Which laptop should I buy for college? (2014 edition)

June 2, 2014, 7 p.m.

As the resident "guy who knows stuff about computers," I get asked a lot which computer people should buy when they head off to college. Having just finished my 4th year of a 5-year engineering degree, I have plenty of experience to draw on regarding what a college student needs from their laptop to be successful.

After buying your laptop, make sure you protect it! A couple years ago I wrote about protecting your laptop in college... check it out for more details about laptop security.

If you're a gamer, programmer, or otherwise need a beefy computer, you might consider having a desktop at home (or in your dorm) and bringing a lighter laptop or even a tablet to class. Some students may even be able to get by with just a tablet, especially if it has a keyboard accessory available. All major tablet platforms, including Android, iOS, and Windows 8 have excellent note-taking apps.

Before we get into specific recommendations, let's talk about the general features you want in your college laptop:

weight

Weight is both the most important and most forgotten criteria for finding a college laptop. Don't get any laptop over 5 lbs, and aim for under 4. The heavier your laptop is, the less likely you'll bring it with you. A lighter, smaller laptop fits better in your pack, and is easier to lug around campus with all those heavy textbooks. Plus, many of your desks will be smaller than a sheet of paper. A giant laptop won't fit.

"It's too heavy" is the #1 laptop regret I hear in college. You can comfortably bring a lightweight laptop with you everywhere, never having to think ahead about whether you might need it or not. I've seen students lose participation points in a class with in-class computer exercises, when the students thought laptops weren't going to be used in that lecture. Be prepared.

battery Battery life is second most important feature. Many classrooms don't have power plugs, and even if they do it's still inconvenient to carry a charger around and make everyone trip over your cables to find a seat. Look at third-party reviews to verify manufacturers' battery life claims – the battery life stated is usually exaggerated by measuring under unrealistic conditions. You want enough battery life to get through a full school day, so the hours you need depends on the types of classes you'll be taking. Five hours is a good minimum.
durability Get a computer that'll last. A laptop that costs 20% more up front but lasts all four years of college is worth it, especially when you consider the time lost replacing a broken laptop in the middle of midterms. Avoid "entertainment" or "media" computers, and look for "business grade" or "professional" computers. The specs may look identical, but the build quality, internal structure, drop resistance, and longevity will be better.
screen resolution

Screen size isn't all that important as long as it's comfortable to carry – you'll be sitting right in front of the screen. Screen resolution is important though. Resolution is how many pixels there are per square inch of screen. The higher the resolution, the crisper things will look, and the more will fit on your screen at once. This makes it easier to put an Excel sheet with data and a lab report in Word side-by-side, or to have a browser open for research right next to your essay.

Avoid laptops with a 1366x768 resolution, as it's too small to fit two windows comfortably side-by-side. Look for a 1600x900 screen as a minimum, and get a 1920x1080 or larger resolution if possible. A super-high-resolution screen (like Apple's Retina displays) is nice, but by no means a necessity - they make everything look smoother but don't increase usable screen space.

wifi Get a dual-band wireless card. Unfortunately the wording used by manufacturers is inconsistent, but look for things like "dual band", "5 GHz", supports "802.11a" or "802.11ac". Most universities have a 5 GHz wifi network, which will have much less congestion and interference than the standard 2.4 GHz spectrum. Even if this option costs $20 or $30 extra, it's worth it. In a crowded lecture hall it can mean the difference between not being able to connect and having nearly limitless speeds.
student

Look for student discounts before you buy your laptop. All major manufacturers offer student discounts, typically from 10-20%. Here's a list of student portals for some of the major manufacturers:

You can also get an academic discount on most software. Don't purchase Microsoft Office or other bundled software with your laptop. Your university's bookstore likely offers the same software for 20-80% cheaper. Some schools even offer Microsoft Office for free to all students. You also don't need to purchase anti-virus software – antivirus software is built in to Windows 8, and is available for free for other platforms.

Specific Recommendations

Here, in order of preference, are my top suggestions for 2014 college laptops. If these prices seem a bit high to you, scroll on down to the bottom for my budget laptop suggestions.

Surface Pro 3 (from $720)

Surface Pro 3 image

The 2014 #1 laptop suggestion... is not a laptop! It's the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. The Surface has the internals and performance of a full-powered ultrabook laptop in the shape of a tablet. Unlike Android or iOS tablets, it runs a full, regular version of Windows, meaning you can use any program like you would on a regular PC. The detachable keyboard ($130 extra, but a must-have) allows you to type like a regular laptop, and snaps off so you can use the Surface as a tablet. The Surface has all the major features recommended above: it's light at 1.8 lbs, testers have run it for nearly 10 hours doing casual web browsing, and about 7 hours with video playing, and it comes with a 5GHz ac/abgn wifi card and Bluetooth 4.0 built in.

