Every student needs a laptop and with back to school deals on now, it's a great time to shop for one. Here is what you need to consider before buying a new laptop for the upcoming school year.
How Will You Use Your Laptop?
Buying a laptop is complex and may seem overwhelming at first. The most important thing to consider when you're choosing a laptop is what are you going to use it for? You want to take your needs into account. A good way to begin your search is to set a budget and make a list of must-have features. Afterwards cross check your list with the specs of any laptop you are considering. This will help you avoid buying more than you need.
Check Your School For Ideas
Your next step starts with understanding what your school recommends to its students. You'll want to check with instructors and TAs, your faculty & department and school IT department. They'll be able to recommend a set of minimum specs for laptops, along with the software you should have in your program of study. This will establish the baseline laptop specs to begin your search. A student in engineering will have completely different needs than a digital arts student.
Do your own due diligence and research laptops that interest you by reading reviews. Along with professional reviews, a ton of information can be obtained by real world experience from user reviews on sites such as Amazon.ca and Newegg.ca. Remember it's equally important to test the laptop yourself before buying. You can read all about a model but you'll need to try it out to truly understand what it's like to type on its keyboard, use the trackpad, or know how well it's really built. Most everyday laptops are available for testing at brick-and-mortar stores. You don't necessarily have to make a purchase in the store, but should at least get some hands-on experience before making any decision.
Types of Laptops
Chromebooks run on an operating system created by Google called Chrome OS. They are budget laptops designed to be used primarily while connected to the internet. It is a cloud computing system that can run on modest hardware.
Gaming laptops are notoriously expensive, big, and heavy. They are designed for high performance and are equipped with the latest mobile dGPUs from Nvidia and AMD in order to play the latest games.
General use laptops are considered budget or mid-range devices with screen sizes ranging from 11" - 17". They are designed to handle everyday computing tasks for the average user.
Ultrabooks are a class of laptop that meet a certain standard of thinness, lightness and size established by Intel. They are often premium machines that are less than an inch thin, with long battery life and high resolution displays.
Business laptops are designed for work and productivity. They are workstations built to be robust and are characterized by a wide variety ports, including easier access to their internals than consumers laptops. Many feature hardware-level security options.
Hybrid laptops or 2-in-1 are dual-purpose devices that are able to serve as both a laptop and a tablet. They come in either a detachable design that sees the touchscreen doubling as a tablet, or in a convertible form where the laptop's screen rotates 360 degrees into a tablet mode.
Choosing The Right Size
Laptops come in all shapes and sizes, however those with a 13" - 15" display remains the sweet spot and best choice for most students. They typically weigh 3-6 pounds, making them light enough to carry to and from classes. The ideal size really depends on how you plan to use your laptop. Going small is a good idea if you plan on bringing your laptop to class daily. Larger models may be too bulky unless you're using the system mostly at your desk as a desktop PC replacement. Laptops with a 15.6" display are the most common size on the market and if you're on a budget, tend to be the least expensive.
Having Enough Power When You Need It
Battery life matters and it's as important as portability -- nobody wants to be chained to a power outlet. Whichever laptop you're considering, you'll want to compare the manufacturer's battery life estimations vs. user reviews to see whether their claims match up. Initially you may think to get the laptop with the largest battery, however, keep in mind, bigger batteries with more cells mean more weight. You'll generally find replaceable batteries in more modest machines, while many higher end laptops use a sealed battery to keep their form factor small. Battery life can be negatively impacted by high resolution displays because more power is needed to drive all those pixels. If you plan to be fairly mobile, I would suggest a laptop that will last at least 6 hours on a charge.
How Does You Laptop Look and Feel?
The look and feel of the laptop and materials used is important. Some laptops are built to last, while others are made from cheap plastic and feel flimsy. When it comes to build quality, you'll want to be hands-on to understand what you're buying. One thing to look out for is flex -- if you press down on the lid or keyboard and see a lot of flex, you should move on. Don't forget to also checkout the hinges to see if it opens and closes smoothly.
