Tips for choosing the right student laptop

Whatever your budget for a student-friendly laptop, here's some top tips for making a smart choice for yourself or your children.

Whatever your budget for a student-friendly laptop, here's some top tips for making a smart choice for yourself or your children.

(Credit: Intel)

Many schools are shifting away from supplying laptops for kids to a Bring Your Own model, so many parents need to choose from a list of options or buy based on a set of specifications. Sometimes being given a choice is tougher than no choice at all — getting this decision right should feel pretty important!

When we boil down any tech purchase decision, one of the critical factors is often price. We only have what we have to spend, but within that budget window there will always be a range of products with a range of features to choose from. So while we've reviewed a range of laptops during this back to school season, we thought it would also be worth pointing out a few key features to keep in mind when shopping around for a laptop that suits the demands of student life.

Whether you're a parent buying for school children, or you're about to head to university and you're spending your own dollars, here's a few tips on critical features that could make a big difference to your life over the course of the year ahead.

Battery life

Because there are so many usage patterns, we can let battery life slide a little. If you know you'll have the opportunity to charge during the day, you don't need to aim for the magical 'all day' zone. But if you're a student, you won't always have the luxury of plugging in again once you leave the house. And carrying extra power bricks and cables can be a real burden. So you should be putting battery life pretty much top of the list of priorities.

If you can find a model that can claim eight hours or more, you're in the right zone. Just remember to manage your battery life, too. Keep the screen brightness down as low as you can handle and steer clear of gaming until you know you're going to make it through the day.

The latest Intel 4th Generation Core processors are also better than ever at managing power, so if you're tossing up between two options that have newer and older processors, you're better off getting a slower clocked 4th Generation Core product than one with a higher spec from an older generation.

Weight

Once the Macbook Air evolved from laughable to highly lauded, Intel ran with its Ultrabook concept and it's been a world of lighter and lighter laptops ever since.

If you, or especially a child, will be carrying a laptop around in a backpack or shoulder bag all day, finding something that ducks under 2kg is a big help. A couple of hundred grams might not seem like much, but it adds up quickly alongside everything else in a bag. If you're close to a decision between two options and all else is equal, pick the one that gives you less to carry.

Shock resistance

Students sling their bags around all day and forget that the tech inside the bag is getting bumped and bruised every time they drop it. A good bag makes a big difference, but even then there's a lot of delicate hardware inside that, over time, could slowly be giving up on life.

One of the best solutions right now is choosing a solid-state drive (SSD). They cost more and you get less storage space, but they'll stand up to the rough and tumble of student life far better than a traditional mechanical hard drive (HDD). If you need extra storage capacity, get an external drive or a high-capacity flash stick.

If you simply cannot go solid-state, then we'd suggest buying a good protective sleeve for your laptop to further protect it from bumps. And we'd also suggest being super careful about backing-up regularly. You should definitely be running backups of important work from any laptop, but if you're using a HDD in a student laptop it's probably just a matter of time before your drive dies and loses everything.

Buy an extra year or two?

We'd deem the above those 'soft' factors that should be top of mind when finding a machine to fit student life well. But of course there are also certain essential features you must ensure are ticked off the list — full compliance with the latest 5GHz Wi-Fi standards, for example.

If you do have more wiggle room in your budget, we'd suggest aiming to maximise the longer term viability of this laptop purchase. A few extra dollars can see this laptop continue to perform well further down the track. If you can get an extra year or two out of this purchase toward the end of its life, is it worth it? Or if you keep it simple now, can you accept you'll probably need to upgrade after two years?

If you choose to push to extend the laptop's viable lifetime, we'd suggest stretching for something with extra RAM, in particular, as more RAM can make a big difference as the need to multitask (and software demands on RAM) will always grow over the years.

Getting higher capacity built-in storage is also good when you can afford it. Over the long run we always fill the space we have available. Having more capacity can make it easier to manage and let you run for longer without having to do a big reorganisation. Just make sure it isn't simply being filled quickly by videos and music!

If you're shopping in the modern Intel ecosystem we'd suggest skipping the Core i3 models and definitely buying Core i5 or Core i7. Again, aim for a 4th Generation Core rather than anything earlier, as the 4th Generation 'Haswell' processors made great gains for battery life and system performance. Core i5 should do the trick, and let you save the extra cash a Core i7 would cost for an upgrade to RAM or storage.

The short of it

Battery life. Weight. SSD. RAM. 4th Gen Core i5. If you can remember that as the 'short version' of all the above you'll do just fine in the store.

 

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