What's the Best Student Laptop?

When shopping the best student laptops for school or college, it’s important to choose features that meet your budget and fit the student's educational and lifestyle needs -- both today and in several years when they’re completing their course curriculum. This FAQ outlines criteria for finding the best student laptop so you can weigh the cost of each feature against the benefit it will provide now and tomorrow.

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Best College Laptop of 2018

Named the best college laptop by LAPTOP Magazine for business students and computer science majors.

  • Best for Business Students: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
  • Best for Computer Science Students: Lenovo ThinkPad T480

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Compare the different options and browse our wide selection of Lenovo student laptops, including Lenovo Yoga laptops that have built-in tablet touch screens, to find the right computer for your student’s tech needs and budget.

Is a Laptop the Best Choice for Students?

The market itself has answered this question: yes, the vast majority of students use laptops as their primary computing device (not counting smartphones). The rare student who won't ever work outside the dorm room might prefer to use a desktop PC or even a high-performance workstation for engineering or architecture majors. Some students, such as artists who are already adept at using touch screens for creative work, might choose a 2-in-1 that's both a laptop and a tablet.

The portability of a laptop makes it ideal for everything from classroom note-taking to library research to science field work. Not to mention streaming movies, posting on Facebook, editing photos for Instagram, and all the other important parts of student life! Netbooks and Chromebooks -- the more economical, laptop-like devices built mostly for web-surfing and using cloud applications -- are even more portable than laptops, but the small screen size and lack of storage limits day-to-day usability for students facing long hours of study.

Budget Laptops for Students

As you'll see in the sections below, each key laptop specification includes a wide range of performance options like faster or slower processors, different display technologies, and so on. It can be easy to spend a lot of money on these features, but you don't have to.

How to Find the Best, Affordable Student Laptop

Here are some ways to save on a student laptop:

  • Processors with multiple cores and clock speeds over 4.0 GHz are the new top-of-the-line. But the vast majority of students will do fine with anything over 2.0 GHz, especially if it's multi-core.
  • Hard drive size is less important nowadays, thanks to cloud storage and music/video streaming. If you find the right price and specs, don't worry if the system has limited internal storage.
  • Unless the laptop will be used for advanced gaming or computer-assisted design, a Full HD (1080p) display will suit most students.
  • Don't buy add-on word processing or spreadsheet software until you ask about school discounts or the availability of cloud-based versions of these tools (sometimes provided by the school).

Lenovo offers student discounts on laptops and computers, as well as Back to School deals. Additional money-saving tips are presented later in this FAQ, in the section "Other factors to consider in a student laptop."

Finding the Best Student Laptop

Selecting the right student laptop for your needs and budget will involve choosing your preferred specifications in several important categories.

Screen Size, Weight, and Battery Life

The first choice you'll face is three-fold: picking the laptop's screen size and, with that, its weight and battery life of time unplugged. For most students, screen size and weight will be the determining factors, especially where electrical outlets are easy to find. For others, who might anticipate lots of travel or remote study locations, the need for lighter weight or longer battery life might outweigh the value of a bigger display.

Screen Size:

First, know that improved display technology (Full HD, Quad HD, etc.) has enabled impressive viewability in all laptops. So, the decision will be less about clarity than functionality. And it's a sliding scale: students who mostly read documents and write text can utilize smaller (but not too small) screens, while those whose learning involves more visual or creative activities can benefit from larger ones.

The consensus among technology writers and analysts is that a 13-inch laptop -- give or take an inch -- could be a good, middle-of-the road choice for most students. It would be easy to carry, big enough for most detailed work, and small enough to fit in a backpack or on a crowded study table. For buyers who anticipate extra long hours of on-screen learning, nearly every model available by Lenovo includes a port to attach a larger, external monitor.

Weight:

Weight is determined largely by screen size -- each added inch brings added ounces of plastic and metal to support it. Other factors that can influence a laptop's weight include the number of batteries (dual-battery models are increasingly popular), the type of storage (traditional hard drives are heavier than solid state ones), whether it has integrated peripherals such as DVD drives, and the presence (or not) of any durability or hardening features.

What's the sweet-spot for laptop weight? Most buying guides say it's about 4 lbs, give or take. If that's too heavy for a particular student, consider splitting your purchase and adding one of the low-cost laptop alternatives mentioned above -- take the ultra-portable to class, save your notes to a cloud storage account, then complete the assignment on your laptop back at the dorm.

Battery Life:

These days, if a laptop manufacturer isn't offering battery life of 8-12+ hours, you should probably keep looking. Some new models with dual-battery configurations offer unplugged work time of 20 hours or more, and the ability to change batteries without shutting down (Lenovo calls this feature, “Power Bridge”). But where is the typical student in this range of available unplugged times?

Consider these battery life factors when comparing school laptop options:

  • How Big Is It? Screen size is a key factor in battery life. If you need a bigger display, you'll get less time unplugged.
  • How Will You Use It? Word processing consumes little power compared to streaming games or complex artistic or rendering programs.
  • Where Will You Use It? Battery life might be critical for marine field work, but far less so in the dorm or library.

There's also a new battery-related term to know: watt-hours or Wh. Most PC manufacturers have added Wh their published specifications to describe the amount of energy stored in the battery rather than the amount of usage time the battery will provide. Many experts consider Wh to be a more useful term, as it is independent of how the battery will be used (word processing versus gaming, with or without peripherals such as smartphones attached, etc.).

