This is the ultimate student laptop buying guide you’ll need to read. Whether you’re into engineering, medical school, nursing school or business school, we’ve got it covered for you.
This article will give you all the knowledge you need to make the right purchase decision for yourself.
- The Goal of this Article
- What Differentiates A Student Laptop From A Regular Laptop?
- Hardware That Actually Matters:
- Value For Money | How To Evaluate A Student Laptop’s Value
- Standard Laptop vs 2-in-1 Laptop | Which Should You Get?
- Do Gaming Laptops Work For Students?
- Obscure Chinese Laptop Brands | Should You Consider Them?
- Laptop vs Desktop | Convenience vs Raw Power
- Mac vs Windows | The Eternal Debate
- Frequently Asked Questions
Laptops are constantly evolving, in more ways than one. Sure, the hardware keeps getting more powerful each year. But we’re also seeing advances in how laptops are designed as a whole, affecting the end user experience.
Thin & light machines with all-day battery life used to be 1000 dollars or above. Nowadays, pretty much any half-decent 14” laptop from a name brand like Acer or HP is going be under an inch in thickness while weighing less than 4.5lbs.
Materials used to make these laptops have also shifted. No longer will you find the super flimsy bright colored plastics that are associated with toys being used on your 700-dollar laptop.
Instead, manufacturers have begun to understand that consumers these days can see beneath the fancy marketing and ridiculous shapes. They have easy access to plenty of tech review sources (such as this website and many YouTube channels) which tell them if a product is actually good value for money.
Apple, Dell, and other brands are now using premium materials like Gorilla Glass and carbon fiber in their premium notebooks. The build quality on modern ultrabooks and workstations is not far off from a flagship smartphone.
We feel the true winners to emerge from this recent shift in laptop design aren’t the ones buying top-end machines. No, the biggest benefit is reaped by students and bachelors who want affordable machines that can do pretty much every task without feeling cheap or compromised in some manner.
As a student today you have more options than ever before. There are excellent netbooks, Chromebooks, ultrabooks, and even workstations that you can purchase for relatively affordable prices.
Maybe you’re looking to buy a laptop for law school. Or perhaps you’re studying mechanical engineering and want something that can crunch numbers in MATLAB. No matter your needs, there is a laptop out there for you.
From our experience, the top brands for student laptops have consistently been HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Acer. These brands offer good value in the 500 to 750 dollar price range, while also updating their popular lineups quite frequently with the latest features and processors.
The Goal of this Article
Buying a laptop isn’t easy, and if you’re going to college, you need a laptop that can perform brilliantly even 4-5 years from now. You don’t want to land in a situation where you’ve to get another laptop before your college finishes.
The main aim of this article is to educate students on various different aspects they need to take care of before buying a laptop for college.
This isn’t one of those articles where we round up a list of select laptops under a specific niche or price range and tell you what’s special about each machine.
No, this is a general purpose article targeted at students who want a foundational understanding of what makes a laptop good value. As a student, you don’t have several thousand dollars to throw around on a premium model.
Student debt is a thing, and you need to purchase a machine that does everything you need it do at the lowest possible price. Doesn’t mean you should go out and buy some junk from an obscure Chinese brand.
And we do have a section dedicated to buying laptops for obscure Chinese brands that on paper offer unrivaled value for money. Not all of them are bad, but you must know what to look for so you don’t get tricked by shiny marketing infographics.
Read the user reviews for a laptop on Amazon and various laptop forums before you purchase it. Watch videos on YouTube, make sure the laptop has features that are useful to you.
Always cross-reference data and make an informed decision. You want something that is easy to clean and maintain, plus it should survive daily usage for at least 3 years from the data of purchase.
What Differentiates A Student Laptop From A Regular Laptop?
Not much. If your requirement is limited to web browsing and document processing, you can use your regular laptop as a student laptop. However, if you need to use various software that are resource intensive, your regular laptop won’t be able to handle it and you need a new laptop.
Price. The ideal student laptop should be between 500 to 1000 dollars while being capable of doing basic tasks such as web browsing, photo editing, document processing, etc. It shouldn’t lag or stall when you have multiple programs opened up, so you need a semi-decent processor and at least 8GB of RAM.
Then again, what a student expects from a laptop varies depending on their curriculum and personal needs. Maybe you’re pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science and need a laptop for machine learning.
In that case, you’ll want something with a powerful dedicated GPU (almost always NVIDIA) and a decent 6 to 8 core processor along with at least 16GB of RAM. A machine with this level of hardware will be at least 1000 bucks.
