The important thing to remember is that there isn’t a single correct choice here. Which laptop computer is best for your college experience depends on what you’re doing in college. An English student with long reading lists and lots of writing papers might do better with an iPad and a nice keyboard accessory. A computer science student who needs to compile software or run Linux will need a laptop that they can tinker with.
With that said, here are some basic metrics to keep in mind for laptops:
- the Windows: If you get a Windows machine, your main options for the processor are Intel and AMD. Both will work, each with its strengths and weaknesses. For a more comprehensive guide to the differences, check out our comprehensive guide to buying a laptop.
- Chromebooks: These browser-based machines use half a dozen different processors, most of which you’ve probably never heard of. There is a reason for this: these processors are slow. My recommendation when buying a Chromebook is to go for a more powerful processor if you can afford it. Core m3 chip is the best choice for most students. If you want a more powerful and scalable machine, get an i3 or i5 chip. There are also ARM-based Chromebooks, like the Lenovo Duet. They’re not as fast as Intel Core chips, but in most cases they’re a good fit for college workloads.
- macOS: Apple now manufactures its own processors, including the M1 chip found inside the MacBook Air shown above. Although Apple still sells Intel-based MacBooks, we suggest you stick with the M1 chip. In the future, Apple software will be optimized for the M1 and Intel systems will likely be left behind.
Whichever operating system you choose, the minimum amount of RAM you want in your laptop is 8 gigabytes. That’s enough memory to keep your computer crisp even when running under load. This amount of RAM will also keep the machine awake longer in its lifespan. If you can afford it, especially if you plan to edit photos or videos as part of your lessons, go for 16 gigabytes.
Screens vary wildly, but don’t settle for less than 1080p. For a 13-inch laptop, 1080p is sharp enough. If you are using a larger laptop, the 2.5K or even 4K displays will really improve the viewing experience. If you’re also trying to play games, make sure you get something with a higher refresh rate – 144Hz works, but 240Hz is where you really start to get those smooth graphics.
Weight and battery
Remember, you’ll be carrying this thing around campus. It can shoot your back very well for 8 hours or more. Even though 1 pound may not seem like much, at the end of a long day of walking you will notice the difference between a 3 pound laptop and a 4 pound laptop. Trust me. Also, maybe choose a nice bag to carry your computer.
Likewise, battery life is very important when you are (potentially) away from a wall outlet for long periods of time. Whatever you get, make sure it’s able to last at least 8 hours under real-world conditions – browsing the web, editing documents, writing emails, and taking notes.