Laptop under $1000 for college kid
April 20, 2017 7:56 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone suggest a laptop for an incoming college Freshman this fall, under $1000, no gaming? Also, any advice on how to shop for this is much appreciated!

I wish it could be a Mac, because I will be supporting it via telephone, but I think the price limit dictates that it run Windows.

It's not for really demanding use (like gaming or engineering or heavy photo/design work), but it does need to last all four years.

A touchscreen isn't a big deal. SSDs are standard now. It looks like a Sky Lake(??) CPU is within the budget? How much RAM do I need to run Windows 10?

I am a .edu IT guy but we use all Macs at home, and I haven't bought a Windows laptop...ever? So I don't even really know how to spec one: I am used to pricing out SPARC servers and stuff. Any rules of thumb for shopping here would be humbly and gratefully received.

Thank you!
posted by wenestvedt to Computers & Internet (33 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Apple has refurbished laptops at discounted prices. The refurbished gear I've bought from them has been essentially like new. You will probably want a macbook pro rather than the macbook "air" model. A 13" MBP is around $1270 plus tax right now, which is not too far off your $1000.
posted by StrawberryPie at 8:02 PM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to consider refurbished macbooks, there are quite a few options:
posted by nickggully at 8:03 PM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just FYI but you could get a refurbed Mac laptop for just a little more than that. That said a refurbed Dell would be half that and a lower end laptop would be under $200. So it might be worth adjusting your search from "$999 laptop that last four years" to "$150 laptop that last two years and then I'll buy another $150 laptop"

Does your kid know the Windows environment? As far as shopping, I usually go to DealNews' laptop section just to get an idea of what the lowest prices are for various configurations. And then I check Wirecutter to see what sort of stuff is non-awful. This article in particular both suggests a budget laptop and also gives you advice on how to shop for one.
posted by jessamyn at 8:04 PM on April 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have read a few good reviews of Chuwi laptops as direct-from-manufacturer windows 10 machines that are affordable. I have not yet bought one but am considering them:
posted by nickggully at 8:04 PM on April 20, 2017

I wouldn't go touchscreen. Just make sure it has an i5 or i7 processor, 8 gig RAM and a decent size hd (though an SSD plus external for bulk storage isn't a terrible idea).

Re support, I'd work out a desktop sharing solution like VNC (windows 10 has a native version but you need Pro) so you can just dial up his desktop and support directly.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:07 PM on April 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

I like The Wirecutter for stuff like this - less for their actual recommendations and more that they go through the pros and cons of various options.
For what it's worth, I have a Dell XPS13 that I bought mostly based on their recommendation, refurb model for under $1000, and I love it.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 8:07 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you really want to enforce the "no gaming" rule, consider a Chromebook. A College Student’s Chromebook Review
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:12 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

On preview, I'd back up what Jessamyn said about thinking about a cheaper laptop now with a view to replacing in future (and I'm not someone who's normally worried about upgrading regularly). For a college kid, their requirements now may not be their requirements in two or three years - they might well get into photography, or gaming, or audio engineering, or any one of a number of things once they're in college. Or find a niche for which it really is better to have a Mac vs a Windows machine or vice versa.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 8:12 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Why not the MacBook Air?
posted by oceano at 8:12 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think the major choice is chomebook or PC. Does the kid need to do more than office-y type stuff?

If no, then a Chromebook will do the job for $300, $500 is premium territory, and you'll never have to worry about managing it or viruses. To take class notes and to do spreadsheets/docs/presentations, they're pretty much functional. Paperpile for reference management, for example.

Is there a specific set of programs they might need to run in upper years? Matlab, Statistica, etc? Are there particular OS concerns? What is mentioned in the course catalogues or on the departmental websites?

