Dear Select All: What Laptop Should I Get for College?

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Dear Select All,

I’m about to graduate from high school and am headed off to college in the fall. I’ve got some money saved up, and I’m going to buy a laptop before I go (ideally for less than a $1,000, but I wouldn’t mind spending even less). I’m having trouble figuring out what to get. Any advice?

The Graduate

Hey, congrats! And you’re not wrong to be confused. The laptop market is kinda weird right now. A few years ago, your choices basically would have been to spend a lot on a Windows laptop or to spend even more on an Apple, and then you’d be done. But thanks to low-end laptops like Chromebooks suddenly becoming viable, and an explosion in midrange laptops, there are a lot more choices that probably fall within your budget.

So, first off, you probably want to check in with the college itself. The college’s IT department likely has some minimum requirements for personal machines, and many campuses (and computer manufacturers) offer student discounts — it’s just a matter of knowing where and how to get them. If you know what you’re going to major in already (no pressure!), check in with your program as well. A history major can probably get by on a low-powered machine to write papers, do some research, and watch movies, but if you’re gonna study architecture or graphic design, you may need more power and some default software.

In the world of Windows machines, you’ll find the most options (and the biggest range in prices, from $4,000, behemoth gaming laptops to crazy-cheap budget laptops).

At the high end, you can get an Asus ZenBook 3 for $1,000. It’s a slim ultraportable that looks almost exactly like a MacBook from across the room, but runs Windows 10. It’s the best compromise between weight, power, and having a nice screen to watch Netflix on when you’re not studying.

For a more midrange option, take a look at the Lenovo Miix 510, available for $570. It’s easy to carry to class and gets good battery life, but it also has a nice extra feature: You can remove the screen from the keyboard and use it as a tablet. I’ve find this tremendously helpful when I have to read a long document — you can still highlight or make notes about important parts, but if you have to go through a hundred pages of something, the tablet makes it easier. If you have a little wiggle room in your budget, you can invest in the version that has 8 GB of RAM for $720, which should future-proof you and make sure memory hogs like Chrome keep running smoothly, even as web apps get more demanding in the coming years.

Finally, if you really want to save some money, there’s the Lenovo Ideapad 110s, which you can get for $150. It’s light enough to carry to class, and it’ll do fine for browsing the web and typing up papers, but it’s relatively underpowered, and you may need to get a an external hard drive of some sort (even just a USB thumb drive), since it only comes with 32 GB of internal storage. With just 2 GB of RAM, you may find that you’ll need to replace it for something a little beefier before you graduate. But since it only costs $150, that shouldn’t be too much of a heartbreaker.

If you decide to get an Apple laptop, you’re in luck. The MacBook Air, while being discontinued by Apple, is still a great laptop — light, good battery life, and still fast enough to do everything you’ll need to do, but now available for (relatively) cheap. The 13-inch 2015 model is available for under $850. Just make sure you’re getting the model with 8 GB of RAM, so it’ll make it through all four years of school.

Until recently, I would have steered you clear of a Chromebook. They’re cheap, but they weren’t great personal machines — everything is meant to be run in the cloud, which meant you couldn’t store much on your hard drive. It also meant that you’d be unable to run MS Excel, and while Google Sheets can do a lot, if you’re taking any sort of business, economics, or statistics classes, you’ll likely need to have Excel to do everything you need to do. But the Chromebook Samsung Plus is available for $450 and can run Android apps, which gives you access to Excel. It’s also a convertible, so you can flip the screen 360 degrees and have a tablet to go over a reading assignment. Still, I’d check in with your campus IT department before jumping all-in — they may have some reservations or advice about using a Chromebook as your main personal machine.

Best of luck, and I hope your roommate isn’t a psycho!

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Dear Select All: What Laptop Should I Get for College