Perhaps the most compelling feature for students is the built-in digitizer. In addition to 10-point multitouch, you can also use the included surface pen to hand-write notes, to draw diagrams on your typed notes, to create things in Photoshop or Illustrator, to annotate documents, etc. I haven't used the Surface 3 in person yet (it's not available to the public until late June, but is available for pre-order now), but I have used the Surface Pro 2, and the early reviews of the Surface Pro 3 indicate that it's an improvement.

The base model is $799, but students get 10% off through the Microsoft Education Store. The lowest-cost model gets you a Core i3 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of storage. I'd suggest going with the next model up, which gets you a Core i5, 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of storage for $1000 ($900 with discount). If you have demanding needs, you can get up to a Core i7 with 8 GB of RAM and a 512 GB SSD.

Visit Microsoft Education Store or View Surface Pro 3 details

ThinkPad

If a tablet isn't your style, take a look at Lenovo's ThinkPad lineup, with options for lightweight ultrabooks or beefier machines with lots of computing power. ThinkPads are known for their durability and build quality. Most have spill-resistant keyboards, internal roll cages, and reinforced hinges. ThinkPads also have the best keyboards of any laptop I've ever used. The keys are comfortably spaced, never miss a hit, and have a much more responsive and satisfying feel than cheap, thin keyboards found on many laptops.

ALL LENOVO PRODUCTS including ThinkPad, IdeaPad, Yoga, and all others are NO LONGER RECOMMENDED due to Lenovo pre-installing spyware on their computers. Sometime in 2014, Lenovo started pre-installing an adware program called "superfish". Not only does it display ads in all major web browsers, it also installs a fake security certificate, enabling it to intercept any "secure" connection. This means the password to your email, your bank account information, your social security number, and any other private information you ever transmit through your computer could be compromised if it has this software installed. Lenovo has stopped installing this software, but this incredible breach of trust is so severe that I can no longer recommend any Lenovo products.

Lenovo offers student discounts of about 10% through their Student Portal. If you sign up for a free account at Lenovo's Barnes and Noble partner site, you can get even larger discounts.

X240 (from $830)

X240 image

The 3 lb, 12" X240 is the perfect size and weight for college students. My X230 (the previous generation of this laptop) fits on any desk and is easy to carry everywhere on campus. If you're OK with a slightly smaller screen, I consider it to be more convenient than the T440 series. It is slightly more expensive, especially when factoring in what I would consider nearly-necessary upgrades to make it a great laptop.

Suggested upgrades: Core i5-4200U (if i3 is preselected, +$50), 6 cell rear battery (+$5), Intel 7260AC wireless (+$30), and the nicest screen you can afford – absolutely get the IPS display (+$80) at a minimum, as it is much higher quality than the default. If you can afford the 1080p full HD display, go for it (+$330), although that adds so much cost that another laptop may end up being a better choice if you go for that option.

Visit the Lenovo Student Portal or View X240 details

T440 series (from $800)

Thinkpad T440

The T440 series offers a compelling balance of portability and power, with 3 different weight and performance classes. All 3 have options for full HD (1920x1080) screens, and have user-replaceable memory and hard drive slots. At 14" they're big enough to give you plenty of screen space without being too bulky to carry.

  • T440s: The lightest choice at 3.6 lbs. Also the most expensive, starting at $1000 (typically about $900 with student discounts). Suggested upgrades: Full HD screen (+$120), 72 Wh 6-cell rear battery (+$5), Intel 7260AC Wireless Card (+$30). The weight savings compared to the standard T440 may not justify the extra cost if you're on a budget.

  • T440: Middle of the road at 4 lbs, and the cheapest option. Starts at $850, or about $770 with the student discount. Suggested upgrades: Core i5-4200U (if pre-configured with the Core i3 option, +$50), HD+ 1600x900 screen (+$50), 6 cell rear battery (if available, +$5), Intel 7260AC wireless card (+$30). This is the most economical choice in the T440 series.

  • T440p: A beefier option at 4.1 lbs. Starts at $900, or about $800 with student discounts. the T440p is the only one in the series with a built-in CD drive. It also has slightly more rugged internal construction. Recommended upgrades: Core i5-4200M (if Core i3 is preselected, +$50), HD+ 1600x900 screen or Full HD 1920x1080 screen (depending on your budget, +$50 or +$200 respectively), 9 cell battery (+$30), Intel 7260AC wireless (+$30).

Visit the Lenovo Student Portal or View T440 series details

X1 Carbon: no longer recommended

Last year the X1 Carbon was one of my top suggestions. Unfortunately, Lenovo has ruined the 2014 edition with a horrific keyboard. Ars Technica covers the reasons it's awful fairly thoroughly, but long story short, a bunch of keys got rearranged for no reason, making it difficult to use without looking at every stroke.

