Laptops for students: 10 questions to ask before you start shopping

Choosing the right laptop for your university or college course is a big decision. Here are 10 things to think about before you buy.

The new university year is on the horizon again, and many students are shopping for a new laptop to get them through their course.

The choice of Chromebooks, MacBooks and all sorts of Windows laptops can be overwhelming. Here are a few things to consider if you're drawing up a list of must-have features. BT Shop has a range of laptops and tablets and offers a student discount.

[Read more: Get fast speeds and more with our student broadband deals]

1. What does your course demand?

Every degree is not equal, and that’s especially true for their IT demands. If you're studying English, business, social sciences, modern languages or history, then you can probably get by with a free office suite and a web browser on a low-powered laptop or even a Chromebook.

If you need to create and edit graphics, video or music, then you’ll need a much more powerful machine and a bigger screen. The benchmark Adobe Creative Cloud runs on Windows and Mac machines. Adobe's subscriptions are a lot less expensive if you’re a student, too.

Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro X are exclusive to Macs, and powerful Macs at that, but many students of science, technology, engineering and medicine will find their options limited to Windows as almost all the software used in these fields runs exclusively on Microsoft's operating system.

[Read more: 7 things to know about Microsoft's Surface Laptop]

2. OS: Chrome, Windows or Mac?

If your choice of course doesn’t dictate which operating system you need, then it will come down to your budget and personal preference.

Apple offers discounts for students, while Windows-based students can upgrade to Windows 10 Education for free through OnTheHub. This also offers discounts for students on Adobe Creative Cloud and IBM SPSS Statistics.

The alternatives to both are Chrome OS from Google and the open source OS Linux - but the last is really only for computer science students.

Chrome OS is the operating system found on Chromebooks. It’s essentially a desktop version of Google’s Android smartphone software. A Chromebook is a web-based computer, which works in the cloud, so instead of installing programs and saving everything on your hard drive, you use apps and store your files in the cloud. This makes Chromebooks fairly affordable.

Chromebooks come with a growing range of apps specifically designed for a keyboard, mouse and a larger touchscreen. Aside from the Google Drive suite and Chrome browser, these include versions of Adobe software and AutoCAD, Microsoft Office through Office 365, and hundreds of Android apps work perfectly on Chrome OS as well as a phone or tablet.

[Read more: Why a cheap Chromebook could be the only computer you need]

Student in a lecture hall

3. Does it need to be portable?

Home, lecture, library, lab, tutorial and coffee shop: a student’s laptop might do more miles than most, so don't lumber yourself by buying a heavy computer. 

Chromebooks are the affordable option here, while a Microsoft Surface or MacBook will be dreamily light and powerful, but expensive. If you want a Mac, the Macbook Air is very portable and flexible.

Chromebooks and most Surface laptops are also 2-in-1 models that can flip into tablet mode for sketching or enjoying your downtime.

The downside to many ultralight laptops is a lack of connections - you may need to invest in an adaptor.

4. What size screen?

What you gain in portability, you usually lose in screen size, unless you spend a lot of money on an ultra-light laptop.

It’s a compromise that will be dictated by your course: anyone editing graphics or video needs a big screen, as will engineers and architects dealing with spreadsheets and CAD illustrations. A 15in laptop is going to be heavy, but it will show you what you need to see.

Pure writers might be comfortable with a 12in screen, or even 10in (in which case, maybe a tablet with a keyboard accessory will suit your needs). The sweet spot for most students will be 12in to 14in.

Screen quality is another matter: look for a HD screen for sharpness, and an in-plane switching (IPS) display for off-angle viewing, unless your budget is very tight. Your eyes won’t thank you after three or four years of squinting at a poor display.

5. Battery life is key!

You’ll want to be sure of surviving a day at college without recharging, so look for a battery life of at least 10 hours.

That’s 10 hours connected to wi-fi, watching a bit of streaming video or playing a sneaky match on Fortnite during a well-earned break from research, writing essays and taking notes.

Don’t be tempted to save money with an old-style spinning hard disk instead of a solid-state drive (SSD). The difference in battery life is significant, and an SSD is faster and a lot more reliable.

[Read more: 6 ways to improve your laptop’s battery life]

Students watching TV on a laptop

6. Performance and storage

If you want it to last your degree, the worst things you can skimp on are the basic specs of a machine. Software never gets less demanding, so the processor, RAM and storage are all investments that will pay off.

As we've mentioned before, the type of laptop you need to get depends on how you'll be using it. You don't need a powerful device purely for writing, but you'll need something more powerful if you are doing any design or multimedia work.

If you can afford a multi-core Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 500GB SSD, then go for it. If not, you need a minimum of 4GB RAM and if you can’t afford the larger SSD, then consider an external hard disk or cloud storage like BT Cloudwhich is free to all BT Broadband customers.

[Read more: What is RAM and what do I need?]

7. Microsoft Office: do you need it?

Most offices may still run on Microsoft’s Office suite, but many students will be able to get by perfectly well without it thanks to healthy choice of free alternatives.

The most popular is Google Drive: it works on any device, comes with 15GB of free storage and is fully compatible with Microsoft Office. If you want a traditional suite of desktop software, LibreOffice is free, open source, and very widely used by governments, educational organisations and charities. Mac owners get Pages, Numbers and Keynote free with their laptops.

If you have a dissertation to complete, consider Scrivener. It’s a remarkably affordable package designed specifically for writing and organising long-form work.

If you must buy Microsoft Office, then fortunately it’s cheaper for students, with deals designed to last the length of your degree, and free access to Office 365.

8. How important is entertainment?

A student’s laptop isn’t just a workhorse, it’s got to power your free time too: streaming video, downloads, music and a little gaming.

What does this mean for your options? Consider screen size and quality, and enough processing power to play back Full HD (or even 4K video files), and to give you edge in an online battle.

If you can’t find a package with good speakers (try them out in store), think about pairing with a small soundbar or good headphones.

Laptop and headphones on a desk

9. Don't forget accessories

Investing in a laptop that’s going to last your degree also means looking after it: a laptop shell, neoprene sleeve and padded bag will pay for themselves many times over.

It's not all about external protection: anti-malware software is another essential. Windows has its built-in Defender and Firewall, and Mac users can get Avast. BT Broadband users can download BT Virus Protect, which providers virus and malware protection for free!

[Read more: Seven easy tips to protect your PC]

A large-screen monitor can be used for both work and play, and consider adding a Chromecast device for wireless flexibility.

An external hard disk drive is essential for making regular backups in case your laptop is lost, stolen or just breaks down. Cloud storage isn’t just an alternative to back-ups, it’s the best way to cover yourself against losing both laptop and external drive. Dropbox and others now provide 1TB for a year at affordable rates, and your uni might provide free cloud storage.

Finally, give your back and neck a gift by using a laptop stand to lift your screen to a healthy height. You can even buy portable stands to use in the library, lab or coffee shop as well as in your room.

10. Do I need a laptop?

It’s a radical idea, but a tablet could be all you need for college or university. If you can sacrifice screen size and don't need high-end software like Adobe Creative Cloud or dedicated STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) programs, then consider ditching the laptop.

A tablet is portable, lightweight and is as easy to charge as your phone. You can pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard for writing, and a stylus or a mouse for precision and desktop feel. For more demanding users, powerful tablets like the iPad Pro can still cost less than a high-end laptop.

[Read more: Computing accessories you can’t live without]

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