How to Choose a Laptop for College

How to Choose a Laptop for College
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By Staff Writers

Published on February 10, 2021

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Every student needs a laptop for college, but unlike inexpensive school supplies, such as pens and paper, laptops are long-term investments. Spending some time researching laptops can help you figure out what type of device will work best for your courses and what you can afford.

In this guide, we outline the major factors to consider when looking at laptops for college. We'll also discuss financing options and how to find the best college student laptop deals.


What Is a Good Laptop for College?

The average student spends close to 75% of their time engaging with technology, so it's important that you feel comfortable while working on your laptop. All students should consider the following eight factors before choosing a laptop for college.

Size and Weight

College students typically prioritize laptop portability. Whether opting for smaller or larger devices, consider the tradeoff in size, power, and performance. Light, small, and simple laptops should work fine if you only plan to perform basic tasks like word processing, but some students may prioritize screen size and faster processing power.

Unless you work in a computer science field or require a large screen and high performance for detailed tasks like design work, an 11-to-13-inch laptop under 5 pounds should suffice.

Battery Life

All students should consider battery life when choosing a laptop for college. Most batteries last 10-14 hours. Whereas smaller computers tend to offer longer battery lives and work more efficiently, higher-performing laptops use more power and may therefore perform less efficiently while offering shorter battery lives.

Laptops usually have a battery life of 8-10 hours on the low end and 12-17 hours on the high end.

Display and Resolution

Consider whether you'll want a large display for your college experience. Students who mostly use their computers for web browsing and word processing probably don't need a large display.

In terms of resolution, with so many recent technological advancements, even lower-priced laptop models now tend to feature high-resolution displays. A 1080p resolution should work for most students. Remember that higher resolutions generally come with higher price tags.

RAM

Random access memory (RAM) determines how many programs a computer can run at the same time. Most laptops and tablets start at 4 GB of RAM, which is sufficient for web browsing and word processing. Upgrading to 8 GB lets you comfortably run several programs at once.

Newly released computer programs typically require increased memory use, but your laptop's RAM will stay the same, possibly causing your computer to slow down over time. So while 4 GB of RAM might get the job done when running simple applications, 8 GB makes for a better long-term investment.

Processor

As its name implies, a processor handles many of the major processes of a laptop and is one of the most important components. In general, most users can get by with an entry- or mid-level processor, such as an Intel Core i3 or i5; however, students using more demanding applications, such as graphic or video editing, may benefit from higher-level processors, like an Intel Core i7 or i9.

Hard Drive and Storage

All of the digital information you create is stored on your computer's hard drive, and these can vary in size and quality. A solid-state drive (SSD) contains no moving parts, and computers with SSDs run 3-4 times faster and are more stable than those with standard hard drives. SSDs often cost more as well, but the upgrade in speed and performance normally warrants the higher price.

If your budget allows, opt for an SSD. If you pick a regular hard drive, look for the most storage available at your price point. Standard hard drives typically offer at least 128 GB of storage, though some college students may prefer to have 250 GB or more.

Operating System

Most laptops run on either Windows or Mac OS, both of which offer compatibility and full functionality. In general, Windows PCs cost less and offer more customization, while Macs are more expensive and feature proprietary software.

For students who need to perform just basic tasks, such as email and word processing, either operating system will work fine. That said, Macs are often considered better laptops for college students who need to perform specialized operations, like video editing.

Price

As with most electronics, laptops can vary widely in price and quality. In general, less expensive models use less powerful hardware that offers lower performance, whereas more expensive models boast faster processors, accelerated graphics cards, larger hard drives, and more RAM.

For most students, an entry-to-mid-level laptop ($300-$600) should meet any requirements associated with college classes. Note that certain specialized fields may require more advanced hardware.

Traditional vs. 2-in-1 Laptop: Which Is Better?

By combining the features of a laptop and a tablet, 2-in-1 devices offer distinct advantages over traditional laptops. These laptops feature two main designs, using either a detachable keyboard or a rotating hinge that allows you to fold the keyboard behind the screen.

The versatility of a 2-in-1 device offers some obvious advantages. College students might use the device as a traditional laptop for taking notes during class and then switch to its tablet mode to read a digital textbook for homework. For those who travel frequently or often complete assignments on the go, a compact 2-in-1 laptop can offer greater portability and flexibility.

These versatile features, however, tend to come at a higher price than traditional laptops. Also, 2-in-1 devices may feature lower-end hardware due to their reduced size and increased flexibility. Keep these factors in mind before deciding whether a traditional or 2-in-1 laptop is right for you.

4 Tips for Saving Money on a Laptop for College

See Whether Your School Offers Any Discounts or Programs

Given the essential role technology plays in modern education, many colleges now provide inexpensive or free laptops for college students. Some schools may include laptops in the cost of tuition, while others may offer them completely free of charge. Certain colleges may also lease laptops to students for the duration of their program, with some allowing learners to keep their laptops after graduation.

Not all colleges provide laptops, so check with the admissions departments to determine what type of technology accommodations your school offers.

Look for College Student Laptop Deals

Several computer manufacturers and tech stores offer special discounts and financing options for college students. Some schools may even negotiate pricing and payment options for learners. As with any offer, be sure you read the fine print and understand the total cost before signing.

The following companies offer some of the best college student laptop deals:

Microsoft: Student deals at Microsoft include 10% discounts on Surface series laptops and machines with Microsoft Office 365 at no extra charge. Microsoft sells numerous inexpensive, student-friendly laptops. Apple: Apple offers several popular products at reduced prices for learners, including MacBook laptops, iMac desktops, and iPad tablets. Students who trade in eligible Apple devices can also receive credits toward a new MacBook. Dell: Dell's student discounts include $100 off special education computers and 10% off high-performing laptops. Certain PCs also offer special expedited shipping for students who need a computer straight away. Lenovo: Lenovo provides discounts to students, teachers, and school administrators. ThinkPad laptops and other devices qualify for these discounts, and all orders include free shipping. Best Buy: Best Buy offers rotating deals on computers and other home electronics products. Discounts may provide significant savings on select laptops and tablets, as well as certain mice, keyboards, and headphones.

Consider Leasing

College students can lease or rent laptops until they've paid their full value, at which point they assume ownership. These leases often resemble car or house payments, charging interest in addition to the property's value. Expect to pay off your laptop's full value within about two years.

Some companies offer a same-as-cash clause, which allows those who are leasing to avoid interest charges if they pay the amount due within a specified time frame. If you're confident you can meet this deadline, this could make for a solid short-term solution.

Without a same-as-cash clause — or if you fail to pay the loan on time — high interest rates can kick in. Paying exorbitant "convenience" charges can quickly add up to more than the laptop is worth, so approach these vendors with caution.

Use a Third-Party Website

The open market offers tons of opportunities for low-cost computers, and many college students conclude their searches by buying a laptop off sites like eBay and Craigslist. Learners should exercise caution in these situations, though, as most third-party sites conduct little to no policing of their vendors.

Before you begin your search, identify the most important features you're looking for in a laptop for school. Then, build awareness of typical market pricing or resale value on particular models. Finally, exercise the utmost care when buying from individuals on these sites.

Additional Resources for College Students


Feature Image: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

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