Information In This Article
  1. Where to Shop
  2. Top Brands
  3. Type of Laptop
  4. Operating System
  5. Screen Size
  6. Touchscreen
  7. Processor
  8. Graphics
  9. Memory
  10. Storage Drive
  11. Disc Drive
  12. Battery Life
  13. Ethernet & Wireless
  14. Office Software
  15. Upgrades to Skip
  16. Backup Solution
  17. Accessories
  18. After the Purchase
  19. Conclusion

Laptops for College Students

Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360
Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360

When buying a laptop for college, there are many factors you should consider to ensure you’re purchasing the right computer for your needs and budget. Rather than hand you a list of “recommended computers” that quickly gets outdated, this extensive buying guide equips you step-by-step with the inside scoop you need to interpret the tech jargon and make your own informed buying decisions. Last updated August 2013.

1 Where to Shop

My Recommendation
I generally recommend buying a laptop through Amazon.com, because of their wide selection, low prices, and extensive consumer reviews.

Amazon Logo
Shop

What about buying directly from the manufacturer?
Buying your computer straight from the manufacturer (Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc.) is another option. In the past, cutting out the “middle-man” made the computer cheaper. However, that’s not the case anymore. When you buy the laptop straight from the manufacturer, you usually get to customize some of the components. This means the manufacturer has to assemble each computer individually. But when a reseller (like Amazon), on the other hand, buys the same computer model from the manufacturer, the computers are all configured with exactly the same parts, so the reseller can buy them in bulk and sell them at a lower price. For example, I’ve seen Amazon sell the exact same computer for over $100 less than the manufacturer’s price.

Best Buy storeWhat about purchasing at a store like Best Buy?
Shopping at a “brick-and-mortar” store gives you the advantage of being able to handle the laptop before you purchase it. However, realize that you’ll end up paying more for your computer, because the store has to recoup the costs of having a physical building, hiring employees, etc.

 

2 Top Brands

As you’re shopping, you’ll come across many different brands of laptops. Here are the three highest-ranking brands from Laptop Magazine’s Top Brands for 2013:

1 Apple
Apple
2 Lenovo
Lenovo
3 Asus
Asus

3 Type of Laptop

As you shop, you’ll probably run into various classes of laptops, such as Ultrabooks or Hybrids. This section will define those terms for you so that you know what the marketing materials are talking about.

Asus x21 Ultrabook

Ultrabook

An “Ultrabook” is a laptop designed with portability as the first priority. Consequently, Ultrabooks are very thin, lightweight, and have good battery life. However, they are usually quite expensive.

If you’re willing to pay extra for good battery life and a lighter backpack, an ultrabook can be a good choice.

Photo credit: Intel Free Press

MacBook Pro 13 Retina

MacBook

“MacBooks” are laptops made by Apple. They run the Mac OS X operating system by default, but can also run Microsoft Windows (purchased separately). MacBooks are constructed with high-quality materials and have the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any laptop brand. The downside is that they’re very expensive compared to other laptops. Some universities require or recommend MacBooks for certain academic majors.

Photo credit: Amazon.com

Samsung Chromebook

Chromebook

Chromebooks are usually very cheap, but they have very limited functionality. They run the Google Chrome OS operating system, which, for the most part, just lets you access the Internet. This means you won’t be able to run any special software that your classes may require. For this reason, I would recommend against getting a Chromebook unless you’re absolutely sure that you’ll only need to use your college laptop for the Internet and nothing else.

Photo credit: Official Google Blog

Dell XPS 12

Hybrid/Convertible/2-in-1

A “hybrid,” “convertible,” or “2-in-1″ is a computer that can switch between “laptop mode” (screen and keyboard) and “tablet mode” (touchscreen only). Computer manufacturers have experimented with many different hardware designs that let you accomplish this laptop-to-tablet transformation. Some hybrids let you hide the keyboard behind the screen, while others let you detach the screen from the keyboard entirely.

A laptop/tablet convertible would be ideal for the student who would rather hold and touch a tablet than type on a keyboard, but who at the same wants to have a keyboard available for typing notes during class.

Photo credit: Intel_DE

Toshiba Satellite P50

Laptop

Technically, Ultrabooks, MacBooks, Chromebooks, and Hybrids are all types of laptops. But typically, if a company markets a device as a “laptop,” that’s their way of saying that it doesn’t fall into any of those other categories.

Photo credit: Intel_DE

Summary

  • “Ultrabook” means “thin, lightweight laptop”
  • “MacBook” means “premium laptop”
  • “Chromebook” means “Internet-only laptop”
  • “Hybrid,” “Convertible,” or “2-in-1″ means “laptop that can turn into a tablet”

What about tablets?
I’d generally recommend against getting a tablet as your primary college computer. One of the primary uses of a college laptop is (or should be) taking class notes and writing papers, and it’s almost always easier and faster to type on a physical laptop keyboard than it is to type on the virtual touchscreen keyboards found on tablets. If you really want the tablet experience, I’d recommend considering a laptop-tablet hybrid device. Or, if you have the money for it, get one of each: a laptop for schoolwork, and a tablet for entertainment.

