Laptop buying tips for college and university students
Computers have become a very large part of our everyday lives. For the college or university student, a computer is an invaluable piece of technology with limitless possibilities. Not only do we use them to write reports, do research and communicate with our professors, but they are also a means for socialization and recreation. If you are a new student preparing to walk the halls of tertiary education then you will definitely need one. This guide will provide some useful tips on things students should look for in a good laptop. Hopefully, after reading this, you should be better equipped to make a decision on the laptop you want based on practicality and affordability, while not sacrificing much on features and appearance.
Whether you choose to get a laptop or desktop is up to you. However, as the title of this guide suggests, we will be focusing on laptops for university instead of desktops. There are many pros and cons for each side, but at the end of the day, a laptop is more practical for the student in the following ways:
- Portability – They are easier to transport to class or through the airport. Even if you have one of those behemoth 10-pound laptops, you will agree that it is much easier than carrying a 50-pound desktop.
- Mobile Productivity – Since laptops have batteries, you can work (or play) for a period of time without being chained to an electrical outlet. Additionally, your internet activities are limitless because you can go anywhere and remain online via a wireless connection.
On the other hand, laptops do have their downsides:
- Expense – Money spent on a laptop can get you a desktop with far better features and performance. This is because the components that go into building a laptop are usually more costly than their desktop cousins. For this reason, laptops are generally more expensive than an equally-performing desktop.
- Limited Upgrades – Most laptop components are integrated with each other and are usually customized by the manufacturer to fit into a very small area. There are a few things that you can upgrade, such as the RAM and hard disk drive because retailers sell them.
Therefore, you should buy a laptop with the latter two downsides in mind. For example, if upgrades are a concern, choose a machine that has a good upgrade path. Now, we are not encouraging all students to go out and get a laptop by blowing through their parents’ credit cards or savings! Part of being practical also means that if you already own a laptop or desktop, save some money and just take it with you to campus. It does not have to be the newest piece of technology on the block. Everything should be fine as long as you understand how to use it and know that it will satisfy its purpose while on campus.
Laptop prices can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, so you should immediately filter out the ones that you cannot afford and the ones that are not very good. Set a price ceiling for your new laptop. If at all possible, take into account an extra $100-$200 in taxes and shipping (if applicable). For a pretty decent mainstream laptop you should investigate the possibilities with a starting price of around US$600, but note the old shopper’s adage: “You get what you pay for!”. Having established your budget you are now ready to comparison shop based on features. Your budget may need to be slackened if you notice a good deal, but it is always important to have something to start with.
Why are you getting a laptop to begin with? Yes, it is for university, but in what ways? Obviously, you will need to be able to compose documents, browse the internet, send e-mail, play videos, etc. Others may add being able to play games and listen to music. Knowing these things will enable you to choose laptop features that are better suited for performing these tasks. For example, almost any decent laptop built within the last 5 years can perform any of the previously-mentioned tasks without breaking a sweat, but only a few will be able to provide a pleasant 3D gaming experience. When looking for a laptop that can play games decently, you want to ensure that it is equipped with a fast CPU and a graphics processor with a lot of horsepower.
If you are at a loss for the components to choose, try reading through the Laptop Buying Guide over at CNET.com. Processor and graphics speed, hard drive space and screen size are some of the areas you should focus on. Students do not normally care about weight, but for those who carry their laptops everywhere this specification may be important.
I did not initially plan on suggesting laptop specifications to consider because they quickly become obsolete in a few months. However, I do understand that many persons out there are not tech-savvy and can easily become lost with all the technical jargon. When you find something you like, look at the specifications and pay attention to what is stated for the following:
- CPU (aka. microchip or processor) – Good models to look out for include Intel’s line of Core 2 Duo, Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7. AMD’s line of Turion 64 X2 are also good, but I tend to follow Intel in this area. The clockspeed (or simply ‘speed’ for the layperson) of the CPU is quoted in the gigahertz unit (GHz). Usually, a higher clockspeed corresponds to faster response of the computer, but newer CPUs are becoming more efficient with lower gigahertz ratings. Check out the mobile CPU benchmark comparison over at NotebookCheck.net.
- GPU (aka. graphics adapter or video adapter) – Some laptops come with integrated graphics while others come with discrete/dedicated graphics. Generally, integrated graphics such as the common Intel Graphics Media Accelerator will not perform as well as discrete/dedicated graphics because integrated graphics tend to require the sharing of resources, which can negatively impact graphics-intense performance. Technology is progressing fast so you may find some integrated solutions that perform well in 3D games, but a dedicated solution should be better. Graphics by nVidia and AMD/ATI are very good in this area. Check out this comparison.
- HDD (aka. hard disk or hard drive) – Hard disks are the medium on which data is stored in your computer. The more gigabyte (GB) capacity a drive possesses the more data it can store. High drive capacities are always welcome because a student will need space to save music, photos, videos, etc.
- RAM (aka. memory) – RAM is one of the fastest areas of temporary storage that your computer uses to perform tasks, so it should come as no surprise that you can never have enough of it. Having more RAM allows you to do more at once without significantly slowing down the entire system. New operating systems such as Windows Vista and Windows 7 require a minimum of 2GB of RAM for a bearable experience. 4GB of RAM or more is recommended. Keep in mind that you can buy and later upgrade the RAM yourself, which can save some money, but you need to be aware of the maximum capacity supported. Visit Crucial.com for suggested RAM upgrades.
