It’s not every day that one of your kids goes off to college. You remember like it was yesterday when they were born, when they rode their first bike, and even when they got their first speeding ticket. All of that sentimentality is sure to make you shed a few tears and believe me, your college student is going to milk that for everything it’s worth. Better yet, you already know they’re taking advantage and don’t even care. Still, you’d like the purchases they make to be good ones.
One of the more expensive purchases to make before your student goes to college is a laptop. Many colleges, or programs within colleges, require laptops with certain specifications. Even if your student’s college or university doesn’t require a laptop, your student will get behind if they don’t have one. But buying a laptop can be intimidating. Computer hardware is constantly changing and isn’t a subject that everyone keeps up on. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of specifications and purchase a laptop that’s old, overpriced, or perhaps even more than they need.
College Student Laptop Buying Guide
Wait a minute. I know what you’re thinking.
How can you help me and isn’t this a mommy blog? First of all, yes it is a mommy blog and if you’re a mom go check out the front page as we have lots of cool stuff. Second of all, I began this blog with my wife after being a tech blogger the last six years, focusing on computer hardware. So hopefully, I can help. Here we go:
PC vs Mac vs Chromebook
When my youngest brother first went to college a couple of years ago my parents bought him a Chromebook. It was small, compact, and carried the Google documents suite that allowed him to do the basics that he needed to do. Still, the little laptop failed to keep up and my mom recently asked me about buying him another laptop. Depending on what program your student is in, a Chromebook may or may not last the test of time. So, keep that in mind. Still, if you only have a couple hundred dollars to invest in a laptop, I’ll give you my recommendation below, as these affordable devices definitely have a place for some.
For the PC vs Mac debate, some of that depends on your budget and your student’s preference. More often than not you’ll get more performance for the money you spend on a PC. Apple has always been a company that charges a premium for their quality. Keep in mind that the actual hardware that’s within your laptop isn’t made by Apple. Just because you get an Apple laptop doesn’t mean that you’ll have a faster device that will never break or that you’ll have components that are superior to those that you’ll find on a PC.
In the past, I would have recommended an Apple MacBook for those who want to do photo editing or video editing because of software and the Retina Display that clearly put Apple ahead back in 2012. Today, other companies have simply caught up. If it’s a good screen you want or software, it’s all available for either side if you’re willing to fork over the right kind of cash.
For college work, you’ll find that Office is around $90 for PC or Mac, while Apple’s OS X comes with pages, numbers, and keynote for free. Still, Google Docs is free and can be accessed from any browser at any time.
Overall, there are PC users and Mac users and going with what your college student is familiar with is probably the best bet. Still, the lines between the Mac and PC are now more blurred than ever.
5 Good College Student Laptops for the Money
Before I get on with my picks, I’ve put a complete guide to laptop specifications below these picks. So if you’re wanting to know a more about what you’re looking at, I highly recommend you go take a look at that first and then come back here. You’ll feel enlightened, I promise. Perhaps a little bit bored too.
For these picks, I’m using Amazon prices as a reference. Sometimes you can get a student discount at an online retailer or manufacturer that may equal these picks so keep that in mind.
Best Chromebook Under $200
For Chromebooks, I like the Asus C201 right now. It comes with a 16GB solid-state drive, 4GB of memory, weighs just 2 pounds and has an 11.3″ screen. Better yet, the battery life will last you up to 13 hours.
For basic tasks like browsing and doing college homework, the Rockchip 1.8GHz processor it comes with does just fine. In addition, it comes with a decent camera, Bluetooth 4.0, and even some basic internal speakers. For the operating system, it comes with the Chrome OS instead of Windows. It’s easy to navigate and does what it’s meant to do. Google documents are used rather than Word and Excel.
Ultimately this laptop is lighter than most traditional laptops at 2 pounds, has a battery that lasts a long time, and gets the job done for $170. If they’ll need to install additional software or do anything beyond the basics, you’ll want to head further down this list.
In the $300 range, it’s totally possible to get a PC laptop rather than a Chromebook. Still, the laptop is likely to be larger with less battery life so depending on what your student needs the most, you may want to still go with a Chromebook here, as it will be a bit less clunky.
The best deal in this category may be a laptop you can find that’s a year or two old. In the guide below, I go over how you can tell the difference between various processors you come across.
More expensive Chromebooks are also available in this price range. What you get with those is a better screen, processor, and a bit more capacity. If that’s the direction you want to go, check out the Acer Chromebook model CB3-431-C5FM.
