What you should know about buying a laptop for college

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Sarah Tew/CNET

It’s August, and that can mean only one thing: Winter is coming. Also school. (Sorry, totally caught up in “Game of Thrones” season 7.)

With a new school year often comes the need for a new laptop, and for college students in particular, it can be tough to pick the right model. How much should you (or, more likely, your parents) plan to spend? How much horsepower do you really need? Could a Chromebook get the job done? Or a tablet?

Fear not: Even with hundreds of options, picking the right college PC is easy if you follow a few simple guidelines.

1. Consider the curriculum

When it comes to computing, different students have different needs. Depending on the degree program, you might be able to get by fine with an inexpensive system — something that’s proficient at basics like word processing, web browsing and email.

Indeed, if that’s all you need, and your college doesn’t specifically require you to have a Mac- or Windows-based system, consider a Chromebook. For as little as $200, you can get one that boots quickly, runs quickly and avoids a lot of Windows-specific hassles (like performance degradation over time, Blue Screens of Death and viruses).

On the other hand, if your course-load includes graphics-intensive stuff — 3D modeling, CAD drawings, video editing — you’ll want to make sure the laptop has a higher-end processor (like an Intel Core i5 or i7), a speedy solid-state drive and a discrete graphics card. Expect a price tag of at least $700.

I should also note that if you’re looking for a MacBook, plan on spending a minimum of $800. But Apple often offers student discounts that can help ease the pain.

2. Size matters. (Screen size.)

A 13-inch screen is probably the right size for most college students.


Josh Miller/CNET

Screen size is also an important consideration, as it dictates the overall size (and often weight) of the laptop.

Anything larger than 15.6 inches won’t fit easily (or at all) into a backpack. But if it’s smaller than, say, 13.3 inches, it might prove too cramped for comfort. Whatever size you land on, be sure to note the weight of the machine. Anything over 4-5 pounds might prove uncomfortable to schlep around campus all day.

I consider a 13.3-inch screen to be the sweet spot in terms of comfort and portability. That’s what you get in models like the HP Spectre, which weighs just 2.4 pounds and measures less than half an inch thick; and MacBook Pro, 3 pounds, 0.6 inch. Thankfully, you don’t have to spend a small fortune to get those kinds of specs; the $829 Asus ZenBook UX303UA, for example, weighs just over 3 pounds and measures around 0.7 inch thick.

Could you get by with a tablet and keyboard? Perhaps — but only if it’s a reasonably large one. The iPad and iPad Pro, for example, would likely prove too cramped with their 9.7- and 10.5-inch screens, to say nothing of the accompanying keyboards. The larger iPad Pro 12.9 is a better choice, but keep in mind the $799 starting price — which doesn’t include a keyboard. (Apple charges an extra $170 for one.) At that point, ask yourself if you’re any better off than you would be with a full-blown laptop.

3. Do you need a touchscreen?

Lenovo Yoga 720 (13-inch, 2017)

A 2-in-1 isn’t a necessity, but it sure would be nice.


Sarah Tew/CNET

That covers screen size; now let’s talk screen versatility. So-called 2-in-1 laptops (formerly known as convertibles) are the hot topic right now, as they’re touch-friendly and can rotate into tablet mode, but no longer carry a hefty price premium. For example, you can get something like the Lenovo Yoga 720 2-in-1 for $680, or HP Pavilion x360 2-in-1 for $400. (Those are sale or clearance prices, but representative of some of the options.)

Are these capabilities really necessary? For a college student, probably not: Few school-related assignments are likely to require a touchscreen, and models like these aren’t really suited to pen-based note-taking (not that many students would choose that option anyway). And many, if not most, 2-in-1s are a bit heavier and bulkier than their traditional-laptop counterparts — something to consider if you’re looking to travel light.

That said, college kids are definitely more accustomed to tapping than typing, so a touchscreen might be nice for web browsing and the like. And so-called “presentation” or “tabletop” modes are nice for watching movies and YouTube vids. So, while a 2-in-1 might not offer any real practical advantages, it’s probably nice to have.

4. Don’t sweat the storage

Once upon a time, the rule for buying a computer — any computer — was “buy the largest hard drive you can afford.” These days, it’s usually preferable to choose speed over size. That means opting for a solid-state drive (SSD), which will make even a lower-end laptop run at a faster clip while at the same time helping extend battery life. (SSDs have no moving parts and therefore consume less power.)

OK, but can you really get by on, say, 256GB of storage, or even 128GB? That’s what you’re likely to find in a lot of the more affordable laptop models. But remember, we’re living in a cloud-powered world: Most students stream their music and movies from services like Spotify and Netflix, and therefore don’t need a ton of local storage for media. Documents (such as school papers) consume very little space, and might be housed on Google Drive or Office Online anyway.

5. Forget Microsoft Office — unless it’s free

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Check with your school to see if you can get Office 365 for free!


Apple

Most students will need a basic suite of productivity tools — word processor, spreadsheet manager, presentation builder — to handle the basics of school work.

Good news: You may be able to get Microsoft Office 365 for Education for free. Microsoft currently offers the suite at no charge for students and teachers; all you need is a valid school email address. Failing that, Office.com (and Office apps for Android and iOS) offer free versions of the major Office applications with basic features enabled. They may well be enough for writing basic term papers and the like. And if the school doesn’t specifically require Microsoft’s suite, most students can easily get by with the likes of Google Docs, which of course is free.

Alternately, for a more “traditional” productivity software experience, consider a free Office alternative. I’m partial to both LibreOffice and WPS Office; that latter is a particularly good choice if you’re already acquainted with Microsoft Office, as it has a very similar interface.

6. Shop the campus store

Many college campuses have computer stores that claim to offer the best discounts on student laptops. Make sure you do your homework before shopping, however: These stores don’t always have the best prices, and their selection may be limited compared to what you can find online or in a big-box store such as Best Buy.

The flipside is that buying from a campus store may entitle you to local tech support, which could be worthwhile for those times when a paper is due and the printer won’t print.

Indeed, for any computer you’re considering, check the warranty terms (one year is standard, but you can often extend it) and especially the company’s tech-support options. Students tend to keep late hours, so 24/7 phone support is definitely a desirable feature.

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