10 tips for buying a Back to School laptop

Back to School laptop
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We’ve got 10 tips for buying a Back to School laptop for you, because while you’re getting ready to go Back to School, you might find yourself in the market for a student laptop. And, buying a laptop for school comes with its own particular questions you’ll need to think about before you buy. 

Whatever type of laptop you’re considering getting for school, you might want to check out these tips to ensure that you don’t pick something too quickly. It’s easy to forget an important consideration when you’re faced with something that seems - on the surface - like it’s a perfect choice.

Have no fear, though; TechRadar is here, with our top ten tips to help you find the best laptop to suit your back to school needs and budget. Follow these simple steps, and you should have no difficulty finding a device that will carry you through a full college degree, or a good few years of high school - all while letting you watch the odd bit of Netflix too.

1. Plan for multiple years

There's a tonne of factors to consider when trying to find the best back to school laptop to suit your needs. Getting the hardware that can handle whatever workloads you're going to throw at it is vital, but it's key to consider value for money and physical build quality too - 'how long will this laptop last?' is a good question to ask.

A laptop is often the biggest expenditure young people make when beginning a degree, and it's common for parents to shell out for a new laptop for kids starting high school too. If you cheap out, you might struggle with poor performance or find that your laptop is on the verge of death after just a year or two of use. It's important to accept that you might need to spend more money upfront in order to get a piece of hardware that will last for years.

Back to School laptop

(Image credit: Huawei)

2. Battery and power draw

You don’t want to worry about your battery running out in the middle of a workshop, class, lecture, or presentation. Many laptops these days come with batteries that will last a full workday, so when you check reviews. Make sure your pick can last throughout your day of classes at full charge.

Another factor to this is to be sure you’re getting a laptop with efficient internals. Some gaming laptops actually do offer decent battery life, but the crazy powerful ones can burn through their batteries incredibly quickly. You’ll need to get a machine that balances power and performance so you can be as productive as you can for as long as possible. If you see the computer uses a large, high-wattage power supply, odds are the battery drains quickly.

3. Weight

This is simple: if you’re going to carry a laptop around with you every day, you should do yourself a favor and make it light. The tricky thing is, if you want to get a powerful laptop with a big battery, chances are that it’s also heavy and bulky. 

You can avoid some weight by going with a laptop that doesn’t have a spinning hard drive. So look for laptops with SSDs - most new laptops will feature these - and if you need more storage, then you can get an external drive that you can opt to bring with you when you need the files in it and leave in your dorm room when you don’t. That way, you only have to carry the extra weight when you need the extra data.

4. Operating system

Before you get too far into your computer shopping, make sure you’ve looked into the details being offered by your classes. Certain courses might have specific requirements for the operating system used because they may use software only supported on one operating system.

Yes, cheap Chromebooks can be effective for a lot of school work, but they may not support any class-specific software. Art programs, for example, might require Mac OS-specific programs or only explain how to complete tasks in the Mac version of the software. It can vary by school, so make sure you know what your classes require, and don’t spend too much on a computer that won’t do the job.

5. Cooling vents for lap-use

If you do get a laptop packed with powerful internals, make sure you check its cooling system. Lots of laptops will have air intake vents on the bottom of the chassis, and the more powerful the laptops are, the more important it will be to ensure good airflow.

Since you may be using your laptop at school with it actually on your lap, you may have a hard time not covering those vents up with your legs. That can be bad for your laptop and uncomfortable for you, as the heat goes up – not to mention, loud and distracting when you’re in class. If you pick a laptop with air intakes, plan to keep them uncovered or get a cooling pad

6. Pen input can be useful

One feature you may want to give serious consideration is proper active stylus input. If your schoolwork is going to involve a lot of PDF reading, you’ll be able to save a lot of time and space if you don’t have to print them out or try scribbling notes with your laptops touchpad.

A stylus can make it super simple to markup PDFs and other documents with notes. When you’re taking notes in lectures, it’s also more effortless copying down figures or mathematical notation. While the benefits may not be for everyone, having the option is certainly nice. To make the most of a stylus input, a laptop that can fold open on itself – a 2-in-1 – will also be handy.

7. Don’t go all in on gaming

While it can seem logical to buy one machine that can handle all your curricular and extra-curricular needs, it may not be the best idea. If you’re really into gaming and want to get a machine that’s going to give you incredible performance for high-quality settings and fast frame rates at high resolutions, you’re going to be picking a computer that’s a slight overkill for class – not to mention, extra expensive.

You may find that you’re actually better off buying yourself a gaming desktop and a more affordable laptop for class. Rather than going with a $2,000 gaming laptop, you’ll probably get a lot more mileage out of a $1,300 desktop and a $700 laptop.

You’ll save even more money when you want or have to upgrade your gaming specs after a couple years and don’t need to buy a whole new machine to do it.

8. Don’t neglect durability

You might find a computer that looks perfect on paper, striking a great balance of price, performance, and efficiency. However, that won’t mean much if it’s built poorly.

A Back to School laptop is probably going to be traveling with you a lot in your backpack, and may be subjected to the occasional accident. So, if it’s not built strong, you may find yourself replacing it way too soon.

Laptop reviews will often give the screen hinge a bit of stress, put some torque on the screen, and put pressure around the chassis of the laptop. If you’re buying online, make sure you look for reviews like this that have tested for weakness in the build. If you’re buying in a store, check for yourself whether any parts feel flimsy or easily breakable. 

9. Get a laptop sleeve with it

While we’re on the subject of your Back to School laptop’s durability… you also need think about what else you can do so that the solid construction doesn’t have to get tested too often after you purchase it. A laptop sleeve is a simple and great way to make sure your new laptop stays in good shape.

On top of protecting your laptop with a little bit of extra cushion, a sleeve can also help keep liquids and other debris inside your bag from getting into the computer. Considering the cost of most laptop sleeves, there’s little reason not to get one, especially when it essentially acts like your secondary insurance policy.

(Image credit: Huawei)

10. Bright and matte screens can help your eyes

If you think you’ll be using your laptop much outdoors, know that not all screens are created equal. You’ll probably see 'matte' or 'anti-glare' and 'glossy' listed in relation to laptop screens when you’re shopping. While glossy may look better for imagery, you’ll be doing your eyes a big favor by having a matte or anti-glare screen, especially when you’re in sunny conditions.

You also need to think about brightness. For laptop screens, this will likely be listed in hundreds of nits, though not every laptop will advertise this, in which case, a deeper probing might be necessary on your part. 300 nits isn’t bad, but if you think you’ll want to be working outdoors, even under an umbrella or awning, a laptop with 400 nits or more is even better.

Over the last several years, Mark has been tasked as a writer, an editor, and a manager, interacting with published content from all angles. He is intimately familiar with the editorial process from the inception of an article idea, through the iterative process, past publishing, and down the road into performance analysis.