For a PC laptop, I honestly don’t love anything I see here as most in this price range don’t come with a solid state drive. Below, I talk about what this is and why I can’t live without one of these anymore.
In the $370 range, I’d go with the VivoBook, model E403SA-US21, from Asus. They are ultra-thin, lightweight, and come with an up to 14-hour battery life. For storage, it uses a 128GB solid state drive for better overall performance. The processor certainly isn’t a powerhouse in the Pentium N3700, but it should feel very snappy for basic tasks.
College Student Laptops Under $500
This is the price range that will likely make a lot of sense to many of you looking to get a PC laptop. The laptop I’m recommending in this price range is the Acer Aspire E 15. It comes with a 256GB Solid state drive, 8GB of memory, a 6th generation i5-6200U, and even a dedicated graphics card in the GeForce 940MX.
This laptop gives your college student the performance they need for basic tasks or even some slightly more intensive ones.
For weight, it comes in at around 5.3 pounds. This is a bit more than something like a Chromebook or Ultrabook, but it’s not so heavy that they can’t stick it in their backpack and haul it around all day. Average battery life is an impressive 12 hours.
Extras include a 15.6″ Full HD screen with fantastic looking color, a backlit keyboard, and just about every port you’d want, including an SD card reader.
Ultimately, I’d call this laptop the best deal on this list and one that I’m a bit jealous of. It has enough room on the solid state drive for some basic pictures and video and the performance exceeds expectations. I spent $700 on a laptop last year that really doesn’t come close to this one (sour grapes). By the way, I cheated a little on the price as this one comes in at around $550. You’ll be glad I did.
Laptops Under $1,000
There are so many laptops in this price range that it’s difficult to narrow it down to just one. What makes this even more difficult is not knowing your expectations. Are you looking for performance first? If so, a heavier gaming-type laptop is probably ideal. If you’re looking for good performance in a lightweight shell, that’s another matter entirely.
Ultrabooks Under $1,000
For that type of laptop, I’d recommend looking at one of Asus’ Zenbook models. These can range widely in price depending on what you’re looking for. In the $750 range, you can find one with an i5-6200U, 256GB solid state drive, and up to 10 hours of battery life. The Zenbook comes with an exceptional IPS display that has wider viewing angles and is easier to work with.
For college, the Zenbook is easy to carry around at just under 3 pounds and a half an inch thick. It’s the thinnest ultrabook you’ll come across. You sacrifice a little bit of performance with the design, but ultimately get something that may be more functional for the average college student.
Performance Under $1,000
For straight performance, you’ll want to take a look at various gaming laptops that are available on the web. For around $780 you can get a Dell 15.6″ option with a 4 core i5-6300HQ and GTX 960M. It also comes with a 256 GB hard drive, IPS screen, and 8GB of Ram. This would be a great laptop for some light photo or video editing or even gaming.
While this laptop has a ton of performance for the money you spend, keep in mind that gaming laptops are a bit larger than your standard laptop. This one comes in at 5.67 pounds. Battery life also suffers a bit at just around 4.5 hours of standard usage. Still, if it’s performance you’re looking for, this is a great option.
Best High-End College Student Laptop
Like the $1,000 category, this is a very broad one. If you’re looking for thin and light with quality parts and performance I’d probably steer you in the direction of the Macbook Pro or the Asus ZenBook Pro.
For the MacBook, Apple is planning it’s first major overhaul since 2012. So, if you’re going this direction, I’d recommend you wait for one of the newer models. From what I’ve read we’ll likely see it in Quarter 4 of 2016.
The ZenBook Pro, model UX501VW, comes with a 4k IPS touchscreen, quad core, i7-6700hQ, GTX 960M, and even a 512GB solid state drive. For connectivity, it has everything you’re looking for including Thunderbolt III.
If you’re looking for straight performance and have no budget, the Asus Republic of Gamers series gives a good amount of bang for the buck while maintaining good quality.
Understanding Those Crazy Laptop Specifications
This is the part buying a laptop that I get asked the most about. Selfishly, this page will likely turn into a resource I can point to for relatives that come asking me questions. If you’re able to read through all of this, it’s likely you’ll have as good or better understanding of what to look for than your college student.
