It is important to remember that there is no single right choice here. The laptop that best suits your college experience depends on what you are doing in college. A master English with long reading lists and a lot of writing work could be better with an iPad and a nice keyboard for accessories. The chief computer scientist who needs to compile the software or run Linux will need a laptop that they can deal with.
However, here are some basic metrics to keep in mind with laptops:
- Windows: If you are buying a Windows machine, your main processor options are Intel and AMD. Both will work, each with different strengths and weaknesses. For a more complete guide to the differences, see our complete guide to buying a laptop.
- Chromebooks: These browser-based machines use half a dozen different processors, 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 with a more powerful processor if you can afford it. The Core m3 chip is the best choice for most students. If you want a more powerful machine, safe in the future, get an i3 or i5 chip. There are also ARM-based Chromebooks, such as the Lenovo Duet. They are not as fast as Intel Core chips, but in most cases they are quite sufficient for workloads in colleges.
- macOS: Apple now produces its own processors, especially the M1 chip found in the MacBook Air shown above. Although Apple still sells Intel-based MacBooks, we suggest sticking to the M1 chip. In the future, Apple software will be optimized for the M1, and Intel-based systems are likely to remain lagging behind.
No matter which OS you choose, the minimum amount of RAM you want on your laptop is 8 gigabytes. That’s enough memory to make your computer feel fast even if it’s running under load. So much RAM will also take time for the machine to last longer. If you can afford it – especially if you plan to edit photos or videos as part of your course – go for 16 gigabytes.
The screens are very different, but do not fit in anything less than 1080p. For a 13-inch laptop, 1080p is sharp enough. If you go with a larger laptop, 2.5K or even 4K screens will really improve the viewing experience. If you’re trying to play games, be sure to get something with a faster refresh rate – 144 Hz works, but 240 Hz is where you really start to get those massive smooth graphics.
Weight and battery
Don’t forget to drag this thing around campus. It is possible to drag you by the back for 8 hours or more. While 1 pound may not seem like much to you, at the end of a long day of walking you will notice a difference between a 3 and 4 pound laptop. Trust me. Also, maybe choose a nice bag to carry your computer.
Similarly, battery life is very important when you are (potentially) away from a wall outlet for an extended period of time. Whatever you end up getting, make sure it can last at least 8 hours under actual use — browsing the web, editing documents, writing emails, and taking notes.