As a student, you'll be doing lots of typing. You'll want to pay extra attention to the trackpad and keyboard, as these are the areas you'll interact with the most. Having a laptop with the best specs won't mean much if it doesn't have good ergonomics. Things to consider: how responsive does the trackpad feel and is it multitouch gesture capable? For keyboards you'll want to ensure they're large enough to type comfortably with a solid tactile feedback. You'll also want to check if there are any keys in non-standard places. For non-bilingual Canadians, you may seriously want to consider a laptop with an U.S. English-only keyboard. Bilingual keyboard layouts are known for having a narrow "enter" and "left shift" key.
Choosing Your Operating System
This is a personal preference, however you'll want to pay attention if your school or program has a recommendation. The software you're expected to use in your area of study will influence your decision. Some programs are only available to Windows, while others are more optimized in OS X.
OS X is exclusive to MacBooks. It features an attractive user-friendly interface, easy connectivity with other iDevices and free iCloud storage. It includes an excellent bundled of free apps, such as FaceTime, Garage Band, iMovie and more. There are also fewer issues with viruses and malware. OS X is capable of running Windows through Boot Camp, as long as you purchase a Windows license. The latest version, OS X El Capitan will be available as a free update later this fall.
Windows is the most common OS in the world. Buying a Windows laptop gives you more brands and overall selection to find the perfect laptop for you. Windows systems tend to be less expensive than MacBooks and offer a larger range of programs, especially games. Unlike Apple, you'll find Windows laptops available with touchscreen functionality. Windows 10 is now available as a free upgrade for all Windows 7 and 8 users.
Chrome OS is Google's operating system for Chromebooks. It's optimized for Google's apps and is ideal for someone who spends most of their computing time surfing in Chrome, checking Gmail, social networking, or working in Google Drive. I don't recommend a Chromebook as a student's sole PC, as they can be problematic in environments that don't have access to Wi-Fi.
Knowing Your Specs
Laptop specifications to keep an eye on are the processor, hard drive, memory, and screen resolution. What you need depends on what you plan to do with your laptop. More intensive tasks such as gaming and video editing will require more expensive components.
CPU: The processor is the first component you should consider, as it has the most impact on performance and can make a big difference in the cost of a laptop. The least expensive laptops are equipped with AMD E Series or Intel Pentium CPUs which are fine for web surfing but will struggle to handle serious productivity tasks. The Intel Atom is another low performer but offers longer battery life. If performance matters, don't settle for anything less than an Intel Core M, Core i3 or AMD A Series laptop. I would recommend any Intel's 5th generation Broadwell Core i3, i5 and i7 CPU (models starting with 5xxx) as the processor of choice. However if you're looking to save money, the 4th generation Haswell chips (models starting with 4xxx) come very close with about a 10% drop off in performance and battery life. If you're spending over $500, demand at least an Intel Haswell Core i5.
RAM: When it comes to memory I wouldn't settle for anything less than 4GB of RAM. Most students can get by on 4GB. However if you can find a laptop with 6GB or 8GB of RAM that's a bit more expensive than one with 4GB, that's a good place to stretch your budget. You generally can't upgrade much in a laptop, but can usually upgrade the RAM, which means you can always add more if and when you need it.
Hard Drive: Will you be using your laptop for entertainment as well as studying? If the former is true, a 500GB hard drive should ensure your laptop has enough storage to accommodate your needs. A fast drive is generally more important than a large one. If given the option, go for a 7,200 rpm hard drive over a 5,400 rpm unit. Getting a laptop with a solid state drive (SSD) is a great idea for their performance but can be quite pricey. You will however enjoy super fast boot times, and application loads. Plus they consume less power than mechanical drives which prolongs battery life. If a laptop with a SSD is out of your budget, you can always add one as a future upgrade!
Display: One of the key aspects of a laptop is screen resolution which shouldn't be overlooked. You should always choose the highest resolution display you can get. The higher the pixel density, the more content you can fit on screen, and the sharper images and text will look. Most budget laptops come with a HD 1366 x 768 screen resolution. If you intend to use an external monitor, your laptop screen resolution will be less of an issue. However if you're planning on working off your laptop all day, I would recommend a HD+ 1600 x 900 or a FHD 1920 x 1080 display. This will provide you with more screen real estate, without the need to constantly scroll and allow you to run multiple programs side-by-side.