Processor, RAM, and Storage

Student laptop shoppers will also need to evaluate the specifications and descriptions for processing power, RAM, and permanent storage.

Processor (CPU):

In terms of the CPU, despite its importance, most student laptop buyers will find chasing the latest and greatest CPU to be a fool's errand -- and an expensive one, at that. Any CPU released within the last 1-2 years will typically provide around 2.0 gigahertz (GHz) or more of computing power. For a CPU, “power” refers to the number of instruction cycles it can complete. A 2.0 GHz machine, for example, can achieve 2 billion cycles per second. However, GHz alone is not a strict indicator of a processor's speed, since other factors such as advanced memory caching can give a lower GHz processor more real-world computing ability. This often makes the choice of CPU a question of "How much do you want to spend?"

Today's best processors include multiple cores. Within these cores are multiple threads, each executing separate command and response strings for whatever programs happen to be running. Today's CPUs further amplify the computational power with new methods of using the threads simultaneously, and offer new cooling methods to offset the heat generated by all the extra electrical activity.

Buyers who are concerned with the relative newness of their processor technology should consult online sources to learn about the latest CPUs from top brands like Intel and AMD.

RAM:

RAM shopping is easy: 4 GB is the minimum, 8 GB is considered typical, and the ability to add more RAM chips is a useful option. Storage is less important today, as discussed below. It is processing (CPU) power that truly matters from an academic productivity perspective, since it determines how much your laptop can accomplish for you (and how fast).

Storage:

First, a note about storage. The amount of the disk space in a new laptop is less important since the advent of the cloud, which provides new options for storing files and hosting applications. For example, with the cloud, students can stream music rather than downloading and saving it. However, the type of storage you choose can make a difference.

Traditional spinning hard drives are economical and still very popular, but they're slower than solid-state drives, which have no moving parts and thus can accelerate boot-up speed, program launch times, and so on.

Other Factors to Consider When Buying A Student Laptop

Of course, there's much more to consider than just the top-line specifications. Here's a quick rundown of some additional feature choices you'll face when shopping for a student laptop:

Graphics Capabilities

You'll have to choose between a system with integrated graphics, meaning images are generated from within or very near the main CPU chip, or one with dedicated graphics cards, sometimes called Graphics Processing Units or GPUs, which are placed separately on the motherboard. GPUs are typically more powerful, and sometimes carry additional cooling features to enable them to speedily render highly complex graphics and images.

Most student users will be satisfied with integrated graphics, but dedicated GPUs might be best for those who intend to also play advanced computer games or whose course of study involves the creation or rendering of complex images or artwork, such as engineering or videography.

Wireless Connectivity (WiFi)

Once an option, screaming fast wireless is now essential in any student laptop. Not just for research, but for lifestyle activities like streaming movies or perusing social media. The latest standard for WiFi connectivity to look for in a laptop is 802.11ac, which has a theoretical maximum of 1300 megabits per second (Mbps) – approximately three times that of the previous consumer standard, 802.11n.

Ports and Accessories

When it comes to USB ports, the more the better. Students need these ports to plug in their wireless mouse, smartphone, and other peripheral devices. The same goes for external connection options (HDMI, DVI-D, USB Type-C); the more you have, the greater your flexibility.

Other features and accessories are less vital. For instance, does a student need an integrated DVD drive? Perhaps, but DVD drives are getting harder to find, especially in smaller models where manufacturers need space to fit other features like cooling fans or extra batteries. Does a student need a printer? Maybe, but many schools now allow work to be submitted electronically, so check before buying, or wait to buy a printer until a few weeks into the first semester.

Durability and Protection

Laptops with added features for hard use in rugged environments are already popular in industrial settings and are quickly moving into the student market, too. Models with spill-proof keyboards, in which any small amounts of liquid are directed away from the interior electrical components, are ideal for students and available in every price category. More expensive laptop models might use magnesium alloy or carbon fiber construction to protect against short drops or falls, and some computers are even put through military-level durability tests (MIL-SPEC 810G, for example).

Keyboard Comfort and Clickety-clack

If you're the kind of buyer who evaluates everything down to the 10th or 12th line of technical specs, you might want to consider the sound and feel of the keyboard. Taking notes in class or working in the library are great, but there may be some dirty looks from others if every key-press generates a distracting, “clickety-clack” noise.

Pre-loaded Consumer Software

Most computer shoppers are familiar with the kinds of add-on deals that are offered to purchase pre-loaded word processing, presentation, and other software on their new laptops. Before buying, check with the student's school to see if they already offer cloud-based versions of such programs, which could be cheaper (or even free). Pre-loaded software straight from the source – without a university discount – can still be a good deal. Manufacturers such as Microsoft have long offered special deals for students. Further, having the software resident on the machine (versus relying on cloud-based apps) could be essential when working beyond the reach of wireless networks.

Technical Support and Warranty Options

Depending on the student's technical know-how, the quality and availability of tech support from the laptop manufacturer can be an important factor. Alternatively, checking the official online forums where these matters are discussed can often yield the answers needed to keep your system up-and-running. In addition, be sure to check the length and terms of the laptop warranty. For a new student laptop that’s needed to last 4-5 years, it’s worth analyzing the cost-benefit value of any extended warranty that might be offered.

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