The College Student’s Guide to Buying Your First Laptop

By Sateesh on August 25, 2015

For college students today, laptops are an absolute necessity – be it to get work done, or simply to kick back, relax and enjoy an evening with friends. As a student myself, I know that buying a new laptop when there’s so many to choose from can be difficult, but there are some basic things you should know when you go shopping for one.

Since our requirements may vary a lot, I will talk about what features you should look for in your machine and why you might need them, so that you can navigate your way to your ideal machine amidst the choices out there. When you go shopping on a site like Flipkart or Amazon, you’ll see lots of specifications, such as the processor or CPU, graphics card or GPU, RAM, screen size, and more. This is what you need to know when you’re looking at these numbers.

On shopping sites, the name of the laptop will be followed by something like (Core i3 4th Gen) – this bit of text refers to the processor in the laptop. There are a lot of different options here, but to keep it simple, try and stick to one of the Intel processors, who name will begin with ‘Core i’, and then a number.

If your field of study requires only basic usage like browsing and documentation, then a less powerful processor like an i3 should suit your needs just fine, and save you quite a few bucks in the process.

However, if you need to run software like Photoshop, MATLAB, or AutoCAD, then the processor in your laptop should be powerful. Look for a 4th or at least a 3rd generation Intel processor. An i5 will comfortably manage most things you throw at it. An i7 is not really needed, unless you plan on regular, intensive gaming.

Graphics card
An integrated graphics card like Intel’s Iris or HD series usually results in much better battery life and reduced heat generation in such laptops. A dedicated graphics card like NVIDIA’s GeForce series has its own processor and RAM for managing complex 3D graphics, which hits the battery life (and price) of your laptop. But how much power do you really need?

Many people will tell you that you require a laptop with a standalone graphics card, that’s just not true. You’re in college and can live with a little compromise. And an integrated graphics card, with a decent processor and enough RAM, will still run most games, if at slightly reduced graphics settings.

Unless you are a dedicated gamer who plans to play videogames at the highest settings, you can keep away from a dedicated graphics card.

The listings will also show how much RAM the laptops have – typically, you’ll see a number like 2GB or 4GB. This is a very important specification. Modern computers are expected to do several tasks at once. More RAM is what keeps the show going smoothly. With programs becoming more and more demanding, consider 4GB as the bare minimum amount of RAM you’ll need.

However, 6GB or more is ideal. Keep in mind that adding more RAM to your laptop is probably the easiest and cheapest upgrade you can give it. All you would need is around Rs. 2000, and you can give your laptop a new lease of life with an additional 4GB of RAM, even after you’ve bought it.

Display and speakers
From reading textbooks to catching up on movies to videos chats with Mum, you’re going to be looking at that screen a lot. While you don’t need a full-HD screen, look for a decent display with adequate brightness.

Another important question is that of screen size. A large display will only add to the weight, and your back won’t thank you for it. On the other hand, with anything below 11-inches, the screen may become uncomfortably small. I personally feel 13-inches hits the sweet spot as it’s easy to lug around between classes and still big enough that I can work on it comfortably, or watch (legally downloaded) movies.

Most laptops don’t come with powerful speakers, and this is not a priority, as your roommates will not appreciate being disturbed in their study (or more likely their sleep). Instead, invest in a nice pair of headphones for better enjoying your TV shows.

CD Drive and storage
These days, you don’t need a CD drive, and can skip it without flinching, thanks to the widespread adoption of USB pen drives.

For storage options, you’ll need to see the number next to the words HDD (Hard Disk Drive) – typically something like 250GB or 500GB. Get one with at least 500GB of storage so that you can stock up on your favourite movies and TV shows for the dreary summers back home – legally, of course.

SSDs – the kind of storage seen in Apple’s MacBook Air and some other laptops – are alternative to hard disks that are faster but more expensive, which means you usually get a lot less storage. Since you are likely to hoard on to a lot of stuff in college and also be on a tight budget, you should probably stick to buying a laptop with HDD storage.

Operating system
Specs are great, but you need an OS to breathe life into your laptop. Which should it be? Stick to good old faithful Windows? Or delve into the world of Linux?

If you’re an engineering student, you absolutely have to get used to Linux. And the sooner you can get used to life on the Terminal, the better it will be. The Linux ecosystem provides immense power in the hands of those who know how to use it, and is bread and butter for developers. There are several distros (think versions) based on Linux, but more on that later.

If you are into gaming, designing, or video editing though, you’d best stick to Windows, which has the largest support in terms of third party applications. Just don’t expect bloat free, blazing fast performance.

If you’re keen on getting a MacBook and are wondering if OS X is for you, then rest assured, it can handle everything rather well except heavy gaming. Due to increasing market share, most apps now have a Mac version as well, and Windows-only apps can be easily run using a virtual machine like VMware or Parallels.

OS X also offers a ton of other goodies. It is built around the FreeBSD kernel, and its internals are similar to Linux, so it has a great environment for developers. It can also handle powerful designing and editing applications beautifully, all the while offering great optimisation to give you an outstanding battery life that will not be equalled easily.