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 Rather than hand you a list of “recommended computers” that quickly gets outdated, this extensive buying guide equips you step-by-step with the inside scoop you need to interpret the tech jargon and make your own informed buying decisions.
1 Where to Shop
To ensure you get the best deal, you should shop around with multiple companies. If you’re using a modern web browser that supports tabs, you can open up multiple websites in different tabs and comparison-shop at multiple sites simultaneously.
In general, there are two categories of places where you can buy a laptop:
- Directly from the company
Buying a computer directly from its manufacturer often provides you with the option of customizing the computer to your specifications. Here are several computer manufacturers that let you customize and purchase a laptop from their site:
- From a reseller
You can also buy laptops for college students from online resellers as well as “offline,” “brick-and-mortar” stores. You can’t customize laptops that you buy from resellers because they come pre-configured. Here are some examples of online and offline companies that sell laptops made by various computer manufacturers:
As you shop, check out each vendor’s refurbished department or outlet center. You may be able to snag a deal on a lightly-used laptop.
As you’re shopping, you’ll come across many different brands of laptops. Every year PC World magazine does a reliability/service survey to determine the tech brands that its readers have had the best experience with. Here are the top 5 laptop brands for 2010:
2 Screen Size
As you’re shopping, one of the first options you’ll likely be presented with is the laptop’s screen size. A laptop’s screen size is measured diagonally and can range from 5″ to 18″+.
The screen size affects a variety of factors, such as:
- 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.
- 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.
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 10″ or smaller, 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.
How big the keyboard is
- 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.
- Laptops with small screens (10″ and smaller) can only handle basic tasks like email, web browsing, and word processing. These basic, inexpensive computers are called “netbooks.”
- Laptops with 11-15″ screens are generally considered “all-purpose” laptops.
- Laptops with big screens (usually 17″ and larger) can be powerful enough to replace a desktop computer (which is why they’re often called “desktop replacement” laptops).
Knowing how screen size is related to price can help you with your buying decision.
For example, if you’re on a tight budget, you may want to lean toward 10″ laptops, as these are much cheaper (due to having less functionality, as explained above).
In the all-purpose category, 15″ tends to be a “sweet spot,” as 15″ laptops can be $100 cheaper than a similar 14″ or 16″ laptop.
How expensive it is
As you choose the screen size of your laptop, here are some additional factors to keep in mind:
- 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.
- 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: Because 15″ laptops have sufficiently-large keyboards, tend to be cheaper than other screen sizes, and fit most backpacks and desks, I would recommend a 15″ laptop for most college students. Students should get a 10″ if they’re on a tight budget, need only basic functionality, and are okay with a tiny keyboard.
3 Operating System
Practically all laptops will have one of these 3 operating systems:
- Mac OS X
- Linux (including variants like Chrome OS and Android)
If you buy a laptop from Apple, your computer will have Mac OS X. If you buy your college laptop from a different company, it’ll have either Windows or Linux.
Windows is the world’s most popular operating system and is used on more than 80% of computers. If you buy a Windows laptop, the best edition of Windows for a college student is Windows 7 Home Premium.
Some computer vendors may try to upsell you to Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Ultimate, but unless your university requires them (due to having a “domain” network, for example), these editions probably don’t offer any extra features that the college student will need.
If your university does require Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Ultimate, don’t buy it with your computer. It’s probably cheaper to buy Windows 7 Home Premium and then purchase a Windows 7 Professional Upgrade from the Microsoft Student site. It costs $65 as of this writing, while a similar upgrade from Dell will run you $130.
Rule of thumb: If you’re getting a Windows laptop, get Windows 7 Home Premium unless your university requires Windows 7 Professional. If it does, you can save $65 by buying the Professional upgrade from the Microsoft Student site instead of getting it with your laptop.
The cheapest Windows laptops usually come with Windows 7 Starter, which has fewer features than Windows 7 Home Premium. Some of Windows 7 Starter’s feature omissions are annoyingly arbitrary, such as not being able to change your desktop wallpaper. I’d avoid this edition unless you have only basic computing needs and are on a tight budget.