4 Operating System

The operating system is the part of the computer that lets you run programs. The operating system you have determines what programs you can run.

Some academic programs or majors require you to use specific software programs, and those programs may require a specific operating system to run. Check with your school to see if they require or recommend a particular operating system for your intended major.

There are three operating systems that you’ll see on today’s laptops: Windows, OS X, and Chrome OS.

Windows 8 Flag

Windows

Microsoft Windows is the world’s most popular consumer operating system. Based on market share alone, there’s about an 80% chance that the computer on which you’re reading this is running Windows.

If your laptop isn’t a MacBook and isn’t a Chromebook, then it’ll almost certainly have Windows as its operating system.

As you decide which operating system to get for your college laptop, there’s something important you need to be aware of. Microsoft has two entirely different interfaces that are both called “Windows.” For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these two interfaces “Old Windows” and “New Windows.” Here’s what they look like:

“Old Windows”
(“Desktop” interface)
“New Windows”
(“Modern” interface)
Windows 7 Desktop Windows 8 Start Screen

The “Old Windows” interface has been around (in some form or another) for almost 20 years, so it’s probably the one you’re used to.

It’s important to realize that software which runs in the “Old Windows” environment cannot run in the “New Windows” environment, and vice versa.

As you shop for your college laptop, you’ll probably come across three different versions of Windows: Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows 7.

Can it run software made for “Old Windows”?
(i.e. IA-32/x64 Windows software)
Can it run software made for “New Windows”?
(i.e. Windows Store apps)
Windows 8 Yes Yes
Windows RT No Yes
Windows 7 Yes No

As you can see from the table, Windows 8 can run software for “Old Windows” and “New Windows.” To some, Windows 8 may seem like two operating systems rolled into one, because it includes both the “Desktop” interface and the “Modern” interface.

Some people really don’t like this hybrid approach taken by Windows 8. For this reason, some computer manufacturers still make laptops with Windows 7, even though it’s an old version.

Remember: software that runs in the “Old Windows” environment cannot run in the “New Windows” environment and vice versa. Also, the amount of software available for “New Windows” is very limited. For this reason, I’d recommend avoiding Windows RT, because it can only run “New Windows” software. Over 99% of Windows software falls under the “Old Windows” category, and Windows RT can’t run any of it, with Microsoft Office being the notable exception.

64-bit
Nowadays, practically all new Windows laptops will have 64-bit Windows. All you need to know is that 64-bit is newer and better than 32-bit. So if you see a Windows laptop with a “64-bit” or “64″ label, that’s a good thing.

“Domain Join” support
Some universities require your computer to have a version of Windows that supports “domain join” in order for your computer to connect to the university’s network. If that’s the case with your school, then you’ll need to get a more expensive “professional” version of Windows. For Windows 8, the professional version is called “Windows 8 Pro.” For Windows 7, you can get either “Windows 7 Professional” or “Windows 7 Ultimate.”

My recommendations: If you’re getting a computer with Windows, get Windows 8 or Windows 7, and avoid Windows RT. Be sure to check whether your school requires you to have a professional edition of Windows.

OS X

Mac OS X

Mac OS X ScreenshotThe OS X operating system is only available on MacBooks. Some people very much prefer OS X to Windows, because they find OS X to be easier to use and more aesthetically pleasing. The downside to OS X is that, all else equal, OS X can run a much smaller selection of programs than Windows can, so you may come across software that can only run on Windows.

If you have a MacBook with OS X and find yourself needing to run Windows-only software, you can use an OS X feature called “Boot Camp” that lets you install Windows (purchased separately) onto your MacBook, so that you can have two operating systems available to you on the same laptop.

Chrome OS

Chrome OS

The Chrome OS operating system is only available on Chromebooks. Chrome OS is rarely a good fit for a college student, because it’s limited to browsing the Internet and little else. And unlike Mac OS X, Chrome OS does not include a way to install Windows alongside it. This means you won’t be able to run any special software that your college classes may require. For this reason, I would recommend against getting a Chromebook unless you’re absolutely sure that you’ll only need to use your college laptop for the Internet and nothing else.

Note: “Google Chrome OS” is not to be confused with the “Google Chrome” web browser. The Chrome OS and the Chrome web browser share the same name and logo, but they’re two different things. Here we’re talking about the OS, not the browser.

My recommendations: College students should choose either Windows or OS X as their operating system. Those who opt for a MacBook with OS X should be prepared to buy a copy of Windows to install on their MacBook in the event that they need to run Windows-only software.

5 Screen Size

Laptop screen sizesA laptop’s screen size is measured diagonally and can range from 10″ to 18″+.

The screen size affects a variety of factors, such as:

  1. How much the screen can show at a time
    A bigger screen can support a larger “resolution,” which is how many pixels the screen shows. More pixels means the screen can display more text at a time and can display photos and videos in greater detail.
  2. How heavy the laptop is
    A bigger screen means a bigger laptop, which means more weight. All else equal, laptops with smaller screen sizes will be more portable — an important consideration when buying a laptop for a college student.
  3. 15 inch laptop keyboard

    Keyboard of a laptop with a 15" screen

    How big the keyboard is
    A bigger screen means a wider laptop, which means a more spacious keyboard with larger keys. Having a comfortable keyboard size can be particularly important to college students who will be typing constantly for at least an hour at a time taking class notes.