If you’re an accounting student, you probably don’t need all that horsepower and can get by with a simple HP laptop that costs under 600 dollars. But maybe you’re also a movie fanatic, in which case you’ll need a good IPS display (preferably one with 4K resolution).
If you take a group of 10 students randomly selected from the same school who are studying the same thing, they will all have different preferences from their laptop. Some will trade portability for sturdiness and battery life. Others will trade a laptop with an excellent keyboard and mediocre screen for a laptop with a decent keyboard and a great screen.
Clearly, personal preferences matter. But you can’t forget that a student laptop is defined by its value proposition compared to other classes of laptop. You want the most bang for your buck, and have a max budget cap of around 1000 bucks.
Now, that maximum budget varies depending on your financial status. Some consider a 1500 dollar MacBook reasonably priced. For others 500 dollars is the upper limit. Whether you can afford a more expensive laptop or not, you as a student shouldn’t be looking for non-essential features that don’t impact the performance of a machine.
There are some really good laptops priced just a couple hundred dollars above the top-end of what you’re willing to spend. However, you might be able to snag one of these machines when they’re on offer from a retailer (or even the official website of the manufacturer).
Holiday season and back to school season are the two best times of the year to look for new laptops. Look out for Black Friday sales as well, you can get some really nice offers during that time.
Hardware That Actually Matters:
The brains of a computer, this is where all the general purpose calculations take place. When buying a new laptop, try to get one that is equipped with a recent processor. Preferably 4 cores or more, because with any less than that you’ll struggle to multitask.
Clock speeds also matter, but they can’t be compared between different processor brands to gauge relative performance as the IPC (Instructions Per Clock) varies between generations and brands.
For student laptops in the 500 to 700 dollar range, we recommend you go with either an Intel Core i3 processor or an AMD Ryzen 3 processor. Make sure it has at least 4 cores.
Anything above 700 dollars, you should look for an i5 processor (Intel) or Ryzen 5 (AMD). For 1000+ dollars, you can get a laptop with a top-end 8 core chip.
Also known as system memory, this is the temporary or volatile part of a computer’s memory where immediate data/ instructions are stored for the processor to compute.
More memory allows you to have more programs or web browser tabs opened at the same time. Faster memory is also helpful, but not in most scenarios. More often than not, you want more memory instead of faster memory.
Sometimes, you’ll see laptops with “LPDDR4x” memory (or maybe even LPDDR5x by the time you’re reading this article). The “x” at the end means it is significantly faster than standard LPDDR memory.
Integrated GPUs benefit a lot from faster RAM. You’ll see gaming performance improve with better RAM speeds, but the most significant change is in productivity (CAD, video encoding, compression and decompression of files, etc.)
All laptops come with some form of graphics processing built into the processor. The GPU is responsible for handling 2D and 3D images being shown on your screen, whether it be a video or a game.
A dedicated graphics processor is separate from the CPU and has its own dedicated memory. Laptops with dedicated graphics processors cost more and are essential if you want a machine that can handle games or 3D workloads in creative applications. Usually a non-factor unless you’re looking to purchase a laptop for IT.
Before you purchase a laptop, ask your seniors or course counsellors about the software you’ll be using. MATLAB, AutoCAD, Solid Works, and similar software will benefit from dedicated graphics power.
The non-volatile or permanent storage of your laptop, this is where you’ll keep all your software and data. Photos, videos, movies, games, projects, documents, etc. will go into the hard drive.
The hard drive can be a disk drive with spinning mechanical platters (slow) or a solid state drive with flash memory (fast). SSDs are faster but lack capacity when compared to similarly priced HDDs. You need a balance of both speed and capacity.
We believe you need to have a SSD if you’re buying a new laptop. But it is also very easy to install a SSD on an older machine as long as there is a free SATA or M.2 slot.
Not all storage is created equal, and for that matter not all SSDs are created equal. Some SSDs are significantly faster than others. PCI express SSDs can transfer more data per unit of time than SATA SSDs.
And even with PCI express, there are different generations. PCIe 4.0 SSDs are faster than PCIe 3.0 SSDs. And SSDs that use x4 PCIe lanes have access to more bandwidth than those which only use 2 lanes.
There comes a point where the average user won’t really benefit from these increasing speeds. And if you don’t know why you might need extreme speeds, you probably aren’t in the target demographic for these super fast PCIe SSDs.
As a student, you don’t need a really bright display or super high resolution (1440p/ 2160p). A simple 1080p screen with 300 to 350 nits of brightness is more than enough.
However, always try to get an IPS panel whenever possible. It shouldn’t be too hard, since even budget laptops these days have IPS displays (although the IPS panels used aren’t of high quality).
