2019 guide to the best computers for college & university students

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Introduction

With the incredibly high number of choices and options available on the market, choosing the right computer can be more than a little daunting, especially if you’re a student going back to, or joining collage/university for the first time.

However do not panic! As in this guide we will provide you with the perfect starting point, and highlight what is and isn’t important when choosing the best student computer.

For a quick summary however, the short answer to the most suitable option and specification is the HP PAVILION 14 and the MacBook Air below:

Best PC for students

HP Pavilion 14" HD Notebook

Screen Size: 14-inch (1,920 x 1,080) | Processor: 3.1 GHz Core i3-4160T | Ram: 8 GB SDRAM | Hard Drive/Storage: 1 TB 5400 rpm SATA | Graphics Card: Intel HD Graphics 620 | Average Battery Life: 7.75 hours | Weight: 4.85 pounds | Dimensions:
13.2 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches

Best Mac for students

Apple MacBook Air 13"

Screen Size: 13.3-inch (1440 x 900) | Processor: 1.8 GHz Dual-core Intel Core i5 processor | Ram: 8GB memory | Hard Drive/Storage: 128gb SSD | Graphics Card: Intel HD Graphics 6000 | Average Battery Life: 12 hours | Weight: 2.96 pounds | Dimensions: 12.8 inches (32.5 cm) x 8.94 inches (22.7 cm)

…Scroll to the end of this guide to view our further recommendations

Choosing the best computer

Before we move on, there are a variety of factors that you need to take into consideration as a student shopping for a computer.

The first one is the nature of the activities that you will be using the computer for, and this is where the kind of course you are taking comes into play. If your course requires graphic intensive software, for example Architecture or 3D Animation, it is strongly recommend that your computer comes equipped with a high powered processor and as much RAM (memory) as you can afford.

…and in which case we recommend that you visit the below buyers guide, specialising in high powered machines:

If you plan to do the majority of your work via programmes such as Microsoft Word and Excel for example, and watching the occasional movie, then an averagely spec’d computer will comfortably serve most, if not all of your requirements.

Secondly, besides your course, your hobbies as a student should also come into play.

Are you an avid gamer? What sort of games do you play? Do you make YouTube videos? Some hobbies will help guide you towards the right option.

Another very important factor that you need to consider is your budget!

Most students have very limited cash flow, and unless you can get help from elsewhere (parents!?!), it is likely that you will not be able to afford a high-end computer.

So have a specific budget in mind as you look through the various specifications and models available, because this will ultimately be one of the key deciding factors.

Laptops vs desktops vs all-in-one computers

Before we get to any specifics, the absolute first thing you need to have is a clear understanding of, is what is the difference between the above three terms.

So what are the differences between laptops, desktops and all-in-one computers?

Well, all three categories of computer have their own uniqueness in terms of their conveniences and inconveniences. This is why it is necessary to carefully analyze each one of them before making a choice.

Laptops

Laptops are hugely popular among students, and although we do not think it is necessary to explain what a laptop is, we will still do exactly that, just in case there is someone out there who has never seen one.

…A laptop is a type of portable personal computer that is designed to be used by being placed on laps. Hence its name. A laptop’s screen and keyboard area are roughly 90 degrees apart, and can be folded shut when not in use.

Laptops are popular because they are light and portable, allowing the user to continue working on them whilst on the go. Most laptops have a battery life of at least 8 to 9 hours, and come with an accompanying charger for the battery.

Laptops are a good choice for students for one main reason; portability. They are very easy to carry around and to use whenever and wherever you want. Plus, with laptops only getting smaller and lighter, they just keep getting more and more convenient.

Laptops are also getting increasingly more powerful, and as a student your laptop’s processing power can be very important, especially if pursuing courses such as engineering and design.

Laptops come in all shapes and sizes. They also come in many different price ranges. There are high end laptops that cost thousands of dollars, mid-range laptops that are between $500 to $1000, and lower end laptops that cost less than $500.

There is however a fourth category that we’ll mention, although strongly advice against; and that is discounted secondhand laptops.

