It's a great time for students to shop for a new laptop. If you're headed to university for your first year, or need to upgrade your school laptop, this guide is here to help.
Title photo by wazo0p.
Check With Your Campus IT Department for Ideas
Choosing a great laptop for school starts with understanding what your university recommends new students have. Check with your campus IT department. They probably have a published set of recommended minimum specs for laptops and desktops, along with some software they think you should have. Also, check with the department you plan to study in. For example, if you're planning to be a computer science major, you'll probably have different recommendations than someone studying graphic design.
Keep in mind that department suggestions are a baseline, though. They're usually underpowered compared to what you can actually buy. Use them as a starting point, and go up from there if you need to. Remember, once you've decided on a laptop, you can always run it past a techie in your campus IT department for a second opinion -- if you trust their opinion, of course. When I worked in campus IT, talking over specs with new students and pointing out where they could get student discounts, both on and off campus, was one of the best parts of my job.
Consider Your Needs
Once you have some baseline specs, and some suggestions based on the kind of work you'll be doing, take your own needs into account. What are some of your favourite applications, and what would you like to do with your laptop once you buy it? Here are a couple of questions to consider:
Do you want a Mac or a Windows PC?
A lot of this comes down to personal preference, but if your school or program has a recommendation, pay attention to it. There may be software you're expected to use that will influence your decision (CAD or engineering software that requires Windows, or design software that's better in OS X, for example.) Most Apple laptops have great build quality and can run Windows through Boot Camp, as long as you purchase a Windows licence. You can even run Windows from an external SSD to save space. However, if you're a gamer, you may prefer a Windows-based laptop, just for selection's sake.
Buying a Windows PC gives you more options, brands, and overall selection to find the perfect spec combination for you. Either way, long gone are the days where having the "wrong" laptop meant your favourite apps were incompatible, or you wouldn't be able to work with your classmates. You'll still run into a little of that, but not with anything major, and even then you'll probably be able to find alternatives.
How big is too big for you?
Portability is important, but it comes with tradeoffs in processing power and battery life. Start with screen size and weight. A 15" laptop will often be powerful with lots of screen real estate, but if you plan on lugging it around campus, a 13" will usually be significantly lighter. Or, you could buy a really small 11" laptop for portability, and a desktop for home.
Get as big a battery as you can
Everyone thinks they can squeak by on a few hours of battery life until they're on campus all day and run out of juice. Check if your candidate laptops have replaceable batteries. Of course, outlets shouldn't be too difficult to come by, but you'll probably want to be able to go more than one or two classes before having to plug in. Bigger batteries mean more weight, so keep that in mind as well.
When you read estimated battery life specs from manufacturers, make sure to corroborate those numbers with reviews at sites like Gizmodo and our own reviews section. Also, keep in mind that sometimes higher-end laptops can actually have worse battery life, since they have to power features like high-resolution touch displays. You may find better battery life in a more modest machine.
Get the right hard drive for your storage needs
Think about some of your hobbies and interests. Do you think you'll be streaming a lot of video or music, or are you the downloading type? If the latter is true, maybe you'll want a laptop with enough storage (or external drives) to accommodate. Getting a laptop with an SSD is a great idea -- it will be fast and boot quickly -- but high capacity SSDs can be pricey, so take that into account.
What external peripherals will you need?
Working from a laptop is convenient when you're out and around, but back home, at your desk, you'll probably want an external monitor and keyboard, just to save your neck and back. Even if they're cheap, budget for peripherals that will keep you comfortable when you sit down to work and give you a nice, ergonomic workspace at home or in your room. That includes things like laptop stands, laptop bags, chargers, and so on. Also, make sure the laptop you buy has the ports to connect what you need to plug in!
Do you play video games?
A "yes" answer here will have a huge impact on the specs of your laptop. We're not saying you should buy a gaming laptop, though. Gaming laptops are notoriously expensive, big, and heavy. However, you might want to look at higher-end models than you would have considered otherwise. Consider laptops with discrete graphics, speedy SSDs, crisp, high-resolution screens, faster processors and more RAM.
When you find one you like, make note of the laptop's graphics card, and then head over to sites like Passmark's benchmark database and Anandtech's GPU bench and see how that model performs in your favourite games. On the other hand, this is one situation where buying two computers might be better than trying to cram everything into one. A portable, affordable laptop may be ideal for work on the go, and maybe a budget gaming desktop would be better for your wallet and your gaming experience.