I know grad students who are very productive on Chromebooks, even in some of the sciences. Computers, (but not PCs) need not cost the bomb anymore, if the student's needs aren't too great.
posted by bonehead at 8:29 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

If the laptop is liable to take a lot of abuse, and weight isn't an issue, consider a used Lenovo ThinkPad. They can be had for $300ish (check NewEgg for refurbs). ThinkPads are built like tanks, and are easy to repair. I like the T4xx series, which have great keyboards and decent sized screens. A T420/T430 will take 16Gb of RAM (8Gb now, and 8Gb if the need arises). Not sexy, but a few decals go a long ways.
posted by dws at 8:46 PM on April 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

2nding a lenovo thinkpad. They're fantastically hardy. As in, pour a hot coffee all over it and it'll be just fine hardy.

Lenovos in general are great for budget laptops. They're easily modified, cheap to repair, and even their non-thinkpad laptops can take a beating and still chug along.
posted by InkDrinker at 9:21 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

In your situation, I would 100% recommend a refurb Mac. It's easier for you, and you're already willing to spend the extra money to get what you want. If you buy from Apple, you get a one year warranty on refurbs. If not, you may be able to buy an extended warranty through SquareTrade.
posted by cnc at 9:39 PM on April 20, 2017

I would echo robotvoodoo power and bonehead and recommend a good Chromebook. The Wirecutter has you covered. I've purchased two of their previous recommendations and my colleague has their current one which he is pretty happy with. I teach college with a Chromebook. It will be good enough for most student stuff. And, cheap enough that if it gets destroyed it can be replaced (with a newer and probably better one.) The Google app suite works fine and online browser-based Office is available for free in the US. Looks like even SPSS is online these days. And, Chrome will likely be an easier migration from Mac than Windows will be.
posted by Gotanda at 10:01 PM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can't go wrong with the T420. It has a real i5, and is fast enough for Word, Minecraft, Spotify, and whatever kind of porn the kids are streaming nowadays. Plus, when it gets dropped in the toilet, you're not out a thousand dollars.

When these were being sold as business laptops, they would easily last 5 years of hard daily use.

Source: it's what I bought my 10-year-old son because he's not yet responsible enough for a Mac.
posted by hammurderer at 10:10 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Does the college program specify a specific model or set of requirements that they project the students need to meet?

Most schools also have discount programs with the major computer vendors. If you haven't received information about that, you should wait until you have it, though you may already have an equivalent discount through your employer. You can also get excellent deals by waiting for sales at the Dell and Lenovo Outlets.

I'll add my usual note here that I find cheap Dells better than cheap Lenovos. And I personally would be hesitant about sending a non-technical person off to school with a 5+ year old Thinkpad that you're not personally familiar with for providing support. They were well made, but at that age, that's well into the range where parts can fail abruptly. Even with a RAM bump, 2nd generation i5s are somewhat sluggish with Windows 10 - most people will perceive a $150 Chromebook as being faster than a Windows laptop from that era.
posted by Candleman at 10:15 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

A refurbished MacBook Air would probably be around your price point. Totally worth paying a bit more for something which you can support over the phone and which doesn't come with the same risk of viruses.

I'd only get a cheap windows laptop if they're prone to breaking, losing or damaging things. But then, they're likely to end up with viruses too.

If they need an upgrade in a few years due to changing needs, you should still be able to get a decent amount for a MacBook if you sell it.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 11:18 PM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I will concur with the chromebook crowd here as a teacher, for the particular reason that it seems much easier to lug around for digital note-taking. The weight savings, searchability and lack of paper everywhere that a chromebook can provide put it in a higher preference category for the uses a student might have for it.

Also - I cannot tell you how nice it will be (assuming Google doesn't collapse in the next four years?) to never have to worry about not having saved your work; the autosave nature of every single change will be a lifesaver. It's also a less attractive target for theft than a MacBook and if it does get nicked, all his work will be safely in the cloud and it won't cost an arm and a leg to replace.
posted by mdonley at 11:45 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd only get a cheap windows laptop if they're prone to breaking, losing or damaging things. But then, they're likely to end up with viruses too.