    Note: A major downside to laptops with small screens is that they have cramped keyboards. This can pose ergonomic and comfort problems, especially for college students with larger hands or fingers. Before purchasing a laptop smaller than 13″, I recommend trying one out at a computer store to get a feel for whether you’ll be comfortable using a small keyboard for prolonged periods.

  4. What it can do
    A bigger screen means a bigger laptop, which means more room for additional/better computer parts that make the laptop more powerful.

As you choose the screen size of your laptop, here are some additional factors to keep in mind:

  1. Backpack support
    In my experience, most backpacks with laptop compartments only fit screen sizes up to 15″. Check to make sure your college backpack will support the screen size you’re considering.
  2. Desk size
    Remember that you may be using your laptop in a classroom with small desks. Having a 17″ laptop can be cumbersome in those situations.

My recommendations: I would recommend a 13-15″ laptop for most college students. Anything smaller than that will probably have a cramped keyboard, and anything larger than that probably won’t fit your backpack or desk.

6 Touchscreen

Some laptops come with touchscreens, which let you click something on the screen simply by touching it.

In order to use a touchscreen, you need an operating system that supports it.

Operating System Windows 8 Windows RT Windows 7 Chrome OS Mac OS X
Touchscreen Support Designed for touchscreens Designed for touchscreens Limited support Limited support No support

My recommendations: Windows 8 and Windows RT are designed with touchscreens in mind, so if you’re getting one of those operating systems, I’d recommend getting a touchscreen if you can. Otherwise, don’t bother.

7 Processor

The processor is the brains of the computer. A faster processor lets the computer process data faster, which often translates into a faster computer. (I say “often” because if the rest of your computer’s parts are slow, then the processor still has to wait on those other parts to get things done, regardless of how fast it is.)

When you’re shopping for a college laptop, chances are you’ll run across processors made by two companies: Intel and AMD. Each company makes a variety of processor families. This handy chart gives you an approximate overview of how the various processor families compare to each other.

Fastest Slowest
Media
Production
Games & Multimedia Basic Usage
(email/web/documents/photos)
Intel Core i7 4th Gen
Core i7
(4 cores)
Intel Core i5 4th Gen
Core i5
(2-4 cores)
Intel Core i3 4th Gen
Core i3
(2 cores)
Intel Pentium icon
Pentium
(2 cores)
Intel Celeron icon
Celeron
(1-2 cores)
Intel Atom icon
Atom
(1-2 cores)
AMD A10
A10
(4 cores)
AMD A8
A8
(4 cores)
AMD A6
A6
(2-4 cores)
AMD A4
A4
(2-4 cores)
AMD E2 icon
E2
(2 cores)
AMD logo
E1
(2 cores)
AMD logo
C
(2 cores)

As you can see from the table, Intel’s top processors are much faster than AMD’s top processors. However, AMD’s A4/A6/A8/A10 processors have excellent built-in graphics (see next section).

Nota bene: If your academic major involves processor-heavy projects like video editing or other multimedia production, you should get a laptop with Intel Core i7.

Within each processor family, there are various processor models. For example, there are dozens of processor models within the Core i7 family. Although there are many variables that differentiate processor models, these are the two most important variables you should consider:

  1. What generation is it?
    Newer generations of processors provide better performance and/or better battery life than older generations. For example, the newest Intel Core processors are 4th generation, and provide much better battery life than 3rd generation Intel Core processors.
  2. How many cores does it have?
    Think of a “core” as a “brain.” Typically, each core can handle one task at a time. The number of cores determines how many things your computer can do at once. All else equal, a dual-core processor (a processor with two cores) can handle twice as much as a single-core processor.
  3. How fast is each core?
    The “clock speed” of each core determines how fast each core can accomplish a task (or “thread”). The clock speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), for example, “1.4GHz.” A higher clock speed means faster cores. So, for example, a Core i5 2.6GHz would be slightly faster than a Core i5 2.5GHz.

8 Graphics

The GPU (graphics processing unit) generates what you see on screen. There are two types of GPUs:

  1. Integrated graphics are built into the motherboard or processor.
  2. Dedicated video cards are add-on cards that replace or supplement integrated graphics. A disadvantage of dedicated video cards is that they usually use more power than integrated graphics, thus reducing your laptop’s battery life.

AMD’s A-Series processors (A4/A6/A8/A10) have excellent integrated graphics, so a dedicated video card isn’t needed.

Intel processors have integrated graphics as well, but if you plan to do a lot of gaming, you should look for a laptop with dedicated graphics.

My recommendations: If you’re a gamer buying an Intel laptop, get dedicated graphics. Otherwise, stick with integrated graphics.

9 Memory

A computer’s memory (or RAM) is its “short-term memory” that stores what you’re currently working on. The more memory your college laptop has, the more data it can handle at a time. The amount of memory in a computer is measured in gigabytes (GB).

