Computers and College Part I: How do I choose?

August 8, 2011 by . 12 comments

It’s that time of year: school starts soon for many college students in the US and elsewhere, and many are looking for the perfect laptop to take with them. From typing papers to entertainment, a computer is practically mandatory at most universities these days.

Choosing the right computer – especially one which will hopefully last you through four years – is a difficult process. Take it from personal experience though that it is achievable: I did it myself, and so can you. Here are some tips from a college student, computer nerd, and Super User on how to choose the right college laptop for you. This is the first part in a series of articles about computers and college. Even if you aren’t a Super User yourself, this information will hopefully be helpful in making a decision.

This is a pretty long, detailed post, so here’s a quick overview. You can click on the links to hop to the detailed sections, or scroll down for the full story.

  • Look for student discounts. Google “education store” for the computer brand of your choice and you could save hundreds of dollars.
  • Don’t buy bundled software with your computer. You can usually get programs like Microsoft Office and antivirus for free or at a huge discount from your University.
  • Size and weight are the most important factors. A nicely portable laptop is usually <14″ and <5 lbs.
  • Look for at least a 2.2 GHz processor. Most modern processors are fast enough for most users. Avoid netbooks, with weaker processors like the Intel Atom.
  • Integrated graphics work fine for most people, but if you plan to play games, do modeling, etc. get a dedicated graphics card. If you do, look for switchable graphics so you can save battery life when not doing intensive tasks.
  • Get at least 2 GB of RAM. 4 GB of RAM is better, but anything more is likely overkill.
  • If you can find a computer with a display resolution greater than 1366×768, that would be best, but they’re hard to find
  • For hard drives, speed is more important than size. Look for a 7200 RPM drive, and at least 320 GB of storage.
  • In general, battery life is about 1-2 hours shorter than advertised. An extended battery is very helpful in college.
  • If at all possible, test your prospective laptop in person at a store before buying. You want to make sure it feels right.

So then, let’s get started:

Before doing anything else, check if your school has any specific requirements. Some colleges, especially for engineering and computer science majors, may mandate that you buy a specific model of computer, or may have certain special specifications for you.

Also, before making any purchase, check for student discounts! Most major computer manufacturers give students a significant discount if you create an account with a .edu address or otherwise prove your affiliation with an educational institution. This applies to software too, and I’ll be talking more about student discounts later.

PC vs. Mac

Mac vs. PCThe big question for many people is Mac vs. PC. For some people, this can be a holy war, so I’ll try to keep it fair. I’m a PC guy personally, and most of this review will focus on PCs because there is so much more variety, but if you’re an Apple fan, don’t hit ⌘+Q quite yet – there’ll still be some useful stuff for you, too.

So, what are the differences to consider when choosing between a Mac and a PC? Price is a major factor for college students, and a Mac will usually cost more for a comparable configuration, and are not available for any less than $950. That being said, Macs are usually of high quality.

Some academic programs, especially in the engineering field, require specific software which may not be available for OS X. Fortunately, with Boot Camp, it’s not too difficult to install Windows for when you want to use it, but this does add complexity and cost.

Another factor one may not consider is theft: according to the public safety department at my university, the MacBook Pro is the most stolen computer on campus. Because Macs tend to have a higher retail value, they are at higher risk for theft. I will be talking about keeping your computer and what you can do if it is stolen in a future blog post.

Ultimately,  Mac vs. PC comes down to personal choice. If you’re already accustomed to one or the other, it’s best to stick with what you know, rather than try to learn a new OS.

How to buy

While it’s tempting to buy the first shiny laptop you see, step back and consider what your needs are. Set a maximum price ahead of time, and make a list of any features you particularly want, like a backlit keyboard or touchscreen. You’ll be using this computer every day for several years, so you want to make sure that it’ll work well for you. If at all possible, try one out in a store before buying, to see if the computer is comfortable to type on and a good size for you.

