When it comes to choosing the right computer for your college student, the choice comes down to more than just sheer power. Yes, the technical specifications can be daunting to understand. But, choosing the right laptop, rather than simply the fastest, is the smarter choice.
Most college students need laptops rather than desktops, and the reason is mobility. As our education system increasingly demands access to technology, the ability to haul a computer around campus is a critical component for most students.
Desktops are generally cheaper, but they aren't nearly as portable.
Let's take a look at 5 critical components of choosing the right laptop for your college student.
How to choose the right college laptop
- Operating system: Basically, we have two primary choices – Windows and Mac (and maybe ChromeOS). Both operating systems work well and are generally interoperable, but that's not always the case. Pay special attention to class requirements to make sure you're choosing the right operating system for the curriculum (ie: some classes or universities might require Windows, etc).
- About Chrome OS: Google's Chromebooks are good choices, provided your student doesn't need access to software installed on the machine. These machines are generally cheap and best suited for general web browser, email and word processing.
- Screen size: The size of the screen matters, especially after staring at the screen for hours writing research papers. Though laptops with larger screens are more expensive (and heavier with a larger form factor – around 15.6 inches), they might be worth the cost depending on how often the machine will be used. Pay special attention to how easy it will be to fit the laptop into a book bag or backpack. A 13.3-inch screen might be easier to throw into a backpack and carry.
- Processing power: Generally the more the merrier, but breaking through your budget for a slightly more powerful machine may not be required. Most laptops on the market today offer processing specifications that work for most students. The exceptions include heavy graphical work (photos and video) or design requirements (CAD).
- Laptop vs. Tablet: Is a tablet right for your student? Generally, laptops are better equipped to handle more intensive processing and use. Detachable keywords are available for a lot of tablets on the market, making them attractive options for some students.
- Consider “yoga” or convertible laptops: Instead of a tablet, many laptops come with screens that rotate completely around, effectively turning them into a tablet. This offers the benefit of using the machine as a tablet, but also provides students with the option of using a more traditional laptop with a built-in keyboard.
And, you may not need to buy Microsoft Office. If your student has a school (ie: .edu) email address, they can start using Microsoft Office 360 for free.
So, what's my cheapest option?
If budget is a primary concern, consider picking up a Chromebook. Lower-end Chromebooks are generally priced below $200 at Amazon and offer students the ability to browse the Internet and do email, word processing and anything else that's available over the Internet. With the availability of Microsoft Office 360 and Google Docs, using a Chromebook rather than a more traditional laptop has become a viable option for many students.
A word of caution: While Chromebooks do come with internal storage, they are not designed to support third-party software installs. Chromebooks do not support Windows or Mac-based software because they are purposely stripped-down machines. The operating system is Google's Chrome OS (aka “Chromium“) – effectively the Chrome web browser.
If your student will need to be able to install and use software products like CAD, Photoshop or any other Windows or Mac-based software product, then a Chromebook probably won't be the best option.
Lastly, remember these crucial tips during (and especially after) graduating college.
Steve Adcock is an early retiree who writes about mental toughness, financial independence and how to get the most out of your life and career. As a regular contributor to The Ladders, CBS MarketWatch and CNBC, Adcock maintains a rare and exclusive voice as a career expert, consistently offering actionable counseling to thousands of readers who want to level-up their lives, careers, and freedom. Adcock's main areas of coverage include money, personal finance, lifestyle, and digital nomad advice. Steve lives in a 100% off-grid solar home in the middle of the Arizona desert and writes on his own website at SteveAdcock.us.