Here are my memory quantity recommendations:

Power Usage
(media production or heavy gaming)
Typical Usage
(light gaming/multimedia)
Basic Usage
(email/web/documents/photos)
8-16 GB 4-6 GB 2-4 GB

All new laptops will have DDR3 memory, which is the newest type.

10 Storage Drive

The storage drive is the “long-term” memory of your laptop. The capacity of your storage drive is measured in gigabytes (GB). One thousand gigabytes is called a terabyte (TB).

Storage Capacity

The first question to answer is: How much storage space will you need? Anything textual (e.g. a document) takes up very little space, so you really only need to worry about how many photos, videos, and songs you’ll be storing.

One gigabyte roughly translates into any one of the following:

  • 100 MP3s
  • 200 DSLR-quality photos
  • 1000 cellphone-quality photos
  • 3-10 minutes of high-definition video
  • Half of an iTunes movie

If you’re getting a Windows laptop or a MacBook, you should also set aside approximately 50 GB for your operating system and programs as you determine how much space you need.

Type of Storage Drive

There are two types of storage drives: solid state drives (SSDs) and hard disk drives (HDDs).

An SSD is much faster than an HDD. In computers with HDDs, the HDD is usually the slowest part of the computer that all the other components have to wait on. If you get an SSD, then the other parts of the computer don’t have to wait on the storage drive as much, so your computer will seem a lot faster.

The downside to the SSD is that it costs much more, per gigabyte, than an HDD does. For example, as of this writing, a 128 gigabyte laptop SSD costs about as much as a 1 terabyte (1,000 gigabyte) laptop HDD.

Recommendations

If you have limited storage needs, definitely get an SSD. It’ll speed up your computer significantly.

If you need lots of storage space, things get a little trickier, because buying a large SSD will be very expensive.

Here are three possible solutions:

  1. Some large, high-end laptops have space for two storage drives — an SSD for your main drive, and an HDD for your multimedia files. The problem is that laptops with this option are more likely to be heavy and bulky — not ideal.
  2. In most cases, therefore, I would recommend buying an external hard drive that plugs into your computer. You can use the external HDD to store photos and videos that you don’t need to access on a regular basis.
  3. Lastly, you could also get a laptop with hybrid drive. Hybrid drives are HDDs that have a small SSD built-in. The hybrid drive attempts to detect which files you use most often, and then it automatically moves them to the SSD so that you can access them more quickly next time. Hybrid drives have the large capacities of HDDs and are faster than normal HDDs. However, they’re still not as fast as pure SSDs. Therefore, I recommend sticking with the SSD option and getting an external drive if you need more space.

My recommendations: I would highly recommend getting an SSD if at all possible because it’ll speed up your computer significantly. If you need lots of storage space, supplement your SSD with an external hard drive.

11 Disc Drive

When it comes to the needs of a college student, disc drives are a must. Disc drives are needed to:

  • Reinstall or repair the operating system in the event of a major crash
  • Install software that comes on CDs
  • Use CDs that may come with your textbooks
  • Burn CDs or DVDs for class assignments
  • Rip CDs or play DVD movies

Some laptops come with disc drives built-in and some don’t. If you get a laptop without a disc drive, don’t worry — just buy an external disc drive that you can plug in to your laptop when you need it.

Today’s disc drives will likely be one of three types:

  1. DVD Burners (also known as DVD±RW drives, CD/DVD burners, SuperMulti DVD burners, SuperDrives, etc.)
  2. BD Combos (also known as a BD-ROM drive or a “Blu-ray player + DVD burner”)
  3. BD Writers (also known as BD-RE drives, Blu-ray Triple Writers, etc.)

This table shows the functionality of each of these types of disc drives:
DVD and Blu-ray

DVD Burner BD Combo BD Writer
Reads CDs Yes Yes Yes
Writes CDs Yes Yes Yes
Reads DVDs Yes Yes Yes
Writes DVDs Yes Yes Yes
Reads Blu-rays No Yes Yes
Writes Blu-rays No No Yes
My Recommendations:

  • For 99% of college students, I’d recommend a DVD burner. If you get a laptop without a disc drive, get an external drive.
  • Don’t get a BD Writer. Pretty much the only thing you can use it for is for burning backups, but there are cheaper and more convenient backup options available (which I’ll mention later in this article). In college, you aren’t going to want to take the time to burn a BD-R backup every week.
  • Only get a BD Combo drive if you already have a collection of Blu-ray movies you want to play on your laptop. But even then, chances are there won’t be much noticeable difference between a DVD and a Blu-ray on your laptop screen. If your school has communal high-def TVs and Blu-ray players, I’d recommend playing your movies on there and sticking with a DVD burner for your laptop.