However, if you’re interested in art or create drawings a good touch display can be very helpful. If you’re studying art and design at school, get a laptop with a top tier display. OLED or good IPS panels, and touchscreen so you can use a pen.
If you want well designed OLED panels in a sleek form factor, check out Samsung laptops. A lot of the OLED technology we use in phones today was pioneered by them, and they borrow some of that tech for their laptops too.
All day battery life is the goal so you can pick up your laptop in the morning and return home without having to carry an adapter in the bag. However if we’re going to be realistic, a lot of these laptops that advertise themselves as “all-day laptops” aren’t like that in reality.
They only last a day in super restrictive lab test conditions where the machine is run on low brightness and only has a web browser running.
Apple’s new MacBooks are your best bet if you want a true all-day machine since they are equipped with extremely power efficient custom ARM processors designed by Apple themselves.
Before purchasing a laptop, check and see if the battery is user-replaceable. Many ultra thin notebooks have the battery sealed away under the chassis, just like a phone. This allows the manufacturer to make a sleeker machine., but increases the complexity of replacing a battery down the line for average users.
Battery capacity is measured in milli amp hours or mAh. Some laptops have Type C ports which you can use to charge your phone (or even charge the laptop from a power bank). Not all Type C ports have this feature, so check to make sure your laptop has it.
This is something we shall discuss in more detail later on, but the general consensus is that thin and light laptops are better suited for students. Anyone on the go needs a machine that weighs under 4.5lbs while also being relatively slim so it easily fits into a small or medium sized backpack.
You don’t want to be lugging a massive workstation or gaming laptop around the school campus, not only will it tire you out over the day, but it’s also going to look ridiculous.
We believe the ideal screen size for a student laptop is between 14 to 16 inches. Any larger and it becomes too unwieldy to carry around in your hands. Any smaller and you’re stuck with a screen that is difficult to work with especially if you’re editing video/photos or writing code.
This is something you don’t want to overlook, since you’ll be interacting with it pretty much every time you open the laptop lid to do some work (or even to consume media such as movies). You don’t need an excellent keyboard but make sure it isn’t absolutely horrendous.
If you’re buying a laptop for accounting or MBA, you’ll need a solid keyboard since there is a lot of typing you have to do on a daily basis. Whether you’re writing a thesis, essay, or filling out a spreadsheet/ data table you are going to use the keyboard. So make sure it is at the very least passable.
Look for a keyboard that has ample key travel, snappy and tactile feedback, with a satisfying audio report when you press the keys. The Lenovo IdeaPad line of laptops come with water resistant keyboards, which makes them unique. Lenovo laptops in general have good keyboards.
These days, backlit keyboards are a must-have. They allow you to work in dimly lit rooms and even during daylight they make it easier for you to acquire keys while typing.
Gaming laptops come with RGB backlighting so you can set any color you want or even play around with multi-zone lighting and patterns. For most people, a simple white backlight is more than enough as long as you can adjust the brightness.
If you’re studying electrical engineering, you’ll probably have to work with simulation software. And you need a good pointing device. An external mouse isn’t something you’ll have all the time with you, and often you’ll need to make impromptu presentations or calculations.
During such situations it is important to have a reliable and precise trackpad on your laptop. And this isn’t just something that applies to students looking for electrical engineering laptops. This is applicable to any student who wants a seamless computing experience, no matter where they are.
If you want the absolute best trackpad, nothing comes close to Apple MacBooks except maybe the new Dell XPS machines.
Always get laptops with trackpads that support Windows precision drivers. Premium laptops will have glass covered trackpads which feel smoother and look better.
However these glass covered trackpads are also fingerprint magnets so keep them clean with a fiber cloth. A lot of keyboards have a fingerprint scanner built into the trackpad for extra security.
However, it is more convenient to have a fingerprint scanner built into the power button itself. So you can instantly unlock the laptop every time you wake it up with the power button.
On a college or school campus you need Wi-Fi to access the local network as well as the internet. All the projects, homework, research data, etc. will be shared on the intranet and you need high speed internet access.
So get a laptop with a reliable Wi-Fi adapter. Preferably Wi-Fi 6, since that is a newer standard compared to 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5). If you’re to operate projectors off your laptop, you’ll need Wi-Fi.
Sometimes you might need to power external monitors, in which case an HDMI output is necessary. And of course, you’ll need USB Type C ports to connect storage devices, dongles, monitors, etc.
Most laptops that aren’t 2-in-1s or ultrabooks will let you swap out the network adapter card so you can buy a more powerful adapter from Amazon and slot it in within minutes. This lets you upgrade your laptop’s networking capabilities down the line for very little money.
