Ask LH: What’s A Good Cheap Laptop For University?

Ask LH: What’s A Good Cheap Laptop For University?

Hi Lifehacker, I’m going back to university to start a Masters and will be doing subjects that range from bioinformatics and accounting to marketing and law. So I need a laptop that is under $1000 (ideally under $500), reasonably light with a good battery life and can handle large projects. It also needs to be useful for at least two years. I have a history of breaking computers so I don’t want anything too delicate (and no Macs, we just don’t get on). Any suggestions? Thanks, Mastering Motherboards

University laptop picture from Shutterstock

Dear MM,

You’re definitely on the right track with those criteria. Battery life and portability are two of the most important factors when it comes to a good university laptop. Apart from this, you’re going to want at least 4GB of RAM (preferably eight), SSD storage, a 12- or 14-inch screen and an Intel Core i5 CPU.

Personally, we’d sacrifice processing power for extra battery life and portability. Most laptops priced over $500 will be able to handle the majority of university applications. In the unlikely event that a program requires more grunt, you can simply delegate these tasks to your desktop or use the computers at your university. This may seem like a hassle but in the long run it will make your life much easier (as an added bonus, the laptop will also be cheaper).

If you’re keen to keep the price as low as possible, a Chromebook could be the way to go. These machines are cheaper, lighter and provide better battery life than a regular laptop, which makes them ideal study companions. Instead of installing programs to a hard drive, Chromebooks rely on web apps from Google’s Chrome Web Store. This restricts their functionality when no Wi-Fi connection is available although this shouldn’t be an issue at most universities.

Another option worth considering is the convertible laptop. These models tend to cost a bit more than an equivalent “normal” laptop but the advantages are arguably worth it. They come with detachable keyboards that allow them to double as a tablet: perfect for when you just need to study lecture notes or browse websites on the go. There are swathes of models on market with prices ranging from under $500 to a couple of grand.

If you can stomach using the Windows RT operating system, the Surface 2 is an excellent model for the asking price. You can currently snap up the 32GB direct from Microsoft for $298; a saving of $100. This deal includes the base unit only but you can easily pair it with a cheap wireless keyboard while keeping costs under $400.

If you’re willing to spend a bit extra, the recently-released Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-In-1 is also worth a look. This is a Windows 8.1 convertible laptop that comes with a 13.3-inch touch screen, an Intel Core i5-4210U clocked at 2.7Ghz, up to 8GB of DDR3L RAM and 500GB of inbuilt storage.

It’s battery life will last around six to seven hours between charges. It also comes with a stylus which may be useful for certain learning applications. According to Gizmodo’s review, the keyboard is adept at fast, aggressive tying which is sure to come in handy. Pricing starts at $899 although you should be able to find it cheaper if you shop around.

We’re also going to throw this one over to our readers. If you have any sub-$1000 laptop recommendations that would suit a university student, let MM know in the comments section below.


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  • Having recently finished a Masters and currently working on a PhD, I’d highly recommend a screen that’s at least 13.3″ in size. Anything smaller just caused too much eye strain and bad posture during lengthy writing sessions. (Even 13.3″ is questionable ergonomically.)

    I’d go for a Windows Ultrabook and an external screen when possible. I have a MacBook and find the critical software packages, Endnote / MS Word / MS Powerpoint, pretty flaky on MacOS. Collab file sharing with MS Word and Powerpoint is unavoidable in my department.

    Windows RT is useless if you need Endnote. You’ll probably have to muck around with Zotero for reference management if using RT or a Chromebook (I haven’t used either so can’t offer any feedback unfortunately).

    Don’t dismiss the campus library computers – they are really useful, and I often use them with a USB stick instead of lugging the MacBook around. Availability is usually not a problem if your postgrad scheduling is different to the undergrad one.

    Also don’t forget Microsoft’s student discounts on Office 365. $99 for a 4-year subscription. Not quite as good as the previous ‘It’s Not Cheating’ offers (no Office Ultimate) but you get Outlook, which isn’t in Home and Student Retail.

  • Check Gumtree, eBay, etc. for second-hand laptops that tick most of your boxes. The main problem with these is the battery, but the cost of a new battery is very likely to be much less than the savings you make on the laptop itself.

    • OP specifically said no Macs. Can’t say I blame them, Macs don’t agree with me either…

  • I have a HP Pavilion Touchsmart 11-E102AU netbook that I bought last year to use as my uni computer (as my main laptop is old, very heavy and has rotten battery life) – might be right up the OP’s alley. 11.6″ screen, 320GB hard drive that I supplement with Dropbox and a 1TB external, media card reader, 4GB of RAM and running Windows 8.1. Very light, excellent battery life (I can squeeze between three and four hours out of it, though I do take its power cord with me if I have a long day of classes), and cost me less than $500 from JB Hi-Fi. My only annoyances with it are that the touchscreen is more than a bit crotchety (the mouse pointer would constantly misbehave and randomly click on things), so I disabled it pretty early on, and it doesn’t have a optical drive. The latter is easily remedied though, external optical drives are pretty inexpensive these days (I got an LG from Harvey Norman for around $70).

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