The processor of a computer handles all the tasks that your computer is given. Think of it as the brains of the operation. All computers nowadays come with a processor with at least 2 “cores”. The more “cores” the more operations that your laptop will be able to handle at a single time. Upgrading the processor on your laptop is pretty much impossible, and an older or slower processor will often spell the end of a laptops usefulness. So, you’ll want to get what you need up front.
AMD vs Intel
AMD laptop processors often come with more cores but have slower single core performance. By that, I simply mean that an Intel processor is going to do a quicker job at singular tasks while AMD processors have a chance of doing better at multiple tasks or tasks that can take advantage of many cores. In addition, AMD processors use up battery more quickly than Intel ones as they aren’t as efficient.
Intel processors come in Pentium, i3, i5, and i7 options. Unfortunately, there’s a bunch of different models within these processors so you’ll need to understand that to know what you’re purchasing.
Paying Attention to the Intel’s Letters
You can tell a lot about an Intel processor by the letters in its model number. If there’s a U in the name it means that the processor is a lower speed option that uses less wattage (15-30W). On the other hand, an H means that it’s medium to high speed while using a bit more power (35-45W).
Any i3, i5, or i7 U processor will only have 2 cores while i5 and i7 H processors have 4 cores. So basically you can have an i7 U processor that isn’t as good as an i5 H one. Confusing enough? If you really want to know what you’re getting you can always go to Intel’s site to do a processor comparison.
In addition to the alphabetic numbers at the end of the model number, you’ll want to pay attention to the number that comes after the i3, i5, and i7 as it will tell you what generation of processor you’re looking at. Often “deals” you find will be for a previous generation processor. If you know what you’re getting, this is totally fine but understanding these letters should give you a better idea.
An i7-6770HQ processor tells us that this i7 is of the 6th generation because the first number after the i7 is a 6. This is the latest generation and by the H we can also tell that this particular i7 has four cores. The i7-6650U is also the current 6th generation but only has 2 cores. As a third example, the i7-5600HQ has four cores but is a previous 5th generation processor.
Solid State Drives vs. Standard Hard Drives
Solid state drives and hard drives provide storage on your computer for all of your files. You’ve probably used a solid state drive before, as they’re becoming increasingly commonplace. Solid state drives have no moving parts and allow your computer to do everything faster. Hard drives are slower because they have to move and spin to find your data.
In 2016, we’re at the point that I wouldn’t recommend any laptop that didn’t have the OS, or operating system, installed on a solid state drive. It’s that big of a difference in performance.
A secondary hard drive can be a good option if you need a lot of space, as these are cheaper for capacity than their solid state counterparts.
How Much Ram Do I Need in My Laptop?
Most people only need 8GB of ram. Those who need beyond this likely are using ram-intensive software like photo or video editing or video games. So, it’s likely that if you don’t know whether or not you need more than 8GB of Ram, you only need 8GB.
Dedicated Graphics Cards vs Integrated Graphics Cards
Both Intel and AMD have really upped their games as of late in the integrated graphics department. Integrated graphics come on the processor already and are fine for browsing, light gaming, or even some photo and video editing. So, if you’re getting a processor that’s up-to-date it’s likely you won’t have to worry about it.
A dedicated graphics card might come in handy are for college classes that use graphically intense programs. Like with the Ram, this is most often for a photo editing, video editing, graphic design, or engineering class.
Laptop Battery Life
Even a good and cheap laptop can come with up to 12 hours of battery life these days. For your college student, battery life will likely mean a lot. Most laptops specify the maximum amount of battery life you can expect from casual browsing rather than the battery life you’ll get from running multiple programs.
Laptop displays come in a variety of different sizes, resolutions, and panel types. For a modern laptop, I’d look for something that has at least a 1920 x 1080p resolution. For size, this will all depend on preference.
IPS vs TN
Unless otherwise specified, your laptop probably has a TN panel. TN panels have fast response times and are typically more affordable. If your college student needs color accuracy, they’ll likely be looking for a monitor that has an IPS panel. IPS panels have wider viewing angles and are more color accurate.
You Made it! While I certainly didn’t go over every type of specification you’ll come across, hopefully you now have a better idea of what to look for in a laptop for your college student. If you come across something you don’t know, feel free to ask me in the comment section below!
If you can’t purchase a laptop today, it might be worthwhile to bookmark this page as a reference. I’ll be keeping it up-to-date with my latest recommendations from time to time so check back when you’re ready. Also take a look at my post on the best tablets for kids if you enjoyed this post.