The Fifth-Annual "Which laptop should I buy for college?" review (2015 edition)

July 10, 2015, 6 a.m.

It's interesting to look at how computers have changed in the 5 years that I've been doing this annual "best computers for college" blog series. Basic computer specifications haven't changed a whole lot... sure, processors a little bit faster, but they're mostly just less power-hungry. 4 GB of RAM is still pretty standard for a laptop. SSDs are one big area of improvement with basic computer components. The real big story is tablets: 5 years ago iPads were seen as more of a toy than a tool; today, many of the best "laptops" are actually some type of tablet.

Before we get into specific recommendations, let's talk about the general features you want in your college laptop. These haven't changed much since last year, but there's a few additions:

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 3. 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. Six 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. New laptops should have an 802.11 A/C option, so go with that if it's available.
CPU

It's rarely worth paying extra for a faster CPU – most laptops sold these days are more than fast enough for the average college student's tasks. Web browsing, spreadsheets, simple programming, web development, word processing, and the all-important Facebook browsing don't require an extreme processor. Furthermore, a more powerful processor drains your battery faster. If you're in a course of study which requires intensive computation, chances are you'll have access to fast lab computers which are so much faster than any reasonably-sized laptop that it'll make sense to use them in the rare instances you need to.

Anything labeled Intel Core i3 or i5 should meet the average student's needs; a Core i7 processor is typically overkill but certainly won't hurt. Intel Atom processors are a bit on the slower side. If you're doing a lot of programming or numerical simulation you may feel a bit constrained with an Atom processor; if you're primarily doing web browsing and word processing, you should be OK.

In terms of memory, more is always better, but 4 GB should still be enough for most users.

SSD

Solid state drives are far more affordable and commonplace than they were in years past. Many ultrabook-style laptops and laptop/tablet crossovers come with an SSD by default. Many laptops have the option to support a regular hard drive, an SSD, or a caching SSD. A hard drive uses a spinning magnetic disk to store data, and can store a lot of data (terabytes!) relatively inexpensively; however, they are slow because to access data the hard drive must spin to the right location. SSDs (solid state drives) have no moving parts, and any data can be accessed equally easily. They're therefore way faster and use less power. A caching SSD is a small SSD in a computer with a regular hard drive. It stores your most frequently-accessed files on the small SSD, and uses the big hard drive to store everything else.

If you choose not to get an SSD, make sure to get a hard drive with a 7200 RPM speed. If you can afford an SSD, it's an excellent way to speed up a computer and reduce power consumption. Generally speaking, if you have the option to select a hard drive or an SSD when configuring your computer, that means you could order the SSD yourself separately – often saving a lot of money. For example, upgrading the Thinkpad X250 from a 500 GB hard drive to a 512 GB SSD adds a whopping $580 to the price. You can buy an excellent 500 GB Samsung SSD on Amazon for under $200. A tech-savvy friend, or just some patience and time spent looking at the service manual, can get an SSD installed in a few hours.

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 since 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

Continuing from last year, the top 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.

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

Microsoft recently released the Surface 3, which uses a low-power Intel Atom quad-core processor. Starting at $500 ($450 for students), it has the same basic design as the Surface Pro but with slightly lower specifications in a smaller shell. It still includes the full touch digitizer, a 10" 1920x1280 screen, and 5 GHz wifi. Microsoft claims 10 hours of battery life. And, like the Surface Pro 3, it runs a full version of Windows which can run any normal Windows application – unlike other tablets such as iPads and Android tablets, which can only use specific apps.

View Surface 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.

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.

X250 (from $820)

X250 image

The 2.9 lb, 12" X250 is the perfect size and weight for college students. My X230 (a 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 T450 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 i5-5200U (if i3 is preselected, +$50), 6 cell rear battery (+$5), Intel 7265AC wireless, and the nicest screen you can afford – absolutely get the IPS display (+$60) at a minimum, as it is much higher quality than the default. If you can afford the 1080p full HD display, go for it (+$100). The full HD screen upgrade is much cheaper in the X250 than it was in last year's X240, making it a very worthwhile upgrade option. If you want to upgrade the RAM, the X250 comes with one slot of RAM soldered in (and thus non-replaceable), but also has one upgrade slot available. If you're comfortable buying RAM separately and installing it yourself, it's typically cheaper to do so. Likewise, an SSD is nice to have, but also easy and cheaper to install yourself.