Keep an eye out for academic discounts. I’ll be writing a whole post on how to save money when buying your computer, but here’s a quick list of education discounts for major laptop sellers:

Student discounts can save you hundreds of dollars on hardware alone. Once you have your computer, software is also available at academic prices. Many universities may provide copies of Windows, among other software, for free. Any student is eligible to purchase Microsoft software at reduced prices as well, through the Microsoft Student Store. Buying software like Office and Windows will almost always be cheaper with a student discount or at your university’s bookstore than from the computer manufacturer, so don’t purchase software bundles with your computer.

What makes a good college laptop?

The fact of the matter is that most computers today are fast enough that it doesn’t really matter what processor, how much RAM, or how big of a hard drive you get. These things are important, and I go over them below, but the form factor and usability of your computer is much more important. Optimize the following options to your tastes, and then choose other specifications from there.

Size and weight

A laptop is a compromise: you want power and space to work, but you want to be able to bring it with you. During my first year of college, I found myself bringing my small and light laptop to class – and being asked if people could borrow it for a moment – far more often than my peers with big, heavy laptops that filled their bags and pained their backs. The convenience of being able to take your laptop wherever you goes outweighs having a bigger screen for most people.

I’ve found that 13-14 inches is the sweet spot for college laptops. Too much smaller and you start to get into much higher prices and screens become small enough to be less useful. Weight is more of a personal choice and depends on the laptop you get, but anything less than 5 pounds should be fine.

Battery life

Now that you’ve got a nice light laptop to carry around, surely you don’t want to have to bring your power charger with you everywhere, right? Battery life is also one of the most important aspects of a computer, especially when you may have to bring it to classes all day. Many computers have an option for an extended battery, which is usually a good investment.

Sturdiness and build quality

College is a rough environment. Even if you are as careful as can be with your computer, there’s no telling when somebody else might accidentally knock over a drink, trip on a power cord, or otherwise endanger your investment. Having a laptop that is sturdy is a definite plus. If at all possible, check out your possible laptop in a store before ordering it. You’re going to be living with this machine for a few years, so you’ll want something high quality.

Computer features

Screen resolution

I believe that screen real estate is so important that I’m putting this ahead of components like the processor and memory. Advertising for most laptops focuses on the size of the physical screen, but the resolution is much more important. The vast majority of laptops on the market today have a 1366×768 resolution – including mine. This just isn’t enough room for power users to get stuff done effectively. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find an affordable PC with a higher resolution.

For the uninitiated, the screen resolution is how many actual pixels there are on the screen. A 15″ laptop with 1366×768 pixels has no more space to actually fit windows and get stuff done than a 13″ laptop with the same resolution. I recommend a screen resolution of at least 1600×900 on 15″ or above, and 1920×1080 on 17″ and above. It’s very difficult to find high resolutions for anything below 15″.

Processor (CPU)

The CPU does most of the “thinking” for your computer. There are two main brands – Intel and AMD. Intel just came out with the “2nd generation Core” processors, also known as Sandy Bridge, last year. These include the Core i3, i5, i7, and some Pentium and Celeron processors. For most users, a Core i3 is sufficient, and will outperform high end processors from a few years ago. Power users may benefit from the extra punch in a Core i5, but an i7 is overkill for almost anybody. Pentium and Celeron processors are low powered and should be avoided.

AMD’s most recent offerings are its Vision A4/A6/A8 line. AMD-powered laptops are less common, so I’m not as familiar with the branding and equivalent power. If anybody has more insight on this, feel free to leave a comment.

When buying a laptop, try to get the most recent generation of processors for your platform. Technology changes rapidly, so buying a computer with the previous generation processor already puts you behind. Most modern processors will be more than enough for most users though. As a bare minimum, look for a processor with at least a 2.2 GHz clock speed. Quad core processors are typically overkill for laptops, and will drain your battery life rapidly. A dual core processor though is a must.

Memory (RAM)

The computer’s memory affects how much information it can handle at once. Most laptops come with at least 4 GB of RAM now, and if not, it’s a good idea to upgrade. At the very least, get 2 GB of RAM. Anything more than 4 GB is overkill for most users, but if you know you’ll be running lots of games or intensive programs, then it may be worthwhile to get a bit more.

