Laptops 101: Notebook Buying Guide for Students

Decision One: How Much To Spend?

Roughly speaking, any laptop priced under $500 is a budget model, while anything over $1,000 is a premium device. We'll split the range in between into two segments—$500 to $750 for budget-to-mainstream laptops, and $750 to $1,000 for mainstream-to-premium.

Decision Two: Which Form Factor and Screen Size?

Among the popular sizes, 17.3 inches is huge, found in laptops that are too heavy to carry around campus. Opting for a 15.6-inch laptop gets you a good value (it's the most popular and economical screen size) and plenty of room for a decent keyboard, albeit in a system that's still a tad heavy for daily transit. Fourteen-inch and smaller systems tend to be thinner models without optical drives (see below), with 13.3 a popular size for so-called ultrabooks and other thin and light portables. An 11.6-inch or smaller laptop is a cinch to carry around, but may be too small for a daily driver, with both a squinty screen and a cramped keyboard.

Decision Three: Assessing Memory and Storage

Onboard memory can vary from as little as 2GB (for some detachables destined for simple Office work) to 16GB or even more (for hardcore gamer and graphical workstation systems). Most students can make do with 4GB of RAM—which, to be frank, is probably as much as you're going to get in many retail laptops. Midrange and high-end notebooks may offer more. But do you need it?

If you're going to be doing a lot of multimedia editing, a lot of CAD designing, or a lot of gaming, you may well want more than 4GB of memory. But if all you're ever going to do is write papers, browse social networking sites, and watch movies on streaming services, 4GB is probably plenty. One good approach, if you're not sure of your immediate and foreseeable needs, is to go with a 4GB system, but make sure that it can be upgraded with more memory down the line.