If you are on a tight budget, then you may be considering a refurbished and/or secondhand laptop. Secondhand laptops are used laptops, while refurbished laptops have been assembled from a variety of different parts sourced from other faulty laptops of the same model.

Be warned, if you opt to buy one of these, the quality is never guaranteed, but that said it can be a very cost effect way of buying what would normally be an expensive Mac for example, and there are several very good apple refurbishment companies out there.

To conclude, buying a laptop always comes down to how much you want to spend and what your own personal tastes are. The mind-boggling variety of options you have when buying a laptop is really what makes them great. However, this is also what makes it hard to find what you really want.

Desktops

Desktop PCs are the pioneers of personal computers. They are bulkier and heavier than laptops, and definitely a lot less portable. They also pack a lot more power than the average laptop, but are completely reliable on an external power source, and if without one, are rendered useless.

Desktop PCs have gradually decreased in size over the years, and do not occupy as much space as they used to. In fact, there are desktops that can occupy less space than some laptops.

The typical desktop consists of a two-unit system, the screen and the tower. The tower houses all the important parts that make up the computer, such as the CPU and the hard drive.

Although you won’t be able to move around with a desktop, they can provide you with a much more powerful workstation for your work. So if you are a design, architecture, or engineering student, or on any other computer based graphics-intensive course, a powerful desktop will suit you perfectly.

Another great feature of desktops is the fact that they are customizable. This means that you can tweak your computer’s hardware, adding more efficient and powerful components as you go. For example, you could increase the RAM (memory) to enable your desktop to run more memory hungry programs, and/or more programs at once. This feature is essential especially if you want to future-proof your machine.

With a desktop, you can buy once and then upgrade as and when required.

Laptops lack in this aspect, and are far less adaptable. Often, the only aspect of the laptop you can tinker with is its storage, however for some laptops even this is impossible, as access to the computer’s inner workings are often blocked by design.

Another great feature of desktops is their storage capacity. By default, they have much more storage space than laptops for example, with the option of adding extra without compromising its performance.

All-in-one computers

All-in-one computers are a bit different from the other two categories. An all-in-one computer typically features a stand-alone screen unit that houses all the computer components in its rear.

Some variants are touchscreen while others aren’t, and a keyboard and mouse come as standard.

All-in-one computers bridge the gap between laptops and desktops, blending key features from both categories.

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Storage options

When it comes to storage options, you need to think about your overall needs and requirements. What will you be storing on your computer? Will you have some additional external storage? Will you be storing your files on the cloud?

Generally speaking however, for a student, bigger is better when it comes to storage. Everyday files are gradually getting larger with increased features and graphics, and so go for the largest amount of storage space available.

There are two storage options you must consider. These are an HDD, or a hard disk drive, and an SSD, solid state drive.

These two do pretty much the same thing, but in very different way.

A HDD is the older version of the two storage options, and you will find them in mostly lower end devices or accompanying an SSD if purchasing a desktop computer. Most good laptops in production will come with an SSD as standard.

HDD’s are the cheaper of the two, especially for storage options over 1TB (one terabyte), with many options of a larger capacity available for very reasonable prices.

The below buyers guide provides a detailed breakdown and recommendation list:

A guide to buying the best external hard drive

Why choose an SSD over the HDD?

  • An SSD has faster access times of 35 to 100 microseconds meaning they are nearly 100 times faster than a HDD, and programs will therefore open up a lot quicker when stored on this.

  • It is the more reliable of the two due to its minimal amount of moving parts, unlike an HDD, as it uses a flash memory to store its data (similar to mobile phones and tablets), providing better performance.

  • It uses less power than an HDD.

  • It produces less heat and noise.

  • SSD’s come in smaller sizes. Available in 1.0, 1.8, 2.5 inches. HDD’s are typically around 3.5 and 2.5 inches.

The Operating system

The operating system is another factor that should definitely be taken into consideration when shopping for your computer as a student. There are many computer systems out there, but Microsoft Windows and Mac OS are by far the most used and widely known, and therefore, we will focus on just these two.

