t fast enough to grab “the seat with the powerpoint”. Not to mention the people who brought along things like Alienware gaming laptops… holy crap those things are huge!!! Way too big for a lecture or lab…

      (Personally I preferred pen and paper for notes, and my iPad displayed the lecture note pdfs/powerpoint slides)

    • Well done @cate!!!

      You just demonstrated elegantly why we need more scientists and engineers and fewer lawyers and fashionistas. Not an Intel i, $ sign, RAM or memory Gb mentioned at all. Just a process to define need. : )

  • If you don’t need it for gaming, then you have absolutely no need to be spending $2000 on a laptop. For general uni work, a $1000-$1500 ultrabook with a core i5 and 4gb RAM would be plenty (and even that would be considered overkill by many). The only possible exception would be if you’re studying something that requires crunching MASSIVE amounts of data.

    Of course, if you only want a top spec laptop for the sake of having a top spec laptop that you can show off in lectures, then feel free to waste your money.

  • Dear Performance Monitor,

    You may say that you can compromise on bulk/weight now, but take it from experience: you do not want to compromise on this. Physical portability should only be subject to the actual requirements of your subjects, your specific usage needs and battery life requirements. Even back when I was studying there were plenty of outlets on campus for me to plug in my ultraportable (as they were called back then) which had < 3 hr lifespan thanks to an ageing battery.

    If I were starting uni and had a budget of $2000, I would get a 128GB Surface Pro with Type Cover, big mSDHC card, Office 365 subscription and whatever other accessories/software I’d need. Under 1kg, all the power and capability you need for uni.

  • In my opinion, I very have rarely been able to use a computer in a lecture. I guess it depends on what you study but anything that involves a lot of writing/diagrams is going to be very hard to do on a computer. Especially when you start to reference work on a previous part of the page.

  • Not sure how the Macbook air was omitted from this list? USB 3, SSD, i5, slim light weight and great battery life. And with the education store discount they’re on par with the windows alternatives.
    The only problem is that they’re due for a big update in June. Thats the predicament i find myself in at the moment, by new new and live with it. Or buy used/wait for a new one with a Haswell processor which will give it even greater battery life.

  • Someone over 15 years ago told me, when you’re buying a laptop, you’re buying it for the screen. That still applies today – laptop or tablet. Make that your first criteria. If the screen is too much of a compromise or has poor visibility in your intended work spaces, you won’t want to use it.

    You then need to determine your budget, and how you are going to lug it around. Some people have to go light and don’t mind a small screen. Others want size (me) and are prepared to lug 17″.

    Finally, consider a 3 year warranty, and consider whether you need accidental damage/theft insurance. Remember you won’t realise how important it is until something goes wrong.

    I know the topic says laptop, but so many people today are doing without the PC and laptop and going tablet. You can buy a good smartphone and tablet (or try a Samsung Note) for less than the price of a laptop, and power all day is a much easier option. If you’re able to use cloud-based apps, backup may be simplified, and if you lose your device you may be up and running in the time it takes to re-sync.

  • I bought a 13 inch macbook air, which I’m loving.
    If you buy it at the right time, you can get a store discount, AND a student discount. I got even more off by getting my friend to take it overseas with him on his trip, getting me the duty off as well. I ended up paying only $1000 for what should’ve been $350 more expensive! 😀

  • I had an 11-inch MacBook Air when I was an undergrad. What I found important (in addition to performance) was:
    Solid battery life, so I could travel without a charger.
    Decent keyboard, for a thin laptop.
    And it was small and light enough to almost forget you were carrying it.
    If I were in the market for a new laptop I would seriously consider Lenovo’s “new season” offerings, specifically the Thinkpad X1 Carbon (silly name, good looking machine).
    Once last bit of unrequested piece of advice: IMHO Pen and paper/lecture slides always over computer for note taking any day of the week.

  • I have a $500 laptop from office works which runs office on windows 7 and CS2 photoshop with a WACOM Intuos (1) tablet perfectly. I have a steam account and limit what I play but can and do play fallout 3 without lag, anything beyond this will probably not go to great but I’m meant to be studying and writing essay not gaming on it. Aside from this I have callibre for my ebooks and a freeware comicbook program for my comics. I have a DIY PC (its not hard) at home which was built three years ago for $700 and is still running in the mid range until the next upgrade of GPU, CPU and RAM which will be another $700 and put it back at the top again around the middle of this year. I use this for Steam gaming on a wireless xbox controller with a $9 wireless dongle and rechargeable batteries. It also runs a newer photoshop CS4 and a professional edition of windows 7. You do not need to spend $1000+ dollars on a pc or laptop. Workout your requirements and be smart.

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