Whether you're taking notes or writing papers, having a laptop is essential for college students going back to school. Some courses even require them!
Unfortunately, buying a laptop for college can be hard on a student budget — especially when you consider the ever-increasing costs of tuition, books, and supplies. Here's everything students need to know to get a deal on a laptop for college.
Check With Your University First
Before you start laptop shopping, the most important thing to do is see if your university or degree program has specific computer requirements. Most students can get by just fine with low-end systems, which are useful for note-taking and word processing.
But some coursework may require specialized software that's more demanding. And must-use software for some majors may only run on Windows. If your major is among them, you'll likely have to cross Macs and Chromebooks off your shopping list.
The last thing you want to do is show up for class with a laptop that can't help with your coursework, so it's important to find out what you need before you buy. Universities often list general software requirements for undergraduates, but different degree programs may have their own necessities.
To find out, do a quick web search for your university name, degree program, and "laptop requirements." If you can't find them online, ask the admissions department or your academic adviser.
What's the Best Laptop Build for College Students?
If you're like most students, you'll need the ability to do the basics: word processing, note-taking, emailing, and online research. Any computer on the market today can do these things with ease. If that's all your degree program requires, buying a laptop for college is simple.
Below, we've outlined the basic laptop specs you should look for. If your degree program asks for more, you should take their recommendations over ours.
Intel Core i5 Processor
Most laptops use Intel processors (though HP, Dell, and Lenovo offer AMD processors, too). Regardless of brand, though, you're looking for a middle-of-the-road processor that gives you good performance at a reasonable price. That means an Intel Core i5 or an AMD Ryzen 5 Mobile.
For better performance, look for Core i7 or Ryzen 7 Mobile chips — but expect to pay at least couple of hundred dollars more for the upgrade. While more gigahertz is better, anything in those processor classes should be fine. Budget systems may use Intel Celeron processors. However, these systems are likely to be sluggish, and that could cost you time even if it saves you money.
Minimum 250GB Drive
With the easy accessibility of cloud storage — which lets you keep files online so you can access them from anywhere — systems with smaller hard drives aren't a problem. Solid state drives give you faster performance, but come with a higher price tag.
8GB of RAM
This is enough for most uses, though you'll need 16GB (or more) if you're editing videos or doing other processor-intensive tasks. And 4GB may be fine if you aren't going to push your system very hard (but don't try to run too many apps or open too many browser tabs at once).
For graphics, most laptops use a GPU that's built into the processor, like Intel HD Graphics or Intel Iris. Almost anything should be fine for the majority of users. However, if your degree program involves heavy image or video processing, look for a laptop that has its own GPU. (Gamers should also look for a laptop with discrete graphics.)
8 Hours of Battery Life
You want enough battery power to get around campus without being tethered to a power outlet, and eight hours shouldn't be hard to find. Just remember that laptops generally don't hit the advertised numbers, particularly if you're doing anything that takes a lot of processing power — so don't forget to carry your power adapter.
You want a laptop that's light enough to carry around all day, but with a screen that doesn't make you squint. For that, 13" is just right. Smaller laptops have cramped screens and keyboards, while larger laptops can be too heavy to lug around.
You won't find this listed in the system specs, so it's best to hit up your local brick-and-mortar store to see how certain laptop keyboards feel. Watch out for the compact keyboards found on laptops that are 12" or smaller; they can be hard to type on.
Other Laptop Features to Consider
Be sure to check the ports and drives that are built into the system. As laptops get smaller, they're likely to have fewer ports to plug in your accessories (MacBook Pros, for example, replace standard USB ports with smaller Thunderbolt ports). Make sure your laptop has the ports you need, or plan to invest in a USB hub.
SEE ALSO: What Graphics Card Should You Buy?
Another casualty of the lighter laptop is the disc drive. Many systems skip a DVD drive. Considering we download most of our software online these days, this isn't necessarily a problem. But if you know you need to read physical media, either look for a laptop with a DVD drive or budget for an external drive.
How to Save on a College Laptop
Expect to spend $400 to $1,000 on a laptop with the midrange system specs we describe above. But laptop prices vary wildly with customization. If you need a higher-end system with an i7 processor and 16GB of memory, look for prices to start around $1,200.
But buying a very basic laptop for college can cut your costs by a lot; Chromebooks and low-end Intel Celeron systems typically go for $200 or less. Here are some guidelines to get your costs as low as possible.
Take advantage of student discounts.
These are offered by most manufacturers and some retailers. Expect to save 5% to 10% off laptops, though student discounts vary depending on the computer and the school. Check with your campus bookstore to see if your university has any special deals, or shop the education section of the manufacturer's website.
Shop back-to-school sales.
Sometimes seasonal sales will be better than an education discount, and sometimes they won't.
Look at refurbished models.
If you buy refurbished from the manufacturer, these computers are just as good as new — and come with a nice discount. Be careful buying a refurbished laptop from a third party, though, because you can't be sure what's been done to refurbish it.
Buy only the specs you need.
Unless your degree program has specific system requirements, a laptop with a slightly slower processor or slightly less memory won't be the end of the world. While we recommend Intel Core i5 processors, a Core i3 is a good (but cheaper) alternative that could save you $100 or more. You'll find similar savings from downgrading the memory, hard drive, or other specs.
Even when discounted, MacBooks are usually pricier than the competition.
These systems run Chrome OS and a limited number of Google and Android apps, like Google Docs — that could be plenty for certain students! We've already seen a refurbished 12" Lenovo Chromebook offered as low as $60 this year. On average, expect to spend $200 to $400 on a quality Chromebook.
Look into financial aid.
You may be able to roll the cost of your laptop into your financial aid package.
Even in your quest to save, you shouldn't go straight for the cheapest laptop on the market. You want to buy something you won't have to replace every year, which means spending some cash. While you can always spend less, you don't want to cut too many corners.
Can You Use a Tablet Instead?
In some cases, a tablet can work as a reasonable laptop replacement. Large 12" tablets are the ultimate in portability, while offering comfortable keyboards and plenty of power.
The Microsoft Surface Pro and 12.9" Apple iPad Pro feature excellent keyboards that attach to the computer like a svelte case for easy carrying, and both offer an optional stylus that can be excellent for sketching or taking handwritten notes. The Surface Pro even runs Windows apps.
However, they'll cost you. Both start at $799, plus the keyboard and stylus add an extra $100 or more each. For that price, you could buy a nice laptop. Be sure to check with your university to find out if this is even an acceptable option. In some cases, you may need apps that just aren't available on a tablet.
Readers, what are your best tips for buying a laptop for college? Let us know in the comments below!