Ask LH: What’s The Best University Laptop I Can Buy For $500?

Ask LH: What’s The Best University Laptop I Can Buy For $500?

Hey Lifehacker, I’m starting university this year, and I’m looking for a new laptop which will have sufficient battery life to substitute as a textbook in my classes and be used for some work as well. I only have around $500 to spend — any suggestions? Thanks, Last-Minute Notebook Buyer

Laptops picture from Shutterstock

Dear LMNB,

For a good university laptop, you’re going to want at least 4GB of RAM, a 12- or 14-inch screen and a Core i5 CPU. Naturally, the amount of grunt you need will depend on the degree you’re doing — if the course involves lots of graphically intensive applications, you’ll probably need to extend your budget. But for most tasks, the above should be perfectly adequate.

That said, $500 is a pretty meagre budget. For that price, you might want to look at a refurbished model as opposed to buying something fresh off the factory floor. Otherwise your entry-level laptop is likely to be hamstrung by limited RAM and a lowly processor.

Buying a refurbished laptop will allow you to get more powerful specifications for the same asking price. The catch is that they’ve usually seen some prior use — it could be a retail demonstration unit, a second-hand model that was returned to the factory or in-house stock used for demoing purposes. Whatever the case may be, the model will be wiped, physically cleaned and extensively tested before it gets sent to your door.

You can snap up refurbished laptops direct from many manufacturers, as well as via third-party suppliers such as GraysOnline. They also regularly crop up on online deals sites, but be sure to carefully peruse the warranty information — your odds of a hardware failure are usually higher with refurbished stock so make sure you’re properly covered. Most models will come with a 12 month warranty. While there are still risks, purchasing a refurbished model is much safer than buying second-hand, especially from a stranger.

If you have a desktop PC at home, you might want to consider a tablet instead. With the exception of typing out essays (which is where your desktop comes in) tablets are a superior student device in almost every other area. They have longer battery life, are easier to carry around and are better suited to digital textbook reading. Most tablets also offer optional keyboard accessories which can help on the productivity front.

You can currently get refurbished iPads direct from Apple with prices starting at $299. If you’d prefer a Windows machine, Microsoft’s Surface range might be worth a look — we’ve seen previous-generation Pro models go for as cheap as $600.

Whatever route you go down, be sure to pay plenty of attention to battery life before making your purchase. This is one of the most important considerations for a university laptop; especially if power outlets are in short supply. Most manufacturers list battery life on their websites, but these claims are usually a bit dubious — it pays to check out independent reviews of the model you’re interested in to see how it fares in a real-world battery test. Our sister site Gizmodo is a good place to start. In fact, they’ll be posting a university laptop buying guide next week.

On a final note, don’t forget that you can get special student discounts on various software essentials such as Microsoft Office. You can find various other student saving tips via our Money tag.

If any readers have additional suggestions for good places to buy refurb laptops, or good models for students, let LMNB know in the comments section below.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • If you consider $500 cheap what would consider a starting point for purchasing a notebook? I would even go the refurbished route if need be, but would still prefer new if possible.

  • Microsoft Office is not a software essential: its a bloated over priced relic. There are many cheaper and free options available, especially on Apple laptops such as Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.

    • Microsoft Office is not a software essential: its a bloated over priced relic.

      Office 365 University – $99 for 4 year subscription on 2 devices either mac or pc and 2 mobile device. Seems relatively inexpensive to me unless I’ve missed something obvious ?

      I hear Libre Office is FTW these days but I haven’t had a chance to look at it.

      • Both LibreOffice and OpenOffice are great. Not a power user of office suites but they seem to cover all the bases I’ll ever need.

        • I used open office through most of my university degrees. The only thing I really had to do was load it in word on a computer at university and make sure the formatting was correct before submitting it.

      • I really can’t see why anyone would need anything more than Libre Office. It’s free, has all the same features as Microsoft Office (as far as I can tell) and it doesn’t constantly crash, unlike Microsoft Office.

        • Unfortunately Libre and Open office don’t support the full set of functions in their spreadsheet programs. I tried using them when I was an undergrad, but needed some of the engineering and statistical functions found in excel

          • Endnote is a major piece of software for my degree and research and its compatibility is with word. If you want to do footnoting/referencing it is a god send.