12 Battery Life

Some laptops have battery life ratings that predict how long the battery will last. Here are three things to keep in mind as you assess these ratings:

  1. Actual battery life (how long the computer will run on a charge) varies widely based on what you’re actually using the computer for. Playing a video game eats up battery power much more quickly than typing out a document. Therefore, advertised battery life ratings can only give you a very rough idea of how long a single charge will last.
  2. Different activities take up different amounts of battery. Therefore, when a computer company rates a laptop’s battery life, they have to make assumptions about what the “typical” person will use the laptop for. Different companies will likely make different assumptions about this. Therefore, it’s difficult to accurately compare the battery life of different brands of laptops.
  3. The longer you own the laptop, the more the battery life will decrease. This is to be expected, because batteries wear out over time. For example, my laptop had a battery life of up to 6 hours when I first got it, but now that it’s five years old, the battery only lasts about 3 hours.
Laptop with 9-cell battery

A laptop with an upgraded battery that juts out of the bottom

Sometimes you’ll have the option of upgrading to a bigger battery. (If you see an option to upgrade to a battery with more “cells,” that’s what that means.) The downside to such an upgrade is that the larger battery will take up more space on the bottom of a laptop. Some extended batteries will jut out of the bottom (as illustrated in the picture), and some are “sheet batteries.” Sheet batteries attach to the bottom of the laptop and are the same size as the bottom — in effect, they make your laptop a bit thicker.

If you have the option, I would recommend upgrading to the bigger battery, unless the extended battery is poorly designed so as to make using the laptop cumbersome, or the battery costs an outrageous amount. ($50 is a decent price for an extended battery.)

Here are some factors to keep in mind as you assess battery options for your college laptop:

  1. Do your university’s classrooms have outlets so you can plug in during a class if your battery runs low? Do all classrooms have them or just some?
  2. Do you have room in your backpack for your power cord and/or do you want to hassle with it?
  3. What’s the longest amount of time you’ll be away from your dorm room or other housing?

13 Ethernet & Wireless

Here are the 4 primary connectivity technologies that come with laptops today:

  1. Ethernet
    An ethernet port on your college laptop will let your computer plug in to the Internet using a cable. If your dorm room or other housing only offers ethernet Internet, having that port will come in handy! If you get a laptop without an ethernet port, I recommend having a USB-to-ethernet on hand.
  2. Wifi
    Wifi is a must on today’s connected campuses. All new laptops should have built-in Wifi. The newest type of Wifi is

    Most laptops today come with Wireless-N technology, though you may find a few stragglers that still have the older Wireless-G variety. Either one should be able to connect to your university’s network.

  3. 3G or 4G
    Some laptops (specifically, certain Chromebooks) may come with 3G or 4G technology that lets you access the Internet over a cell network, meaning you can use the Internet anywhere you can use a cellphone. 4G is newer and faster than 3G, but it’s available in fewer areas.

    Note: In order to use 3G/4G Internet, you need to have a laptop that supports it and you need a data plan with a cellphone company like Verizon or AT&T. Some 3G/4G laptops come with data plan included, and some don’t. If you buy a 3G/4G laptop but not a data plan, you won’t be able to access the Internet over 3G/4G (similar to how your cellphone can only use the cell network if you have an active subscription with the carrier).

    Laptops that come with a data plan included will often provide a subscription for 1-2 years. After that, you have to pay monthly if you want to continue the data plan. This monthly cost will probably be out of the reach of most college students’ budgets.

    The primary benefit of 3G/4G is being able to access the Internet in places where neither ethernet nor Wifi options are available. But since most campuses today have Wifi connectivity, you probably won’t need 3G/4G unless you’re in off-campus housing that doesn’t have any other way to access the Internet.

  4. Bluetooth
    Bluetooth lets your computer wirelessly connect to nearby devices (unlike the other technologies listed here, Bluetooth is not used for connecting to the Internet).

    I suspect that college students will have two main uses for Bluetooth:

    1. Listening to music with wireless Bluetooth headphones
    2. Transferring photos from their cellphone to their computer

    If you don’t envision using Bluetooth for these or other scenarios, you probably don’t need it. If you don’t get built-in Bluetooth and decide you need it later, you can always buy a USB Bluetooth adapter.

14 Office Software

Office software is crucial for the college student. It lets students create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.

Many students can probably get by with LibreOffice. It’s a free alternative to Microsoft Office, it has the important features students need, and it can open and save to Microsoft file formats.

If you want or need to buy Microsoft Office instead, you have two options:

Office Home & Student 2013 Office 2013
Once you make a one-time payment for the 2013 version of Office, you get to keep it forever.
Office 365 Home Premium Office 365
When you buy Office 365, you’re paying for a subscription to use Office. Once the initial subscription expires, you must continue paying a monthly or yearly fee in order to continue using Office. When you buy Office 365, you get the latest version of Office (2013) and, when new versions come out, you get to upgrade for free, as long as you keep your subscription active.

My recommendations: Before making any sort of Microsoft Office purchase, be sure to check with your university’s bookstore. Some universities have special agreements with Microsoft that let them sell Office at steeply-discounted rates. If your university is one of them, that’s your best option.

Otherwise, if you choose to go the Office 2013 route, buying it bundled with your laptop will probably get you the best price. (But do your research to make sure.)

