What you should know about buying a laptop for college

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Scarf? Check. Plaid shirt? Check. Now to pick the perfect laptop.

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It’s mid-summer, and that can mean only one thing: School is coming. (Sorry, kids.) And with a new school year often comes the need for a new laptop. For college students in particular, it can be tough to pick the right model. How much should you (or, more likely, your parents) plan to spend? How much horsepower do you really need? Could a Chromebook get the job done? How about a tablet?

Fear not: Even with hundreds of options, picking the right college PC is easy if you follow a few simple guidelines. And if you’re just looking for the ultra-cheap options, skip down to the bottom. Note that CNET may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

1. Consider the curriculum

When it comes to computing, different students have different needs. Depending on the degree program, you might be able to get by fine with an inexpensive system — something that’s proficient at basics like word processing, web browsing and email.

Indeed, if that’s all you need, and your college doesn’t specifically require you to have a Mac- or Windows-based system, consider a Chromebook. For as little as $200, you can get one that boots and runs quickly and avoids a lot of Windows-specific hassles (like viruses and Blue Screens of Death).

On the other hand, if your course-load includes graphics-intensive stuff — 3D modeling, CAD drawings, video editing — you’ll want to make sure the laptop has a higher-end processor (like an Intel Core i7), plenty of RAM (shoot for 16GB), a speedy solid-state drive and a discrete graphics card. Expect a price tag of at least $700.

I should also note that if you’re looking for a MacBook, the price will likely be quite a bit higher. But Apple often offers student discounts that can help ease the pain. Right now, for example, students can get a MacBook Air starting at $999, instead of the $1,099 regular price. There’s also a promotion that includes free Beats headphones.

2. Screen-size matters

A 13-inch screen is probably the right size for most college students.

Josh Miller/CNET

Screen size is also an important consideration, not just for obvious reasons, but also because it dictates the overall size and weight of the laptop.

Anything larger than 15.6 inches won’t fit easily (or at all) into a backpack. But if it’s smaller than, say, 13.3 inches, it might prove too cramped for comfort. Whatever size you land on, be sure to note the weight of the machine. Anything over 4-5 pounds might prove uncomfortable to schlep around campus all day.

I consider a 13.3-inch screen to be the sweet spot in terms of comfort and portability. That’s what you get in models like the HP Spectre x360, which weighs just 2.9 pounds and measures roughly half an inch thick.

Similarly, the aforementioned MacBook Air 2018 weighs 2.7 pounds and stands only 0.6 inch.

There are lots of other worthwhile choices in this category, including the nearly perfect Dell XPS 13 and convertible (i.e. 2-in-1) powerhouse Lenovo Yoga C930. Here are some other best ultraportable laptops of 2019.

3. Could you get by with a tablet and keyboard? 

Perhaps, but ask yourself: What’s the real benefit? Most students need a keyboard for taking notes and writing papers, so do you really need one that’s removable? Are you ever going to use the screen all by itself — especially if it’s a large, unwieldy screen, like 12-13 inches? A detachable keyboard is one more thing to keep charged, one more thing to lose or accidentally leave behind in your dorm room.

Lots of students are drawn to the 12.3-inch Microsoft Surface Pro 6, but I don’t like it. For starters, Microsoft stubbornly continues to charge extra for the keyboard instead of just bundling it. The tablet alone starts at $899; the keyboard will run you another $130. I honestly don’t see the point; for the same money you can get a 13.3-inch laptop or convertible. Meanwhile, the Surface’s rear-hinge design has always made it awkward to use on your lap, and it might also be a poor fit on those little auditorium-seat desks.

Similarly, Apple has tried to turn iPads into laptops, but once again I think it’s a foolish hybridization. If you opt for a 9.7- or 10.5-inch iPad, you’ve got a screen that may prove too cramped for comfort. (And if you add a matching keyboard cover, you’re definitely in for a cramped experience.) A 13.3-inch iPad solves those issues, but now you’re looking at a much higher price tag — and a tablet that’s far too large to use comfortably as a tablet. Same lap/small-desk issues as the Surface, too.

