Need a college laptop!
August 6, 2010 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Computer Buying: It's time to get my laptop for college!

Here's what I'm looking for: I have limited funds, so I'd like it to cost less than $800. Also, while I'm a strictly PC user, I've always been jealous of the polished look of Mac laptops. If possible, I'd prefer a Windows laptop that has a little class appearance-wise. As for everything else, I'm pretty wide open.

Thing is, I don't know where to start! I've done most of my initial searching online (Newegg), but I feel like there are so many to choose from and too many specs to compare. I feel that, by picking out of the blue, there's a chance I'm paying too much or missing a comparable computer with better qualities.

How do I start? Any specific suggestions for computers? Or brands that have worked well for you in the past?


A side note question:
Should I not find any suggestions here that I like, would it be worth it to do shopping locally at retail stores like Best Buy? I've noticed that a lot of their computer accessories are overpriced but I don't know if this carries over to laptops. Otherwise I'll just stick to buying online.
posted by pyrom to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Get a core i5 with 4 Gigs of Ram. Windows 7 64 bit. More or less they all have the same guts, and all break at about the same frequency (this based on working in a university computer repair shop where every student has some flavor of laptop). everyone's personal preference may very. Sony makes some pretty ones, if that is what you like.
posted by Amby72 at 8:33 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

It would be helpful to know what you will be using it for. You say college, but are you an engineering student? An art student? Will the laptop be used for writing essays in Word and messing around on Facebook, or are you going thave more specific needs for it -- AutoCAD, Photoshop... ?

If you're just going to run Word and surf the net/grab e-mail, I would recommend a netbook. Man, how I would have loved to have one of these little guys when I was in college.
posted by stennieville at 8:33 AM on August 6, 2010

Thing is, I don't know where to start!

Make a list of what you want the laptop to do. Also, decide on the screen size you would like. These factors along with the price point will lead you to a much narrower and easier to manage list of possibilities. Right now, looking at everything will be too overwhelming.

A discrete graphics card and built in optical drive are things you should keep an eye out for if you want them. If you don't want them then they will save you battery-life and laptop size.
posted by ODiV at 8:36 AM on August 6, 2010

Netbooks are cute and fun but really hard to type papers on... Be sure to get a computer with a monitor you won't have to squint at. Especially at 2 AM as your research articles blur before your eyes.
posted by ShadePlant at 8:36 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Before you buy anything, check your school's recommendations for system specs. They may also have some sort of bulk pricing deal set up with a Major Laptop Manufacturer.

Keep an eye out for any software or hardware you might need for coursework. CAD packages, Photoshop, video editing tools, and the like may require a slightly beefier computer than what you might normally purchase. You may want to factor the cost of peripherals into your decision (do you need to buy a Wacom tablet for drawing? Scanner/printer? Extra monitor?).
posted by backseatpilot at 8:37 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your school may have deals through the bookstore that may be better than newegg. Keep your eye on too.
posted by k8t at 8:41 AM on August 6, 2010

I recently (2 weeks ago) helped my brother pick out a laptop for college from Newegg (he ended up with this one). Around $500 seems to be a good sweet spot for features vs price. Yes, there's lots of options, but generally any of the new laptops are going to be good for what you need.

Do you want a smaller laptop that's easier to carry around, or one with a bigger screen that's better for movies etc. but not as easy to transport?

Do you like the glossy screen or matte? (Personally I find glossy to have way too much glare for any usability outside carefully controlled environments)

Are you going to be playing lots of games? If so, you'll need to get a laptop with a beefier graphics card.

In terms of specs, I'd stay away from Celeron processor, and would recommend something multicore. AMD/Intel doesn't really matter. Get 3GB of RAM at least.

Re: local stores, they're good for getting a feel for the screen sizes, keyboard layouts etc. Keep an eye out for sales, you may be able to find something for cheaper than online, but generally with free shipping from places like Newegg online will be cheaper.
posted by reptile at 8:42 AM on August 6, 2010

Response by poster: I don't have a computer-intensive major and it'll mostly be used for writing essays and internet. However, I frequently play games and use Photoshop for recreational purposes, so I guess the prospect of losing those makes a really stripped-down netbook is a little less appealing.
posted by pyrom at 8:43 AM on August 6, 2010

Will this laptop be a PC replacement for you or will you have it in addition to a desktop PC?
posted by reptile at 8:44 AM on August 6, 2010

Response by poster: And I'm a sucker for big screens. I wouldn't mind something with a screen on the larger end as long as I can fit it in a backpack.
posted by pyrom at 8:45 AM on August 6, 2010

Your school may have deals through the bookstore that may be better than newegg.

Yes, this. Student discounts are the best thing ever. Plus, there's frequently some kind of associated deal-- bundled warranty, repair deals, software, printer, case, rebate, iPod, etc.
posted by supercres at 8:46 AM on August 6, 2010

More or less they all have the same guts, and all break at about the same frequency (this based on working in a university computer repair shop where every student has some flavor of laptop).

