The best laptops for students: What to look for in 2015

When it comes to laptops, students have specific requirements. They need a model that’s lightweight and portable, but also one that’s built for life at school or college. They need something with the power to handle classroom applications, but with the battery life to last the whole working day. They might benefit from touchscreens or convertible form factors, but a comfortable keyboard is a must for coursework. Most of all, students need all these features at an affordable price.

The best laptops for students: What to look for in 2015

Price and specifications

The good news is that it isn’t necessary to pay out a fortune for a decent student laptop. Appropriate models are available for well below £500, and some as low as £200 if you’re prepared to compromise on performance, storage capacity or screen size. What’s more, many manufacturers offer discounts for schools, colleges or even individual students, helping you to drive down the purchase cost.

The key is knowing where to save money and where cost-cutting might bite later on. As far as the core specification is concerned, look for a laptop with the power to handle mainstream classroom tasks but that offers a degree of flexibility to cope with future applications. Entry-level Intel Celeron and Pentium processors, based on Intel’s Atom technology, will be fine for simple Office and web-based applications, but they might not have the power for more demanding work.

For the sake of future-proofing, look to the higher-end dual-core Celeron and Pentium processors (those without an N in front of the model number) or – better still – laptops with Intel Core i3 and i5 processors.

AMD A8 and A10 APUs are also a good option. APUs, or accelerated processing units, combine the processor and graphics accelerator on a single chip. APUs or laptops with a dedicated graphics chip will give you a smoother ride in 3D applications, including games, and while student laptops aren’t meant to be gaming machines, the more versatile your laptop, the better. Similarly, while a mere 2GB of RAM will run Windows 8 or Windows 10 satisfactorily, 4GB will keep it running smoother when multiple applications are open simultaneously.

Hard disk space isn’t as all-important as it used to be, and some student laptops now ship with 16GB or 32GB SSDs (solid-state drives rather than hard disks; SSDs are less susceptible to damage but offer less storage space), with students storing files on school or college servers or on cloud-storage services such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. It’s still worth having the space, however, if only because it gives you the flexibility to store and work with large files locally, opening up a wider range of photo-editing and video-editing applications.

Size and form factor

hp_zbook_14_g2Laptops now come in many shapes and sizes, from large desktop-replacement systems to slim, lightweight Ultrabooks and convertible devices, which can switch between tablet and laptop styles to cater for different needs. The trick is to decide which one is right for your requirements.

If students are going to work with graphics or video applications, then a 15.6in to 17.3in desktop-replacement model might make sense, but what you gain in screen size you lose in portability. Similarly, an 11.6in model will be super-light, but not as versatile. Devices of 13.3in and 14in offer a great halfway house, and could be a good choice for school or college work.

Convertibles, meanwhile, make sense if schools are investing in touch-friendly apps, are keen to embrace more field work, or need a laptop for primary school use or SEN (Special Educational Needs) support. Working outside can be easier with a touchscreen than a model relying on a mouse and keyboard, and younger children and SEN students can both benefit from the immediacy of touch.

Most 11.6in to 15.6in laptops will have a basic 1,366 x 768 resolution, which is fine for general purposes. However, a higher-resolution screen is worth paying for, particularly if you’re buying a desktop-replacement model. With a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution images will look crisper and cleaner, and you’ll be able to fit more application windows on the screen; a real plus if you’re working on complex projects.

Whatever model you opt for, think carefully about the touchpad and keyboard. Secondary and college studies still require that students produce substantial quantities of text, and a laptop with a good, well-spaced keyboard and a large, smooth trackpad will be far more comfortable to use over long periods. Read reviews and, where possible, try before you buy.

Build quality and connectivity

laptop_cableSome budget laptops compromise on connectivity, doing without faster USB 3 ports, Ethernet network connections or HDMI video outputs, but consider the primary use of your laptop.

You should pay a little extra for a laptop with at least one USB 3 port, as opposed to the older USB 2 type, if you need to work with high-speed external hard disks. The most obvious example of this is video editing, where the massive project files may need to be stored on such a disk.

HDMI video outputs are becoming increasingly common on laptops and displays – whether TVs, monitors or projectors – and offer an easy way to share your laptop’s screen for, say, a presentation.

Ethernet connectivity, meanwhile, means you’re not entirely reliant on the laptop’s Wi-Fi connection, and may help management and troubleshooting on the school network. As far as wireless connections go, 802.11n connectivity is great for most school purposes, with dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz support a bonus. Some laptops now support the new 802.11ac standard, but unless your school is investing in new wireless networks to support it, it isn’t worth the extra outlay.

Good build quality is always worth paying for. School and college environments aren’t kind to laptops, so any kind of ruggedisation will help them survive. Where that’s not possible, the more solid the materials used in the lid and chassis, the more likely they are to get through two or three years of daily use intact.

To help, hold some budget back for a good sleeve, backpack or bag. Sleeves are the cheapest option, costing roughly £15 to £25, and give your laptop lightweight weather resistance on the outside and a soft, protective layer on the inside, safeguarding it from minor knocks and scratches. You can find them in a variety of designs and colours, making them a great way to personalise a student laptop too. Bags and satchels provide a little more padding, storage pockets for the power supply and accessories, plus hand and shoulder straps for easy carrying. Good options are available for £20 to £35.

For school and college use, however, nothing beats a good, solid backpack, complete with water-resistant exterior, ample compartments for books, stationery and other necessary items, plus a solid, well-padded interior compartment for the laptop itself. Some, like HP’s 15.6in Premier 3 Blue Backpack, even cram in an extra padded pocket for a tablet or ebook reader. Meanwhile, adjustable shoulder straps and ventilation systems can be a real plus when students need to carry a laptop around campus for a working day. Stylish, tough and practical, a laptop backpack might cost you as little as £20 to £40, and that’s a price well worth paying to protect your hardware. 

Management, security and insurance

Management features aren’t a must for individual laptops, but if you’re a school deploying a fleet then they’ll save your IT team time and – long-term – money too. Intel Active Management Technology and the ability to work with management and configuration tools will help you cut back on the burden of management.

Similarly, bundled anti-theft software, internet security software and a built-in Kensington lock can help you secure your laptop(s) against threats both digital and physical. On the latter front, some schools swear by anti-theft marker pens, RFID asset-management tags or custom-lid transfers.

Finally, if you’re purchasing a laptop for a student son or daughter, don’t forget about insurance. While the device may be covered by your existing home policy under a personal items provision, you may want to cover it for accidental damage and theft under a separate laptop or gadgets policy.

For schools, some retailers or manufacturers offer insurance as an additional service, or laptops may be covered under your existing equipment policy. Just make sure that they’re guarded against accidental damage and that the cover extends to both in and out of the classroom. 

Laptops are designed to be portable – it’s a shame to tie them to a desk.

Find out which type of mobile device fits your education needs in part two of our Student Laptop series.

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