How to Choose the Best Laptops for College Students in 2020

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The right laptop can make all the difference for a college student.

It's their tool of choice when they're up against a deadline for an assignment, putting the finishing touches on a group project, or writing papers at dawn. But finding a laptop that's both built to last and meets their needs can be challenging, especially if you're buying it as a gift. We're hoping to make it a little easier.

How students use their computers often varies, depending on their college major. One might want a simple word processor that can also stream Netflix, while another may need a powerhouse for design and engineering. It's best to understand how a student will be using a laptop before getting them a present that falls short or aims too big.

With all that in mind, what is the best laptop in 2020? It's difficult to say. Each model has unique bells and whistles. In most cases, the most critical factor is the price-to-performance ratio, which helps you decide if the tag matches the performance durability. Everything else — battery life, size and weight, keyboard and trackpad — is secondary, though still significant. You want to consider every laptop's specifications to make sure you spend your money wisely.

We've compiled the following tips and recommendations to help you research one of the best technology gifts for a college student in 2020: a laptop.

Image of student using laptop and study materials for distance learning with their class at home.

Top Things You Need in a Laptop

Processing power

A processor controls how fast a computer runs programs or completes tasks. While a faster processing speed may raise the price of a laptop, it also makes them more efficient.

The processor is one of several specifications and components to consider when buying a laptop. You should also consider types of ports, RAM (the memory of a computer), and screen size. Some choices — such as wanting a bigger screen — come down to personal preference.

If you're not sure what you need, contact the IT department at your school for advice.

Ability for third-party applications

Your laptop needs to be adaptable for outside applications. For instance, Google Chromebooks are popular computers for students because they're cheap, efficient, and easy to use, but they come with a downside.

Chromebooks can't install software that isn't available on Google's online store, including programs like Microsoft Word, which is a problem if your college requires students to download specific applications. Make sure your university's remote learning platform is web-based before committing to a Chromebook.

Fit your college's requirements

There's no shortage of debate about whether Windows laptops are better than macOS laptops, or vice versa. Regardless of your personal preference, it may be best to check with your school for specific system requirements.

Some colleges and universities prefer to keep technical support concentrated on one platform, cutting down on software compatibility issues. It's also possible that on-campus repair centers only service laptops purchased from the university or an affiliated computer store, so fixing malfunctions may be easier if you're using your school's preferred laptop.

Requirements may also vary between majors. For example, a film student's computer will need more powerful graphics capabilities than a history student's computer. Contact your intended major to find out what systems the faculty or IT service recommend.

How to Get Discounts on Your Laptop

Student bookstore discounts

It's common for campus bookstores to offer educational and seasonal discounts on computers. A 10% discount could trim $100 off the price of a new laptop or tablet.

Contact your campus bookstore and ask if any discounts on laptops are available. If the campus facility is closed, the same educational discounts should apply to the online version of the bookstore. Online stores typically ship equipment or hold it for you at the physical store.

But don't jump at the first sale. Compare prices between laptops at the bookstore and those on the market before making a purchase. There could be a more competitive deal online, such as through the educational departments of Apple or Dell. Apple is currently selling its 13-inch MacBook Air 2020 for $900 — down from an original price of $1,299.

Refurbished/used computers

The best bet any student can make is to buy a brand new laptop. But if that option isn't available, refurbished computers are worth consideration. While they aren't new, the laptops' various components — including the battery, internal storage, power supply, and ports — get restored to a favorable condition.

However, there are a few caveats to consider. Buying a refurbished or used laptop may mean a cheaper price tag, but it can be risky. Refurbished computers are usually older models, and because laptop batteries diminish over time, a refurb may have shorter battery life than the latest generation. Poor Wi-Fi connectivity, slower performance, and hardware defects are also common issues.

It's also important to remember that "used" and "refurbished" are not interchangeable. "Used" laptops may or may not be working, while "refurbished" laptops have been checked over. Consumers often sell used laptops on websites such as eBay and Craigslist, where there may be less accountability for how they perform.

It's best to buy a refurbished laptop from a reputable online retailer that offers a warranty. Refurbished laptops on Amazon come with warranties, as well as a 30-day return policy. Newegg is another trustworthy online retailer.

Payment plans

Sometimes a computer is too expensive to pay for all at once. Laptop financing plans allow students to pay for their devices a little bit at a time over extended periods.

Most retailers offer payment plans, though it often means signing up for promotional accounts. For instance, Amazon offers 12-month special financing for purchases costing more than $599, but it requires the Amazon.com Store Card. Keep in mind that there are penalties if you don't meet your payments.

Image of student studying at home on a couch wearing headphones with their laptop in their lap.

Yes, You Can Buy a Serviceable Laptop for Under $500

Though cheaper notebooks won't have all the same bells and whistles as higher-priced laptops — or as much processing speed — they can still deliver a fast and responsive user experience.

— Apple

The Apple MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are the gold standards for higher ed because most college students buy them. However, they can also be the priciest. The majority of top-rated laptops cost $720-$1,500. These prices may be too high unless you find a killer deal.

— Acer and Aspire

Acer's Chromebook and Aspire series are among the best budget laptops available on the market. However, as mentioned before, Chromebooks can't run third-party programs, and their popularity means they often go out of stock.

Critics praise the Acer Chromebook 514's battery life, touch display, backlit keyboard, touchpad, and affordable price of $350. The Acer Chromebook 15, which can sell for $160, has high performance, about nine hours of battery life, and an aluminum design that weighs 4.85 pounds.

— Other Favorites

Other popular options are the sleek, tablet-style Microsoft Surface Go for as low as $449, the versatile Lenovo IdeaPad L340 for $599, and the Dell Inspiron 15 3000 for $429. Prices may vary depending on warranties, retailers, and the year, make, and model of the computer.

Final Word

Buying a new laptop is a big decision. Students can avoid making hasty or uninformed purchases by doing their research, analyzing the pros and cons of each computer, and asking themselves how they plan to use it. And if you're buying a laptop for the student in your life, now you know where to start, too.

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

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