Apple MacBook Air (from $950)

Macbook Air 13

I personally prefer Windows over OS X, but the MacBook Air is definitely a nice computer. If you'd like a Mac, I would suggest the 13" version, which weighs in at 2.9 lbs. You don't get many configuration options with Macs, just a few choices to upgrade the storage or processor. The 13" comes with a 1440x900 screen, a claimed 12 hours of battery life, and 5 GHz wifi. You can get the 11" starting at $850 and the 13" starting at $950 on Apple's Mac for Education site.

ASUS ZenBook (from $925)

ASUS ZenBook image

The Asus ZenBook is the one exception to my "no consumer laptops" rule. The ZenBook line's build quality and features are superb, and while expensive, they deserve a look if you can afford one. ASUS isn't very good at naming their laptops, but I narrowed the dozen or so laptops in the ZenBook family down to two choices – both with new, power-efficient Intel processors, high resolution touchscreens, and 5 GHz AC wireless.

  • The UX301LA is one of the nicest laptops on the market right now. Starting at $1500 it's quite pricey, but you get a 2560x1440 ultra-HD screen behind scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass, plus up to 512 GB of SSD storage and 8 GB of RAM. Asus doesn't sell their laptops directly, but you can buy one on Amazon.

  • The UX302LA is just as sleek, but brings down the price to $925 by using a still-excellent 1920x1080 screen, 4GB of RAM, and a standard magnetic hard drive instead of an SSD. It too is available on Amazon.

Dell Latitude and XPS

Dell's Latitude business notebooks are durable and should last you a long time. Unfortunately, Dell doesn't offer nearly as much customization as they used to, so it can be difficult to get the right combination of features. I couldn't find any Latitude laptops with a high resolution screen for under $1000, but most did offer 5 GHz wifi cards. At 4.3 lbs and 14", the Latitude 14 5000 series seems to have the best balance of features among the current Latitude lineup.

Dell's consumer-oriented XPS laptops aren't quite as rugged as the Latitude, but still provide good performance and decent build quality. The XPS 13 weights 3 lbs and comes with a 1920x1080 full HD display.

Don't buy HP!

As the #1 computer seller in the world, HP would appear to be a glaring omission in this list. If you learn one thing today, let it be this: don't buy HP. Freshman year, I was one of over 20 acquaintances with HP Pavilion laptops. Four years later, only one of them still has a fully functioning computer. Mine died during finals week of sophomore year when the fan quit working. About half died due to overheating problems, and the other half died due to hinges and joints literally falling apart due to poor construction and cheap materials.

Just to give HP a fair shot, I checked with people who bought HP laptops in future years, thinking perhaps our year was a fluke. Unfortunately, almost every person I talked to who had an HP laptop has had serious issues, and said they wouldn't recommend an HP laptop to their friends.

Saving money

Most of my suggestions here are a bit pricey. That's for a reason: I only recommend laptops that I think will last through your whole college career, and that have the features I think you need to get the most out of your computer. A cheaply built laptop will come back to bite you, and ultimately cost more when you have to replace it down the road.

However, I know that for a lot of families, a $1000 laptop on top of tuition is just too much to afford. The cheapest laptop I could configure with all of my suggested criteria above was the ThinkPad E440. It came out to $602 using the Barnes and Noble discount with the following options:

  • Core i3-4000M
  • 14" HD+ 1600x900 screen
  • 6 cell 62WH battery
  • Intel 7260AC dual band wireless

The E440 isn't as rugged as the T or X series ThinkPads, and it's heavier at 4.7 lbs. However, it's still more durable than generic consumer media laptops, has the fantastic ThinkPad keyboard, and should get any student through college.

Refurbished laptops: brand-new quality at much lower prices

If $600 is still over your budget (or even if your budget is $1200), consider looking at refurbished laptops. When a customer cancels an order, their brand-new unused laptop is sent back to the factory, but it can't be resold as new. Every major manufacturer has an outlet store where they sell refurbished laptops. Each refurbished computer is checked carefully to make sure it's in good condition, and typically still comes with a full 1-year warranty. Computers are often hundreds of dollars cheaper when refurbished, and work just as well.

Availability of refurbished laptops fluctuates constantly, so you have to keep a close eye out for good deals. For example, at the time of this writing, a Dell E7440, typically a $1000+ ultrabook, is available for $520 with full HD 1920x1080 screen and dual-band wireless.

That's all, folks. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below. If this post was helpful for you, please share it with your friends: Share on Facebook or Tweet it.

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The icons in the suggestions table were obtained from The Noun Project: Wifi by Mourad Mokrane, Scale by Mister Pixel, Graduate Cap by Diego Naive, Screen by Kaique Amorim, Laptop by B. Agustín Amenábar Larraín, Battery by Edward Boatman.

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