Ask LH: Which Laptop Should I Buy For University?

Ask LH: Which Laptop Should I Buy For University?

Hi Lifehacker, I’m going to university next year, and I was wondering if you have any recommendations for what sort of laptop/hard drive/specs combo I should get? I currently have a school-issue HP ProBook 4230, and I am very keen to get rid of it. Thanks, Learning Laptop

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Dear LL,

It depends on a range of factors, including what you’re studying at university, the amount of travel you’ll be doing and what you are actually going to use the laptop for (i.e. — do you intend it to be a university laptop or your primary computing device?)

If you just need a secondary laptop for study use, you can afford to skimp a little on hard drive space and overall performance (that is, assuming your degree isn't technologically demanding). We'd recommend looking at solid-state drives (SSDs), which sacrifice capacity for vastly improved read/write speeds. On the downside, an SSD means you'll have significantly less space for games and movie downloads; but then, this isn't what a dedicated university laptop should be used for.

In terms of general specifications, you’re going to want at least 4GB of RAM, a 12- or 14-inch screen and a Core i5 CPU running Windows 7 or 8. Unless you're studying arts or design, a Macbook probably isn't worth the money. (That's not a slight on Mac users -- they just make less sense for the average uni student, especially if "style" isn't important to you.)

If you have a lengthy commute or just don't relish the idea of lugging a hefty laptop around, go for an Ultrabook. These come equipped with the aforementioned SSDs as standard and tend to be thinner and lighter than traditional notebooks. As luck would have it, Gizmodo just published an Ultrabook buying guide which includes a section on the best models under $750.

Another option worth considering is a Chromebook. These machines are cheaper, lighter and provide better battery life than a regular laptop, which make them tailor-made for uni students. Instead of installing programs to a hard drive, Chromebooks rely on web apps from Google's Chrome Web Store. This restricts their functionality when there's no Wi-Fi connection in range, but this shouldn't be an issue at most universities.

In any event, you will be still able to read PDF text books, use Google Docs and access a range of apps while using the device offline. Plus, the inability to install games, movies and other distractions could actually be a blessing in disguise; especially if you're a natural procrastinator. Chromebook models vary in price, but tend to hover around the $350 mark.

You might also want to give tablet PCs a look, such as Microsoft's Surface 2. While a little under-specced for a primary PC, these make for excellent student laptops; especially when combined with a Type Cover. Noteworthy specifications include a 10.6-inch Full HD touchscreen display, USB 3.0 connectivity, up to ten hours battery life and Microsoft Office 2013 RT pre-installed.

You can currently get the 32GB Surface 2 for $399 from the Microsoft Store. Adding a Type Cover will run the price up to around $550, although you can substitute this for a wireless Blutooth keyboard if you happen to have one lying around. If 32GB doesn't seem like enough storage space, you can also get a 64GB version which retails for $499.

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.

We're going to open this one up to our readers. If you have any suggestions for good laptop models for students, let LL know in the comments section below.


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  • Two things to note, the Surface mentioned here is the RT version, and so limited in important ways. Whether that makes a difference to what you will use it for is of course up to you.

    Secondly, a Macbook (Air, Pro, Retina) may make perfect sense to you if you are either used to Mac OS X or just prefer it. While I spend 90% of my time in Chrome these days, I still prefer to use Mac OS X for other areas and features. It might also be useful for OP as Macs generally hold their value better than Windows PCs.

    There’s valid choices either way, and its according to your own needs, so take all that into account when making a decision. Good luck!

  • I bought a Samsung Ativ Book 9 Lite (~$650) for some consulting work I was doing and found it to be excellent for the price. It’s not overly powerful but fine for microsoft office and web browsing. For me the high points are; it’s light (moving between desks and meeting rooms and transporting on the train to and from the office), it looks great (impress clients and colleagues) and the SSD. Downsides for me were; windows 8 (I just don’t like it), the kensington lock point is one of the non-standard ultrabook sized ones and it’s just about impossible to get a lock for, I needed to buy an adapter to hook up to VGA for presentations on projectors and larger displays.

  • Because of the nature of laptops and peoples’ personal preferences, unless they really are worried about getting bang for their buck, here is what I tell them:

    If you’re purely using it for internet browsing, emails, and word processing, then set yourself a budget, walk into a store that sells laptops (JB HiFi, for example) and pick the one that fits your pre-set budget, and you like.

    The satisfaction of having a laptop you chose and like the style of will out-way the satisfaction of having the best spec’d laptop for the money you’re willing to spend. That is, of course, unless your aim all along is to fine the best you can for the money you have.

  • My personal opinion is the lenovo y50,
    You can get it with a multitude of options,
    including ssd and HDD configurations (SSD boot drive I think)
    It also has a GTX 860 for gaming (If you want to game),
    8 or 16 gigs of ram
    A 4k or 1080p screen
    IIRC the cost for one of these with an 8gb SSD, 1tb HDD 8gb Ram and 1080p is $1100
    and the maxed out one is about $1390
    Though, you would have to get it on newegg USA
    and get it shipped here for about $20 with a service like hopshopgo

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