For students, a laptop is as essential as your textbooks and school ID. And when we say campus life, we don't just mean school work. It may also include extra-curricular activities, such as social networking, watching movies, listening to music, posting photos, gaming, video-chatting with the 'rents back home, and so on. And of course, the best laptops for college students need to last them for the long haul, four years of undergrad and maybe a year of grad work. Lucky for you, we have a bunch below that fit that description perfectly.
The first thing to do is check with your school for specific system requirements. Some colleges and universities want their students equipped with a Windows-based laptop, to cut down on software incompatibility issues. Others will let you use almost any operating system, from OS X to Linux. Many institutions will have on-site repair centers that only service university-bought laptops, where the turn-around time is much quicker than if you were to send it overnight to the original manufacturer. Also note that most schools offer price breaks for particular vendors and include extensive software bundles, which can shave off a good amount from your laptop purchase.
Keeping It Light
A big screen may not be such a good idea. It's great to have a mini home-theater in your dorm room or play the best games in full 1080p glory, but a laptop with a big screen will be a real chore to haul across campus while you're running from class to class. You'll want something that's light: A maximum 13- or 14-inch widescreen is ideal, as it'll make room for other items in your backpack and minimize the weight burden. Depending on your tolerance level, a smaller display works as long as you understand that full Web pages and productivity applications involve more scrolling, and fonts will appear smaller than those on larger screens.
Essays, research papers, and chatting online with your classmates will take up most of your computing time. You'll want a laptop with a full-size keyboard and a comfortable touchpad. When you venture below a 13-inch platform, you run the risk of not getting the same typing experience. The easiest way to ensure that you have the best keyboard is to stop by a brick-and-mortar store and spend some time typing on prospective choices.
Standard Features Are Enough
Even the cheapest laptops come with many of the features you would find on a $2,000 model. There are ample USB ports on most systems, so you can expand storage capacity when the internal hard drive isn't big enough. Most laptops nowadays come with at least 320GB of storage. Upgrading to a 500GB or 1TB hard drive won't cost you an arm and a leg either, but do so only if you're a video junkie or an aspiring filmmaker. While VGA is still used to present PowerPoint slides on a big screen, technologies like DisplayPort and HDMI are better equipped to stream high-quality video and audio. Many mainstream notebooks have built-in HDMI ports that you can use to stream a video to any monitor that supports the format. A webcam and a media card reader are already integral parts of any laptop, as video conferencing and digital photography are as mainstream as surfing the Web.
What About Chromebooks?
In the last few years, there has been a strong push by chromebook manufacturers into the education market. And chromebooks themselves have gone from being glorified netbooks running the Chrome OS to laptops that are still Web-centric but have a relatively full feature set. If, like many schools, the one you're attending puts its coursework in the cloud, a Chromebook will offer you just as much functionality as a regular laptop, and longer battery life. It will also likely cost you a lot less than other types of notebooks, as Chromebook prices typically run between $200 and $300. Just be sure you have easy, constant Wi-Fi access, as there is scant storage on these systems.
In the market for a Chrome OS laptop? We've rounded up the best Chromebooks available.
Consider a Hybrid
In recent years, a new category of laptop/tablet hybrid has emerged. These convertible-hybrid laptop designs let you flip between a laptop and tablet setup. Some sport a folding design that flips the keyboard out of the way, while others allow you to dock a detachable tablet PC with an accessory keyboard for laptop-like functionality. You should consider a hybrid system if you want laptop functionality with the convenience of a tablet.
How Much Power Do You Need?
Depending on your budget, laptops offer a wide selection of processors—for instance, you can choose one that maximizes performance or one that favors battery life. Or you can select one that plays to both strengths: CPUs from the Intel Core i Series have the benefits of both power and battery efficiency. If you desire all-day battery life, it's best to go with a Chromebook, which typically runs on a low-powered processor. If performance ranks high on the list, an Intel Core i7 CPU gives you the most oomph but at the expense of battery life.
Unless you're a part-time gamer or a CAD user, most integrated GPUs should be more than enough for graphics-intensive tasks. High-end graphics cards are terrific for 3D games, decoding a 1080p video, or watching a Blu-ray movie but, like a fast processor, they also feast on the battery.
A sizable battery can be your biggest ally in a day filled with classes and extracurricular activities. Most school-oriented laptops come with multiple battery options. Others have only one—and it's non-removable. In this case, figure out where battery life ranks in the grand scheme of things. It might be a good idea to purchase an additional battery, if an extended one isn't available. The more "cells" you buy, the better the battery life. A big battery is accompanied by some heft, but the weight gain is well worth it if it means leaving the system unplugged from dawn 'til dusk.
A Word on Warranties
Almost every laptop is backed by at least a 1-year warranty on parts and labor. Extended warranties are also available, but that depends on who you are as a user. The standard warranty doesn't cover accidents that stem from a spilled drink or a drop on a hard surface. Most manufacturers sell accident coverage as a separate plan, on top of extended warranties that work on top of a standard one, so you might end up spending close to $300 for 3 years of coverage. Apple offers a maximum 3-year extended warranty ($250), while most Windows-based laptop vendors will offer up to 4 years.
In our opinion, the warranty costs more than 15 percent of the total laptop price, you're better off spending the money on backup drives or services that minimize downtime in case something does go awry. Of course, you can't put a price tag on peace of mind. There are instances when the logic board or the display—the most expensive pieces of a laptop—fail, and while rare, that can cost you half of what the laptop is worth. Faulty components usually break down during the first year; anything after that is probably more about regular wear and tear.
So, what the best laptop to get for school? True, there are even more choices on the market today, and slogging through them can be a bit daunting. No worries, we did the slogging for you. Check out the hottest laptops to grace the dorm room, college classroom, and campus quad for this school year. For more general factors to look for when choosing a laptop, check out our overall top picks for laptops, as well as our favorite budget notebooks and the best desktops for students.