I've run multiple windows boxes for decades and never had a serious virus. If you take minimal sensible precautions you should be fine.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:09 AM on April 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also: yes, chromebook is probably the go here.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:09 AM on April 21, 2017

I'm also a (ex-) 17 year .edu IT type more SPARC or Linux vs Mac or Windows and sorta clueless on the whole normal person laptop thing and even getting to make the choice yourself vs. 'work buys me a laptop'. I'd go for either disposable Chromebook or something from the Dell Small Business line. I had about 4 laptops from the Dell Business line and no horror stories. They're not as flashy as the general consumer line, maybe using a year old tech, but 3 year on-site warranty that can be extended to 6 years. (I blew out the speakers on one by `cat /dev/random | /dev/dsp` and somebody showed up and replaced the motherboard.... I upgraded when there was an excess of budget or after the last one lasted 7 years before starting to flake out. Before that, when I was upgraded, the old laptop went to junior team members (muahahaha).

So that follows the SPARC line of thinking, less umph for your $$ but a bit more reliable expectations of support over the long term. (I now have a Dell XPS13 Developer Edition for about the same reasons).

.edu (at least mine) is fast moving to the cloud, web based Microsoft or Google mail and calendaring yadda yadda. The .edu may even have non-commodity internet connections to the major players. A Chromebook (this generations dumb X client) may be a totally cromulent option.

If not a Chromebook, look for an SD slot, USB3.0 ports, ease of upgrading memory/SSD/WiFi. I'm not a gamer so graphics isn't an issue, disk space, network speed, slow external drives, crappy WiFi, are bugbears in the long term.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:27 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

A 13-inch Macbook Air is $999. The student discount is not much, like $50 or $100 (though sometimes more if you buy from a university bookstore, if they've done a deal somewhere along the line), but it should bring you to very near $1000 even with sales tax. If "under-$1000" means you can comfortably go up to $1000 or $1050 with tax, that'd be my choice. Light, will likely easily last four years, powerful enough for most student-y non-gaming use.

One the one hand, you could definitely get a Windows laptop for far less. On the other hand, you can support a Mac, your(?) kid can use a Mac (I'm assuming the student at least lives in your household). If your 'under $1000' was closer to 'in the ballpark of $700' (or whatever), it probably makes sense to go cheap and spend like $300 on a Windows laptop with a view to replacing it in two years if it craps out. If the student is using it for writing papers, great, buy another (slightly better) Windows laptop. If they're doing a subject that has a preference for *nix, contemplate a Mac at that point. (I was a math major and was definitely glad I had a Mac at times in undergrad, but the times where Windows users found themselves needing to know what a VM is were all in grad school.)
posted by hoyland at 3:45 AM on April 21, 2017

Another thing to consider is convertible tablets with stylus. The cheaper ones lack some of the computing power (which it sounds like is OK) but they add a lot of versatility: taking notes in math, science, or music classes where there's lots of diagrams, or highlighting and annotating e-book readings, or digital art if your student is into that.

A refurb Surface 3 or Surface Pro 3 would be well under $1000 at this point, and they're still pretty capable machines.
posted by Wulfhere at 8:04 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

A surface has changed note taking for me in class drastically. When the professor provides a PowerPoint or something prior to class, I print to OneNote and then take notes along side the PowerPoint slides. I spend less time taking notes and the resulting notes are a lot more meaningful.

OneNote then syncs automatically and there is an Android/iPhone app, so I can just pull up my phone to study/review notes when I'm on the bus or something - don't have to dig out a laptop or a notebook.

The amount of effort I have to expend to take good notes and study those notes has been greatly reduced.

If you went this route I would also offer to buy them a cheap display for their room if they end up doing much work there.
posted by czytm at 8:50 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Given your budget, begin with the most efficacious elements. Laptops that feature an i7 should be well within your means and I'd start there. You'll most likely want to go for the models that indicate they are i7-6xxx and i7-7xxx, if only for the reason that it'll help keep your models current, especially in the case of the latter. The pair's performance difference will be minimal. This choice will guarantee you'll get USB3, which is great; ideally, you'll probably also want to look for models with an HDMI-out port.

