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What you should know about buying a college laptop

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Scarf? Check. Plaid shirt? Check. Now choose the perfect laptop.

Sarah Tew / CNET

It is midsummer and that can only mean one thing: the school is coming. (Sorry, kids.) And with a new school year, there's often a need for a new laptop. Especially for students it can be difficult to choose the right model. How much should you (or rather your parents) intend to spend? How much horsepower do you really need? Could a Chromebook do the work? How about a tablet?

Do not worry: Even with hundreds of options, choosing the right college PC is easy if you follow a few simple guidelines. And if you're just looking for the extremely affordable options, go all the way down. Please note that CNET may receive a portion of the revenue when you buy something featured on our website.

. 1 Consider the Curriculum

When it comes to arithmetic, different students have different needs. Depending on the degree program, you may be able to cope with a low-cost system – something that masters the basics of word processing, Internet surfing, and e-mail.

If this is all you need, and your college does not specifically require a Mac or Windows-based system, consider using a Chromebook. For just $ 200, you can buy one that launches and runs fast, avoiding many Windows-specific issues (such as viruses and blue screens of death).

Intense work – 3D modeling, CAD drawings, video editing – You should make sure the laptop has a high-end processor (like an Intel Core i7), lots of RAM (for 16GB recording), a fast, solid state drive and a discrete graphics card. Expect a price of at least $ 700.

I should also note that the price, if you're looking for a MacBook, will probably be a bit higher. However, Apple often offers student discounts that can relieve the pain. For example, students currently receive a MacBook Air from $ 999 instead of the regular $ 1,099. There is also an action with free Beats headphones.

. 2 Screen size matters

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

Josh Miller / CNET

Screen size plays an important role not only for obvious reasons, but also because it determines the overall size and weight of the laptop.

Anything larger than 15.6 inches does not fit easily (or not at all) in a backpack. But if it's less than 13.3 inches, it could prove too tight for comfort. No matter what size you land, be sure to note the weight of the machine. Anything over 4 to 5 pounds could be uncomfortable to lug around campus all day long.

I hold a 13.3-inch screen in terms of comfort and portability for the sweet spot. You get that in models like the HP Specter x360, which weighs only 2.9 pounds and is about half an inch thick.

Similarly, the aforementioned MacBook Air 2018 weighs 2.7 pounds and weighs only 0.6 inches.

There are many other options in this category, including the near-perfect Dell XPS 13 and the convertible (ie 2-in-1) powerhouse Lenovo Yoga C930 . Here are some of the best ultra-portable laptops from 2019.

3. Could you get along with a tablet and a keyboard?

Maybe, but ask yourself: what is the real benefit? Most students need a keyboard to take notes and write papers. So you really need a keyboard that can be removed? Will you ever use the screen alone – especially if it's a big, unwieldy screen, like 12-13 inches? A detachable keyboard is another thing you need to recharge, another thing you may lose or accidentally leave behind in your dorm.

Many students are attracted to the 12.3-inch keyboard of Microsoft Surface Pro 6 I do not like For starters, Microsoft continues to stubbornly charge additional keyboard costs rather than just bundling them. The tablet alone costs 899 US dollars. The keyboard will charge you another $ 130. I honestly do not understand the point. For the same money, you can buy a 13.3-inch laptop or a convertible. In the meantime, using the back hinge of the Surface on your lap has always been a problem, and maybe it does not go well with the little tables in the lecture halls.

Similarly, Apple has been trying to turn iPads into laptops, but once again I think it's a stupid hybridization. If you choose a 9.7- or 10.5-inch iPad, the screen may be too tight to feel comfortable. (And if you add a matching keyboard cover, you'll definitely have a cramped experience.) A 13.3-inch iPad solves these problems, but now you're dealing with a much higher price – and ] a tablet that is much too big to use as a tablet. The same problems with rounds or small desks as with the Surface.

I'm not saying that a tablet-keyboard combination does not work for some students, but I think a convertible makes a lot more sense – and gives you a lot more buying options.

. 4 Do not sweat the memory

Once upon a time, the rule for buying a computer – for any computer – was "to buy the largest hard drive you can afford". Nowadays it is usually preferable to choose speed before size. This means that the traditional 1TB hard drive will be sacrificed in favor of a lower capacity solid state hard drive (SSD), which will also make a lower capacity notebook run faster while extending battery life. (SSDs have no moving parts and therefore consume less power.)

Okay, but are you really comfortable with 256 GB of memory or even 128 GB? That's what you'll likely find in many of the cheaper laptop models. (A Chromebook may have even less.) But remember, we live in a cloud-driven world: Most students stream their music and movies from services like Spotify and Netflix, so they do not need a ton of local media storage. Documents (such as school papers) use very little storage space and are likely to be stored in Google Drive or Office Online anyway.

. 5 Forget Microsoft Office – unless it's free

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Ask your school if you can get Office 365 for free!


Most students need a set of basic productivity tools – word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation builders – to learn the basics of schoolwork.

Good news: You may be able to download Microsoft Office 365 for Education for free. Microsoft currently offers the suite for students and teachers free of charge. All you need is a valid school e-mail address. Otherwise, Office.com (and Office apps for Android and iOS) offer free versions of key applications with basic features enabled. You may well be enough to write simple chores and the like. And if the school does not need a Microsoft suite, most students can easily get along with Google Docs, which of course is free.

Alternatively, for a more "traditional" productivity software, consider a free Office alternative. I am involved in both LibreOffice and WPS Office . The latter is a particularly good choice if you already know Microsoft Office, because it has a very similar user interface.

. 6 Shopping in the Campus Store

Many university campuses have computer shops claiming to offer the best discounts for student laptops. However, make sure that you do your homework before you shop: these stores do not have always the best prices, and their choices can be best compared to what you can find online or at a big store like z Buy.

The flip side is that if you buy from a campus store, you may be able to get on-site technical support, which can be worthwhile in times when a paper is due and the laptop is blocking.

Similarly, check the warranty terms for each computer you are considering (one year is standard but can be extended frequently) and, in particular, the company's technical support options. Students tend to keep the late hours, so 24/7 telephone support is definitely a desirable feature.

. 7 I am broke. What options do I have?

First, look for the sale. At this time of the year, stores like Best Buy and makers like Dell and Lenovo offer discounts on laptops and accessories.

Walmart currently offers the Acer CB3 15.6-inch Chromebook for only $ 149. It's about as easy as a laptop, but it's as cheap as it gets.

In the meantime, Best Buy offers a free college student program with a range of discounted laptops. A decent deal: The HP 14 for $ 319.99, a savings of $ 80. It contains an Intel Core i3 processor and a 128 GB SSD.

Dell has also launched its major summer school sale, with a particularly favorable offer for students in need: the Dell Inspiron 15 3000 laptop for $ 329.99, which costs $ 60 less Includes a $ 100 discount a prepaid Visa card. You can also get two years of premium support (including 24/7 help) for the price of one ($ 69).

Everywhere you buy your new laptop, you should consider whether a cashback option is available for a service like Rakuten or TopCashback. For example, Rakuten currently offers 7% cashback on Lenovo computer purchases, while TopCashback gives you 4% cashback on Dell items. That may not sound like a ton, but if you spend a few hundred dollars – or more than a few hundred – it's definitely a savings. (Also use your cash back credit card for a sweet double dip.)

Do you have your own advice for college laptop shoppers? Please note in the comments!

Originally posted on August 8, 2017.
Update, July 25, 2019: New information added.

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