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
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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