What to look for when buying a laptop for university

Decided to take the plunge and splash out on a laptop? With so many models out there, it's hard to know where to start! We'll help you narrow your options…
take your laptop to lectureCredit: Brett JordanBuying a laptop is one of the most exciting (and scary!) purchases you'll make as a student – they're not cheap, but it's likely you'll spend more time with this thing than even your closest friends, so it's important you make the right choice.

As your friends would tell you at the start of a new relationship – “take it slow, and don't rush into things!”

Choosing the perfect laptop for your specific needs can take time. We're guessing you're not a computer geek or working in IT (otherwise you wouldn't be reading this, right?), so we've taken the time to break down the different terminologies so you know exactly what you're signing yourself up to.

We've managed to narrow these down to the top 10 most important things for you to consider before taking the plunge!

Still not quite there with your laptop budget yet? Check out our hugely popular guide to making cash online – you'll have your funds together in no time!

Should I buy a laptop?

dog workingAlthough prices of laptops have fallen in the last few years, they still don't come cheap! Therefore, it's worth taking a bit of time to think about whether you definitely need one.

For example, if you're mostly going to be using your laptop to check Facebook, do some online shopping and stream your favourite shows, you might be better off with an iPad or tablet than a laptop.

However, if you're in the market for something you'll be able to write essays and that monster of a dissertation on, you're gonna have to step your game up and fork out for a laptop.

Don't forget you now need a TV licence to stream BBC iPlayer and on your laptop or iPad. BUT this small but crucial technicality means most students don't have to pay!

10 things to consider when buying a laptop

online course computerWe've put together the main 10 factors you should be bearing in mind when splashing out on a new laptop.

Of course, some things are more important depending on what your priorities are, but hopefully this guide will steer you in the right direction!

  1. Price

    budgeting for a laptopCredit: Pictures of money – Flickr

    We're serious money-savers, so of course price is always gonna be first on our list of things to consider!

    There's so much choice out there in the laptop world, meaning there's also a vast difference in price between one model and the next – you could pay anything between £200 and  £1200 for a laptop these days (but remember you get what you pay for).

    We'd suggest choosing a budget, then doing some serious research using this article as a guide and see how much you can get for that value.

    It's worth taking your time to really think about what you want, as it's not entirely straight forward: Consider life span too when you're thinking about value for money.

    In reality, two relatively cheap laptops combined could have the same lifespan as a better quality, more expensive model. Look out for mentions of both of these in your review research!

  2. Operating system

    buying a laptop for universityChoosing between the three main operating systems – Windows, Chrome OS or Mac OS X – is your next step.

    Windows is the most common system you'll find on laptops that aren't made by Apple. Windows is used by most big businesses as well as on home computers.

    Mac OS X is the operating system you'll find on all Apple products. It's a simple, easy-to-use interface that can be linked with your iPad and iPhone.

    Chrome OS is the system available on the newer inexpensive chromebooks. They're simple and secure, but a lot more limited in terms of what they can actually do.

  3. Portability

    3massivebackpackluggageConsider the laptop's size and weight, and whether you're likely to use it more at home (in which case you can go a bit bigger) or will be carrying it to and from uni each day (in which case you want to go small and light or you'll start to resent your purchase!).

    Does it fit comfortably into a rucksack? Laptop sizes range hugely from around 11″ – 18″ but we'd recommend going for something 13″ or smaller if you'll be carrying your laptop around a lot. Similarly, avoid anything that weighs any more than 1.8kg.

    A whole new league of small and light laptops called Ultrabooks have emerged to compete with Apple's Macbook Air. They're slightly cheaper that Apple's product, but this still isn't cheap! However, if you're keen to stick with a Windows laptop but want something seriously light and thin, these might be worth the cash.

  4. Convertibility

    hybrid laptop computerCredit: Daniel Aleksandersen – Flickr
    This one is a reasonably new conundrum laptop buyers have been presented with – whether to go for a regular laptop, or a convertible 2-in-1 tablet/laptop hybrid. We really are spoilt for choice these days!

    With the lightness and portability of tablets becoming really popular, hybrid laptops are becoming a big contender on the market, offering a versatile design that lets you switch between a single screen laptop or using an attachable keyboard.

    Hybrids are really lightweight and convenient, but are apparently quite difficult to repair if they get damaged, so we would recommend taking out some ADC insurance on this one (see next point below for details!).

    They can be a bit more pricey than a regular laptop, but shop around and you could come across some decent deals on budget models.

  5. Durability

    smashlaptopIf you tend to be a bit clumsy and prone to damaging your favourite expensive things, there are laptop notebooks that are designed to withstand a punishing owner.  If this sounds like you – perhaps give these a try!

    If you don't like the look of the more durable models on the market, another option is to make sure there's adequate cover and a decent warranty included on the product.

    Many laptops you'll find come with a free one-year basic warranty, meaning that most damage will be covered by this, but certainly not all. Some warranties won't cover you for fire damage, intentional damage, general wear and tear or loss/theft. It's worth doing some digging to find out just how ‘basic' the basic warranty is and if it's not adequate, ask if you can pay to upgrade it.

    With so many manufacturers focussing heavily on making laptops lighter and smaller, unfortunately this also makes them a bit less durable and difficult to repair. Therefore, some techies in the know recommend you purchase PC accidental damage coverage (ADC) in addition to your free warranty. Laptops might also be included in your or your parents' contents insurance, so check that out too.

