Whether you're heading off to college yourself or trying to help your favorite student, searching for and finding the best laptop for college may seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, this is an open-book test and we can help you find the right answers.
The very first thing to consider when shopping for a new college laptop is how you’ll use it now and in the future. With technology advancing rapidly year after year, it's a good idea to consider a laptop that can handle new applications and programs. This is called "futureproofing" your purchase or buying a PC that has headroom for more advanced technology yet to be introduced.
Ask yourself these questions—your answers will help narrow your choices.
- What programs or applications are requirements for your classes?
- What field or major are you interested in?
- Do you play video games, or do you want to get into gaming?
- Do you use video to chat with friends or family?
- Do you enjoy creating your own content—videos, podcasts, etc.?
Consider Performance First
How you use your laptop will directly influence how much performance you'll need. Using heavy-duty apps like Adobe Premiere Pro* or playing video games requires a lot of horsepower from the CPU. However, if you or your future college student will use the laptop for more basic tasks like word processing, downloading music, and posting to social media, then a top-of-the-line CPU might not be necessary.
Today's laptops are a far cry from the thick, bulky machines of the last two decades. In fact, the traditional clamshell laptop design is now joined by other types of designs and form factors.
Once the only design option for laptops, clamshells (laptops that open and close) are still a popular choice. But nowadays, many clamshells offer more features, such as touchscreens, super high-resolution displays, chassis made from non-traditional materials, and improved connectivity options, such Thunderbolt™ 3 ports.
2 in 1s
2 in 1 laptops offer great flexibility without a need to compromise. 2 in 1s offer the best of both worlds—the performance of a PC and the fun of a tablet, in one sleek device. There are two different types of 2 in 1 laptops: Detachable and convertible.
Keyboards stay attached and can swivel, twist, or flip.
Flip for "tent" or "stand" modes to share content or present.
Fold entirely in half for "tablet" mode.
Great for productivity-minded students who work hard but want tablet functionality for entertainment.
Provide super-fast switching from laptop to tablet modes.
Offer a pure tablet experience when keyboard is detached.
Perfect for web surfers who also need to type now and then.
When thinking about these different form factors, consider the weight and thickness of your new laptop. A long trek across campus can quickly become uncomfortable if you're lugging around a heavy laptop. Thankfully, laptops available today come in a range of sizes and weights. Which leads us to your next consideration—the laptop's screen.
The size of a laptop's screen will directly influence its weight and price. Laptops are typically categorized in stores and online by the size of their screens. Common screen sizes for laptops usually start at 11 inches and continue up to 17 inches.
Again, ask yourself where and how you’ll use your new laptop to help you decide on a screen size. Does either your schoolwork or interests require you to use an external monitor?
11- to 13-inch models
If mobility is most important to you, consider these options:
- A small laptop
- A super-thin, lightweight laptop (sometimes referred to as an Ultrabook)
Small laptops with 11- or 13-inch screens are a great choice if you have a strict budget, need extreme portability, and only need to complete basic tasks, such as Web browsing, e-mail, and word processing.
If performance is your top priority, or you want a laptop that can replace your desktop, go for a 17-inch workhorse. These models may weigh more than others, but they really pack a punch. These large laptops are usually best for gamers, content creators, or video editors who need a lot of processing power to complete complicated tasks. This large screen may eliminate your possible need for an external monitor.
For a good balance between mobility, performance, and price, check out some 15-inch models. Many weigh four pounds or less and are targeted for the mainstream consumer—meaning you’ll probably find more features you want, such as more ports, an optical (DVD or CD) drive, and better battery life.
Battery life is always a main concern when it comes to purchasing a laptop. Unfortunately, establishing the battery life of a laptop is no easy task for manufacturers. How long a laptop's battery will last depends on what you're using the PC for; it's best to look at manufacturers' specs as a general guideline.
