It’s a great time to shop for a laptop. Back to school deals are on now, and new models are hitting store shelves. We’ve talked about how to pick the perfect laptop before, but if you’re headed to college for your first year, or even back to school, and aren’t sure what you’ll need, you have it tougher. Don’t worry, we’ll help you through it.
Check With Your Campus IT Department for Ideas
Choosing a great laptop for school starts with understanding what your college or 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 tech in your campus IT department for a second opinion—if you trust their opinion, of course. When I worked in campus IT at my alma mater, 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 favorite 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 license. 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 favorite 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 your apartment or dorm. In fact, sometimes buying two computers is cheaper than buying one.
- 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 PCMag and CNet. They usually do real-world battery tests that will tell you how long you’ll actually get doing things like streaming movies, working on documents, or checking email. 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’ll 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 laptops 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 favorite games. On the other hand, this is another 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 five-pound brick in your bag.
Spend Where It Matters Most
Even if your budget allows, 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 the same price, or even 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 Ultrabook suggestions here, and our friends at Gizmodo have great in-depth laptop reviews. The Wirecutter also has reviews and their favorite pick here. Even better, get out to electronics stores like the Apple Store, the Microsoft Store, Best Buy, Micro Center, and Fry’s to get hands-on with them (or similar laptops from the same manufacturer) if you can. 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. Check back with your campus IT department to see if they have a purchasing program. You’ll also want to check with your campus bookstore to see if they offer special discounts on any of the systems you’re considering (or on anything comparable enough to change your mind.) Some colleges even have a computer showcase where you get the same student discount as you’d get ordering direct, but also a school-branded flash drive, a carrying case for your gear, and some extra goodies for free. If your campus has one, it’s worth checking out.
Also, almost every campus bookstore and IT office has discounted or free software bundles for students. Before you buy your software on the open market, or even from a site like Amazon, make sure it wouldn’t be cheaper directly from your school. Even if they don’t sell the software themselves, you may be able to take advantage of student discounts directly on manufacturer’s web sites. Almost every major PC manufacturer offers student discounts, and many even offer software or peripheral bundles.
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 college, 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. Also, remember you can usually buy an extended warranty anytime before the standard warranty ends, so if you want to save your money and wait the decision out a bit, you don’t have to buy an extended warranty at the same time as you buy the laptop.
If you hate the idea of an extended warranty, at least use a good credit card for your purchase. You’ll get more protection than the standard warranty offers. 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. Worst case, something does happen and you have a head start on deciding to fix or replace your laptop.
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, you don’t really know what you’ll need in college until you actually get there. Once you find out, you’ll be better equipped to buy the best laptop for you.
For example, you might think right now that you’ll never play video games, but your roommates or floormates might get you into games as a way to relax, and boom—you’ll find yourself wishing you’d bought a machine with a better graphics card. Worst case, you use your old machine for a few months, get your bearings, and hop on holiday sales at the end of the first semester.
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’ll meet your needs at school whether you’re writing a paper, studying, or relaxing with music, gamer, or a movie.
Title photo by wazo0p.