For more details on the various editions of Windows 7, go to Microsoft’s Compare Windows page and click the “Feature comparison” tab.
Tip: Although Windows 7 is the current edition of Windows right now, Microsoft will be releasing the next version, Windows 8, sometime in autumn 2012.
The bad news is that Windows 8 won’t be ready in time for students getting a laptop for the fall 2012 semester. The good news is that if you buy your laptop from a major manufacturer after June 2, 2012, it should come with a coupon that’ll let you upgrade to Windows 8 for only $15 when it comes out.
If you’re buying a laptop this summer, wait until after June 2nd to purchase, and once you do purchase, make sure you get that coupon!
Mac OS X and Linux are less popular than Windows. This is both good and bad news. The good news is that hackers don’t write as many viruses for these operating systems because fewer people use them. The bad news is that you may run into software that you’d like to use but only works on Windows.
Chrome OS is a new Linux variant introduced summer 2011. Before you buy a laptop with Chrome OS, you need to realize that “Chromebooks,” as they’re called, are Internet-only machines. They’re designed for accessing the Internet only, nothing else. Instead of using traditional software, Chromebooks use “web apps” for tasks like writing documents. While Chromebooks may work for some students, I’d personally prefer a laptop that can access the Internet but also run regular software if I need it to.
The bit architecture of an operating system indicates how much memory it can support. A 32-bit operating system can handle up to 3.25 GB of memory. You should only get a 32-bit operating system if you have basic computing needs (email/web/documents). Otherwise, get a 64-bit.
As you choose an operating system for your college laptop, keep these additional factors in mind:
- What software or games do you plan to use on your computer, and what operating systems can they run on?
- Does your university have laptop specification requirements? If so, what operating systems are on the list?
- What operating systems does your school’s IT office support? If you ever need help with your computer, will they be able to provide support for your operating system? All university tech support will provide support for Windows, and most will support Mac OS X, but support for Linux/Android/Chrome OS will be much more scarce.
- Will you be taking any classes that need you to run special software on your laptop? If so, what operating system is required?
- Do any of your textbooks come with CDs that need a certain operating system to run?
My recommendations: My first choice is Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (unless your university requires otherwise). Since Windows is the most popular operating system, you’ll rarely run into software that won’t work or a tech support desk that can’t help you. Windows comes on a wider variety of laptops than other operating systems do, and Windows laptops are almost always significantly cheaper than Mac laptops.
Mac OS X can also be a fine operating system choice if you’re willing to pay hundreds of dollars extra for an Apple computer and/or your college major involves a lot of Mac software.
Tip: Purchase OS recovery media if possible. Some computer manufacturers will charge you extra for it, but it’s well worth it. OS recovery media is a DVD that’ll let you (or a tech-savvy friend) repair or reinstall your operating system in the event of a major crash.
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. Admittedly, this comparison is overly simplistic, but it should give you a general idea of today’s processor lineup.
|Most Powerful||Least Powerful|
|Most Expensive||Least Expensive|
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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:
|8+ GB||3-6 GB||1-2 GB|
Here are some additional notes to keep in mind:
- DDR3 memory is newer/better than DDR2 memory.
- 32-bit operating systems can only use up to 3.25 GB or memory; anything more than that will go unused. If you have a 32-bit operating system, don’t get more than 3GB. If the chart above indicates you need more than 3GB, get a 64-bit operating system.
6 Storage Drive
The storage drive is the “long-term” memory of your laptop. Not only will laptops for college students need space to store class notes, but likely audio-recorded lectures and photos/videos as well.
Here are 4 factors to consider:
- Storage Capacity
This is how much data the hard drive can hold. Storage capacity is measured in gigabytes (GB). 1 GB can store roughly 300 photos or 10 minutes of video. In determining how much space you need, you should set aside 30 GB for your operating system and programs.
- HDD or SSD?
Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) use magnetic platters to store your data, while Solid State Drives (SSDs) have no moving parts. SSDs are very fast and are more likely to survive if you drop your laptop, but are very expensive and come in smaller capacities than HDDs. If you don’t plan on having much data to store and can get a good deal on an SSD, I’d say go with it; otherwise, stick with an HDD.
