A brand new year of college courses is always just around the corner, and with it comes a long shopping list. If a laptop happens to be on that list, you might be wondering just what exactly you should know to ensure you're getting a device that's right for you, both in ability and price. Let's take a look at 6 crucial things to look out for when shopping for your next laptop.
1. Consider your specific usage scenario
The first thing you'll no doubt want to consider, even before deciding on a budget range, is what exactly you'll be using the laptop for.
If you're mostly sitting in classes taking notes, browsing the web, writing essays and assignments, and streaming video, you won't really need anything special when it comes to performance hardware or port connectivity. Most Ultrabooks will deliver what you need, and if you're on a tight budget you'll have a much easier time finding something suitable.
However, if you're going to be tackling courses that require you to run design and development software — something like AutoCAD, Adobe Premiere Pro, Vectorworks, etc. — you will likely want to consider a laptop with dedicated graphics (GPU), high-performance CPU, extra RAM, high-res display, and even some Independent Software Vendor (ISV) certifications to ensure your laptop is completely compatible with the specialized software.
Something like Lenovo's ThinkPad P52 mobile workstation comes to mind for specialized use, with its NVIDIA Quadro dedicated GPU options, 8th Gen Intel Core i7 processor (CPU), plenty of RAM, ISV certifications, and 15.6-inch 4K display.
Powerful, thick workstation
Trade performance for portability
The ThinkPad P52 trades portability and battery life for outstanding performance. The 4K display is beautiful, there are plenty of ports, the keyboard is top-of-class, and you can upgrade hardware down the line to keep the laptop relevant into the future. Included are key ISV certifications for design and development software.
2. Consider your budget and stick to it
When shopping for a laptop, it's incredibly tempting to overspend on something flashy that doesn't exactly fit your needs. Once you have an idea of your usage scenario you should set a realistic budget and attempt to stick to it; in the end, you'll be much more satisfied with your purchase.
Those who need a laptop for specialized use, especially one with a solid-state drive (SSD), high-performance GPU, and plenty of RAM, are realistically looking at a price range of about $1,500 and up. ISV certifications generally also add to the cost, so in the end, expect to spend far more than on a laptop for general use.
If you plan on using the laptop for standard productivity, a baseline laptop without premium accouterments can be had in the range of $500 to $1,000. For some extra features — touch display with excellent color reproduction, SSD, long battery life, and thin and light chassis — you'll likely be looking at the $1,000 to $1,500 range.
Something like Microsoft's Surface Laptop 2 is a great choice for a lot of people thanks to a slim, premium build, all-day battery life, knockout touch display with 3:2 aspect ratio, and the hardware inside to tackle a standard day of college work.
Outstanding notebook for college
The best Ultrabook for most people
With a slim, light chassis available in four colors, the Surface Laptop 2 has the portability and performance needed to get through a standard day's work. It has a high-resolution touch display with 3:2 aspect ratio, and battery life that lasts through a workday.
3. Consider laptop durability
A laptop at college is going to see a lot of use as you move between lectures during the day and tackle work at night. Most Ultrabooks are designed to withstand a decent amount of abuse — especially when you move away from ultra-budget options — but you can take things a step further to safeguard against failure before you've received your money's worth from the laptop.
A lot of business-class laptops are built to withstand extra abuse that comes with travel and heavy use. For example, Lenovo's ThinkPad and HP's EliteBook lineups go through MIL-STD 810G certification, which tests for drop, shock, dust, vibration, temperature, altitude, and humidity resistance, ensuring your laptop can put up with scenarios outside of regular usage. You will generally pay more for these devices, but if you're worried about longevity, the tradeoff will bring some extra peace of mind.
Durable premium laptop
Gorgeous 14-inch convertible with a focus on business
Those looking for a durable Ultrabook should seriously consider the EliteBook x360 1040 G5. It's pricey, but it has the features and performance to tackle everything you throw at it day in and day out.
4. Consider a laptop that won't soon be obsolete
College generally lasts about four years, and while it might be tempting to grab a laptop that's been heavily discounted due to its age, 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 7th, 8th, or 9th Gen 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 for the next few years, and a hard drive that's 512GB or higher should be enough to store your files. In the case of storage, an SSD is preferred for its speed and reliability, though you will end up paying more.