However, keep in mind that there are computers that come with other operating systems by default. For example, there are Linux computers and computers that run on Google’s Chrome OS.

When compared to Windows, Mac computers are easier and the most secure to use, with the benefit of being able to easily synchronize all your Apple devices. Windows computers can also do this, but you will need to download and use specific apps.

On the other hand, Windows is the most common operating system in the world, and interestingly almost all software is created first for Windows then secondly for Mac OS. Therefore as a Mac user, it is likely that you will run into some compatibility issues at some point when dealing with software.

Also, with Windows, you have a wider variety of computer options and brands to choose from. With Mac OS, you will be tied down to the one brand (Apple) and their products, so you have to consciously decide whether this is something you want.

All in all, although Windows OS is more widespread, Mac OS supporters are much more vocal and will eagerly let you know that Mac OS is the better operating system.

How true is this? That answer is the subject of an age-old debate that we wouldn’t want to get into here. Ultimately, it is all a matter of personal choice, so before you choose one, do your own personal analysis and decide for yourself.

Choosing a graphics card

A powerful graphics card is particularly important for students in design and engineering fields. Some of the programs and software that these courses require are very demanding on a computer’s graphics processing Unit (GPU), so if you do not want to risk crashing your computer, get one that can handle intense processing of tasks and programs.

The graphics card you have installed on your device will heavily impact your device’s performance, and is also what determines the overall visual experience.

If you are considering getting a machine that is compatible with gaming, opt for a powerful graphics processor for the best experience. Luckily, variety in this aspect is available with many options to choose from.

How to choose one

When choosing your GPU, it is important to know what kind of programs and tasks you will be running.

When running light tasks like browsing, sending and receiving mail and the occasional light game, you will not really need to invest in a specialist card. You only need to ensure that the normal specs like the RAM, storage and CPU are in check.

CPUs have an integrated GPU that will be enough for light tasks. For the best experience, you will still need to choose a processor like Intel’s core range, for example the i5, i7 or the i9.

For intense tasks like running specialty programs and gaming, you will need a discrete, standalone GPU. This is a dedicated graphics processor that will push more advanced functions, such as the bleeding-edge Ray Tracing technology or 4K resolution.

On the market today, there are two primary players in the graphics card game; NVIDIA and AMD. These two companies produce top of the range graphics processors that will support all standard functions, so it is a good idea to start your research with these.

Other players on the market include Gigabyte, ASUS and MSI, who put their own spins on the core hardware developed by the industry leaders.

When looking for flexibility and portability, be on the lookout for laptops and notebooks with special graphics card logos.

Memory

RAM, or Random Access Memory, is what determines performance speed. The more RAM you have, the better your computer will be at handling multiple and large tasks.

RAM works by storing bits of information to enable faster retrieval so it doesn’t have to redo everything next time.

Here is a good analogy: if you open up a website with a lot of images on its page, it might take a while for everything to appear on the screen. However if you close the page and then try loading it up again, it will now load up a lot quicker because parts of its information have been backed up in your browser, via stored cache files.

RAM works in the same way. As the computer runs its processes, it stores bits and pieces of information in its memory to be accessed randomly as and when needed.

Therefore, the more RAM you have, the more your computer can store, and the faster it will be in performing tasks.

The amount of RAM ranges from 4GB to 64GB with the most common being 8GB and 16GB.

Processor

All the basic instructions of a computer go through its processor, and for this reason the size of the processor is very important.

Assess the speed of the Front Side Bus (FSB). A FSB of 800 MHz or more is what you need as a student.

The processor’s cache should be at least 1MB for average requirements, but for extreme uses and those of you who run larger or more powerful programs, aim for the largest cache you can afford.

Intel and AMD are the most common manufacturers of processors. Intel’s processors are among the best in the world, with their core i9 being the latest of in the series after i3, i5 and i7.

AMD has the Ryzen series, with their latest being the AMD Ryzen 7.

Choosing a monitor/laptop screen size

When choosing a screen size, several factors come into play. As a student, portability should be your number one consideration. However, if you are buying a desktop PC, go for the biggest, richest display you can afford.

