Buying a laptop for a college-bound kid isn’t as easy as you might think. There’s lots to consider, from performance to portability. Even if you know a few things about computers, consider the following rules for buying a laptop for college. Following them just might save you – and your young adult – a boatload of grief.
Believe it or not, laptops are fashion statements. That same kid who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing anything unfashionable in 7th grade will very likely cringe at being gifted a Surface instead of MacBook, for example. Everyone has their own preferences on what size, style, color, or brand laptop they would prefer. The best advice: don’t drop any surprises. Either ask them straight up what they want, or give them a budget and let them pick it themselves.
The family budget can be pretty tight and when you throw tuition into the mix, it’s even tighter. But unless the choice is a second hand computer or no computer, avoid bestowing on your student a used machine. College is hard enough without having to deal with the kind of performance issues that creep into a laptop in its sunset years.
The urge to go shopping for a laptop as soon as the cap and gown are stowed in the closet is strong, but exercising patience is a virtue that can save you from buying the wrong laptop. The technology market moves pretty fast, so waiting the two months or so between graduation and matriculation can mean being able to buy the latest laptops with newly released technologies, or enjoying discounts and sales on models that are now two months older.
For retail shoppers, target mid-August as the time to buy. For direct order custom configurations, expect extended shipping times unless you order in late July or early August. Direct vendors can get backlogged with orders right before school starts in the fall.
Check Under the Hood
Some laptops are instant sellers by virtue of the fact they look great and can perform neat tricks. But it’s what’s under the hood that really matters. The CPU is the central component most responsible for delivering speed, so make sure the laptop you’re looking at has a processor that’s powerful enough to handle the workload it’ll likely endure.
Generally speaking, you’ll want at least a fifth-generation Intel Core i5, or even better, Core i7 if you want a machine that as future-proof as possible. A Core i3 will also serve you well, provided you stick with light productivity work. Intel Core M processors are adequate as of this writing, but Core M machines are built with portability in mind, not power and longevity. Intel Atom, Celeron, and Pentium processors are also capable out of the box, but these are usually found on budget and portable devices that will likely be frustratingly sluggish come sophomore year.
RAM determines just how many functions a laptop can perform simultaneously, which is essential to the kind of multi-tasking your student is likely to be performing. As a bare minimum, aim for a laptop with 4GB of RAM but remember that more is better. If you can, go for a laptop with 6GB of RAM. Many low-priced devices, including the Surface 3, ship with only 2GB of RAM. That’s fine as of this writing, but it will prove insufficient sooner rather than later.
Internal hard drive space is also important to ensure the student won’t run out of room to store their projects, but with other options like external hard drives, thumb drives and cloud storage you don’t necessarily have to spring for a machine with 1TB of space. Instead of looking at hard drive space, look at its speed of performance. The standard for most laptops is 5400 RPMs. You can get a laptop that runs at 7200 RPMs, but this can cause the laptop to heat up and be a bit noisier.
Match the Major
Different majors will have different computing needs which should be considered before purchase. Majors in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) generally need greater raw processing power to handle the calculation intensive programs required for their assignments. Majors that require extensive writing will be better suited with something light and portable so they can easily change the scenery while tapping out their latest assignments. Majors with a focus on graphics (Design, Arts, Media & Photography) should look for something with a better-than-average GPU and a higher screen resolution.
Performance machines like this don’t come cheap, as many standard laptops have integrated graphics. Photographers can get by comfortably with a MacBook with Retina display, but 3D modeling and 4K video editing necessitates a machine with a dedicated graphics card. The Dell XPS line has some great options, as does the HP ZBook. Also consider a gaming laptop from Alienware, MSI, Asus, or a custom reseller, to name a few. These are built for performance, and typically have a bit of style to boot.
Check With the School
Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight — and don’t bring a Mac to a school focused on Windows (or vice-versa). Check the acceptance packet for recommended specs. If none are found, check the website for the school’s IT department or contact them through phone or email. For students attending a larger university, each school within the university may have their own unique specs. Be sure to check with the specific school the student is attending.
Check With the School Again
Before buying any software, check with the school for any requirements and potential discounts. It used to be that a student ID could snag you absurd deals on professional-level software, up to 90% off popular programs like Office. Those deals could still exist, and will likely be available through a campus computer store or IT department, especially if the school requires the specific programs.