Value For Money | How To Evaluate A Student Laptop’s Value
You simply go by the order of performance, portability, and build quality. In that specific order. These three factors are the most important to consider before buying a laptop for students.
Read below to learn more.
If you want a more detailed guide on how to evaluate a specific laptop’s value, check our comprehensive all-encompassing guide on how to buy a laptop. It is more of a general purpose article, as opposed to this one which is focused on students.
However, the basic principles are shared. Performance, portability, and build quality are the most important factors.
Remember that value is decided by how much you’re getting for a certain amount of money. But it can be subjective. For instance, you might value speaker quality and display brightness over raw processor speed because you’re more interested in watching movies and streaming rather than running compute intensive software.
It also depends on what you’re studying and how you use your laptop. Maybe you’ve got a dedicated desktop workstation at home for all the heavy duty stuff and just use your laptop for taking notes and browsing the web. In that case, you might value portability and battery life over performance.
We talk about this in more detail within our laptop buying guide, but here’s the gist of it. Basically, you list all the features you value in a laptop. Make a table, with the top 5 or 6 laptops you’re eyeing.
Then, for each feature or category you can rate the laptop from a a scale of 1 to 10. Take the average, and you have your value rating. You obviously have to factor in price as well. This is a simple but effective method.
You can also do weighted categories, i.e. assigning more value to certain features over others. So if two laptops have similar overall scores, you just get the one that scores more in the specific area you need (battery life/portability).
Standard Laptop vs 2-in-1 Laptop | Which Should You Get?
As a general rule, 2-in-1 laptops will cost more than a standard laptop if both have the same processor and RAM. You are paying extra for the added functionality of being able to switch from laptop to tablet mode.
A 2-in-1 laptop generally won’t have super powerful hardware. That’s because the form factor and cooling system aren’t adequate for fitting in high power chips that require more energy and generate lots of heat.
However, 2-in-1’s are more versatile. They can be used in class, on the couch, during transit on the metro/ bus, and even for watching movies or sharing slides in a group. You get a touchscreen which lets you interact with familiar apps in a way that you might have never experienced before.
For instance, using your web browser with a touchscreen is a completely different experience from using a keyboard and trackpad. Some 2-in-1’s let you detach the screen and carry it around like a true tablet.
However in any setting that requires serious typing, you’ll need a proper keyboard. And mediocre 2-in-1s tend to have inferior keyboards even when compared to less expensive standard laptops.
From our experience, 2-in-1’s are better if you value versatility and portability over raw power. The more creatively inclined among you will be able to draw better on a 2-in-1. Using Lightroom and Photoshop or any drawing software on a 2-in-1 is a far better experience than on a standard laptop.
Now remember that there are standard laptops with touchscreens but it isn’t the same as a 2-in-1 since the screen wobbles around in the upright position. Whereas with a 2-in-1 you can simply fold the screen around a full 180° or even detach it.
The hinge on a 2-in-1 has to be well designed, since it’s the part of the laptop that gets exposed to the most mechanical wear and tear over time. Look up online reviews and YouTube videos, make sure the hinge is solidly designed.
The screen shouldn’t wobble around too much when you use a pen on it. Some 2-in-1s come with pens in the box, while others don’t.
Do Gaming Laptops Work For Students?
It depends. If you want it specifically for college purpose only, you don’t need to spend extra on a gaming laptop. However, if you do intend to play games on it or perform other resource intensive tasks, a gaming laptop can prove useful.
Eh… we don’t really recommend gaming laptops for 90 percent of students. Because more often than not the additional graphics horsepower isn’t needed. All you’ll be doing is writing stuff in MS Office or browsing the web.
And even if you use MATLAB or PSpice the level of projects you are assigned in college (at least early on) means that you won’t come close to the limits of your laptop’s hardware. Unless you’re designing and rendering scenes in Blender or Maya, you don’t need dedicated graphics.
But we know there are those among you who intend to do more with your laptop than just what is specified in the school curriculum. And that’s where you run into the need for extra muscle on both the CPU and GPU front. Whether it be machine learning, art design, 3D modelling, etc. you need a workstation.
Gaming laptops make excellent workstations because they come with powerful hardware by default. They also have beefier coolers compared to standard laptops. But you do sacrifice portability and battery life, especially the latter.
If you are a gamer and want a gaming laptop that also works for college stuff, we highly recommend you check out our gaming laptop buying guide.
If you do get a gaming laptop, make sure it has a good cooler and check the rated TDP for both the CPU and GPU. Some gaming laptops have powerful high-end chips installed but don’t get anywhere close to the hardware’s true capabilities because they are bottlenecked by power and cooling.