  6. Display

    it's gonna be the future soonCredit: K Rupp – Flickr
    Again, depending on what you want to be using your computer for, the display is something to consider. Screen resolution comes in three different levels: HD (High definition), HD+ (High Definition+) and FHD (Full HD).

    If you're a movie buff, or use your computer for doing anything creative like graphic design, you should opt for a high pixel resolution like HD+ or FHD.

    Regardless of what you're using it for, don't go for anything that has a resolution of less than 1366 x 768. These numbers indicate the number of ‘lines' on your screen which work to build the picture that appears on your screen – the higher the number; the better the picture.

    As cool as they might seem, we'd suggest avoiding any laptops with touch screens. They have a short lifespan and involve glossy screens which are overly-reflective.

  7.  Capabilities

    CPU intel core chipCredit: William Hook – Flickr
    One of the most important things to consider when making your purchase is the power and speed a laptop has, as this will affect how the laptop works day-to-day (which is why this section is a long one!).

    The power and speed of your laptop is determined by three factors: RAM (random access memory), CPU (central processing unit) and the type of hard drive it has (HDD or SSD).

    CPU is the raw power of the computer which processes information and instructions. It's measured in gigahertz (GHz) and its power determines the speed at which it can process information and the number of instructions it can process at one time. Therefore, going for a laptop with 1.0GHz will only be able to cope with pretty basic tasks, whereas the latest MacBook Pro has 2.5GHz processor.

    • The RAM is basically the memory that your computer needs to be able to support this processing (by the CPU) and manage each of the instructions as quickly as possible. It allows you to do multiple tasks at once without slowing down, so the more RAM your laptop has the more you can have running at any one time: you can watch a video and listen to music while playing a game if you feel the need to multitask. Lightweight laptops can function perfectly with 4GB of RAM, whilst 8GB is more logical if you plan on doing more with it.

    • The type of hard drive your laptop has plays a factor because a solid state drive (SSD) has no moving parts, and is therefore faster at retrieving information than a traditional hard drive (which is a spinning disk). HDDs also get hot when you retrieve lots of information from it, and overheating can make it function more slowly.

  8. Battery life

    low laptop batteryRunning out of battery on your laptop can be a real pain. If you're planning on just using your laptop at home, then this isn't so much of a big deal, but this would also suggest a desktop computer could be a better choice if you don't plan on ever taking your laptop anywhere.

    You'll want around six hours of battery life when it's fully charged, to get you through a full day at uni – eight would be even better!

    Don't trust the seller or manufacturer's word on battery power, as a lot of factors can determine how long it lasts in practice. Have a good read around some review sites for first-hand information from those who are already using the model you're interested in.

    If you're worried about battery life, it's also worth considering the size and weight of the charger that comes with it. If it's light enough, it won't be such a hassle to pack in your bag and carry along with the computer. Whilst some manufacturers like apple have worked on releasing lighter chargers that are easily portable, some can be really bulky.

  9. Keyboard

    Hands typing on laptopYour keyboard and touchpad/mousepad set-up is maybe not something you think of prioritising at first. It may seem trivial in contrast with other factors, but it's crucial to check you've got a nice set-up if you'll be spending large amounts of time on your laptop.

    Try spending day after day writing your dissertation on a keyboard that gives you cramp in your fingers and a terrible posture. Totally not worth it!

    Things to watch out for are that there's enough space between keys, and that there are a good amount of keys on there. Simplified keyboards are common these days 'cause they look pretty but are a real pain when you have to hold down four keys at once just to type a hashtag. Cammaaaan!

  10. Extra features

    USB portCredit: Alejandro Mallea – FlickrSome ‘extra' features you can live without, but some are crucial. Most laptops come with a built-in wireless card, a few USB ports and a small webcam – all of which are pretty standard and essential.

    Amazingly, some laptop models come without a USB port nowadays, which is bold as you still require a USB port for numerous things. For example, using an external hard drive to back up your documents (which you MUST DO by the way – don't wait until it's too late and you've lost all your course work!), connecting a separate keyboard, screen or mouse to make yourself more comfortable during long writing slogs, and even using a pen drive to transfer files from one location to another.

    USB 3.0 is the latest upgrade. Referred to as the ‘SuperSpeed USB', it can transfer data up to ten times as fast as its predecessor, USB 2.0, so this is definitely worth looking out for!

    Disk drives, on the other hand, have been scrapped in many new models to save weight and they're becoming pretty obsolete. If you do a lot of DVD watching or burning things onto disks, you can always buy an external drive if necessary.

    HDMI ports (which allow you to plug your laptop into a separate screen or tv so you can watch streamed shows) are standard (but not all lightweight notebooks have them). If you don't have an HDMI you're likely to have a thunderbolt instead, and these can be adapted into HDMIs to fit your TV. Movie night!

Where to buy the best laptops?

this way redirectAs with most electrical goods, you're likely to be able to find the best deal by shopping around online. Check out our electricals section of our student deals page to find our top picks (a lot of these deals are time-sensitive so will only be available for a limited time.

Microsoft normally have a range of student discounts on offer, Apple offer 15% off to students and the Hewlett Packard (HP) Store offer up to 30% off with a student card. Other sites to try are trusty AmazonDell, and even eBay.

You can also sign up to our weekly newsletter for a roundup of the top 20 student deals up for grabs that week, as these often include deals on laptops and tablets.

Hopefully this is enough to get you started! If you know of any good deals we've missed – give us a shout or comment below!

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