It’s a good time to buy a laptop. There are plenty of great choices out there these days. But as a student, there are a few things to keep in mind.
This guide will walk you through the most important parts. It’ll also touch on features that you may or may not want — that is, things you can safely ignore if you don’t need them.
There’s definitely going to be some overlap between a good student laptop and a good laptop period, as shown below. You should keep these factors in mind regardless of what you’re studying since they’re all very important.
Pricing is the most important thing to keep in mind. After all, if the laptop you want fits everything but your budget, it’s not exactly possible to buy it, so it’s important to establish how much you’re willing to spend beforehand.
Laptops over $1,500 tend to be extremely high-end. They’ll have the fastest internals for the most part, and may even be too good for your needs. For example, in this price range, you can get laptops with 16 GB of RAM (8 GB is the normal these days).
$700+ laptops are generally very decent. You can expect these ones to meet most of your needs, regardless of what you do. They tend to be fast without prices hurting your budget too much. If you can, try looking for laptops in this price range.
Under $700, you’ll begin seeing some compromises. Laptops will be less powerful, with lower-end CPUs and smaller storage spaces. However, this probably won’t be a problem for most people, unless you go for much more cheaper ones (beginning somewhere at the $500 mark).
One of the main parts of any computer is its Central Processing Unit (CPU). The CPU carries out instructions given to it, and a faster CPU means faster completion of those instructions.
Usually, you’ll want a laptop with an Intel CPU (as opposed to one made by AMD, though this may be changing), as they tend to be faster. Along with this, you should keep in mind the make and age of said processor. Newer usually means better performance after all, along with other improvements.
Currently, Intel’s in their 7th generation of mainstream CPUs, called Kaby Lake (the 6th generation being SkyLake). Most laptop distributors will make themselves extremely clear about this fact, but it’s good to keep in mind just in case.
Along with this, Intel separates these consumer-grade CPUs into three different levels of performance: Core i3, i5, and i7. They’re meant to represent different user needs — higher performance as the number increases. Core i3s, for example, are usually suitable for daily tasks such as surfing the web and so on.
Most moderately-priced laptops these days seem to ship with Core i5 or higher, which are usually adequate for most students.
Ideally, you’ll want something that lasts the whole day, especially if you’re moving between classes. Look for 7+ hours of battery life. You might be able to do all right with less, depending on your workload.
However, unlike learning the type of CPU a laptop has, you’ll be harder pressed to find how long its battery life is. This isn’t helped by manufacturers, who tend to exaggerate how long they last for — if they post results at all. Expect around 80 percent (or less) of the reported times.
If you’re considering a laptop, try doing a quick search for people who’ve measured it themselves. That’s going to be your best bet if you want the hard facts.
Generally, you should be looking for laptops with 15-inch screens at most. Anything bigger gets a bit difficult to carry around. Larger laptops also tend to be more powerful and expensive, and therefore difficult to budget.
You should also avoid laptops with smaller-than-13-inch screens. While they’re lighter and more portable, they usually make some sacrifices to get them that small. For example, the smaller screen also means a smaller keyboard and a poorer typing experience.
Along with this, look for laptops lighter than 5 pounds and work yourself down. Laptops with 13-inch screens can be much lighter (even below 3 pounds). You’re probably going to be carrying this device around a lot, so weight is important to keep in mind.
Screen resolution represents how many pixels make up a laptop’s display. As such, your laptop can display more things at a time with more pixels and looks sharper. However, a higher screen resolution tends to be better only to a point.
That is because at extremely high-resolution levels, content appears much smaller. It works like this: items take up the same amount of pixels but in a smaller amount of space. 4K screens (3840 x 2160 pixels) are quite prone to this, especially on small displays such as laptops.
Modern computers will try and scale applications of high-resolution screens, but this doesn’t always work properly. You can be left with tiny or blurry text for example.
Along with this, higher resolution screens can result in lower battery life. This is because each pixel needs energy to light itself up — the more pixels, the more energy needed. On top of that, the computer works harder to draw that many pixels.
As such, unless you use your laptop for things which need an extremely sharp display, such as a touchscreen, I recommend that you look for devices with an FHD (1920 x 1080 pixels) screen. This usually provides a nice level of clarity with very little scaling problems.
That being said, there are a few subjects which can benefit from a sharp, beautiful display. Art students may find their designs much easier to present and create on a beautiful canvas, so to speak.
While the CPU of any computer is important, choosing the right storage can make even a slow laptop feel and respond quickly. Faster storage will let you open documents, launch programs, and so on, in shorter amounts of time.
Basically, you’re choosing between hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs). While they’re more expensive, SSDs are also much faster than their older counterparts. In many ways, it’s one of the largest factors determining how responsive your laptop will feel. As such, do your best to fit one into your budget.
How Will You Use It?
With the essentials out of the way, you should consider what other things you might want your laptop to do. These are very dependent on your own use cases, so treat the below as only examples to reference.