- Rotational Speed
Rotational speed only applies to Hard Disk Drives (which use magnetic platters). The faster the rotational speed, the faster the magnetic platters spin, which means the faster your laptop can get to your data. For laptops, the two options are 5400 RPM or 7200 RPM. I recommend going with 7200.
- Head Parking
If you drop a laptop with a Hard Disk Drive, automatic head-parking technology will detect the fall and quickly adjust the hard drive’s moving parts to minimize damage. I’d recommend getting this upgrade if it’s offered. (If you’re getting a Solid State Drive, you don’t have to worry about this since SSDs don’t have any moving parts.)
7 Disc Drive
When shopping for your college laptop, you’ll likely run across 3 different types of disc drives:
- DVD Burners (also known as DVD±RW drives, CD/DVD burners, SuperMulti DVD burners, SuperDrives, etc.)
- BD Combos (also known as a BD-ROM drive or a “Blu-ray player + DVD burner”)
- 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 Burner||BD Combo||BD Writer|
Some laptops (such as Apple’s MacBook Air) don’t include a disc drive, with the implication that disc drives, supposedly, aren’t really needed nowadays. When it comes to the needs of a college student, I disagree. Without a disc drive, you can’t…
- 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
Therefore, if you get a laptop without a disc drive, I recommend purchasing an external disc drive that you can plug in to your laptop.
- 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 small 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.
8 Video Card
The GPU (graphics processing unit) generates what you see on screen. There are two types of GPUs:
- Integrated graphics are built into the motherboard or processor and can handle everyday graphics output.
- Dedicated video cards are add-on cards that replace or supplement integrated graphics, and provide the graphics output power needed for heavy 3D gaming, video editing, etc. A disadvantage of dedicated video cards is that they usually use more power than integrated graphics, thus reducing your laptop’s battery life.
My recommendations: Get a dedicated video card if you plan on using your college laptop for heavy 3D gaming, video editing, or other graphics-heavy work. Otherwise, stick with the cheaper integrated graphics option.
The more “cells” a battery has, the more power the battery can hold. When you’re shopping for your college laptop, you may have the option of upgrading your battery.
A larger-cell battery may “jut out” as illustrated in the picture to the right. But that may not be a bad thing: the larger battery lifts the rest of the laptop off your lap or desk, providing some additional room for air circulation.
In addition to having the option of increasing the capacity of your primary battery, you may have the option to buy a secondary battery that you can swap out if your primary battery dies.
Here are some factors to keep in mind as you assess battery options for your college laptop:
- What is the estimated battery life of the laptop(s) you’re considering, and by how much would a battery upgrade extend that?
- 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?
- Do you have room in your backpack for your power cord and/or do you want to hassle with it?
- What’s the longest amount of time you’ll be away from your dorm room or other housing?
My recommendations: Since an upgrade from a 6-cell to a 9-cell battery (for example) usually only costs around $40, I’d go for it unless you absolutely can’t stand having the battery jut out in the back. I would usually discourage getting a second battery, as I expect most college students won’t be away from an outlet for long enough to justify the cost.
10 Ethernet & Wireless
Here are the 4 primary connectivity technologies that come with laptops today:
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 adapter on hand unless you have a 3G subscription that gives you continual wireless Internet access.
Wifi is a must on today’s connected campuses. Practically all laptops today come with built-in Wifi. 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.
- 3G or 4G
Some laptops (specifically netbooks and 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. Some 3G/4G laptops come with a data plan and some don’t. If you buy a 3G/4G laptop but not a data plan, you won’t be able to use the Internet any more than you can use a cellphone without a cell plan.
As with a cell plan, you’ll almost always need to pay for a data plan monthly. This monthly cost can add up, and will probably put 3G/4G 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.
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:
- Listening to music with wireless Bluetooth headphones
- 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.
11 Resolution & Aspect Ratio
- The resolution of your laptop screen indicates the maximum number of pixels your screen can display horizontally and vertically. A larger maximum resolution means your screen can display more textual data at a time, and can display photos and videos with more detail, but it also means everything will be smaller on your screen.
Be aware that when you pay for a resolution upgrade, you’re paying to make everything on your screen smaller so you can fit more on at a time.
