Knowing which student laptop is best for you is really hard. Lots of numbers get thrown around, acronyms you don’t understand, it’s very confusing. On top of that, you’re going to part with £400+ of your hard-earned money. We’ve created the student laptop buyers guide 2020.
Here’s the plan we suggest- 1) know what software you want, as it will have the biggest effect on your user experience. 2) see what student discounts you can get; HP 30%, Apple 10%. This can save you hundreds. 3) have a clue what hardware you need, you don’t want your laptop slowing down a year after you buy it, and you don’t want to spend thousands.
Step 1: Which operating system is right for you
Laptops come with different operating systems- commonly MacOS, Windows, and ChromeOS. There are important differences between them that affect price and usability. You should know what you’re getting yourself into before the big spend.
The Good: Windows is the easy recommendation for any student laptop. 90% of PC’s run Windows and they’re not very expensive. Almost all programs will work on Windows, meaning any games or obscure programs you have will run just fine. Any issues can be resolved online with a quick search.
The Bad: To cut a long and complex story short, Windows is built to work with programs as far back as the 80’s. This means that on occasion it can be a little clunky and strange. When it comes to the lifetime of your laptop, Windows devices tend to slow down after a few years. You can easily reinstall windows to improve this however.
The Good: MacOS is seen as a more premium operating system, this is because Apple has tight control over which devices have their software. This means they can tune it for your device perfectly, and give you a smoother experience.
MacOS is optimised per laptop to run as fast as possible. As a result, 10 year old laptops can easily run the latest version of MacOS smoothly.
Secondly, Apple pays a lot of detail to the user experience. The trackpads on Apple devices are, without dispute, the best in any computer. The software itself tries to come across as very premium and being worthy of the price of the system you paid for to get it.
The Bad: THE PRICE- a Mac laptop will often cost £200-300 more than the equivalent Windows machine. In the long run, the superior user experience and higher resale value may be worth it, but the high initial cost makes it the users choice.
MacOS also occasionally suffers from poor software compatibility. From experience at university, some of the apps on AppsAnywhere aren’t compatible with MacOS. This isn’t a big deal however, as Windows can be installed on a MacBook alongside MacOS with minimal fuss.
As an alert, on 13 and 15 inch pro laptops between 2016-2019, the keyboards aren’t very good and we would recommend avoiding them. They are known to break, and don’t offer a good typing experience. The 2020 models fix this. You DO NOT want a ‘butterfly’ keyboard.
The Good: ChromeOS is very lightweight, meaning the laptops that run it don’t need powerful hardware and are far cheaper than Windows or MacOS counterparts. Plenty of apps can be installed on them, such as YouTube, Google Docs and Microsoft Office. They also have massive battery life, often 12 hours of usage. We have an in depth review here.
The Bad: Software limitations! MacOS and Windows can install essentially any software, whereas ChromeOS is limited to phone apps or online web apps. Not a problem for universities where you have access to machines with your more specific programs on, but at home perhaps it could get annoying.
Step 2: Finding a student discount
Attending an institution which gives you a student email address, ending .edu or .ac.uk, but some people don’t realise this can be used to get massive shopping discounts. Tech benefits especially, with discounts as high as 10 to 30 percent! This is commonly done through services like Unidays or Student Beans.
For technology, you generally get given a special ‘education portal’ link that takes off a percentage when shopping around. You can also get given a discount code to apply at the checkout, but for tech that’s a bit more rare. Carrying on with the HP example:
From here, you can find the computer right for you. We recommend doing this second as often not every system on a site is under discount, so it helps you narrow down the playing field for what can be gotten cheaper.
Step 3: Deciding what student laptop you need
This is going to be the hardest part of the process. No-one knows what they’re going to be using their laptop for better than you, but some guidance on what you need would help.
First, I’ll explain each component, and then, depending on what you want to do, a specification that might align with you.
The brain of the system. More cores means it can multitask better, and a higher speed (measured in GHz) means it’s faster at processing things.
The short term memory of the computer. More RAM means you can have more stuff going on at once without the computer slowing down.
Imagine you have YouTube, Facebook, Word and PowerPoint open at the same time. Your laptop has to remember and be able to recall where you were in all of those programs without you noticing a slowdown.
How much stuff you can store. ALWAYS GET AN SSD OVER A HDD. Hard disk drives are deadly slow in 2020. Nothing will make your laptop better to use than getting a solid state drive.
It’s hard to recommend a size as people’s needs are different. Generally, the best plan is to buy as big an SSD as you can afford. For any extra storage, you can get a USB hard drive or cloud storage.
A second processor made to run graphics applications faster, and take pressure off the processor. This won’t be a concern for 95% of people. If you need to edit videos, photos or play games, you’ll know if you need one.
What components a student laptop needs
The average student workload. Editing multiple word documents, watching films on Netflix, shopping online. You could buy a Chromebook, but if you need a Windows or Mac machine:
- Dual core processor
- 8GB of ram
- 128 – 256GB SSD
- No graphics
Frequent 1080p video or general photo editing. If you’re having to do this on a decent basis, you’ll want a machine that can keep up with you:
- Quad core processor
- 8-16GB of RAM
- 256-512GB SSD
- Low end dedicated graphics
Working in many large programs at once. YouTube, a large Excel spreadsheet, MATLAB and Word at the same time. You could get buy with less, but for consistent performance:
- Low end quad core processor
- 8GB of ram
- 128-256GB SSD
- No graphics
4k video editing. One of the most taxing things you can do on a regular computer, requiring high-end hardware:
- Quad or six core processor
- 16GB of RAM
- 256+GB SSD
- Medium to high end dedicated graphics.
Once you’ve selected a machine you think fits your needs, it’s best to search for reviews to see what professionals think. At any tier there will be competing machines, so finding the best reviewed one at the lowest price is desirable.