Student Laptop FAQ: What is the best laptop for college?

Student FAQ Questions

Your computer should be able to run at normal speed while having multiple windows open. Some may be playing videos, downloading music or programs, or viewing documents. Most laptops being sold to students today have more than 2GHz of processing power. This is a pretty good baseline to draw when shopping for a laptop.

Simply put, a student's laptop is his or her lifeline. You'll be on your laptop several hours per day, whether you're writing computer code, typing an essay, researching a topic, or just checking Facebook. A laptop needs to be able to handle all of these tasks–sometimes simultaneously–and still operate with reasonable speed.

That being said, an English or Philosophy major who uses Microsoft Word and Adobe Reader is going to put less stress on their computer than an engineer who uses MATLAB or a computer programmer who uses Java. If all you need out of a computer are relatively basic functions, processing power is of less concern to you. Based on your interests, try to figure out what the specific uses of your computer may be.

It depends upon your course of study. The chart below should help you go forward in your decision.

Major Graphics Needs Examples
Liberal Arts (History, English, Linguistics, etc.) Standard Intel HD Graphics 4000
Engineering High: Engineering-specific NVIDIA Quadro FX
Graphic Design High: Design-specific NVIDIA GTX 570
Architecture High: 3D-specific NVIDIA Quadro 4000
Video Game and Graphic Programming High: Program- and Design-specific ADM Radeon HD 570
Foreign Language Standard Intel HD Graphics 4000
Life Sciences (Biology, etc.) Standard Intel HD Graphics 4000
Math Standard Intel Graphics HD 4000

This just presents a starting point from which to explore the world of graphics cards. Many options exist and in today's diverse market you should be able to find a graphics card to suit your needs. For the majority of students, the graphics card that comes with your laptop is going to be more than enough. For some, however, student life can benefit greatly from improved graphics. Not only does your choice depend upon your major, but upon your hobbies and interests: Are you a film buff, for instance? If so, your experience can be enhanced by a step up in the graphics processing unit (GPU) department. Are you a gamer? Then look for gaming-specific graphics cards.

Students are studying a variety of subjects simultaneously. A common hybrid course of study, for example, is a double major in math and computer science. Naturally, it doesn't make sense to buy two graphics cards to accommodate your two majors, so even though a high-end graphics card is not necessary for math homework, it might serve well to buy a high-quality graphics card for computer science needs.

Windows 7, Windows 8 and the latest Mac OS are going to be the easiest operating systems to use in college.

Windows 7 is used by many library and administrative systems, so student portals like the widely-used Blackboard run very well with Windows 7. With the recent release of Windows 8, you can expect most administrative systems to upgrade. Even if they don't, Windows 8 will have no problem negotiating its preceding model.

Mac's OS is incredibly popular among college students and most programs, student access portals and email systems run very well on MacBook Pro. However, many students even choose to run Windows on their MacBooks because of its compatibility around campus.

The Lenovo X Series and the Lenovo Edge Series both have models starting at $499, which is well under the average price for a laptop. While these don't have the star power of some more expensive laptops, they still include enough computing power and the basic software necessary for most students.

The Lenovo X Series has a wide range of products. Nearly all are characterized by long battery life and a lightweight feel. If you purchase the Lenovo ThinkPad X131e with an AMD processor, you could pay just under $500 for your laptop, a steal compared to the astronomical prices of other brands targeted at students. Even though it's inexpensive, however, this option does not lack for quality: It comes with an AMD Radeon HD 6310 graphics card and a battery that can last for more than seven hours. For a price, you can upgrade the memory to 8GB of RAM and more than 500GB of hard drive.

