How to actually choose the right laptop: College

2 years ago I bought myself a laptop for my Computer Science college degree and I am still amazed by how useful I find it today. I won’t even tell you the model. That’s because I believe there is something more important than just looking at the most popular “best 5 laptops for college students” article. In my humble opinion, getting the best device is almost all about figuring how –you- are going to use it and what –you- prefer the most. Unfortunately, a surprising amount of people seem to forget this and hope that if a laptop is good for someone else it will suit them just as well. I thus decided to write a series of posts that would focus on helping people figure out the different laptop characteristics that will matter the most to them. Read this and using PickNotebook will be even more useful.

Performance (processor, RAM)

  • Degrees only requiring basic work with computer – low/medium (Intel i3 processor, 4GB RAM)
  • Degrees requiring complicated work with computer – medium (Intel i5 processor, 8GB RAM)
  • Exceptions: playing video games on high settings – medium/high (Intel i7 processor, 16GB RAM)

You need to consider whether your degree will require complicated work with your laptop. Video or music editing are good examples of such tasks. Media studies, architecture and similar degrees would thus require no less than a medium performance machine. On the other hand, writing essays, making presentations and even programming won’t need any more than laptops balancing on low and medium performance. These days, getting a computer with any kind of Intel i3 processor will almost always result in smooth performance when no large programs are running. i5 and i7 should be bought only if you have an idea how you’ll use it. 4GB RAM will be enough, although 8GB will usually result in faster overall performance without a significant price increase.

If you’re not sure what your specific subject will require you to do with your laptop, I would highly recommend trying to find it out before buying a laptop.  Ask people already studying the subject in your university, send a quick email to one of the lecturers – people will be glad to help you. This is definitely worth the time – having to deal with a half-responding laptop when you’re trying to be efficient during that last night before the deadline is something no one should experience.

 

Gaming and visual work (graphics card)

  • Not interested in gaming, no video editing and modelling – low/medium (integrated video card)
  • Video editing or gaming – high (dedicated video card)

Some people will find this fun, some will find this annoying, but if you go to college you will probably get invited to play video games with friends quite a few times. They are very popular these days and it can be just another way to spend time with people you enjoy being with. My suggestion would therefore be to consider a medium video performance laptop even if you don’t really play games yourself. You never know – with the diverse range of games produced each day, you might as well find something you like during the time you have your next laptop.

If you go high graphics performance, you will want to try to get a laptop with a dedicated instead of an integrated graphics card. I won’t go into detail about the difference between the two in this post but will simply say that in 95% of cases, the second one is considerably better. It will result in a higher price though.

Good college laptops. PickNotebook
Options you might want for a mid-range college laptop

Storage

  • Most cases –shouldn’t matter much as external hard drives are possible
  • Expect to do a lot of work with a computer – consider SSD storage (smaller but faster)

I would suggest choosing a laptop based on other parameters than storage size. If you go for a more expensive machine due to better performance, the laptop will usually have more storage. There is one exception, however – you will notice some laptops have much lower storage for the price of other laptops. A MacBook Pro for 1500$ only has 256GB of storage. Laptops in this price range of other manufacturers will usually have around 1000GB. This difference is because of a different, faster kind of storage – SSD drives. With these laptops, you will almost definitely want to buy an external hard drive to store photos, music and other large files. However, opening files, searching them will be much faster. Aim for this if you have extra budget remaining and if you expect to do a lot of working with the computer where many files are involved. Also it’s worth noting that these days a 1000GB external hard drive would cost you about 100$ extra.

Work and gaming settings for college laptop
Settings when looking for a work or gaming focused college laptop

Battery life

  • Don’t like taking laptop to lectures – low (~3 hours)
  • Like taking laptop to lectures – high (6+ hours)

Since most students want to take their laptops to classes, you’ll probably want a high battery life. Power outlets will not be available everywhere and you will encounter situations where your laptop will run out of power. You do want to make sure you can use it for as long as you can before that happens though.

 

Size and weight

  • Don’t like taking laptop to lectures – consider larger (15.6+ inches, weight shouldn’t matter much)
  • Like taking laptop to lectures – light (less than 15.6 inches, 4.6lbs and less)

At first, taking you laptop to lectures seems like an amazing idea. However, only about a quarter of people in our course still do that. Typing during a lecture can be annoying to others if it’s loud and useless if you don’t type fast. Furthermore, many people end up browsing cat pictures and Facebook when they should be listening to the lecturer. Keep in mind that for easy access to the internet, IM programs and such, you can use your smartphone.

Now if your laptop is going to stay in your dorm most of the time, there’s no reason not to get a bigger laptop with a wider screen which will be nicer to look at, faster and cheaper.

 

Operating system:

  • Check if college has a preference.
  • No college preference – personal preference
  • No college or personal preference – what most friends have

First of all, be sure to check your college website to make sure that there’s no officially preferred operating system. For example, if your course will require you to use some course specific applications (AutoCAD for example) it will be unbelievably easier if you get instructions from people working on the same operating system. If you have no preference yourself, you might even ask what your friends are using – this way you will be able to get help from them in case you need it. And then, of course, there’s also this easy way to instantly feel a deep spiritual connection with someone with the same OS on their computer. Or maybe that’s just computer science students…

Price range

  • Budget laptop – 300$-500$
  • Reliable mid-range laptop 500$-800$
  • Laptop for advanced work or gaming 800$+

These are the prices to help you imagine what your budget should be able to buy. If you find a laptop that is cheap and yet has high performance statistics, look at all the details closely – it is very likely that some other part will be poor quality. Amazon also has reviews for most laptops – read those before making a final decision.

If you are looking for a very basic and cheap laptop, consider a chromebook. These are good if you only want to browse the internet, work with simple documents. The Chrome OS is best for easy use of internet applications but will be limited when it comes to more specialised programs. Make sure that access to the internet will be available most of the time if you wish to buy a chromebook though, as most of its functionality depends on online services.

Reliability

  • Might want to avoid HP laptops

Most students will hope that they won’t have to worry about replacing a laptop for around 3 years. The statistics collected by Square Trade (http://www.statisticbrain.com/laptop-malfunction-rates/) are similar to both other researches and just stories told by other people – HP laptops tend to break quite often.

Laptop malfunction rates
Source – Square trade. Research done – July 25, 2014

If you have budget remaining:

-SSD storage for simple but frequent work

-Better processor and RAM for general speed, especially with large and multiple programs

-Better graphics card if you enjoy gaming and expect to work with video programs

If you have extra budget remaining after choosing the options that you need, consider increasing storage space first while the price increase is low. After that, extra money may be spent to make the programs you will use run faster. For games and video media creation, better graphics card will mean higher video settings in games. Better processor and RAM will mean a better overall speed. Yet this will only be noticed if you either run many programs at once or some very large programs.

 

Feel free to ask for more specific advice if you have more questions, I will be happy to answer them!

 

3 thoughts on “How to actually choose the right laptop: College

  1. Awesome!! This helped me SO much. Structured, easy to understand and bringing up everything a student might have to think about… genious and very well done.

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