5 essential things to look for when buying a laptop for college

Which laptop should you buy for college?

A new year of college calls, and with it is a long shopping list. If a laptop is on that list, you might be wondering just which one is the best for college students. Let's take a look at five crucial things to look for when shopping for a new device.

Samsung Notebook 9 and Surface Book

Samsung's Notebook 9 sitting open, and Microsoft's Surface Book sitting closed.

1. Read laptop reviews

Blindly choosing a laptop is never a good idea. It's difficult to get a feel for a laptop first-hand when shopping, and reading reviews is the next best thing.

We've been busy reviewing a bunch of laptops so that you can get a better idea of what's hot and what's not. Each of our reviews comes with a list of pros and cons, as well as an explanation of why the laptop is a success or a failure.

See all of our laptop reviews

2. Look for a portable laptop

The Surface Pro is very portable.

The Surface Pro is very portable.

A student's daily schedule means a lot of moving around between classes, often across campus. Toting a behemoth laptop will only slow you down, so look for something that's lightweight.

Likewise, you need a laptop that isn't too big or too small. If the laptop will be primarily used for notetaking, web browsing, and word processing, a 12- or 13-inch laptop should work well. Any smaller, and you won't be able to fit enough on the screen when multitasking.

Will there be multimedia editing involved? Will there be a lot of multitasking going on? A 14- or 15-inch laptop has the screen real estate to get more done without taking up too much room on a desk or lap.

3. Look for a laptop that won't be obsolete in two years

College generally lasts about four years, so you want to choose a laptop that isn't already on its way out of relevance. The most important things to be aware of are the processor, RAM, hard drive, and ports.

Look for a processor that's been released during the last few years — in Intel's case, that means a sixth- or seventh-generation chip — and has the power needed to keep up with your demands. Likewise, a laptop with at least 8GB of RAM should be enough power, and a hard drive that's 512GB or higher should be enough. If not, an external hard drive can always be used to offload non-essential data.

The HP Spectre x360 is a great all-around choice.

The HP Spectre x360 is a great all-around choice.

The ports on a laptop are important too. There's no definitive answer to what ports should absolutely be there, but you generally want USB-A, USB-C, some sort of display port (like HDMI or Mini DisplayPort), and maybe Thunderbolt 3.

Choosing a laptop with a single port or that lacks of variety of ports just means you'll be buying dongles and adapters down the road.

4. Look for a laptop with a long-lasting battery

What good is a laptop if the battery's dead? Sitting in the middle of a lecture hall with a useless laptop is a stressful experience. Since college days are long and filled with classes, there isn't much time for an emergency charge. The best solution is to get a laptop with a killer battery.

You can either go the way of a laptop with a long-lasting internal battery, or you can check out a laptop with a removable battery that lets you swap in a fresh one on the go.

The Surface Laptop has what it takes to make it through college.

The Surface Laptop has what it takes to make it through college.

5. Look for a laptop with pen or stylus support

Taking notes by hand is still a thing, but it moved onto a digital platform. Pen support for laptops with touch screens is becoming more common, and the pens themselves are reaching a point where it's difficult to tell that you're not using real ink on real paper.

Choosing a laptop with pen support is especially important if you're going with a 2-in-1 or a convertible device.

For more help, check out our Laptop Buyer's Guide

Walking into a physical store or searching online vendors for laptops can be a bit confusing thanks to the hundreds of laptop models on the market. If they were all outstanding devices, you could just point at something that fits the budget and be on your way.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of laptops out there that just don't have what it takes to be a college student's everyday device. To help narrow out the field, we put together a laptop buyer's guide that sorts the best laptops by many categories, including manufacturer, price, size, and usage.

See our Laptop Buyer's Guide

Best Laptop for College Students