Choosing the best laptop for college

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Choosing the best laptop for college

Congratulations! Your child and your money are getting ready to go to college! It’s time to start shopping for dorm room decor, college supplies, and all of the other things that a young man or woman needs to embark on their new adventure. A computer is probably at the top of this list. If this purchase seems overwhelming because of the hundreds of choices that you have, this article will help you get started with the process.

Be sure to scroll to the end of the article and download an abridged “cheat sheet” version of this article that you can take with you while you’re shopping!

Choosing the best laptop for college

Laptop or Tablet?

Your first question might be whether to purchase a tablet or a computer. Two of a tablet’s greatest strengths are taking notes and reading. You can use a stylus to write handwritten notes directly on the screen, type notes on the on-screen keyboard, or purchase an external keyboard for easier typing. Most college textbooks have an electronic version that can be purchased or rented for viewing on a tablet or computer. Carrying around a tablet instead of multiple books and folders can make walking around the campus quite a bit less grueling.

Tablets also have several disadvantages. They are less powerful than a computer, the apps that you can run are more limited, and saving a file generally requires using cloud services. In my opinion as a mom in college with a husband and daughter in college, and as a technology specialist in a high school with an iPad program, I would not recommend a tablet as the only “computer” that you send your child to college with because of it’s limitations. If you are considering this, I would recommend talking with an advisor at the college first. You want to make sure it will work for all of the services that your child will need to interact with, and you’ll want to know if your child will have access to a computer in a lab or library if the tablet limits them from completing certain assignments.

If you purchase a tablet, click here to check out my article about the essential apps to download for college (or high school)


A laptop is larger than a tablet, but is still portable enough for students to bring to class. The correct laptop should run any software that’s required, will allow students to read ebooks, type notes, access the internet, and should meet all of the requirements of college studies.

Mac or PC?

If you chose to purchase a computer, your next question might be whether to purchase a Mac or a PC. Your greatest consideration should be your child’s field of study. Many general studies courses will only require that your child have a laptop capable of running Microsoft office and accessing the web. Both Macs and PCs can do this. However, as your child advances into courses that are specific to his or her major, they may be required to use specific programs that may not run on every computer. A graphic design student may be required to use a Mac. An architecture student may need a PC to run AutoCad. It is very important for you to check with the school and find out which programs you will need to purchase. You can do a google search to find out what the recommended computer specifications are for running that software.

Refurbished MacBooks 300 x 250

If you find that your child would be successful on either a Mac or a PC laptop, you will want to consider your child’s comfort level and knowledge of a particular operating system. What does your child know how to use already? You want your child to be able to use the computer to learn, not struggle to learn to use the new computer.

What do the specs mean?

CPU / processor:

CPU processor specs

What is it?

This is the main “brain” of your computer. It processes all of the information.

How is it measured?

The speed of your processor determines how fast it can process information. Modern processor speeds are measured in Gigahertz (GHz). A CPU with higher GHz will process data faster.
You will also see reference to how many CORES a processor has. Back in the old days (a few years ago), computers only had one core to process all of information that needed to be processed. Everything went to that one core. Today, almost all computers boast “multi-core” processors. Each core divides up the work that the processor has to do and processes it faster. So, in theory, a 1 GHz DUAL core processor can work twice as fast as a 1 GHz SINGLE core processor. (I say “in theory” because the software you’re using has to be written in a way to take advantage of multi-core processors for you to see a difference).

Can this be upgraded later?

Yes and No. You can upgrade this, but it’s cost-prohibitive. It’s almost always less expensive to purchase a new laptop if you feel you need to upgrade this.



What is it?

RAM (which stands for Random Access Memory) is like a computer’s short-term memory. It remembers all of the things you are doing on your computer RIGHT NOW, such as how many applications are open, which pages are open in your browser, the most current changes to your word processing document that haven’t been saved yet, etc. The contents of your RAM are wiped clean each time you restart your computer (or quit an application, close a window, etc).

How much do I need?

If you like to keep a lot of applications open at one time or if you use applications that require your computer to temporarily remember lots of information, you’ll want more RAM.
Examples of applications that require a lot of RAM:
Photoshop, 3D games, movie editing, 3D modeling, graphics work.
Examples of applications that DON’T require a great deal of RAM:
Word processing, basic spreadsheets, web browsing, email.

Can this be upgraded later?

After some time, if you find that you need more RAM to make your computer run better, it’s one of the more inexpensive upgrades that you can make. You may want to find out how easy it is to upgrade on the particular computer that you’re looking at. You’ll also want to know what the total amount of RAM is that you can put into that particular machine (they have limits).

Hard drive (SSD or HDD):

Hard drive

What is it?

The computer’s hard drive is like it’s long-term memory. This is where you save things permanently. Typically, you’ll save files such as word processing and spreadsheet documents, photos, movies, music, things you download from the internet, and things you create and save in different applications.

How much hard drive space do I need?

Files that contain text are much smaller than photo files. Movies are even larger. Think about how many of these types of files you’ll want to save when you consider the size of the hard drive your computer will have.

Megabytes and Gigabytes and Terabytes, Oh My!

1024 Kilobytes (KB) = 1 Megabyte (MB)
1024 Megabytes (MB) = 1 Gigabyte (GB)
1024 Gigabytes (GB) = 1 Terabyte (TB)

What’s the difference between SSD and HDD?

Traditional hard drives (HDD) write your data to a metal platter that spins at a high speed. Most computers today still use these types of hard drives.
SSD stands for solid-state drive. This type of disk contains no moving parts and is faster and more reliable in a laptop than a traditional HDD. A popular example of an SSD drive is a USB thumb drive. Because SSD technology is more advanced, the price for this kind of storage is typically higher for a smaller amount of storage. A computer with an SSD will be able to fetch files from the hard drive faster and you will experience faster performance.
Some computers also boast a “fusion drive” which is a combination SSD/HDD drive. System files are saved to the faster SSD section of the disk, giving you better performance, and you save files to the HDD portion, giving you more space.

Can this be upgraded later?

If you run out of hard drive space, you can always buy a relatively inexpensive external hard drive, or you can upload files to cloud storage. You can also replace the hard drive that’s currently in your computer with a larger one down the line.

Video card:

Video card

What is it?

A video card is a piece of hardware inside of your laptop that takes information from the main processor and turns it into a picture that you see on the screen.

Integrated vs. Dedicated

When you’re shopping for a computer, you’ll see references to “integrated” and “dedicated” GPUs. (GPU stands for graphics processing unit.) An integrated GPU uses your computer’s main RAM and CPU to process data. A dedicated (or discrete) GPU is a graphics card that has it’s own little processor and memory on the card that’s used just for processing graphics. You will get better performance when using graphically-intensive applications such as games or 3D graphics with a dedicated GPU. Most users are just fine with a cheaper, integrated GPU.

What do you need?

If you are a gamer or if you work with 3D graphics, you’ll want to do more research and get a laptop with a high-end graphics card that suits your needs. For the rest of us, just don’t sweat this specification.

Other specs:

There are other things to consider when buying a laptop, such as screen size, how many USB ports it has, etc. These are simple specs, but don’t underestimate their importance. A large screen is great if you’re gaming or doing graphics, but if you’re carrying it around campus all day, you might prefer a smaller, lighter screen.

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