The ports on a laptop are important, especially if you plan on setting up a workstation in a dorm. There's no definitive answer to what ports should absolutely be there, but you generally want USB-A, USB-C, some sort of video port (like HDMI or Mini DisplayPort), and maybe Thunderbolt 3 if it's in your budget. Choosing a laptop with a single port or that lacks a variety of ports just means you'll be buying adapters or docks down the road.
Whether or not a laptop is upgradeable is also a key consideration when it comes to longevity. Being able to pop off the bottom panel and swap out a hard drive and RAM ensures your PC will last longer, and you might even be able to save some money at checkout by going with lesser hardware and upgrading yourself.
For example, a laptop with a small or slow SSD might be able to take on a much faster drive with a lot more storage. One of our favorite upgrades is to a Samsung 970 EVO Plus M.2 PCIe SSD, which brings outstanding read and write speeds and long-lasting reliability to compatible devices.
Blazing SSD speeds
Unreal performance up to 1TB in size
Samsung's 970 EVO Plus brings blistering read and write speeds, a competitive price, and a 5-year warranty, which altogether is an impressive package. Sizes start at 250GB and go up to 1TB.
5. Consider battery life
Having to worry about plugging in your laptop while moving in and out of lectures isn't exactly fun. College days are long, you have a lot of notes to take, and the last thing you want to do is wind up with a useless laptop. A popular solution used to be a laptop with a hot-swappable battery system — you could keep a couple batteries charged up and switch them out without having to power down your device — but as laptops with removable batteries become more uncommon, your best bet is to get a laptop with a battery that lasts a full eight hours or more.
Most premium Ultrabooks will deliver all-day battery life, but if they're not in your budget, you can always add an external battery pack to your laptop bag and plug in when your laptop is drained. Something like ZMI's USB PD battery pack is a great compact pick, though it does require your laptop to have a USB-C port. It has a 20,000mAh capacity, 45W output, and it comes with multiple ports for charging other devices besides your laptop.
USB battery bank
Slim USB-C power
If you don't like the bulk that generally comes with AC power banks, this option from ZMI is slim and sleek but still provides 45W output and a 20,000mAh capacity. This is a great pick if your laptop charges via USB-C.
Alternatively, you can invest in an external battery pack that you can plug into with the AC adapter that came with your laptop. We recommend EWEMOSI's AC portable power bank, which has a 31,200mAh capacity, 100W output, and plenty of other ports besides the AC plugin.
AC battery bank
Lots of power for long lectures
Can't be near an AC wall outlet and battery life not up to snuff? This power bank will keep your laptop running longer, and you can plug in with your usual AC adapter.
6. Consider a touch display with pen support
Adding a touch display, especially with active pen support, to a laptop will cause the price to jump up, but if you'd rather not type every note you take and would like something a bit more natural, it could be a boon to your productivity. This is especially true if you tend to include a lot of shorthand and graphs or sketches with your regular notes.
HP's Spectre Folio comes to mind if you're looking for a premium device with a leather chassis and pen support, while Microsoft's Surface Pro lineup is likely the more common choice if you need a 2-in-1 with pen support, powerful hardware, and a superb touch display.
Just want something affordable you can use for jotting down notes in class? The ultra-portable Surface Go has a 10-inch frame and a high-res touch display with Surface Pen support for a natural inking experience. It might not be the most powerful device out there, but it does start at about $399, allowing you to get your hands on an able assistant without breaking the bank.
Great for taking notes
The best combination of size and quality
Microsoft's most affordable Surface is the Go, yet it delivers a high-quality computing experience. It's built well, it has great battery life, and it's small enough to bring with you pretty much anywhere.
Don't forget to read laptop reviews and browse roundups
Once you have a few laptops on a shortlist — we've rounded up a bunch of great laptops fit for college life — always read reviews before making a final decision. What the manufacturer has to say and what the laptop actually delivers often differ, especially when it comes to battery life, so be sure to check out a deeper look.
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