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Aug 12

How to choose the best laptop for college

What's the best laptop for you? (Photo by Garry Knight. Used under Creative Commons.)

How do you choose the best laptop for college? (Photo by Garry Knight. Used under Creative Commons.)

It doesn’t matter if you’re heading to college for the first time or heading back for your final semester, you need someone you can depend on. A loyal companion who’ll stick by you through the Freshman 15 and Finals.

I’m speaking, of course, about your laptop.

But like any loyal companion, you can’t grab the first one that comes along. You’ve got to have some criteria, or you may end up lamenting lag as you furiously try to type a term paper at 3 a.m., or are stuck wondering why even Ramen is out of your price range as you compose e-mails at the speed of light.

So read on, curious student, and find out how you can make sure you choose the best laptop for YOU.

Mobility matters

You probably belong to one of two camps when it comes to laptop use.

If you’re in the first camp, you take you laptop with you (almost) everywhere. It might spend quite a bit of its time in your backpack, but almost anytime you have a moment to sit down, it’s out and you’re either working, checking Facebook, playing a game, or surfing. Laptops in this camp tend to be smaller and lighter because they have to be carried more often.

If you’re in the second camp, your laptop tends to be indistinguishable from a desktop computer. It stays in your room, and may make a trip from your desk to the couch every once in awhile. On a big day, it accompanies you down the hall or even out of the building! These laptops tend to be used for. . . well, everything, but it’s likely that more powerful programs like design software and video games find their home here. Laptops in this camp tend to be bulkier as they’re not moved very often.

Decide early which camp you’re going to be in. If you’re big on using a smart phone, then you might be more comfortable in the second camp — most things on the go can be taken care of in your pocket. If you think you’ll be doing complicated tasks that require multiple windows on the go, however, consider thinking about membership in the first camp.

Your laptop should be personal

What laptop you choose reflects who you are (Photo by Ghindo. Used under Creative Commons.)

What you do meets what you need

Perhaps the biggest factors that affect price on a laptop (other than screen size) are the hardware specs and battery life.

If price isn’t a factor for you, then you can probably ignore this section. Just go for the best specs and longest battery life you can find. For everyone else, we’ll want to take a look at striking a balance between the two.

Battery Life

Battery life, at first glance, seems like a fairly straightforward spec. But look closer, and you’ll find that it can be different depending on what you’re doing. If you run mostly text programs, keep your screen brightness low, and spend most of your time offline (without Wi-Fi), then a laptop that has 3 hours of battery life might take you much further. On the flip-side, watching a movie while video chatting with all your friends in a Google Hangout with your screen brightness cranked up to 11, your laptop that reports 8 hours of battery life may be lucky to give you 4.

You’ll also want to consider where you’re using your laptop. If you know you’ll always have an outlet handy, then battery life may not play as big a role in your choice as specs. But make sure you still keep it in mind — you never know when you’ll find yourself needing to e-mail a crucial document with 2 minutes of battery life left in the one place without a working outlet.


Specs can be a bit confusing at first glance.

Then more confusing at second glance.

Making sense of them comes from being truthful with yourself about what you’ll be doing with your computer. Design-heavy disciplines have very different needs than research-focused ones.

To simplify, we’ll concern ourselves with three specs: processor, RAM, and video card.

Hard drive space is more of a secondary concern these days (for those wondering). There’s quite a few solutions available to supplement storage. But that’s another blog.

Design-heavy users need to concern themselves with all three, but because of the amount of information that you’re dealing with, the processor and video card are where you’ll want to focus most of your attention. Those who use more programs, or may be keeping open multiple reference documents, will want to focus most intensely on RAM, then processor power, and finally the video card.

In general the more “cores” your processor has, the more efficient it runs — a quad-core will be better than a dual core, for example. After that, the higher the Mhz, the faster it is.

Digging into the specs

Time to really dig into the specs. (Photo by Bryan Alexander. Used under Creative Commons)

For graphics cards, in general look for the highest video ram and processing power available. You may also want to do some research to find out if the card in your laptop has been designed specifically for a task — some cards may be better for design programs, while others might be made for video games.

With RAM, the higher the number the better. At minimum on a laptop, shoot for 4GB of RAM — many operating systems can use over a gigabyte of RAM on their own before you even start getting programs involved.

Also make sure you check the minimum operating requirements on software you use, and then try to exceed them. I can tell you from experience, there’s nothing worse than trying to work with software that you barely meet the requirements for.

Screening room

Screen size is important. Do you need a 13″ mini-monitor or a 17″ monstrosity? While determining your camp earlier can help you make this decision, also consider what you’ll be doing on it.

If detail is important, or if you tend to have to simultaneously view multiple windows, you may want to consider a larger screen. Sure, it’ll be heavier on the go, but you’re more likely to make use of your laptop, and you’ll save yourself some frustration later on.

One other thing to consider is that almost all laptops these days can be hooked up to an external monitor. If you’re not going to be doing any major work on the go, and just use your laptop to take notes (for example), choosing the best computer monitor at home may save you some back strain.

OS? Oh no. . .

Operating systems are a tricky subject, and I’m not going to get into a debate over Mac and Windows.

That’s a different blog.

My advice is to use the one you’re most comfortable with, and to check with your school if there’s a specific requirement for software that you need to be aware of. I guarantee that no matter which OS you’ll defend to the death, you can eventually get used to (and maybe even learn to love) the other one.

What about tablets?

Of course, if we’re discussing laptops, no article would be complete without at least mentioning tablets.

If your needs for a laptop are mostly just to keep books handy, check-emails, and watch movies, then you might want to look into choosing a top-rated tablet for your mobile needs instead. While they can’t handle the heavier workloads and major multi-tasking of a laptop computer, they can take care of lighter tasks. A combination of desktop and tablet may be a strong solution for students who need power and mobility.

Of course, this combination can also create its own frustrations.

But that’s a different blog.

Hopefully, this helps you make some intelligent decisions on a laptop. But if I’ve raised more questions than we answered, then ask those questions in the comments, or actually talk with one of experts by calling 1-800-769-5668.

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