Graphics card (GPU)

The computer’s graphics card processes everything shown on the screen. There are two types of graphics cards: integrated and dedicated. An integrated graphics card is built into the processor. A dedicated graphics card is a separate piece of hardware. Dedicated graphics cards are faster, but also cost more and use more power, leading to shorter battery life.

Intel’s Sandy Bridge platform and AMD’s Vision platform are the newest generations of integrated graphics, and actually outperform previous generations of dedicated graphics. For most users, integrated graphics will be sufficient. If you plan on doing intensive video editing (as in you’re a film major), scientific modeling or 3D design, or gaming, then a dedicated graphics card may be more necessary for you.

If you get a dedicated graphics card, try to find out if it supports switchable graphics. This technology allows you to switch between the dedicated and integrated graphics chips depending on how much power you need. This reduces power consumption and gives better battery life.

Hard drive

The hard drive is what actually holds all of your data – homework, music, movies, programs, etc. The size you need depends on what kinds of files you have. Size is somewhat of a personal choice, but speed is something often overlooked. With mechanical hard drives, the speed is how many times the hard drive platter rotates every minute. The faster it spins, the faster it can retrieve your data, and the quicker your computer will respond when accessing files. If possible, look for a 7200 RPM hard drive, instead of the slower 5400 RPM drives often sold in default configurations.

Solid state drives, or SSDs, are a newer technology with no moving parts. SSDs are much more expensive and much smaller than HDDs, and I would not recommend that most students buy one. If you do have money to burn though, consider getting a smaller SSD for your operating system, and installing a large hard drive in a secondary hard drive bay, or in your optical bay if you don’t have two hard drive bays.

Extraneous features

There are a few other features to consider, but these are not crucial components. If you have the choice, keep an eye out for these extras: A backlit keyboard is very helpful when finishing an essay late at night when your roommate’s already gone to bed. Sadly, not many laptops have this option. A webcam is nice for video chatting with friends back home, and with your new college friends when you go on break. Look for a laptop with an eSATA combo port or USB 3.0 for hooking up a fast backup drive (which I will talk more about in a future post on backing up your data).

So, what are the best laptops for school?

Now you know what to look for, but where to start? It’s very hard to give specific product recommendations, since each individual has their own tastes. However, here’s a quick list of laptops I’ve personally taken for a spin, or that have gotten good reviews:

  • HP Pavillion dm4: my laptop, and I like it! It’s light, small, and powerful. Can be very well priced, especially with academic discount. UPDATE: the laptop died in less than 2 years, and I know about 15 other people with HP laptops from the same era that have also died. Don’t buy HP!
  • Apple MacBook Pro 13″: probably the most popular laptop for Mac users. Somewhat pricey, but high quality.
  • Asus U36JC-A1: very light and fast laptop with good reviews, but I haven’t used one personally.
  • Dell XPS 15z: super-high-resolution (1080p) display, but a high price. Student deals include a free XBox 360 included, if you’re the gamer type.
  • Dell Vostro series: designed for small business, but they work great for students.
  • Lenovo x220: highly recommended by other Super Users as a very durable and light laptop. At 12.1″, it’s a bit small, but it’s also very light and thin.

Of course, there are many other options out there, and it’s up to you to figure out what works best for you. These are just a few laptops that I’ve heard good things about or personally used. Whatever you end up getting, make sure to check online for reviews before buying.

Stay tuned for future installations of the Computers and College series. I’ll be talking about how to secure your computer with backups and against theft, how to save lots of money with student discounts, and what software to load your new computer with to get things going in college. Is there anything you’d like to see included? Leave your requests in the comments!

Filed under College Computing Reviews

12 Comments

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  • very good article, but there’s times when you oversimplify:

    • integrated graphics: GPU built onto the CPU; this is just a recent trend; you need to mention that the term is also used for onboard GPU
    • there was no mention of anything based on Linux; it does matter too you know, and with it, there’s typically no need to look for discounts since it’s mostly gratis; or is the case that you can’t complete a college course in comfort without using Windows or Mac?
    • you mention the word sturdy, but how would one tell what’s sturdy and what’s not
  • zerkms says:

    Why 7200rpm hdd for notebook?