The number of ports can fluctuate a lot from models, and the smaller your laptop, the fewer ports it's going to have. It's important to make sure the laptop you buy has all the ports you need. Keep an eye out for the number of USB 2.0, USB 3.0 and USB-C ports. Does it have an optical drive for installing software, watching movies or archiving work? How about a SD memory card slot for file transfer and storage expansion? Does it have a Gigabit Ethernet for networking or if Wi-Fi isn't available. If you intend to use an external monitor, you’ll want to ensure there's a VGA, DVI, or HDMI port. Take stock of the ports you need then double check your laptop options.
Don't Forget External Peripherals
While shopping for a new laptop, you should budget for peripherals and accessories. Will you need a protective laptop sleeve or bag for commuting when you're out and about? When you’re back at your desk, will you need an external monitor, keyboard or mouse? Others accessories to consider are laptop stands, spare charger & battery, adapters, a base station dock, printer, and so on. Some retail stores offer savings on accessories when you're buying a new laptop that may not be advertised, don’t hesitate to ask for a bundle discount!
With any laptop you're considering, it's worth double checking how upgradable it is and whether you'll void the warranty by doing so. With the exception of Apple and some Ultrabooks, you can usually replace the RAM and the hard drive on most laptops. This knowledge will come in handy as you can compromise to save money on a killer laptop deal with modest specs, knowing that you can upgrade later on. Installing an SSD is my favourite upgrade for any laptop.
Take Advantage of Being a Student
Check with your school's computer shop, they most likely will offer student discounts on laptops. You'll also want to take advantage of student discounts directly from manufacturers. Apple and Microsoft offer educational pricing on laptops with savings up to 10% that's exclusive to part-time and full-time post-secondary students, including parents purchasing on behalf of their child. Another perk of being a student is discounts on software. Microsoft offers a 4-year subscription to Office 365 University (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote and Skydrive) for $79, while a regular consumer has to pay $99 a year for access to Office 365 Home. Generally while shopping online, all you need is your school email address to access educational deals.
Don't be afraid to purchase refurbished, especially directly from manufacturers. Apple, IBM and Dell offer substantial savings on generally older models that have gone through a stringent refurbishment process prior to being offered for sale. They are fully tested to be functional, with any defective parts replaced with genuine components and backed by an 1 year manufacture's limited warranty.
Don’t Exclude The Business Class
Even if you're not a professional or business student, don't rule out shopping for laptops marketed to businesses. Business class laptops are designed for durability and often provide better keyboards, biometric verification and a slew of customizable options. You can usually opt for an extended battery, a higher resolution display, more memory, and storage. Brands to consider, include Dell, HP and Lenovo.
Protecting Your Investment
Extended warranties are a hotly contested topic. I'll be frank: I'm not a fan, they are rarely worth it. They typically cover only manufacturing defects and won't cover accidental damage. If you're tempted to go for one, keep in mind that you can usually buy an extended warranty any time before the standard warranty ends, so if you want to save up and wait on the decision, you can. Remember most major credit card companies will extend your warranty for free as part of their consumer protection package. Although not on all the cards they offer, so be sure to check with your credit card provider.
Those are the basics to get you started. With enough research, you should be able to find the perfect laptop. A laptop is an investment that you'll probably have to live with every day for at least a few years. For many students, your laptop will pull double duty for work and play, it's important to be happy with the one you buy. If it comes down to choosing between a design you love and a minor difference in specs, I'd point out that most mainstream laptops are powerful enough for everyday computing tasks, so go with a sweet looking design. Remember to shop smart, spend where it matters and save some money.
One last word of advice, after you purchase your new laptop, install Prey (free) on Windows laptops or Find my Mac (free) on Apple MacBooks. You want to be able to secure your back-to-school laptop with tracking software in case it goes mysteriously missing on campus!
If you're ready to shop, you can check the laptop tag for a look at what is out there!