Those are the basics to get you started. If you have specific needs, you'll have a longer list of questions. In every case, find your own power-to-portability sweet spot. If you don't expect to tote your laptop around from class to class and prefer to use a tablet (or heaven forbid, take paper notes), then portability may not be a huge factor for you. Taking a laptop from your room to the library and back doesn't demand the latest in thin, light hardware. However, if you plan to carry your laptop around with you to every class, you won't want a back-breaking brick in your bag.
Spend Where It Matters Most
Even if money is no object, it's probably not a good idea to just max out all of the available specs on whatever laptop you're looking at. You'll have to make some compromises to save money, but also to avoid buying more than you need. Go back to your list of things you'll do with your laptop, and put your money into features that make those things easier. If you can find a laptop with 8GB of RAM that's a little more than one with 4GB, that's a good place to stretch your budget. If you can find a laptop with an SSD that's close to the same price as one with a traditional hard drive, that's also a worthwhile upgrade. On the other hand, a laptop with a top-end processor or graphics card doesn't make sense if you don't use resource-hungry programs or play games.
Similarly, don't step down too far just to save money. If you're looking at laptops with last-generation or low-end processors or low-resolution screens, the money you've saved will come at the cost of a more frustrating user experience. Remember, it's always better to have a little too much feature-wise and keep your laptop a year or two longer than too little and need to upgrade too soon.
Pay for Superior Build Quality
Build quality usually includes things like how sturdy the hinges on the screen are, how the keyboard feels when you type on it, how sturdy the chassis is, the type of plastic (or metal) used in its construction, how the trackpad feels under your fingers, and so on. You know flimsy when you feel it. Don't be afraid to pay for the things you like. If you want a matte screen or a backlit keyboard, look for those features, and spend a little more if they make you happy. You're buying a device you'll probably use for a few years, so make sure you're content with your purchase.
To that point, don't stick to "student" or other designer laptops when you search. Laptop Magazine explains that "business" laptops often come with solid specs, long battery life, and tons of ports at a wallet-friendly price. Build quality is important, as is the design and feel of the laptop you buy -- and you shouldn't feel bad for those things being part of your purchasing decision.
Even so, make sure you read reviews of the laptops you consider. You don't want to sacrifice something you actually need for a shiny feature you might want. We have a few Windows 10 laptop suggestions here, and our friends at Gizmodo have great in-depth laptop reviews. Even better, get out to electronics stores like the Apple Store, the Microsoft Store, Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi to get hands-on with them (or similar laptops from the same manufacturer). There's really no substitute for actually playing with a laptop before you buy one.
Make Use of Educational Discounts and Bundles
When you have your specs set and a few candidate laptops to consider, shop smart and save some money. Look around online to see if any manufacturer's are offering back-to-school discounts. Before you buy any required software on the open market, check for student deals from manufacturer's web sites. For example, you can check your eligibility for free Microsoft Office here. It's definitely worth exploring all the ways you can save money on your setup. (Trust us, you'll need the money for textbooks.)
Service Plans and Warranties: Don't Forget the Details
Finally, don't forget a warranty or service plan. You may never need it, but when you're taking a laptop off to university, you'll want at least some kind of purchase protection. We've mentioned in the past that extended warranties are rarely worth it, but those rare times usually involve laptops. Considering how difficult modern laptops are to repair and get into, it makes sense to just let someone else handle tricky things like screen replacements and motherboard repairs.
If you're the hands-on type, head over to iFixit and see if your laptop is listed. You'll get an idea of how difficult it is to open up and repair yourself. Then, set aside the money you'd spend on the extended warranty as a "repair fund" in case something does happen.
When In Doubt, Wait It Out
Finally, if you already have a laptop, even if it's not great, you might want to wait a few months and see how it works for you. We know, the lure of a shiny new machine is strong, and you'll miss back-to-school deals if you wait. However, there are always a new deal just around the corner. Plus, if this is your first semester at university you don't really know what you'll need until you actually get there. Once you find out, you'll be better equipped to buy the best laptop for you.
For most students, your laptop will pull double duty for work and play. You'll also need to be able to take it with you to class or to the library. That makes it even more important to be really happy with the one you buy. With a little research, you'll make sure you have a laptop that will meet your needs at school whether you're writing a paper, studying, or relaxing with music, gamer, or a movie.