Each year, over 19 million students either return to college or attend for their freshman year. Of course, the college landscape has changed substantially over the last 20 years. Many students take at least some of their courses online, and a few million attend exclusively online.
Even for on-campus students, the old standbys of paper notebooks and pens have largely given way to taking notes on laptops. If you’re heading off to campus or attending online and need a new laptop, how do you choose the laptops for college? Keep reading for the tops tips and tricks for buying a computer for college.
Check with the College
Different colleges offer different guidance about computer hardware for their students. In some cases, the college will specify that you must use a Windows-based computer to reduce the odds of incompatibility issues. Other colleges don’t care one way or the other about the operating system you use.
The college may provide recommendations for minimum system requirements regarding processor speed or the versions of software. For example, they may recommend that you bring a computer that runs a Windows 8 or Apple’s El Capitan or more recent version of the operating system.
Some colleges sell and service laptops on-campus. You may decide that you should put on buying a laptop until you get there so you can take advantage of any deal and the service options the college offers.
You’ll spend a lot of time lugging your laptop from point A to point B. Depending on the size of your campus, that can mean an extensive amount of walking with the laptop in your backpack or in a laptop bag. That means you must consider the overall size and weight of the laptop.
Laptop sizes vary from around 11 inches all the way up to around 18 inches. It’s no great surprise that the weight of the laptop typically increases with the size. The 17-inch to 18-inch variety, often called luggables, can weigh up to 8 pounds.
For a frame of reference, a small cat or gallon of milk will weigh about 8 pounds. So, imagine tucking one of those into your backpack and carrying it around all day.
In general, people seem to favor the 13-inch and 15-inch laptops, which come in at around 3 pounds to 6 pounds.
When picking computers for students, you should pay attention to the battery life of the laptop. Higher performance laptops are often energy hogs when compared with smaller laptops. You can expect anywhere from 8 hours to 16 or 17 hours of battery life from most laptops.
Also bear in mind that battery life will decrease over time. So, that laptop that lasted 8 or 10 hours when you got it as a freshman may only give you six hours of life by the time you hit junior year. You can always order another battery, but you should understand what you’re getting into from the outset.
As a general rule, look for a laptop that offers around 12 hours or more of battery life. That should get you through most days. Even with a performance decline on the battery, it should hold up okay for several years of active use.
Area of Study
For many students, you’ll only ever need an entry-level or mid-grade laptop for your college career. If you spend most of your time researching and writing papers, these are low-demand activities. Some areas of study come equipped with serious computer demands.
Some common fields of study where you should expect a lot of demands on your computer include:
- Hard sciences
- Computer Science/Programming
- Film production
- Audio production
- Graphic arts
If you’re majoring in one of these areas, you’ll need a better-than-average computer in terms of the processor and RAM.
The processor or CPU does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of running software and the overall performance of the laptop. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to understand what you’re getting in terms of the processor beyond the clock speed.
Incidentally, a decent clock speed is around 3.0 GHz. You can use that as a baseline. Avoid any laptop with a lower clock speed than that.
In terms of what processors you should consider, there are two main processor chip manufacturers: Intel and AMD. Both companies have made a lot of different processors over the years.
On the Intel side of the equation, look for an i5 processor or better. On the AMD side, look for a Ryzen 5 processor or better. If you’re in one of the fields mentioned in the last section, look for an i7, Ryzen 7, or better processor.
Second only to your processor, RAM is the biggest factor in overall laptop performance. The accepted wisdom is that you need a minimum of about 8 GB of RAM for normal daily usage. That should let you do things like comfortably run web browsers, office suite programs, and stream video and audio.
The catch here is that as you load on more programs and those programs update, the demands on your RAM will grow. On top of that, websites and online applications increasingly require more RAM on your computer to run properly. While it is technically possible to upgrade the RAM on some laptops, you’re usually stuck with what came in the laptop.
That means your performance will degrade more and more over time. If you want to wring a little extra working life out of your laptop, the best laptops for college students will offer 12 GB or 16 GB of RAM.
You can find laptop models with as much as 32 GB of RAM, but those are high-end, high-price models. Unless you truly need that speed and processing power, aim lower.
The rise of cheap and free online storage has made the overall storage on your laptop less of an issue, but you should consider it. Storage comes in two main options: solid state drives and hard drives.
Solid state drives are essentially flash memory, like a USB stick. This gives them a huge advantage in terms of speed over traditional hard drives. They also come with a heftier price tag.
Most laptops with solid state drives are either 256 GB or 512 GB. You can get larger solid state drives, but at a much higher price. While that amount of storage is typically enough to support an operating system and a range of programs, it can get dicey if you routinely work with large files.
Traditional hard drives are slower, but they routinely come in much larger sizes. You can easily find laptops with 1 TB or even 2 TB traditional hard drives.
For the best of both worlds, you can find hybrid laptops that come equipped with both. The solid state drive hosts your operating system and programs, while the traditional hard drive serves as your primary file storage option.
You cannot discount the cost when it comes to laptop computers for college. The price range for laptops runs the gamut from inexpensive to very expensive.
On the low end, you can get a Chromebook for a few hundred dollars. On the expensive end, a high-end gaming laptop can cost you more than $3000. The good news is that almost no one needs a $3000 laptop for college.
Most students can get a decent cross-section of features, such as a good processor, enough RAM, and enough storage for between $500 and $1000.
You can also keep costs down by keeping an eye out for big retailer sales, such as a back to school sales. You can also look on manufacturer websites for deals on better laptops for lower prices. You can see more here about that.
What about Chromebooks?
Chromebooks get a lot of press because they come in a number of sizes and they are affordable, which many students find attractive. Yet, Chromebooks come with a lot of limitations that can make them less than ideal for college students.
One of the biggest limitations is the onboard storage. Most Chromebooks come with around 64 GB of onboard storage. That severely limits the number of files and size of files you can store locally. You can store files on Google drive, but that comes with its own limitations as well.
On top of that, the limited storage means you can install much in the way of applications on the device itself. You’re mostly confined to cloud apps.
Chromebooks also need an active internet connection function properly for most applications. While WiFi availability is often good on college campuses, it’s not a guarantee.
Picking Laptops for College
Picking laptops for college is a balancing act. You want a laptop with a good enough processor, enough RAM, and enough storage to get you through at least a few years of college. On the flip side, you want a laptop that won’t break the bank.
When all else fails, aim for the baselines. Look for a laptop with an i5 or Ryzen 5 CPU, 16 GB of RAM, and around 500 GB of storage. That should provide enough processing power and storage for most of your needs.
Looking for more college tech tips? Check out the posts in our Education section.