I’m not saying a tablet-keyboard combo can’t work for some students, but I think a convertible makes a ton more sense — and gives you a lot more buying options.

4. Don’t sweat the storage

Once upon a time, the rule for buying a computer — any computer — was “buy the largest hard drive you can afford.” These days, it’s usually preferable to choose speed over size. That means forgoing the 1TB traditional hard drive in favor of a smaller-capacity solid-state drive (SSD), which will make even a lower-end laptop run at a faster clip while at the same time helping extend battery life. (SSDs have no moving parts and therefore consume less power.)

OK, but can you really get by on, say, 256GB of storage, or even 128GB? That’s what you’re likely to find in a lot of the more affordable laptop models. (A Chromebook might have even less.) But remember, we’re living in a cloud-powered world: Most students stream their music and movies from services like Spotify and Netflix, and therefore don’t need a ton of local storage for media. Documents (such as school papers) consume very little space, and will likely be housed on Google Drive or Office Online anyway.

5. Forget Microsoft Office — unless it’s free


Check with your school to see if you can get Office 365 for free!


Most students will need a basic suite of productivity tools — word processor, spreadsheet manager, presentation builder — to handle the basics of school work.

Good news: You may be able to get Microsoft Office 365 for Education for free. Microsoft currently offers the suite at no charge for students and teachers; all you need is a valid school email address. Failing that, Office.com (and Office apps for Android and iOS) offer free versions of the major applications with basic features enabled. They may well be enough for writing basic term papers and the like. And if the school doesn’t specifically require Microsoft’s suite, most students can easily get by with the likes of Google Docs, which of course is free.

Alternately, for a more “traditional” productivity software experience, consider a free Office alternative. I’m partial to both LibreOffice and WPS Office; the latter is a particularly good choice if you’re already acquainted with Microsoft Office, as it has a very similar interface.

6. Shop the campus store

Many college campuses have computer stores that claim to offer the best discounts on student laptops. Make sure you do your homework before shopping, however: These stores don’t always have the best prices, and their selection may be limited compared to what you can find online or in a big-box store such as Best Buy.

The flipside is that buying from a campus store may entitle you to local tech support, which could be worthwhile for those times when a paper is due and the laptop is locking up.

Similarly, for any computer you’re considering, check the warranty terms (one year is standard, but you can often extend it) and especially the company’s tech-support options. Students tend to keep late hours, so 24/7 phone support is definitely a desirable feature.

7. I’m broke. What are my options?

For starters, watch for sales. This is exactly the time of year when stores like Best Buy and manufacturers like Dell and Lenovo start offering back-to-school discounts on laptops and accessories.

Right now, for example, Walmart has the Acer CB3 15.6-inch Chromebook for just $149. It’s about as bare-bones as a laptop can get, but it’s also about as inexpensive as they get.

Best Buy, meanwhile, offers a free-to-enroll College Student program, with a number of discounted laptops already available. One decent deal: The HP 14 for $319.99, a savings of $80. It includes an Intel Core i3 processor and 128GB SSD.

Dell has also kicked off its big summer school sale, with one particularly good deal for cash-strapped students: The Dell Inspiron 15 3000 laptop for $329.99, which is $60 off and includes a $100 rebate in the form of a prepaid Visa card. You can also get two years of premium support (including 24/7 help) for the price of one ($69).

Wherever you shop for your new laptop, be sure to see if there’s a cash-back option by way of a service like Rakuten or TopCashback. Rakuten, for example, is currently offering 7% cash back on Lenovo computer purchases, while TopCashback will give you 4% back on Dell items. That may not sound like a ton, but if you’re spending a few hundred bucks — or more than a few hundred — this is definitely a savings. (Use your cash-back credit card, too, for a sweet double-dip.)

Do you have any advice of your own to share for college-laptop shoppers? Shout it out in the comments!

Originally published on Aug. 8, 2017.
Update, July 25, 2019: Added new information.


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