Many laptops these days come with touchscreens (called 2-in-1 laptops), letting you interact in a way other than your touchpad or mouse. This can be useful for a number of different tasks, especially when combined with a stylus. For example, you might prefer taking notes on something that resembles paper rather than typing things down.
You might even consider getting a convertible laptop, which can be converted into a tablet when you want to use the touchscreen. This allows you to properly take advantage of this feature. Without it, you’re mostly limited to simple tasks such as scrolling through a document, and so on.
Touchscreens can be quite useful for a specific set of students. Arts students may find using a digital pen appealing (if they don’t already use a graphics tablet). Panning around a 3D model can also be much easier with a finger than a mouse.
Bear in mind that laptops with touchscreens tend to cost a bit more. If you’re on a budget and don’t need the extra features, you can afford to leave it out.
Most computers will have some way of processing graphics. For low-end laptops, this is usually through an integrated graphics processor. They can manage things like displaying videos and playing games (at a lower resolution).
Dedicated graphics cards tend to perform much better than their integrated siblings. Of course, this depends on the exact model, so it’s best to read up on them first. As a general rule, Nvidia graphics cards are the most common for this sort of thing.
Unfortunately, these graphics cards tend to make laptops with them much more expensive. As a result, you might find the cost of them too high for your budget. Unless you design graphics or want to play demanding games (or perhaps even create them), you can avoid such laptops and save some money.
Choosing a good laptop means putting together everything you need and finding something that matches. Here are a few examples you could base your decisions off.
The Fundamentals: ASUS ZenBook UX330UA
For students without any unique needs (such as 3D modeling), ASUS offers a respectable laptop at a cheaper price than most. At the starting price of $700, it provides all the essentials: a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and a 256 GB SSD. It’s also very lightweight at only 2.7 pounds.
Laptop Mag also found the battery life to be very good. Able to continuously browse the web for a little over 10 hours, it’ll last an entire day’s worth of work without recharging. Its performance relative to its price only furthers the ZenBook’s appeal.
The Basics (With Touch): Acer Spin 5
If you can tolerate a more lackluster build quality and heavier frame, Acer’s cheap 2-in-1 might be appealing. Costing only $650, the Spin has very decent internals, along with a touchscreen for those who want it. However, being cheaper, it’s also a bit heavy, weighing 3.5 pounds.
For its price, however, it’s considered good value for money, despite feeling a little cheap, as Pocket-Lint attested to. It makes for easy entry into the 2-in-1 laptop market for those who need a touchscreen.
Enhanced Versatility: New Surface Pro
With their fifth release of the Surface lineup, Microsoft maintains the brand’s reputation as the flagship two-in-one that other devices model themselves off. Its multiple positions allow a student to use their laptop in whatever way suits them best.
The Surface Pro pays for its versatility and build quality at $1,300 for its Core i5 version. Weighing at 1.7 pounds, it’s far lighter than many other laptops out there. Barring the Core i7 version, the new laptops are now fanless, meaning they’re also much quieter.
However, CNET pointed out that the keyboard and pen are sold separately, which means you’ll be paying extra on top of the Surface itself. The two accessories combined put Microsoft’s offering at a hefty $1,530.
Full Package: Dell XPS 15
If you need absolutely everything — a fast CPU, good portability, and powerful graphics support — the XPS 15 is an excellent choice. While its traditional build makes its (optional) touchscreen less useful than others, the power it provides more than makes up for it.
The cheapest version of the XPS 15 begins at $1,000, but this comes at the cost of a slower processor (Core i3) and older HDD storage. If you want faster internals, such as an SSD, you’ll need at least $1,350. Higher-quality XPS 15s get a higher-resolution screen, perhaps useful for those studying art.
Much of the cost comes from its powerful graphics card, which is strong enough to handle many intensive programs, such as video games. Apart from the awkwardly placed webcam (at the bottom of the screen), Laptop Mag found the XPS 15 to be an excellent multimedia device, performing well under all sorts of loads.
Things to Remember
The above are only examples, trying to balance all the ideal traits of a laptop into a single package. If you’d prefer something different, it’s best to keep those qualities in mind:
- If you’re doing more than just light web surfing and document editing, go for a Core i5 processor or higher.
- Look for a laptop with a reported time of 7 hours or more. Remember that laptop manufacturers tend to exaggerate those times!
- Find something lighter than 5 pounds. Anything above that is usually hard to handle.
- A 13-to-15-inch laptop gives the right balance of screen real estate and portability.
- FHD (1920 x 1080) is generally acceptable. Go for 4K only if you really need the high quality and can handle the scaling and battery problems.
- You’ll probably want an SSD over an HDD. The speed differences are very noticeable.
- Keep in mind any extra features you might (or might not) want, such as a touchscreen or dedicated graphics. Leaving them out can help save you money (and even battery life).
What laptop would you personally go with and why?
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