Walk into any college classroom and you’re likely to see a row of MacBook Pros. Apple’s laptop is a staple of college life because it’s particularly well suited for it. It is equally useful for productivity and entertainment, making it perfect for anyone who owns a single computer.
The only problem is price. I never owned a MacBook in college because I could never afford one. If you’re in the same bind, I have good news – there are Windows alternatives that work well for student life and cost less than $600.
Students demand a lot from their laptops. They need it to be portable enough to take to class or to a study session, but they also need adequate performance. Selecting a laptop is made even more complex by the fact that students also use laptops as gaming machines, portable boom-boxes and televisions.
The laptops listed here meet these needs. They all have powerful dual-core or quad-core processors, they can all last at least four hours on a charge and they’re all capable of handling basic 3D games, HD video and other entertainment needs. And, as mentioned, they’re all available for $600 or less.
If you are looking for a thin, light and attractive laptop that doesn’t need to be a gaming wonder, the Dell Inspiron 14z is an excellent choice. It is built to be a 14-inch ultraportable, which means it doesn’t weigh much over four pounds and has battery life of well over six hours in its stock configuration.
The Inspiron 14z also benefits from solid build quality and attractive design. Both the bright Fire Red and more subdued Mocha Black are excellent choices. Pricing starts at $549, but you really wouldn’t know it from handling the laptop.
Performance is excellent thanks to a Core i3 processor. Core i5 processors are available, but you won’t be able to limbo under our price limit of $600 if you pick that option. I do recommend choosing the backlit keyboard, as it’s only a $25 upgrade and makes this laptop easier to use when you’re pulling an after-hours study session.
The AMD Fusion powered Pavilion dv6z quad edition is a fairly large 15.6” laptop built with entertainment use in mind. It’s one of the least portable laptops here and doesn’t offer amazing battery life, though it does easily meet our minimum of four hours.
The upshot of this laptop’s so-so portability is the relatively good graphics performance provided by its AMD Fusion processor. This is not a gaming powerhouse, but it at least supports DirectX 11 and is capable of providing a better experience than the Intel integrated graphics found in most entry-level laptops.
Hardcore student gamers should pick the optional Radeon HD7690M GPU, which is $75. Because the base price is $549, choosing the discrete graphics option puts this laptop $25 bucks beyond our price limit. If you game on a daily basis I suggest you live off ramen for a week to save up the extra dough. It will be money well spent.
The small dm1z is one of my favorite laptops on the market. It is what a netbook was supposed to be when it originally hit the market – a small, inexpensive laptop with excellent portability that can easily handle most software.
Weighing in at 3.52” pounds and featuring a 12.1” display, the dm1z can easily fit into any bag large enough to handle textbooks. Endurance is up to eight hours under light loads, and even moderate to heavy use should result in six hours of life. You can take this laptop anywhere without it becoming a burden. Nor will it be a burden on your wallet – pricing starts at $399.
The inevitable downside is performance, but the dm1z doesn’t make as many sacrifices as the netbooks sold just a couple years ago. Programs like web browsers and word processors will easily run on the AMD dual-core processor and the Radeon integrated graphics can handle some recent 3D games. If you don’t use software that requires serious number-crunching the dm1z is will never feel slow.
The ThinkPad Edge E420 is a good alternative to the Dell Inspiron 14z. Internally, it’s a very similar laptop. You’ll find a Core i3 processor paired with 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. The basic 14z is virtually identical, and even the base price of $549 is the same.
All of the differences are external, and they matter. Like other ThinkPads, the Edge E420 includes an excellent keyboard and a unique trackpointer which allows for easy mouse navigation without moving your fingers away from your keyboard. If you sometimes brag about how quickly you can type you’ll undoubtedly appreciate these features.
These advantages are counter-balanced by battery life performance which is significantly inferior to the 14z. The Edge is also just a tad heavier and does not include a backlit keyboard even as an option. Choosing between them will come down to personal preference.
The ASUS U31 is the company’s entry-level ultraportable. It features a 13.3” display, a Core i3 processor and GeForce GT 520M graphics with Optimus switchable graphics. Though the 520M is one of Nvidia’s slowest products, it remains quick enough to provide acceptable performance in many 3D games.
Another benefit of the U31 is battery life. ASUS quotes over 8 hours of life, and real-world use comes surprisingly close to that number. This is thanks to a large stock battery and the customized power profiles ASUS ships with its laptops. Despite being larger and having a faster processor, this laptop can almost match the longevity of the HP dm1z.
So far, this laptop sounds perfect, but there are a few flaws. Build quality is not as good as most of the other laptops here. The keyboard isn’t the best and the display is sub-par even among budget laptops. However, if you want excellent portability and the ability to play most 3D games, this laptop is your best option.
Though none of these laptops are competition to a MacBook Pro, they offer everything a student needs without costing a fortune.
My opinion is that the Inspiron 14z and Edge E420 are the laptops most students should look at first. They offer an excellent compromise between portability, performance and usability at impressively low prices. Unlike many budget laptops, these models don’t feel cheap. They are sturdy and enjoyable to use.
Students who need excellent portability should consider the HP dm1z, while those who want adequate gaming performance should look at the HP dv6z Quad Edition – and the ASUS U31 offers a little bit of both.
Do you own one of these laptops? Or did you pick up a different model that you think is excellent for student life? Let us know in the comments.