Generally speaking, the bigger the screen size of your laptop, or the heavier the model, the less battery life it will provide. Smaller laptops and Ultrabooks use lower voltage processors designed specifically to offer better battery life. Go online to manufacturers’ Web sites to research battery life, or read online reviews. Typically, mid-sized to larger laptops will offer between four and six hours, while ultra-portable models can go for as long as ten hours.
Don't understate the importance of ports and how you'll connect different peripherals (i.e., cameras, phones, and other devices) to your laptop. While many peripheral devices can connect wirelessly, sometimes you just need a USB port. Smaller laptops, and thin models will have fewer ports.
What kinds of ports are available on laptops?
- USB ports—The most used and recognizable of all connectivity ports, USB ports allow you to connect a huge variety of devices, including external hard drives, cameras, keyboards, mice, and more. The latest version is USB 3.1, which offers higher transfer speeds of 10 Gbps.
- Thunderbolt™ 3 ports—Thunderbolt™ 3 provides the fastest connection and transfer rates to date, offering 40 Gbps (four times faster than USB 3.1).
- Ethernet ports—An Ethernet port allows you to connect your laptop directly to a wired network. Many laptops don’t include these ports because of the availability of Wi-Fi. But if you’re somewhere on campus where the Wi-Fi is poor, use these ports and an Ethernet cable to jump online. If your favorite model doesn’t have an Ethernet port, there are USB-to-Ethernet adapters available.
- HDMI/VGA/DVI—These types of ports allow you to connect to displays or other screens, such as an HDTV or an external monitor.
- SD card reader—Also known as SDHC card reader, this slot is used for digital camera memory cards. This makes transferring digital photos to your laptop quick and easy.
Gamers and writers aren’t the only ones who believe a laptop’s keyboard is its most important feature. Think about it—you’ll use the keyboard more than any other part of the laptop, so you’ll want one that’s comfortable, easy to use, and provides a satisfying spring or tactile feel. Do you require or prefer a backlit keyboard?
Also, consider key placement and size. Do you want a 10-key pad? Are all the keys in a standard position that you like? Make sure to try out different keyboards. Open a word processor and tap away. You’ll probably know right away if a laptop’s keyboard just isn’t for you.
Many people forego a mouse and instead depend on a laptop’s touchpad to get things done. A comfortable, easy-to-use touchpad is important, especially if you’re travelling, or working in a cramped space like a café or lecture hall. Consider the size and placement of the touchpad, whether you prefer one large pad or separate left- and right-click buttons. Some touchpads even include patterns and textures for a tactile experience.
The majority of laptop models are powered by a CPU that also includes an integrated graphics chipset. This means the graphics are actually built into the processor eliminating the need for a separate graphics card. These integrated graphic technologies, such as Intel® HD or Intel Iris® Plus graphics, are more powerful than ever before, allowing you to play mainstream games, support up to three separate displays, and stream up to 1080p.
However, if you’re a gamer or filmmaker, you’ll want to look into dedicated graphics or GPU. Dedicated graphics are more powerful than integrated graphics but also are substantially more expensive when it comes to the price of the laptop.
You’ll hear this term thrown around a lot as you shop for your college laptop. Random Access Memory, or RAM. RAM temporarily stores recently-used data for quick access later. Think of it as the info you know off the top of your head—you use it often and your brain can access it quickly. The more RAM that’s available, the faster a computer will feel to you. Consider 8 GBs to 16 GBs of RAM for your laptop.
Pictures, videos, and other data you’ll want to save for a long time are stored in your laptop’s “long-term memory.” It’s data that may not be used frequently, but it’s pretty important to save, keep, and use when necessary.
This data can be stored on a hard disk drive (HDD), a solid-state drive (SSD), or even a hybrid of the two. SSDs typically provide faster access to data and start up times and are very reliable and durable, as they have no moving parts.
The Final Decision
It may seem like a lot to remember, but finding the perfect laptop for your college career can really set you up for success. Make a checklist using the features in this article, and focus on what you’ll need most from your college laptop in terms of size, weight, processing power, and storage.