Everyone else will have to rely on standard student discounts, which are still pretty great. College students can snag four years of Office 365 for two PCs/tablets and two smartphones, which includes 1TB of cloud storage, for $79.99. The less robust Office 365 personal costs $279.96 for four years.
Similarly, the entire Adobe Creative Cloud runs $599.88 for a full year, prepaid, while students pay only $199 per year, prepaid.
Of course, students can always turn to the free offerings from Google and others. These are surprisingly robust, and great for collaboration. Besides that, you can always purchase and download the necessary software the second day of class should the freebies prove insufficient.
Plan For a Sequel
While the rationale of going all-out on a fully loaded notebook with the expectation that it will last until graduation appears sound, sadly it isn’t. Four years is a long time in laptop years, especially for one that endures the active lifestyle of a full-time college student. On top of that, the latest data shows that slightly less than two thirds (65.4%) of full-time students at non-profit schools actually finish their bachelors within six years. Of those who do finish, only 75% get it in four years, 20% get it within five, and 5% need that sixth year to wrap things up.
Think this might be your kid? Skip the bleeding edge and its premium price tag and go for a mid-range to well-equipped model and sock away some money for a replacement laptop sometime during their junior year.
All the major brands of computers have one product line geared toward consumers and another geared toward business or corporate clients. While the corporate laptops (e.g., Lenovo ThinkPad or Toshiba Portegé) will not win any points for cool or funky designs, they are generally equipped with features more geared toward durability and strength. Features like a stronger case material of magnesium or metal, shock-proof hard drives or solid state drives, and easily serviceable parts. These are not bad features for a laptop being bounced around campus for several years.
Forget the Desktop
Yes, desktop computers are far better values and they’re more powerful. A desktop can last a lot longer through upgrades, too. That said, do not get a desktop PC. The trend in almost every college curriculum is group projects. Regardless of the major, professors have seen that the best way for students to internalize and demonstrate their newly acquired academic knowledge is through the required collaboration of group projects. Plus, the students build real world social skills for later success in the job market. The portability of a notebook is essential for the countless team meetings that will be part of their assignments. That being said, if the family coffers are flush and the parents are generous, getting both a desktop and a laptop can’t hurt.
Ditch the Mobile Tablet
Same logic as above, but in reverse. No matter how much a student loves their iPad or their Nexus, chances are it won’t be adequate enough to meet the computing needs of most college students. Even if they have chosen the most non-technical major imaginable, the collegiate environment and administration have become very technical and they may have trouble with simple tasks like logging into learning management systems or even registering for classes. Again like above, if the means to indulge are there, an Android tablet or iPad as an add-on to a full-sized notebook would surely be appreciated by any grad
Nine times out of ten, it’s wise to skip the extended warranty as they are simply not a good value. However, in the case of the student laptop, if the warranty is available with a generously worded accidental damage coverage (read them carefully first) it’s definitely worth considering. One cracked screen or coffee-soaked motherboard and it will pay for itself. Better yet, teens and students pay the same price as everyone else, unlike car insurance
Click … click … click … click. That’s the sound of a student’s life crumbling before their eyes; the unmistakable sound of a hard drive failure and the loss of hundreds, even thousands of hours of work. Gone, forever. Unless they were smart enough to back it all up via cloud storage. Google Drive, iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, and Amazon Cloud Drive are just a few of the voluminous options that exist for storing irreplaceable data to the cloud for easy recovery in the event of hardware failure. It doesn’t matter which they choose, as long as they choose it and use it. If they’re bumping up against the storage limits imposed by the free accounts, foot the bill for a storage upgrade. They’ll thank you later
Bigger Isn’t Better
While a big rich laptop screen is tempting, the price for that screen is added weight. Those giant notebooks with a 17-inch screen can tip the scales at over 10 lbs. or sometimes more than 12 lbs. when you consider the weight of the power supply. Even the regular 14-inch and 15-inch laptops are six or seven pounds. That’s a lot of weight to be lugging around in addition to textbooks and paper notebooks. Check out the smaller screens and ultra-portable laptops on the market and save your kid a visit to the chiropractor.
The exceptions here are design majors. Graphics work necessitates a big screen. Those worried about back strain and sore shoulders can invest in an external 4K monitor or a portable USB monitor. Just make sure your laptop has all the proper connections or an adapter.
In the laptop world, one size definitely does not fit all. But with the right consideration and planning, parents can get the best notebook possible based on their students’ needs and the family’s means.
This article was originally published in April 2013, and has been updated by Vince Font.