Do you have a feeling for how much space the student currently uses on their devices? If they don't currently have a media collection, and you're not anticipating them being the type to collect one, you may be okay with a 256GB SSD model, which would negate the typical SSD hybrids (a full HDD + an 8GB SSD boot drive, for example) that I'm not a huge fan of. You just don't want to run the risk of them capping out their storage space and needing to clean or clear things out; it's a bit of a time-sink. Bear in mind it may be cheaper to buy an otherwise-well-spec'd laptop and replace the built-in HDD with an SSD. Fairly simple.

8GB RAM should be more than plenty, but I'd do a check on to ensure you can breezily 'up' it to 16, 'cause why not. Battery life, of course, should be high up on your list as well. Like, best-in-class, if you can! It's ideal for collegiate circumstances. 802.11ac Wi-Fi capable if you can find it; it's not supported everywhere, but it's awesome when you can connect to it. Stylus use, IMO, is to be thought about when it is to the person's benefit to become adept at doing so: if there's not a rationale or great benefit from using it, it frankly ends up being a little bit superfluous for most of the time. Your mileage may vary, of course.

This would be my choice for a full-sized laptop. Dell 15", i7-7500, 512GB SSD, 12GB RAM, full HD, fairly decent battery, etc., $960.
posted by a good beginning at 8:54 AM on April 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you're averse to refurb, Amazon has the 12-inch MacBook on sale for $950 right now.
posted by brentajones at 10:30 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

While I love my Surface Pro, I did not find it helpful for school because you can't actually use it as a laptop, like literally on your lap. Definitely check out the student discounts (you might be eligible with your .edu address). And because I was looking last night, I know that Best Buy currently has an Apple sale going on and there are several options under $1000 right now.
posted by Ruki at 12:42 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just a small point, but usually laptop sellers give big discounts and rebates in late August-September right before the start of the school year.
posted by ball00000ns at 12:55 PM on April 21, 2017

Two small points:

For the vast majority of people, a core i7 processor is overkill. An i5 will be perfectly fine and last many years. Use the money saved to get a SSD if you can, it'll make the laptop feel far snapper than an i7 will do.

For remote access, use Teamviewer over VNC. It's also free but, most importantly, it works behind firewalls and dynamic IPs without any configuration needed. You just click on the computer name and you're connected.
posted by mr_silver at 2:44 PM on April 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Apple has refurbished laptops at discounted prices. The refurbished gear I've bought from them has been essentially like new.

Yeah, fwiw I'm posting this from a 2011 refurbed MBA I got in late 2012, and I'm only just these last few weeks starting to look around for a replacement.
posted by solotoro at 3:46 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you/they really want a PC or you really want something super-durable to survive college abuse, I'll third the above suggestions of a used or refurb ThinkPad. Tough as nails, reasonably small and light, and the older but not old models are easily available for half your budget. If Windows isn't a critical necessity (they don't have any programs for class that only run under it) I'd suggest installing something like Ubuntu which is much less prone to viruses than windows, and then as others have suggested use VNC for support.

If it must be new and doesn't need windows or super durability, I'll echo those who suggest a Chromebook, especially if your student isn't into computers; it's kinda an it-just-works thing, though it doesn't do everything.

All that being said, were I you, I'd probably go with a refurb MacBook.
posted by MoTLD at 8:39 PM on April 21, 2017

I have a 13" MBA that I bought last summer that's barely been used that I'd like to sell for $1k or less.

2.2GHz Intel Core i7
512 GB SSD

Memail me if you're interested.
posted by bendy at 12:34 PM on April 22, 2017

You should be able to get a pc laptop with fantastic capabilities in the upper hundreds...even mid hundreds. Anything that's i7 should easily suit your needs. Probably fine with i5. You can get a lot more bang for the buck with PC. It probably won't last as long as a mac but you can still get quality products. With care you should have no difficulty making it last through college. I've always been a fan of dell laptops. Lenovo is nice to. Go to best buy, tell'm your needs, and you'll be pointed in the right direction towards a plethora of great choices.
posted by ljs30 at 5:39 PM on April 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Help me make my drive from Oakland airport to...   |   Dog ate gum- now what? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.