          • Yep, advanced spreadsheeting is still a problem in Libre/Open Office. If you only do document creation and basic spreadsheeting then unless you get it for free, you are wasting money on MS Office.

    • His University may be able to get him office for free, otherwise, as @zandy pointed out, it is relatively cheap.

    • Which happily corrupt your documents when converted between the free option and Microsoft office, which your university will use. Plus university students should be able to get home and student cheap through

    • x2 on this, $600 for a new gen1 Surface Pro is a steal. You can get them stupid cheap refurbished from the US too if you’re happy to use a shipping forwarding company.

      • I’m about to complete a law degree having only ever used OO / LO, and i’ve never seen a document corrupted.

        • Wrong post :p

          But I’ve worked for companies before that used 50/50 OO and MS Office and it was an absolute clusterfuck of corruptions.

      • this depends on your degree. i’m doing a Bachelor of IT and would never rely on a surface

  • How about a Chromebook? Could be an alternative to a tablet if (like the article suggests) you have a desktop PC at home. Excellent battery life, PDF reading (for text book requirement) and Google Docs etc (for “some work”).

    • I use a chromebook for uni, and I love it. It’s handy for lectures, with it’s long battery life, although I spend more time browsing facebook then actually taking notes…

    • +1 for this, assuming he mostly wants to use it for note-taking, misc document work and web browsing. They excel at all of those and often have damn good battery life. If he’s got degree-specific software he needs (CAD, Matlab, etc) then it’s probably best to go with a generic windows laptop

      There’s a lot of two-or-three year old laptops available for an absolute steal at auction places that easily hit the specs outlined above. Have a look at , or hit up some local auction companies and see what they have.

      • What’s all this mumbo-jumbo in the article about going to Grays Online, buying a refurbished blah blah blah. Anyone with a limited budget and who’s not a graphic design student or IT wannabe wizard should run, not walk, and buy a Chromebook.

        The previous HP laptop I owned cost almost 9 x what my Samsung Chromebook cost (which ws around $300-something last year) and honestly I prefer this Chromebook greatly, for so many reasons I wont bore you with here. I use it constantly at uni. And yes, you can use docs offline (once u install app. took 10 seconds).

  • If you’re worried about battery life, surface pro is comparable to an average laptop.

    And jbhifi has plenty of laptops under $500 that would be perfectly fine.

  • Why a Core i5 CPU? Right now MSY has Core i3 15.6″ laptops as cheap as $419. For note taking and reading textbooks, that’s plenty.

  • This Ask LH is dissappointing. The writer asked for reccomendations and largely LH has failed to deliver with this answer that talks about almost everything else BUT what new computer to buy.

    My mother had a budget of $400 and I STILL managed to get her a machine with 4Gb of RAM and a 500Gb hard drive with a big 15″ screen and an optical drive and it was Asus brand too. That was over a year ago now.

    Firstly, notebooks with 15.6″ screens are cheaper than 13-14″ models so i have no idea why LH reccomended this.
    Secondly, for the budget and barring any graphically intensive work, something like this: should be absolutely fine.

    However, if “Last Minute Notebook Buyer” is reading this, you should be able to get cheaper prices and better models for the $500 budget from MSY if buying in person; or if buying online. I bought my last windows notebook from this company and that was 3 years ago – not only are they still in business today, but I have had no problems with my Acer notebook purchased in 2011 whatsoever.

    Hopefully my post has actually answered your question.

    • Thanks for your feedback jjcoolaus.

      The reason I recommended a smaller screen is because they’re easier to carry around and thus better suited to study on the go. We usually refrain from recommending specific models because such advice is swiftly rendered redundant as time passes.

      • Fair comments, thanks for your reply, I appreciate it. I value that this site allows others to comment directly on what’s being said, not all tech sites do that.

        It is true that 13-14″ is easier to carry, but backpacks that accomodate notebooks usually allow up to 16″ in screen size, are easy to source and don’t cost very much either.

        The other benefit i guess 13-14″ would give you is better battery life but of course that varies considerably with the model, screen resolution, opertaing tempretures (a hot train or bus in summer will cause higher battery use), applications used and power management settings.