So if you really don’t need a portable machine, just get a beefy gaming laptop with a BIOS that lets you ramp up the TDP and fan speeds for both the CPU and GPU beyond the default manufacturer settings.
Obscure Chinese Laptop Brands | Should You Consider Them?
Yes, if you don’t have the budget for premium brands and it’s available at an unbelievably low price. However, there are downsides to it as well, as their after sales service can’t be trusted.
We have previously reviewed affordable laptops from companies like Chuwi and BMAX. These are Chinese laptop manufacturers nobody has ever heard of and the only time you come across one is when you go to Amazon and set a really low price limit in the search filter.
You won’t find mainstream American brands like HP or Dell offering such good specs at these prices.
For instance, one of the Chuwi laptops we reviewed was offering a 4k display at an unbelievably low price. While Acer laptops in the same price range had simple 1080p displays. And it even had a decent processor, not something super fast but good enough to watch videos and play casual internet games/ indie games.
Another laptop from a different Chinese manufacturer had a full aluminum chassis which made it feel premium and greatly increased structural strength compared to similarly priced plastic laptops.
The main issue with these machines is that you may or may not get customer support if something goes wrong within the warranty period. They often don’t have localized customer support or physical retailers in the NA region, and you might have to ship the laptop overseas for repairs.
Some of the internal components are shared with other laptops from brand names. So you can take them to a computer shop and get the parts replaced, but you’ll end up paying out of your own pocket even under warranty if you do that.
If you’re a techie and know your way around computers, we say go for these Chinese laptops. They offer incredible value for money and if something does go wrong you can usually fix it yourself.
Many of them are actually well-built, and funnily enough they contain less bloatware from the factory compared to companies like ASUS or Acer.
But if you’re not as tech savvy and just want something that works and has a localized support network, go for a name brand like Apple or Dell.
Laptop vs Desktop | Convenience vs Raw Power
A laptop is always preferable for a student as you can carry it with you to college. Even if you have a desktop computer at home, you always need a laptop for your assignments and notes.
If you live near the college and don’t spend a lot of time travelling, a desktop can work since you can offload all your compute intensive tasks to it. For portability/ file sharing you can get a basic laptop that you will use for taking notes and submitting projects at school.
For the same price as a laptop you can build a desktop with much more powerful hardware, not to mention a desktop is a modular platform which can easily be upgraded a few years down the line. Laptops are not very upgrade friendly; often times you can’t even upgrade the memory on some of these ultra thin notebooks.
Weigh your options carefully. If you can access your desktop in the dorm or home regularly then you can get by with a cheaper laptop and spend the majority of your budget on a powerful desktop PC.
But if you need power and portability on the go, a good laptop suits your needs better.
Mac vs Windows | The Eternal Debate
Most scientific and enterprise software is designed for Linux or Windows, so colleges will recommend you get a Windows laptop. But these are for specialized courses, and most students won’t be using such software.
They will just browse the web and process word documents or spreadsheets. Popular IDEs and simulation software are also available on Mac OS (like MATLAB).
So if you are accustomed to Mac OS (you’ve been using a Mac at home), get a MacBook. If you grew up on Windows, get a Windows laptop. MacBooks have better battery life and are built to very high quality standards, but they cost more. You can buy Windows laptops with better hardware and similar build quality as a MacBook for slightly less money.
Apple has built an entire ecosystem around its Mac OS. There are little things you can do on a MacBook + iPhone combo that you simply can’t with a Windows laptop + Android phone.
For instance, being able to take calls on your MacBook. This might seem like one of those gimmicky features you’ll never use, but it comes in super handy if you like to stay away from your phone and focus on work while using your laptop.
Airdrop lets you seamlessly transfer photos and documents between your MacBook and iPhone without having to once connect a wire.
If you’re browsing the web on your iPhone, you can continue from the exact same spot with one tap when you switch over to the MacBook. Little things like these are extremely useful, and they are a reason many people buy MacBooks just because they already own an iPhone.
Frequently Asked Questions
Ultimately, you’ll have to choose a laptop that satisfies your individual needs. Keep the basic rules of value in mind and you’ll know what to buy.
We don’t recommend buying used laptops when you’re starting out in college, but maybe you’ve got no other option because of an extremely restrictive budget. If you do buy used, don’t go for something older than 2 to 3 years.
And always buy premium brands like Dell XPS or Apple MacBook. Premium or flagship notebooks are built better and don’t degrade as much over time. You can pick up a premium notebook from 2 years ago for the same price as a mid-ranger today. Just make sure the battery is in good health because that is the fastest degrading component of a laptop.
Renewed laptops on Amazon are also excellent options for students.