If you are a parent, guardian, grandparent or just really cool aunt or uncle shopping for an upcoming college student I’m sure that you are overwhelmed by the choices in front of you. Also, let’s not rule out that you may be shopping for yourself. It’s definitely not the only or biggest item to worry about as a college student but choosing a laptop is an important decision. This is hopefully a purchase that will last through most if not all of your college student’s college career. Making the wrong decision can cost more money down the road. Also, it may cause a lot of difficulty trying to make a laptop do something it wasn’t designed for.
There are a few important questions that you should ask yourself to guide you to the right laptop for your college student. We will step through these questions and explore possible scenarios. I will also recommend specific devices and models. Every situation is different but I hope that I can provide some guidance for you and your college bound student.
What Type of College Student Are You Buying For?
This is the most important question that you need to ask. If you don’t know about the student that you are buying for you won’t be able to make an informed decision. You need to know about the classes the college student will be taking as well as how they will use their laptop during they off time. You need to know if the student plans to work and if they will use the laptop for that purpose. Use the following list of questions to get started.
- Does the college list specific laptop requirements for the college student’s selected program of study?
- How does the student use their current device in their personal time? Do they play games? Watch Netflix? Create?
- Will the student support a hobby or part time work? Are they a photographer? App/Web developer? Musician?
- How long will the student use this device? Just for core classes? Their whole college career?
Once you have the answers to these questions you will be ready to explore the different devices and when each one may make sense. Read up on the college website and quiz your teenager about things they don’t want to talk about. Then we can move to the next step.
Chromebook vs Windows vs Mac vs iPad?
It is important to understand the different laptops available to you and the strengths and weaknesses of each. This understanding of the available laptop options with your newfound understanding of your college student will get you closer to that perfect purchase.
Chromebooks have become very popular because of their low cost as well as their low need for maintenance. You can essentially think of this as a laptop that only runs the Chrome browser. While this is a limitation, it can actually be a very good limitation. This means that there is less to break from a software perspective, but a huge percentage of what people use laptops for can be done in a web browser such as Chrome. That said, it only take one thing that can’t be done well to make the whole experience suffer. If you know of any requirement for special software you should probably steer clear of the Chromebook for your college student.
Windows laptops are probably the most popular college student laptop choice. There are several reasons for this. They usually deliver the most bang for the buck. Windows laptops come in a wide range of price and performance and can fit many use cases. These devices also support dedicated graphics cards that may be needed for engineering or design students as well as gamers. They also support the widest range of software. A windows laptop is not always the sexiest choice but it is probably the safest unless you know of a specific requirement at your college.
Apple products have a lot of appeal, especially in the consumer space and there are good reasons why. Their devices do not compromise on design aesthetics or build quality. The may not always implement the latest bleeding edge tech but you can count on them to be reliable and hold up for a long time. I get more use and productivity out of an 6 year old MacBook Pro than Windows devices half the age.
OK, so that all sounds great but you will find that a MacBook or iPad will be pretty expensive compared to your other options. Also, MacOS and iPadOS may not support your needs. The MacBook would probably be fine from a software perspective unless you know of something specific that your college student needs but the iPad would only be suitable to lighter use cases. I believe an iPad experience would be similar to a Chromebook but with a higher price tag and better build quality. You would also probably need to add a physical keyboard and be OK without a mouse.
How Much Will My Laptop Cost?
Price can also be an important deciding factor so here is the basic run down on what you should expect to pay.
- ChromeBooks range from under $200 to over $1000 but you will find most around $250 to $450.
- Windows Laptops range from about $200 to $3000 but most worthwhile devices are $500 to $1500.
- MacBooks range from $800 to $4000 and a MacBook Pro will be about $1500 to $2500.
- iPads range from $300 to $1500 but a recommended device with a keyboard, case and pencil will be about $600 to $1200.
As you can see there are options all across the budget spectrum and I generally believe that you get what you pay for. That said, I think the sweet spot for most of these devices are in the mid range. Buying at the low end of these devices types will usually result in poor experiences, especially over time. Buying at the high end will usually have diminishing returns and won’t really be worth the extra cost.
What Specs Should I Look For?
Computer specifications can get really convoluted and confusing so I will keep this brief and concentrate on the most important areas. The specs really tell the story or what you are getting but its not really useful to directly compare across different device types. For example, comparing the processors in a Chromebook and Windows Laptop is pointless as the devices are designed to handle very different workloads and the Chromebook will almost always have a lower end processor.
There are are three main laptop specs to check. They are:
- Processor or CPU
- Memory or RAM
- Storage or Disk Space
I’m sure that some will disagree but I would basically recommend Intel across the board for your processor. Currently you will see Core, Atom, Pentium and Celeron processors from Intel in the area of consumer laptops. I would recommend the Core i5 series for Windows and Mac laptops. The Core i7 will provide a performance boost at an added cost and the Core i3 will save you a little money by sacrificing performance. Most Chromebooks will have Pentium or Celeron as they are lower end devices but they should perform OK as they are intended for lighter workloads like web browsing and email only. iPads will not really offer a choice here except that the iPad Pro will have a higher end processor than the standard iPad or the iPad Mini.
People often confuse Memory and Storage. Memory is used by programs to temporarily store data while the laptop is running. It is not used to store photos or documents. Memory will impact how many applications or programs you can run at once and how well they perform. You may also find that some engineering or video editing software require 8GB or more to run. Currently, the most standard Windows and Mac laptops have 8GB or 16GB. I would recommend no less than 8GB and the more the better up to what you are comfortable paying. Chromebooks will usually have either 2GB or 4GB and I would go with the larger option. Once again iPads don’t offer a configuration option for memory.
Storage is the “Hard Drive”. This stores your photos and documents on your laptop. There is some give and take that goes into this decision. I love SSD (solid state disk) storage. SSD storage is great, especially for laptops. Traditional hard disks have moving parts that can physically “crash” and are particularly vulnerable in portable devices like laptops. SSD’s tend to be smaller in capacity but perform much better. Traditional disks are usually specified as HDD and tend to be larger but slower.
This comes down to cost and how much stuff you need to store on your laptop. Most basic users will be OK with 128GB to 256GB of SSD storage. If you opt for a traditional HDD I would expect a minimum of 500GB and more often 1TB to 2TB. Chromebooks will usually have 16GB or 32GB SSD as they are cloud centric devices that intend for you to store almost everything in Google Drive or Gmail. iPads will range from 32GB to 1TB SSD.
There is not a one size fits all recommendation that I can give and I hope the information presented here will help you make an informed decision for your purchase. The college student you are shopping for will benefit greatly when taking a moment to select the best laptop for their situation.