If you choose to go the Office 365 route, don’t buy it with your laptop. College students qualify for the heavily discounted Office 365 University, which, over four years, is much cheaper than the Home Premium edition that computer stores will try to sell you.

15 Upgrades to Skip

While some upgrades are good to have, you’ll also likely be presented with a ton of upgrades you don’t need, whether shopping online or shopping at a store. This is a non-exclusive list of extras that you can, in my opinion, skip:

  • Security software
    Websites and stores will almost always try to get you to buy security software with your new laptop. Here’s what those sales clerks and websites won’t tell you:

    • Windows 8 has good security software (anti-virus/malware/spyware) already built-in.
    • Microsoft provides free security software for Windows 7 called Microsoft Security Essentials.
    • Chromebooks don’t need security software because they only run web apps, not traditional software.

    You should only consider purchasing security software if you’re getting a MacBook, because Macs are theoretically capable of getting viruses and they don’t come with security software built-in.

  • Facial recognition
    Some laptops give you the option of using your face to log in to your computer instead of having to remember passwords. I’m no visual-algorithms expert, so don’t quote me on this, but couldn’t someone just hold up a picture of your face to the camera? My advice: forgo facial recognition and stick with using strong passwords.
  • Fingerprint recognition
    Some laptops have finger-print readers by the keyboard that let you log in with your fingerprint instead of using passwords. Your results may vary, but in my experience, I’ve had trouble getting laptop fingerprint readers to recognize my fingerprint, and I’ve often triggered the system by brushing the reader with my wrist while typing. I personally avoid fingerprint readers and stick with passwords.
  • 3D
    Laptop upgrades that let you watch 3D content are another “cool” feature that I’d skip. Chances are, 90% of college students don’t own any 3D movies and don’t own 3D cameras or camcorders. A 3D upgrade will make more sense in the future when 3D content becomes more widespread, but right now 3D media is too scarce to justify the cost of getting support for it on your laptop. Unless you really, really want to look at your Nintendo 3DS photos on your notebook, I’d pass on paying for the 3D upgrade.

16 Backup Solution

The last thing you want is to be stuck without class notes in the event your laptop is lost, stolen, or crashed the week before finals. Backup is a must. (However, if you have a Chromebook, it doesn’t need to be backed up because Chromebooks store all your data on the Internet.)

The two best backup solutions for a college student are an external hard drive or an online backup service.

External Hard Drive Online Backup Service
Cost $50-100 one-time $5+ per month
Backup Speed Fast Slow
Restore Speed Fast Slow
Off-Site? No Yes
Automatic? No Yes

Backup speed is how long it takes to backup. Restore speed is how long it takes to get up-and-running again. Off-site is whether your backup is stored in a remote location away from the original copy of your data.

Here are the two options in detail:

External hard drive

  • An external hard drive is a hard drive that you plug in to your computer. Your files are backed up to the external hard drive via a USB cable.
  • It’s faster to backup to an external hard drive and restore your files off it because it’s hooked up directly to your laptop.
  • A backup loses some of its effectiveness if it’s physically located next to the original copy. For example, if someone were to break into your housing and steal your laptop, they could easily steal your backup drive as well, whereas with an online backup solution that couldn’t happen.
  • An external hard drive has little to no automation, so you have to remember to do it.
  • If your laptop and your external backup drive both support USB 3.0, they’ll communicate at USB 3.0 speeds. Otherwise they’ll communicate at slower USB 2.0 speeds. If your laptop supports USB 3.0, look for a backup drive that supports it as well.
  • Windows 8, Windows 7, and Mac OS X all come with backup software that’ll copy your files to your external drive. On Windows 8, it’s called “File History.” On Windows 7, it’s called “Backup.” On Mac OS X, it’s called “Time Machine.”

Tip: Although you may have the option of ordering an external hard drive bundled with your laptop, you may be able to buy it cheaper separately. Don’t assume that you’ll get a better deal on the hard drive just because it’s bundled with the laptop.

When shopping for an external hard drive, get one that can store at least as many gigabytes as your college laptop’s internal storage drive.

Shop

Online Backup Service

  • An online backup service will backup your files over the Internet to a secure online server.
  • When you sign up for the service, you install a program that monitors your files for changes and then backs up the files that have changed. Backing up happens automatically in the background.
  • Online backup services charge by the month, so it’s cheaper in the short-run but more expensive in the long-run than an external hard drive.
  • Online backup is slower than backing up to an external hard drive because your files have to travel across the Internet instead of just across your desk.

Mozy and Carbonite are two popular online backup options.

  • If you’ll only be backing up documents and text files (i.e. no photos, videos, or music) go for Mozy, since you can backup 2GB of data for free with them. 2GB can store a lot of documents, but not many photos!
  • If you have photos/videos/music to backup in addition to documents, go for Carbonite, since they offer unlimited storage for a flat annual fee.

Mozy

Carbonite

17 Accessories

These accessories will supplement whatever laptop you purchase and will help improve your tech experience at college. These addons were selected with the needs and budget of the college student in mind.

Tip: Although university bookstores do sell many of these items (which can save unprepared students a trip into town), it does pay to get them ahead of time. You can get these much cheaper online, even taking into account shipping. Also, it’s almost always cheaper to buy these separately than to buy them bundled with your laptop.