- LCD quality – The LCD screen of a laptop can be of a glossy or matte finish. Glossy screens are good for viewing images and video, especially in dimly-lit environments. Unfortunately, light reflections in a brightly-lit environment can be annoying to some. Matte screens overcome the reflective annoyance, but do not achieve the vibrance of glossy screens when watching high quality video, for example. Note that removable glossy films can be purchased separately for application to matte screens.
- Battery – Often overlooked, this specification gives an idea of how long your laptop can last on battery power after a full charge. If you have regular access to power outlets this will not be a concern for you, but those concerned about full mobility might want to get the most out of their battery. 9-cell batteries can hold more charge than 6-cell alternatives. However, note that computing power demands will influence how long you can go without a recharge.
Other specifications such as DVD/CD player and DVD/CD burner, built-in web camera, ports to connect your other electronics, etc. are becoming standard these days. If you really need something special I suspect you will know where to find it.
Specifically labeled “gaming” laptops are usually the top tier laptops in terms of raw power and performance. However, this also means that they come at a cost to match. Mainstream laptops are not intended for intense gaming, but may be able to handle some older games. Because you should be spending more time with your books than playing first-person shooters, such a limitation does not present a problem. Right?
The price attached to a laptop at a reputable retail store is greatly dependent on the quality of the components. The latest and greatest in technology will always come at a premium. Do not let this influence your decision. In the world of computer technology, what is considered “old” may have surfaced 6 months ago. Because prices drop quickly, settling for these less-than-new components is not a bad idea especially if their performance is only marginally inferior to newer components.
To help you get started, take a look at Laptopical.com’s Student Laptop Buying Guide for some commonly-recommended models. Next, use NotebookReview.com’s Laptop Search to establish a list of possibilities based on your criteria. Make use of the price range filter.
Some persons choose laptops based solely on general brand reputation that their family or friends may talk about. Surely, some brands produce better quality products than others but, when buying a laptop, you should base your choice on objective reviews and what other customers have to say. Look at the reviews on NotebookReview.com and the online retailers. Perform a search for relevant reviews using your favourite search engine and read the consumers’ response.
Be careful of “boutique” brands. There are computer brands out there such as Alienware (a brand of Dell), VoodooPC (a brand of HP), WidowPC, etc. that specialize in very high-end computer systems. There is no doubt that the quality of their work is excellent, but their prices can be more than the student can afford. Aesthetics cost money that could be otherwise spent on a larger hard disk or saved for a rainy day.
Once you have narrowed down your choices after performing your research it is time to check store availability. You probably already know about FutureShop and TheSource in Canada, but did you know that there are other retailers where you can find great computer deals? NCIX.com, TigerDirect.ca and Newegg.ca are large online retailers where you can find a variety of laptops to choose from. They also have their presence in the USA. You will also find the price range filters on these websites quite helpful in limiting your search. If you do not find the laptop from the reviews that you were looking for, try searching through the other available models and ensure that you read the user-submitted reviews before pulling out the credit card.
Because laptops have limited upgrade paths prepare to spend the money now on components that you cannot upgrade later. For example, components such as the graphics processor are rarely upgradeable so choose a model that has the best graphics processor that you can afford. The same goes for the CPU. Upgrading laptop memory and hard drive space are usually easier; some third party vendors sell upgrades that are far less costly than those provided by the original laptop manufacturer. However, do not let the convenience of having everything upgraded at checkout disturb your budget.
More than likely you have experienced this before. When you go to purchase a major electronic item from a retail store, the salesperson will try to sell you more items. When purchasing a laptop you will be bombarded with offers of extended warranties, additional software, combo deals and the list goes on! Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether or not you want to step a bit over your budget to incorporate these great “values”.
- As a student you definitely need an office suite of software to do your assignments. The most common solution is Microsoft Office, which retailers will have available. The version that comes pre-installed on your laptop will probably only be a trial version unless specified otherwise. Tell the salesperson that you are a student and would like to purchase the “student” version of Microsoft Office and you may get it for a discounted price. Note that this version does not include the full suite of Office applications, but these should be sufficient for your needs. OpenOffice.org is a free office suite with similar capabilities as Microsoft Office if you do not want to spend any money.
- Warranties can cause your budget to explode, but they do give you some security that, should something go wrong with your laptop, the retailer will be able to service it. If you are your own tech support or have family/friends who can service your laptop for free, you do not have to worry about spending too much on an extended warranty. Most purchases will have limited coverage included for the first few months of ownership. On the other hand, those technically challenged may understandably prefer to get the extended warranty. Be sure to inquire about the conditions of the coverage.
- Will you need a laptop bag or backpack? Be prepared to answer this question if the salesperson asks. Prior to purchasing the laptop, investigate the cost of a few bags/backpacks/sleeves then compare to the price if you got one in a combo deal. You may get the item for less at the time of buying the laptop than after the purchase is made.
- A lot of free and open-source software alternatives are available for download, so do not believe that you must buy everything that you need before checkout.
I chose not to provide links to exact models because the best choice today may not be the best choice tomorrow. Nevertheless, I hope this guide will point you in the right direction before you purchase your new laptop for college or university. All the best in your future educational endeavors, shop wise and be smart!
Feel free to share your laptop buying tips in the comments!