The Lenovo ThinkPad Edge Series, like the X Series, can run the newly-released Windows 8 Pro. The most basic models can be found for $429.99 online. Its battery lasts up to seven hours and many models come with a high-resolution webcam, one of the staples of student life. One of the advantages of buying from the Lenovo line of products is that Lenovo offers a smorgasbord of options. Both the X Series and the Edge Series of ThinkPads are highly customizable, and Lenovo offers ways to do this in a manner that won't break the bank.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X230 and ThinkPad T430 are good options for someone who needs a long-lasting battery.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X230 has 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive, but still manages to last for more than seven hours on a single charge. For a student this means more freedom: You can bring it anywhere and not have to pack a cumbersome charger. It's definitely a high-end laptop, and the prices reflect it: The X230 retails at $1,299. The ThinkPad T430 presents a more affordable option without having to sacrifice battery life; in fact, the ThinkPad T430 improves upon the X230. In tests, the Lenovo ThinkPad T430 has lasted up to 13 and half hours on a single charge.

A good bottom line to set is 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. Students don't just need to store Word documents and Excel spreadsheets; they sometimes need to store thousands of images and PDF files or run large, complex programs. Therefore, sufficient memory is vital when buying a laptop.

And that's just for classes. Campuses are the place for cutting-edge technology, so laptops must be able to handle the programming software for programs like Skype and ooVoo, webcam software and Adobe Photoshop. Many students today use music programs like VirtualDJ and Mixxx. All of these require a strong, capable laptop.

For many students, it's important that their laptop performs as a gaming console.. Many laptops are made specifically for gaming, such as those in the ASUS G-Series and most Alienware laptops. Almost all gaming laptops come with increased RAM. It's not uncommon to see up to 16GB of RAM come standard on high-end gaming laptops. Of course, most daily functions are completely possible on gaming laptops, so if you're interested in laptop gaming, looking into these products is not a bad idea. Gaming laptops tend to sell at a much higher price, but the increased memory could be beneficial outside of the gaming world, especially if you're interested in graphic design or architecture. With processing power, it's better to be safe than sorry.

It is a good idea to have a laptop with a drive that can read CD-ROMs. DVDs and Blu-ray discs are hardly ever used for class, but they are often used for impromptu dormitory movie-watching parties.

Most of the time you won't need to use a Blu-ray, DVD or CD-ROM drive. However, certain courses of study require it more frequently than others, and there are times in almost every student's career when he or she is glad to have a disc drive available.

Many course textbooks–especially for language and math, engineering and computer science courses–come with a CD-ROM that has a specific program and serial number. In some cases, this serial number is actually necessary to log in with via an online account and use as an assignment portal. In others, it is merely a helpful resource.

What software you need depends very much upon what you major in and which courses you study.

Though most laptops come equipped, it's important to first mention that Microsoft Office (PowerPoint, Excel and Word at the very least) are almost essential for every student. Though a small portion of students choose to use alternative word processors and spreadsheet creators, the vast majority of professors, administrators and other students use the standard Microsoft suite. Because many assignments are turned in via email attachments, having this basic software is very important for a college student.

Adobe Reader and Photoshop, though not used as often as Microsoft Office, are also useful and widely-used.

For engineers and computer science majors, MATLAB is one of the most popular software programs. Math and economics majors use this program heavily as well. In MATLAB, students can do anything from test the maximum stress of sample material to designing stunning mathematical works of art using fractal functions. They can use it to test economics hypotheses and decide how best to secure the arches on a virtual bridge.

CAD is an alternative to MATLAB that many students and professors choose to use. It comes in a few different packages, each tailored to the needs of its users. AutoCAD and WaterCAD are two examples.

Java is the most popular coding program for entry-level computer science majors. Students who learn to write code do so in Java most of the time. It's an important, if rudimentary, program to be proficient in if you wish to enter the computer science field.

Aside from basic software necessities, professors will specify before the class which software is necessary to have on your computer. Often, this information is included in the course description. If it's not, a simple email to the professor will suffice. Because the American academic environment is so large and diverse, you'll have to be prepared for many different types of software if you're in a field where computing is important. Often, the choice will be based on little other than the professor's personal preference, as in so many other facets of student life. Your responsibility is to make sure that your laptop can handle whatever you throw at it.