Printer
A printer will come in handy when it comes time to print your college papers and other homework. Yes, you can often print papers at your university’s computer lab, but it can be a hassle, especially if you live off-campus or if the lab isn’t open 24/7.

You’ll probably want to buy an inkjet printer, not a laser printer, since laser printers that can print documents in color ink can be quite expensive. A decent inkjet printer will cost around $50.

Most printers come with a USB cable to hook the printer up to your computer, but if not, you can buy the needed “USB A-to-B” cable separately for $5 online.

Printers: Shop
Printer Cables: Shop
Extra Ink: Shop
Headphones
If you plan on using your laptop to listen to music, you may want to get headphones out of courtesy to your roommate.

You can buy regular wired headphones that you plug in to your computer, or you can opt for wireless Bluetooth headphones that don’t tie you to your desk. If you get Bluetooth headphones, be sure you get a laptop that supports Bluetooth.

All headphones: Shop
Bluetooth headphones: Shop
USB Flash Drive
A flash drive (also known as a jump drive or USB stick) is useful for transferring files to a friend’s laptop or a university lab computer. I’ve used them countless times in college. Flash drives cost only $10-30 online.

Shop

Surge Protector
A surge protector guards your gear from power surges from lightning, etc. You can get a cheap one online for $10. At that price, it’s well worth the protection it provides.

Shop

Ethernet Cable
If your dorm or other housing offers Internet via ethernet, you’ll need a cable to plug your computer into the ethernet port. Even if your housing has both ethernet and Wifi, you still might want to get an ethernet cable in case you experience Wifi connectivity issues.

If you get the cable online, it’ll only cost $5, shipping included.

Shop

HDMI Cable
With an HDMI cable, you can hook up your laptop to an HDTV in the student lounge and show a home video or an iTunes movie to your friends on the big screen. For this to work, both your laptop and the TV need an HDMI port and you’ll need an HDMI cable to connect the two. (Disclaimer: some older HDTVs may not have HDMI.)

If you think an HDMI cable is something you’d use, be sure to get it online. A store will try to charge you anywhere from $20 to $200 for it, but you can get it online for $5, shipping included.

Shop

18 After the Purchase

Here are some words of advice for after you purchase your college laptop:

  1. If you buy a Windows laptop, chances are the manufacturer loaded on useless software, special offers, trial links, advertisements, and various doodads that you probably won’t need. You can uninstall these programs yourself of course, or you can use the free PC Decrapifier program to do it for you.
  2. Rather than go through the time-consuming process of downloading and installing Skype, iTunes, Microsoft Security Essentials, and other programs one-by-one, let Ninite install them all for you in one fell swoop at no charge.

19 Conclusion

This “laptops for college students” guide was based on years of personal experience in computer purchasing and in college laptop usage. I hope it aided you in your buying decision. Please feel free to send a link to this guide to students or parents who might find it helpful!

I originally wrote this post in June 2011 and have since then updated it with the latest information in July 2011, December 2011, May 2012, and on August 7, 2013.

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94 Comments

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  1. James

    At what point do you think it is time to upgrade to a new laptop? How many years should one of these laptops be sufficient for school work? How often do you recommend buying a new one?

    • The simple answer is to buy a new laptop when the old one breaks or when it can no longer do what you need it to do.

      Generally, I’d plan on a laptop lasting anywhere from 3 to 5 years.

  2. Mark Irvin

    Hi John
    Thank you for the information regarding buying laptops for college use. Just yesterday we were ready to purchase a 13 inch MacBook Pro however we decided to wait and in the meantime I discovered your article. It seems that a 15 inch may be more appropriate for my son. Would you consider purchasing a refurb from Apple? Would you consider purchasing a Windows machine with a greater risk of viruses etc.? The school is friendly to both Windows and Mac and I could save some big bucks by going with Windows. My comfort level is with Mac, should it be, isn’t a level playing field regarding stability and security?

    Thanks in advance.

    Mark

  3. jennifer

    Thanks so much for the information! We purchased a really nice Dell for my daugther last year, when she went to college and it has been NOTHING but a nightmare. It literally failed during finals week! Not even 1 full year of use. Dell came out and replaced everything and it worked fine for a few weeks but is now in the shop. We called customer service and were convinced we need some malware package to the tune of $200, only to find out yesterday there was a free patch that we could have downloaded. I learned this morning (as the lap is once again out of commission) that Dell replaced everything with used parts including something called a C-moss battery (no clue on spelling). There is some connectivity to the motherboard and after 1 year of use, it will cost $400.00 to repair. We are now of course shopping for something new before she leaves for college next week. Everyone in her sorority has a Macbook Pro and I know many others who have had good results with their Mac, but the cost is a bit shocking. However I do hear that Apple has excellent service and I feel better knowing she could go to their store for help, rather than talk to someone on the phone. Any thoughts about the Mac?