Visit the Lenovo Student Portal or View X250 details

X1 Carbon: Back from the dead

The first-gen X1 Carbon was a top suggestion. Lenovo ruined the 2014 edition with a horrific keyboard, but fortunately the third-gen 2015 edition has been revived with the original keyboard layout, and excellent performance and display upgrades. At 2.8 lbs, it's actually no lighter than the X250; however, it is thinner while also having a wider screen. If you're the sort of person who likes to upgrade their own RAM and SSD or tinker with your laptop, the X250 may be a better choice. If you're looking for a slim laptop which is a touch more stylish, the X1 Carbon is hard to beat. With the latest power-saving Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, the battery life now reaches over 10 hours on a charge.

The X1 Carbon starts at just under $1000 with a student discount. Upgrading the RAM from 4 GB to 8 GB (+$75) is strongly recommended, because the RAM is soldered in place and cannot be upgraded after you purchase. The QHD 2560x1440 display option (+$150) gets you one of the very best laptop displays available. For anybody going into a field related to art or graphic design, this upgrade is well worth the money. If you're mostly going to be looking at spreadsheets or a word processor, it may not be worth the extra cost. The SSD is difficult to upgrade after purchase, so if you need more than the default 128 GB, consider upgrading at purchase time as well.

Visit the Lenovo Student Portal or View X250 details

T450 series (from $780)

Thinkpad T450

The T450 series offers a compelling balance of portability and power, with 2 different weight and performance classes. Both 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.

  • T450s: Lighter at 3.5 lbs. Also more expensive, starting at $915 with student discounts. Suggested upgrades: Full HD screen (+$60), 72 Wh 6-cell rear battery (+$5, not always available), Intel 7265AC Wireless Card. The weight savings compared to the standard T450 may not justify the extra cost if you're on a budget.

  • T450: Moderate weight at 4 lbs, and the cheaper option. Starts around $780 with the student discount. Suggested upgrades: Core i5-4200U (if pre-configured with the Core i3 option, +$100), Full HD+ 1600x900 screen (+$50), 6 cell rear battery (if available, +$5), Intel 7265AC wireless card. This is the most economical choice in the T440 series.

Visit the Lenovo Student Portal or View T450 series details

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. Both sizes come with a 3840x2160 retina screen and 5 GHz wifi. The 13" version has a claimed 12 hour battery life, while the 11" version lasts 9 hours. You can get the 11" starting at $850 and the 13" starting at $950 on Apple's Mac for Education site.

The new Apple "Macbook" is an ultra-light device which is not recommended for college students. Though very light-weight, its connectivity options are extremely limited. The entire computer has only a single USB-C port for all charging and connectivity, and requires external adapters to use any type of projector or even USB flash drives. At some point in your college career you'll need to open a PowerPoint file from a flash drive while connected to a projector... and you simply can't do that with the Macbook.

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 screens, and 5 GHz AC wireless. The UX303 series are the latest ZenBook options, coming in LA and LN options. The exact specifications vary, even within these two sub-series, and pricing changes quite often. Therefore, it's best to check current prices and specifications at time of purchase. Overall though, the LN series is higher-end, featuring a higher resolution 3200x1800 display, an SSD, and A/C wifi. The starting price for the LA series is around $860, while the LN series starts around $1000. Both are available on Amazon and the UX303LN is also available on NewEgg.

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 E450. It came out to just $527 using the Barnes and Noble discount with the following options:

  • Core i3-5005U
  • 14" FHD 1920x1080 screen
  • 6 cell 62WH battery
  • Intel 3160AC dual band wireless

The E450 isn't as rugged as the T or X series ThinkPads, and it's heavier at 4 lbs. However, it's still more durable than generic consumer media laptops, has the fantastic ThinkPad keyboard, and should get any student through college. Under $600 for all of these features is a very good deal.

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.

Did this post help you?

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.

If you saved some money from these tips or you just want to say thanks, consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation by sponsoring me for the Walk to Cure Diabetes.


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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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