If this is your first year at university, check any literature about your course to see if you will need to add specialised software to your laptop. Depending on the demands this software might make on your processor, this could affect the specs your laptop needs to meet.
Aside from specific software, Microsoft Office should cover everything you will need. Office 365 University offers eligible university students a four-year subscription for £59.99 which gives you the latest versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access. This package is available for Mac and Windows users and can be used on multiple devices. You also get extra online cloud storage (1TB) which takes the strain off your laptop’s hard drive for saving documents, photos and videos.
Now you know what’s required from your course, the next step is balancing needs with budget. Getting more bang for your buck is the secret to laptop buying which involves a good think about how you will actually use your machine. Generally speaking, price brackets fall into:
Under £300 – budget
Devices: Chromebooks, Ultrabooks, basic Windows laptops, 2 in 1s (tablet and laptop)
£300 to £600 – mid-range
Devices: Windows laptops, larger 2 in 1s, basic gaming laptops
Over £600 – high end
Devices: Higher spec Windows laptops, MacBooks, gaming laptops
When you know how much money you have to play with, your needs will come down to these main things:
Our student laptop guide walks you through each area, discussing the different options available and what’s best suited to university degrees.
Screen size is measured in inches, diagonally from corner to corner and will also relate to the weight of your laptop. If you’re looking for maximum portability, a 10 or 12 inch screen would probably fit inside a generous handbag but bear in mind that text will be very small and the resolution might be less than ideal – especially with cheaper devices. For taking notes in lectures, this is fine but for prolonged periods of time spent writing essays and your dissertation further down the line, it’s worth investing in something bigger. We recommend Humanities and English-based subjects avoid small screens.
A 13 inch laptop is a good compromise and most weigh between 1.3 and 1.6kg. Provided you’re carrying your laptop in a sturdy backpack with comfy straps, this is a manageable weight to lug around campus. If you’re likely to regularly run spreadsheets as part of your course, 13 inches is the realistic minimum size you need for ease of use.
Creative arts and design courses should be looking for bigger screens and a higher resolution, especially for photo editing. As laptops with 15 to 16 inch screens can weigh as much as 3kg, a more practical solution might be to buy a separate monitor will full HD and a minimum of 1900 × 1000 pixel resolution. This should meet the criteria demanded by your course but gives you the flexibility of having a smaller, lightweight laptop to carry around such as a MacBook Air 11.6 inch.
It seems Apple has always been devilishly expensive with the very first Apple 1 computer retailing at exactly $666.66 back in the 70s.
Once budget and size are decided, the most vital specs you should look for in your laptop is memory and hard drive. First, let’s distinguish the two.
Hard drive is where your laptop stores data e.g. operating system or music files. Hard drive is measured in GB (gigabytes) and the bigger the drive, the more you can store. Memory is also measured in GB and is short for Random Access Memory, or RAM. Memory is related to the speed of your laptop. Access to RAM is much quicker than to your hard drive so when multiple programs are open at once, it’s your memory that enables them to run smoothly together. If your memory reaches its limit, that’s when things start to crash unexpectedly which is a nightmare if you’re writing a long essay or researching on the web with several tabs open.
So which is better? In short, as much of both as you can afford.
Budget laptops under £299 have a minimum of 2GB of memory which is fine for light use with Windows, even the newest version, however, if you’re planning on running iTunes, Excel, Word, Google Chrome and messenger programs simultaneously, 4GB is going to be much better. You can never have too much memory, so if you find your out-of-the-box spec isn’t performing as well as you hoped in practice, you can upgrade to extra RAM at any point.
If you’re investing in a laptop that you want to see you through your entire degree, look for at least 500GB storage on a hard drive. This will hold photos, music, videos as well as all your files for university comfortably. Portable USB drives are a cheap way to add storage or back up important documents from your laptop’s hard drive (strongly recommended).
Provided you don’t need any demanding software for your course we mentioned earlier, this is an area where you can relax a little on the spec. You won’t need the latest processor, the key is getting good value.
The processor is like your laptop’s brain - essentially it fetches, interprets and processes instructions. The more powerful the processor, the quicker it can handle what you throw at it.
There are two main processor brands to choose from: Intel or AMD. The latter are generally cheaper but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best value. Intel processors tend to run faster, we recommend an Intel Core i3 or i5 as this offers a great compromise between cost and performance. If you want to use your university laptop for 3D gaming as well, AMD graphics cards or Intel Core i7 will give you superior visuals (but you’d need to stretch your budget to over £500).
Most laptops batteries have an average lifespan of 2 to 3 years, improve this by storing in a cool place and unplugging before it's fully charged.
Your laptop is probably the most expensive investment you will make while at university so aftercare is an important consideration when it comes to who you purchase from.
Check the following before you buy:
Go to a retailer you trust and read the warranty and returns policy thoroughly before you buy. Often you can save more with a student bundle that includes your device, software, security and/or insurance.
Bear in mind that the budget laptop market is competitive and always changing, unfortunately no machine is future-proof. However, any Windows 8.1 laptop you buy now should have a free in place upgrade to Windows 10 – be sure to check this before you lay down the credit card.
The best student laptops in the market, for a range of budgets