  • zerkms says:

    Any reason for 7200rpm hdd on a notebook?

  • zerkms says:

    Also it would be fair to mention that intel i5 cpus are the great choice nowadays: their great power control could save some (dozens?) of minutes of work when you don’t need all that GHZs

  • nhinkle says:

    Tshepang: Thanks for the feedback; good points! I would include Linux in the “PCs” category, personally. Most people who use linux will tend to be installing it themselves anyhow. I plan to mention Linux in my “saving money” post, which will be the next in the series. With regards to sturdiness, thanks for pointing that out. The only reliable way to tell if a laptop is sturdy is to try one yourself in person. Searching online for reviews is helpful as well though, and can reveal a lot. I will update the post later to mention this.

  • nhinkle says:

    zerkms: Yes, a 7200rpm HDD will have faster response times than a 5400rpm HDD, as I mentioned in the article. A slower HDD has minimal battery savings, and it’s worthwhile to have faster access to your data.

    As far as a Core-i5 goes, that’s covered in the “second generation core” series, but I’ll edit the post to be a bit more clear about the brand names used.

  • i like samsung laptop, i am using them in my college and because they are light weight and fast they make my work easier.

  • journeymangeek says:

    I think to some extent ‘toughness’ is relative. Some makes/lines tend to have better or worse build quality at some point of time – Thinkpads for example, even before they started adding shock protection, and rollcages were well known for durability. Dells had a bad reputation at one point, but their build quality has improved.

    At the end of the day though, it comes down to ‘I’ll be using this every single day, will i be happy with it?’

    Most systems have fairly similar hardware, and a few of the big manufacturers offer linux – dell iirc has a suse option, while thinkpads are certified for ubuntu and one or two other distros. Unless you’re comp-sci (or visual arts), chances are most software will be windows based.

    I’d also probably want to mention, if you want to carry a laptop, incognito, neoprene sleeves are brilliant – they offer good shock protection, and fit into pretty much any backpack.

  • Shauna says:

    I have to only partially agree with your assessment of what’s good and what’s “overkill” when it comes to power in the components.

    While I agree that an i7 is overkill for most people now, you’re talking about buying a computer that’s supposed to last you at least 4 years, barring motherboard failure. If you have the budget to go with a better processor or graphics card, especially if you do any kind of potentially processor or graphics-intensive work (programming, heavy gaming, etc), and want the computer to last, getting the i7 is a worthwhile investment. Upgrading RAM and the hard drive later is usually easy and often relatively cheap, upgrading a laptop CPU or GPU that’s become underpowered is usually impossible and requires buying a whole new laptop.

    As for “toughness” in a non-toughbook – find out what the laptop’s shell is actually made of. For example, most manufacturers use plastic, but Apple and Asus have models that are made of aluminum (Asus also has models that use on their screens the material used to make bulletproof glass, which does wonders for protecting the screen). Knowing this can go a long way in gauging how durable the machine is.

    And nhinkle – for your Linux stuff, check out ZaReason and System76 for other Linux-installed sellers.

  • ravi tablet says:

    Love the concept, but cheaper to get a laptop and a separate huge hi-res monitor.

  • Moshe says:

    I used to be a “PC guy” until about a year ago when I started developing iOs apps. I read this excellent article. You mention that you’re not much of an Apple fan, which is perfectly fine. What struck me though, is that you used the same “I don’t want to rip Apple” that I used to use, when comparing the pros and cons. To the average PC users, Macs are, as you say, “of high build quality”. I used to do the same exact thing. The truth is, though, that you’re missing another important point. Apple has incredible tech support – something that’s not a given with other companies. I used to call Dell for people all the time. When I had problems with my iMac, I was able to take it into the store for a free genius bar appointment. You can’t take that Dell, HP or Asus anywhere.

  • KSj48 says:

    What do you think about touchscreens?

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