Clearly Amby72 has more experience, but I remember people on campus when I was in sschool 3 years ago consistently having problems with Dell's especially compared to other brands. It might be that the campus had a deal with Dell originally and so the frequency seemed higher, but the MAC kids and the kids who transitioned to IBM's after the college switched deals seemed to have less complaints. This is totally anecdotal, but it might be that Amby's only counting major breakdowns? I think the problems was that the Dells would fail in non-critical ways, so the backlight on your screen would die or some other peripheral accessory would crap out more so than other brands. I'm not sure if this is still true, but it was widely known on campus that Dells were crapped out after only 2 years. My IBM on the other hand has kept on chugging, going on 6 years now, which again anecdotal I might just be lucky/taking better care of it. I would research more into consumer reports on longevity. Especially with the laptops.
posted by edbles at 8:46 AM on August 6, 2010

Based on personal experience, for something to actually be portable, ~15" is about the upper limit. 17" is a beast and, IME, stays put on the desk. 13" is more portable yet, to the point of taking it to class every day, whereas 15" is a good mix: a little bulky to always throw in your bag, but easy enough when working on a group project, and still big enough to be a desktop replacement.
posted by supercres at 8:48 AM on August 6, 2010

RE: Dells crapping out after two years... absolutely do not buy anything from the Dell Inspiron line. Those things just don't hold up under heavy use. Mine made it through undergrad with only one hard drive failure, but a lot of friends' computers had had motherboard problems, multiple HD failures, CD drives not working, you name it--it failed.

But-- the Dell Latitude line (for business) is fantastic. There's a reason why the government (or at least the branch I work for) buys Latitudes--they are solid machines. My SO's Latitude just recently had a hinge break after six years, and that's the only real problem it's had.
posted by gueneverey at 9:10 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really like my ASUS. You can get a lot for the money with that brand, and it seems reliable. Their customer support is good, too. You have to email, but they respond quickly.
posted by ishotjr at 9:30 AM on August 6, 2010

Get an off-lease Thinkpad. Or a new one if you can get decent discounting. A T510 ought to be barely in your price range if you don't get one that's too decked out.

If I were in your shoes, I'd get a used X60 or X61 (you can find them with some warranty left on eBay usually, and you can extend the warranty further if you like), a docking station from eBay, and a cheap monitor and decent keyboard and mouse. That way you get the best of both worlds. Great portability and a decent screen at your desk for typing long papers or whatever it is you college kids do these days.

It's not a great option if you want to do any hardcore PC gaming, though.
posted by wierdo at 9:32 AM on August 6, 2010

I recommend looking at for reviews (they do everything from cameras to TVs).

Here is a laptop that has the class that you're looking for as well as the performance:;contentBody;4r

The downside is that it's over your budget, but you may find it worthy
posted by Leofet at 9:38 AM on August 6, 2010

k8t: Your school may have deals through the bookstore that may be better than newegg.

This, a million times. Don't buy anything until you see what educational discounts you're lined up for. Apple's discount is usually 10%, I believe.
posted by mkultra at 9:42 AM on August 6, 2010

Laptop recommendations are tough, because you are going to end up with tons of anecdotes that don't really lead you to a conclusion.

Counter to gueneverey, I have had two inspirons and they have been great for me.

In the end, I think there are two types of people - those who think that their laptops suck, and those that don't. The particular brand they use doesn't seem to have much to do with it.
posted by davey_darling at 9:58 AM on August 6, 2010

Agree with 4-gigs of RAM and Windows 7 64-bit.

I suggest going to Best Buy and finding something you like (writing down detailed specs), then looking online for a good price on it. In addition to Tiger Direct and Newegg, keep an eye on
posted by coolguymichael at 10:34 AM on August 6, 2010

Forget looks and think long term. I know you said you're a PC user, but are your parents are footing the bill? If they have, and you'll be buying the next one I'd switch to a Mac before the gravy train runs out. I cringe at the thought of the money I've wasted trying to keep PC's going and virus-free over the years. I need a computer but will wait it out and use my Droid until I can afford a Mac! is a site you might want to check out.
posted by pixiemind at 10:43 AM on August 6, 2010

Recently, I got a big desktop monitor for use with my 15" laptop for when I'm at home, and it has been a godsend - I wish I had purchased it years ago.

So if you anticipate using the laptop a lot at home, I would recommend budgeting in a monitor, you should be able to get a good deal on a 22" or so.

In any case, looking at your 'nice looks' requirement, I second the Sony recommendation. I also second the ASUS recommendation, second the Inspiron anti-recommendation, and if you're willing to downgrade looks to upgrade durability, go with a Lenovo ThinkPad.
posted by demagogue at 1:25 PM on August 6, 2010

Ask yourself if you really need a laptop. I haven't seen a school that didn't have an impressive supply of computers everywhere. Get a basic desktop at home/dorms, a 16GB USB thumb drive and that is all you need. All you need to carry to classes/labs/library/student union is the USB drive which is infinitely better than even the small size of a netbook. Most computer labs on campus will have an infinitely better computer to play with than what you can afford.
posted by JJ86 at 1:39 PM on August 6, 2010

See if your IT department provides extra support for any particular brands (mine will help you with hardware issues if you have a mac, dell or thinkpad). Also, seriously consider getting just a desktop. It will be loads cheaper and significantly more durable than a laptop.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 2:11 PM on August 6, 2010

get a laptop with a smaller screen 13", and a big monitor back in your room. Lugging around extra pounds all day because you got the 15" is a pain in the ass, and you'll probably save some money too. You can get 22" monitors for a couple hundred. And, as everybody has said, you're in pretty good shape with whatever horsepower the thing has, though 64-bit windows is a plus. Unfortunately, the cheaper laptops tend to be crappier (see Dell especially, but most fall prey to this), though I've had good luck with Asus myself for cheaper machines.
posted by defcom1 at 1:35 AM on August 7, 2010

Ignore any Mac user who tells you there is lots of time and effort involved in keeping a Windows system virus free.

Just download and install Microsoft Security Essentials, make sure Windows Update is turned on and, like Mac's, don't run executables from places you don't trust.

Practically zero effort and no additional cost.
posted by mr_silver at 9:45 AM on August 7, 2010

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