- The aspect ratio of your laptop screen is the ratio or horizontal pixels to vertical pixels. Chances are your laptop’s aspect ratio will be 16:10 or 16:9. The selling point for 16:9 is that 16:9 happens to be the aspect ratio for HDTV (high-definition TV episodes) and HD camera/camcorder footage. If you get a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio, high-def video will fill up the screen perfectly when played in fullscreen mode. However, the video content on many DVDs and Blu-ray discs does not use a 16:9 aspect ratio.
My recommendations: Few DVDs and not all Blu-ray discs will play in 16:9, so don’t pay extra for 16:9 with the intent of a better movie-watching experience. Only pay extra for 16:9 if you’ll be watching a lot of fullscreen HD TV episodes or HD video from your camcorder and you can’t stand black bars on the top and bottom of your screen. For most college students, I’d say stick with the cheapest option.
12 Office Software
Office software is crucial for the college student. It lets students create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.
Warning: Lots of laptops today come with Microsoft Office 2010 Starter. However, Office Starter won’t cut it for a college student laptop, for one important reason: it doesn’t let you insert footnotes in Word. If you’re going to be writing college papers, you need a word processor that supports footnotes.
Rule of thumb: If you’re a college student, never buy Microsoft Office with your laptop, not even the Home and Student edition. There are cheaper options and alternatives.
- If you’re on a tight budget, download LibreOffice. It’s free, it has the important features students need, and it can open and save to Microsoft file formats.
- Your university may have a special agreement with Microsoft that lets your university sell Office at highly-discounted prices. Check with your university’s bookstore.
- Microsoft sells Office University 2010 to college students for only $100. It’s cheaper than Office Home and Student and it comes with more Office programs.
These 3 options can help a college student get their hands on an office suite for much less money than getting it with their laptop. (But if you’re not a college student, buying Office with your laptop may be your cheapest option.)
13 Security Software
If you’re shopping for a Windows laptop, chances are the store or website you’re shopping at will try to get you to buy security software. On top of the initial purchase price, these security suites require an annual subscription fee.
What those sales clerks and websites won’t tell you is that Microsoft makes a 100% free antivirus product called Microsoft Security Essentials. Just download and install it on your laptop after purchase.
Rule of thumb: You don’t need to buy security software when you purchase your college laptop. Mac and Chromebook laptops don’t need it, and Windows laptops can use Microsoft security software for free.
One extra feature you shouldn’t forget:
- All laptops for college students should have a webcam and microphone so you can Skype your family back home!
While some upgrades are good to have, you’ll also likely be presented with a ton of upgrades you don’t need, especially if you’re shopping for a college laptop online. This is a non-exclusive list of extras that you can, in my opinion, skip:
Tablets like the iPad have made multi-touch screens (screens that let you “click” things by touching them on the screen) the “cool thing” to have.
I would discourage getting a multi-touch screen on your laptop, for these reasons:
- Using the touch screen means holding your hand up to the screen to touch things. If you do that for long periods of time, your arm will get tired, and eventually you’ll fall back to using the keyboard and trackpad. Unlike tablets, laptops just aren’t designed for comfortable touch-screen use.
- Every time you touch the screen, you’ll leave fingerprint oils behind. With phones and tablets this isn’t a big deal because you can just use your shirt to wipe off the screen — but try doing that with a laptop.
In my opinion, the impracticality isn’t worth the cost.
- 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.
Laptop upgrades that let you watch 3D content are another “cool” feature that I’d skip. Chances are, 99% 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.
15 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 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
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.
Online Backup Service
Mozy and Carbonite are two popular online backup options.
I personally use an external hard drive because I have over a terabyte of data to backup, which would take me weeks to restore from an online backup service, but I imagine most college students don’t have that much data.
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.
17 Before You Order
Quick Tip: If you’re buying online, do a Google search for the store or company you’re buying from, followed by the word “coupons,” e.g. “dell coupons.” You may just find a code that can give you a discount on your purchase.
18 After the Purchase
Here are some words of advice for after you purchase your college laptop:
- 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.
- 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.
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, and on May 17, 2012.