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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...

how to choose a laptop for uni

Credit (background): Santeri Viinamäki - Wikimedia Commons

A laptop should be right at the top of your list of things to take to uni - but first you've got to buy one. 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 you buy a laptop for university?

do you need a laptop at university

Although prices of laptops have fallen in the last few years, they still don't come cheap! As such, 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 to help you write essays and a dissertation on, you're gonna have to raise your game 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

We'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. What is your price range?

    how much does a good laptop cost

    Credit: 20th Century Fox

    We're serious money-savers, so of course price is 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 £100 and £1,200 (and beyond) 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 to see how much you can get for that value.

    Consider life span too when you're thinking about value for money. There's not much point in buying a laptop that's half the cost of another, if it's also going to last for half the time, too.

    Remember that you'll need to install software updates fairly regularly, and a cheap-as-chips laptop with fairly poor specs (more on this later) will probably struggle to deal with this too well, eventually slowing down to a point where you'll need to buy another new laptop.

  2. Which operating system is best for you?

    what's the best operating system

    Credit: Apple

    Choosing between the three main operating systems – Windows, macOS or Chrome OS – 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.

    macOS is the operating system you'll find on all Apple products. As with most Apple devices, the focus here is on an elegant, user-friendly experience.

    Chrome OS is the system available on Chromebooks (essentially an inexpensive laptop). They're simple and secure, but a lot more limited in terms of what they can actually do.

    The pros and cons of Windows versus macOS are widely debated, and we won't dive into them now.

    ChromeOS is often perceived as quite limited and online-only, but the introduction of a local file manager and apps mean that the system is becoming more advanced. If you mainly use your laptop for writing essays and browsing the web, then ChromeOS is arguably does everything you need it to, and it's super easy to use.

    For a system with broader functions, it's mostly down to personal preference whether you go for Windows or macOS (taking into account the fact that Apple laptops are often about twice the price of an equivalent-spec Windows laptop).

  3. What size laptop do you need?

    how big a laptop do you need

    Credit: Warner Bros

    Consider 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).

    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 (and weighing no more than about 1.8kg) if you'll be carrying your laptop around a lot.

    If you want a lightweight laptop without having to compromise on specs, you may want to consider going for an Ultrabook. As always, Apple's take on this (the MacBook Air) is more expensive than the Windows equivalent, but whatever you go for you'll be getting a seriously impressive piece of kit.

  4. Do you need a 2-in-1 touchscreen laptop?

    do you need a touch screen laptop

    Credit: Intel Free Press - 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, 2-in-1 laptops are becoming a big contender on the market, boasting the best of what both tablets and laptops can offer.

    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.

    However, while hybrids are really lightweight and convenient, but can be quite difficult to repair if they get damaged, so we would recommend taking out some ADC insurance on this one (see point five for details!).


tom case studyI hate using the touchpad on laptops, so I was really happy when I bought a 2-in-1. However, after accidentally treading on it and cracking the screen (less than a year into owning it), it became a bit of a nightmare.

Being a touchscreen, the crack was causing the mouse to go all over the place, making the laptop unusable.

When I took it to be fixed, it turned out that as the product (and many other 2-in-1 laptops) was relatively uncommon, the manufacturer no longer made the screens for it.

All this meant that I had to wait three months for an independent repair shop to track down a replacement screen in Hong Kong, and pay the wrong side of £150 for the privilege.

The replacement screen is nowhere near as sensitive as the original, and aesthetically it's not as slick either. In hindsight, I wish I'd had insurance!

Tom Allingham, one of Save the Student's editors


  1. Do you need a rugged laptop?

    is your laptop durable

    Credit: The B's - Flickr

    If you tend to be a bit clumsy and prone to damaging your favourite expensive things, there are laptops that are designed to withstand a punishing owner.

    If you don't like the look of the more durable models on the market (also known as 'rugged laptops'), 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 focusing heavily on making laptops lighter and smaller, unfortunately this also makes them a bit less durable, and more difficult to repair.

    Therefore, we 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.

  2. Do you need a high-resolution screen?

    do you need a good screen laptop

    Again, depending on what you want to be using your computer for, the display is something to consider. There are several different screen resolutions for laptops, ranging from 1366 x 768 (HD), to 1920 x 1080 (Full HD), all the way up to 3840 x 2160 (Ultra HD/ 4K).

    If you're a movie buff, or use your computer for doing anything creative like graphic design, you should opt for a higher screen resolution.

    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.

  3. What do the specifications of a laptop mean? And what do you need?

    what are the specifications of a good laptop

    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 (hence why this section is a long one!).

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

    CPU

    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.

    Laptops with 1.0GHz (or less) will only be able to cope with pretty basic tasks, whereas higher-end laptops will have around triple that, and as such can handle most tasks you throw at it.

    RAM

    RAM is basically your computer's short-term memory, temporarily storing the data that you're actively using so that it can be accessed as quickly as possible.

    So it follows that the more RAM your laptop has, the more you can have running at any one time - like listening to music while playing a game. Lightweight laptops can function perfectly with 4GB of RAM, whilst 8GB is more sensible if you plan on doing more with it.

    Hard drive

    Hard drives store your computer's data - everything from pictures to music and software is kept here.

    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 disk drive (HDD, 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.

    However, SSDs are still relatively new to the market, and usually cost a little more too. They're also almost always smaller than HDDs (which can go into several terabytes, or TB), often capping out at about 128GB or 256GB.

    As such, some laptops will have both an SSD and an HDD, allowing you to quickly access the files you need the most without skimping on storage space.

  4. How long a battery life do you need?

    how to find a laptop with good battery life

    Running 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 that a desktop computer could be a better choice, as you don't need portability.

    If you do want portability, you'll want at least six hours of battery life when it's fully charged to get you through a full day at uni.

    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. While some manufacturers like Apple have worked on releasing lighter chargers that are easily portable, some can be really bulky.

  5. How big should your keyboard be?

    how to write a freelance profile

    Your keyboard and touchpad setup might not be something you think of prioritising at first. It may seem trivial compared to other factors, but if you'll be spending large amounts of time on your laptop, it's crucial to check that you've got a nice set-up.

    Things to watch out for include there being enough space between keys, and even that it's got enough keys in the first place.

    Simplified keyboards are common these days as they look pretty and can allow for a smaller laptop, but they're a real pain when you have to hold down four keys at once just to use the hashtag symbol!

  6. Do you need any extra features?

    which extra features do you need on a laptop

    Some extra features you can live without, but some are crucial. Most laptops come with a built-in Ethernet port, a few USB ports and a small webcam – all of which are pretty standard and essential.

    Amazingly, however, some laptop models come without any USB ports nowadays - pretty bold as you still require a USB port for numerous things, like backing up your documents (which you MUST do!) or connecting an external keyboard/ mouse.

    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). Apple laptops are likely to have a thunderbolt instead, but you can buy HDMI adapters for just a few quid. Movie night!

Where to get the best laptop deals

As with most electrical goods, you'll almost certainly find the best deal by shopping around online. Check out our Electronics and Computing deals section 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 and daily WhatsApp message, 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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