        • 13″ is the absolute biggest you would want to go, for a few reasons. first of all, (generally) the bigger the go the heavier you get and once you add text books and other stuff a student needs weight matters. next also is those tenny tables in the lecture theatre cant handle large computers – i’m dumping my 15″ HP and going for a macbook air for these reasons (and more)

        • Did my first 2yrs of uni with a cheapo 15 inch hp laptop. It was hell. 2-4hrs MAX of real world battery life (and given what i’ve seen since, not much has improved at that price point) which meant that on multi-lecture days or if i had to do any sort of actual work i was tethered to a power outlet.

          Also, as mentioned by the author, 15in laptops are HEAVY. Like make your shoulders ache all freaking day heavy.

          If you can’t afford an ultrabook (even the cheapest ones are fantastic for uni) then tablet all the way. Seriously. They might suck for real work (although that gap is closing) but considering that half the time you’re gonna be taking light notes, looking stuff up and reading and the other half dicking around on facebook & playing games they’re the perfect device.

          PS. Did my second 2 years with a Samsung series 9. Compared to the HP it was like I’d just climbed off dad’s ride-on mower and into a veyron.

  • I bought a Dell Mini 9 (it’s from 2008, lol) for Uni just so I could make it a hackintosh. It works perfectly. Sure, browsing may be slow, but that has no effect whatsoever on any of my marks. All I absolutely need it for is notetaking, and I love it. All the essential Microsoft applications (Word, PP) work 100%, and the 8″ screen size is perfect for me. I bought it 2nd hand for $95 😛

  • I bought an Asus Transformer last year, which is an android tablet that can dock to a keyboard, so it can be used as both a tablet and a laptop. I wouldn’t say I recommend it, but there are other similar products that run windows that you could look at. For my usage, being able to switch between a laptop for typing at a desk and a tablet for reading on is great.

    • I’m curious why you wouldn’t recommend the Transformer? Is it the low level CPU or something else?

      • I’m not happy with it because it is overpriced and it’s not as good in real life as it is on paper (on paper it’s a 1.4 GHz quad core tablet). I don’t like Windows or Apple, which is why I went the Android route initially, but now I realise that was a poor decision.

        If I could go back I’d buy a similarly priced small laptop running windows and then I’d dual boot it with Ubuntu, which, in my opinion is the best operating system one could hope for.

  • The Microsoft store are currently offering the surface pro (first gen) with a free touch cover at the moment 🙂 so $679 for the 64gb version.
    Officeworks also have quite a few nice ones going too. This one looks alright, if not the most powerful it atleast comes with touch and a nice price: there is others, a quick browse around will find heaps!
    This one is a bit more powerful:

    An Centrecom are currently offering this one for a discount tonight: it’s a little small and over budget unfortunately though, but offers heaps.

    There is more but phone makes it hard D:

    Oh just thought, Microsoft actually do discounts on Surface for uni students, might be about 10 percent off or somethin, could make it a bit cheaper 🙂

  • I will never understand people who recommend tablets for uni students. I just don’t get it.

  • Quite a few good Universities have “Equity Notebook Scholarship” programs (or their equivalent) As long as you meet the rather broad requirements; namely, you study full time, and are having Financial Difficulties (ie. only have $500 to spend on a laptop)

    RMIT’s program is here;

    Otherwise speak to the Student Union/Student Services group from your own University. There are many avenues to get help from the university itself, especially if what you are having difficulties with is affecting your studies. Often these assistance programs are undersubscribed too, because people just don’t ask!

  • $500 is a not cheap. For a gaming laptop, yes you are going to want to spend more. For general computing and university stuff a $300ish dual core laptop is going to be fine. Remember a $300ish laptop is like a $1000 laptop from 2-4 years ago and MS/Libre/Open Office ran fine on that. I’m not sure what Chris thinks you’ll be doing. Gaming or something?

  • You can definitely get an i5 with 4Gb of RAM for $500 if you shop around. I picked up a Samsung NP350V5C for $483 from JB Hi-Fi last year, which came with i5-3210M, 4Gb RAM and Radeon HD 7670. It’s 15″, but very plasticy to reduce the weight.

    Got it by going around to a few different stores and asking them for a sub-$500 i5. Most didn’t have one, but eventually found one that did have one on stock clearance.

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