For laptops, the story is a little different. You want to be able to carry your computer around without having to deal with excessive bulkiness and weight. Therefore, if you plan on carrying your laptop often, get a laptop with 12 to 15 inches of screen.

Laptops with a screen size of 17 to 18 inches are best if you primarily plan on leaving your laptop on your desk, and only occasionally require it to be portable. …they are heavy!

4K and HDR

4k resolution is four times the pixel resolution or twice the line resolution. It provides more detailed images even for larger screens. This means smoother edges and depths. With HDR there’s more contrast and detail in color, creating deeper difference than we can see with standard resolution.

Resolution

The resolution of the screen determines the clarity of images and texts. A resolution of at least 800 by 600 pixels is recommended. You can always change it in the settings to be up to 1920 by 1080 pixels, depending on how much your monitor can support.

Display ratio and brightness

The display ratio goes in hand with the resolution to determine clarity. Most computers now come with a ratio of up to 16:9.

Your main consideration for brightness should be whether or not you are going to be using the laptop indoors or outdoors, and whether or not you are going to be working near large light sources, for example, next to a window.

Although most laptops today can be easily readjusted to suit the lighting conditions they are being used in.

Final thoughts

With these pointers, you should now be able to quickly determine exactly what you require from a computer, and have a great launching point to start from for your search.

Just remember, patience is key when searching for the perfect computer, it will be a huge part of at least the next three years of your life, so take your time and consider all your options. As this is the only way you will avoid the common pitfalls of buying the wrong machine.

…Combined with our two top recommendations at the beginning of this article, the below further 6 recommendations provide excellent specifications and value for money:

Best PC and alternative to MacBook

Dell XPS 13

Screen Size: 13.3 inch (3840 x 2160 pixels) | Processor: 1.8 GHz Intel | Ram: 16 GB | Hard Drive/Storage: 1 TB | Graphics Card: Intel UHD Graphics 620 | Average Battery Life: 12 hours | Weight: 2.67 pounds | Dimensions: 7.84 x 11.88 x 0.46 in

Best for students on the go

Microsoft Surface Go

Screen Size: 10 inch (1800 x 1200 pixels) | Processor: 1.8 GHz | Ram: 4 GB | Hard Drive/Storage: 128 GB SSD | Graphics Card: LGJ-00001 | Average Battery Life: 9 hours | Weight: 3.53 pounds | Dimensions: 12 x 3 x 8.5 in

Best budget student computer

Acer Chromebook 15

Screen Size: 15.6 inch (1920 x 1080) | Processor: 2.4 GHz Intel Celeron | Ram: 4 GB DDR4 | Hard Drive/Storage: 32 GB | Graphics Card: Intel | Average Battery Life: 12 hours | Weight: 4.41 pounds | Dimensions: 14.88 x 10.08 x 0.75 in

Best for all round use

Microsoft Surface 2

Screen Size: 13.5 inch (2256 x 1504) | Processor: 3.1 GHz Intel Core i5 | Ram: 8 GB DDR4 | Hard Drive/Storage: 256GB SSD | Graphics Card: Intel HD Graphics 620 | Average Battery Life: 9 hours | Weight: 5 pounds | Dimensions: 20 x 9 x 3 inches

Best student all-in-one computer

Apple iMac

Screen Size: 21.5 inch (4096 x 2304) | Processor:Quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i3 processor | Ram: 4 GB | Hard Drive/Storage: 1 TB | Graphics Card: Radeon Pro 555x Graphics processor | Includes: Magic Keyboard & Magic Mouse 2 | Weight: 12.5 pounds | Dimensions: 45.0 x 52.8 x 17.5 inches

Best student desktop

Dell XPS 8930

Screen Size: N/A | Processor:8th Generation Intel i7-8700 6-Core 3.20 GHz | Ram: 16GB DDR4 | Hard Drive/Storage: 2 TB | Graphics Card: NVIDIA GeForce GTX | Includes: Dell USB Laser Mouse & Black, Dell Wired Keyboard | Weight: 12.5 pounds | Dimensions: 45.0 x 52.8 x 17.5 inches

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