    • Tod

      Hey, I know that a lot of people don’t like HP computers but ever since the company leadership change it has improved a lot. The new HP Envy Ultrabooks are a great choice for students. I have owned one now for 4 months and love it. It looks really great, it comes with 6gb of ram and has a battery life of 7hr. I payed only 675$ and it is one of the best laptops I owned, HP also backs it with a 2 year standard warranty. Take a look at what HP offers because Apple products are extremely overpriced, and have enough incompatibility issues to deal with. I know since by brother owns one, 1500$ out the window after 2.5 years.

      • Ning

        Hey Todd,

        I am planning to get HP ency 1053TX, what do you think of that? I hear rumors saying that HP laptops are the one that need repairs/parts replacement the most compare to ASUS or Toshiba (which has the least problems) Is that true? Do I need any “adapter for projector” with hp envy? I really hope to hear from you soon as I have to make a purchase soon!!

  4. Tess Leon

    You Rock! Thank you for all the information, sooooo helpful

  5. James

    I don’t usually comment on web sites, but I just had to here. This was the absolute best guide I have ever read on the web. Clear explanations, you actually learn things without being bored with excellent tips, a nice layout with graphics charts and all. Thank you Mr. Lamansky.

  6. Kat

    Hey, I was looking for deals today and I found MS Office 2010 Professional Plus for $9.95 I think it’s a good deal. I used my .edu email and it worked, just wanted to let other students know about this :). http://www.microsofthup.com/hupus/home.aspx?culture=en-US

  7. Vincent

    You have performed a wonderful service with very impressive descriptions and honest recommendations. Thank you for your help as I step out to buy another computer after ten years of using corporate machines.
    Vincent

  8. Sam

    very grateful for your information.i have struggled for months trying to get specs for a dream laptop but thank God i found your write up this dawn whilst googling.I now have my spec and want to say a big thank you.

  9. alayna

    Thanks much! Very thorough and helpful information.

  10. Sasl

    Great comprehensive advice! Based on your advice I got the HP dv6 with fast Core i7 and Nvidia graphics card, this one http://goo.gl/ZRXls

  11. Ian

    I disagree with non Windows systems not needing Security Software. At the very least emails need to be scanned so virus’ and malware aren’t passed on, and ideally everything you may share with other people needs to be protected. It’s very irresponsible to behave otherwise.
    ChromeBook in theory should be safe as everything is hosted by Google, but for a Mac I would say it’s essential.

  12. Shanna

    I needed clear precise answers…this was the best, blew dell and the geek squad out of the water.
    awesome

  13. Nichole

    I wanted to tell you that it is people like you who make the world a better place. Thank you so much for writing this article. You have no idea how much you just helped me and my family. I have been looking for months for just the right laptop but I honestly did not know what to look for. You saved me a head full of hair. THANK YOU!!!! :D

  14. Cassandra

    Thank you so much! I am having to retire my laptop (Dell Inspiron E1405 Intel Core Duo) my grandmother gave me back in 07! Needless to say its old. I am returning to school so a replacement is a must! After asking for advice from the electronic people (they read the info card to me)and getting nowhere, I turned to the internet! Finding this article was a blessing!

  15. sunill reddiee

    good work buddy helped me a lot!!!!!!!!!! keep it up!thanx

    &

    what bout anti-theft any idea?

  16. Emily

    Hello! I just wanted to let you know about a deal I received as an IU student that is open to the general public as well. With graduation around the corner, I figured that some of your followers could benefit from a great computer deal from HP!

    Coupon Code: CAMPUS178
    $100 off HP PC’s (orig. $699.99+)
    Must first register for free at: hpdirect.com/academy/Microsoft

    Offer combinable with instant rebates and HP Academy pricing. Expires on 3/23/13.
    Coupon code: CAMPUS178

  17. Tandra

    My daughter is first year in college. I purchased a Dell Inspirion for her in August 2012. She calls home tonight for me to find out that the computer is crash dumping. She can be in the middle of her school work and it just powers down. So I have no clue what the issue is but i know that so far I am disappointed in Dell. Her roomates have Mac and she has to take her school test on a Mac. I have considered purchasing one but wow at the price.
    Is my six month old Dell history with the blue screen? I appreciate any help, advise or comments.
    PS THANK YOU for this article and all the great information that you provide.

  18. Harini

    A lot of people have commented already on how helpful this article is, but I HAD to add my 2 cents..thank you SO much! Given the number of different brands and models out there it’s very difficult to find the ideal mix of price and utility, but your criteria helped me to crop out the confounders and narrow down my options by a LOT. Once again, thank you!

  19. Sarahfina Wipf

    What is your opinion on flash storage???
    I am planning on purchasing a Macbook pro but can’t decide between the newer version with Retina display and flash storage or the older one with SSD or HDD.

    • Flash storage (another name for SSD) is much faster than an HDD, but it’s usually more expensive and has less storage space. If you’re okay with those two cons, then I’d recommend the SSD.

  20. Alex Stevens

    Would you recommend looking into business laptops such as lenovo thinkpads for college, or should I stick with consumer models? Thanks for the help

  21. Lz

    This was perfect. I got the answers to my confusion. Thanks Thanks Thanks!!

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