What Kind of Laptop Should I Get for College?

Classroom students with laptops

*Updated for Fall 2020*

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked during undergraduate New Student Orientation is what type of computer or laptop is needed to start college. To which I answer with a firm “It depends.”

My first recommendation, no matter what your major is, Don’t Get a Laptop…Yet.
If you have a laptop that still works, you probably do not need to get one for your first semester, possibly your first year. Usually, first-year classes are not too demanding on your laptop. Even in technology-oriented fields, most of your time will be spent using software that your laptop can easily handle.
In the classes that I teach (very technology-heavy classes), a laptop is seldom able to do what is required (i.e. CGI movie rendering and compiling a game) if it is over 3 years old. That is generally the maximum life you can reasonably expect from a laptop system. So, if you can, wait until at least winter break or after your Freshman year to make the investment in a new system. As an added bonus, you will have a better idea of what others (especially your professors) are using in your chosen major.

If are in your sophomore year or you need a new laptop, then there are a few considerations:

General Guidelines for Selecting a Laptop (2020/21)
My general guidelines for selecting a laptop that will last the next 3 to 4 years is a system with at least 16 GB of RAM. You will need at least an I5 (or AMD equivalent) processor (I7 or I9 would be better). For storage, make sure the system has at least 512GB SSD hard drive AND a traditional drive that is at least 1 TB to store your games papers and projects.

What’s Your Major?
Obviously, your major and the college that you are attending can and should influence which type of laptop you use. Generally, business and science lean toward Windows. Liberal Arts and Fine Arts prefer Apple. Take a look at what your professors are using. Is there a required software for your major that is only available on one of the Operating Systems? If so, then your choice is greatly simplified.

For my students (Game Design & Real-time CGI), I recommend a good gaming system. With the advent of the Nvidia RTX line graphics cards, this is going to be must-have equipment in the near future. Personally, I would love to get an Omen GeForce RTX.

Mac or Windows?
Generally, the choice to go with a MacBook or Windows is a personal decision. If you have been using one operating system for the past several years, I don’t recommend changing now UNLESS the major that you are entering requires a specific operating system (which is rare).

Why you should choose Mac
There are several good reasons to choose a Macintosh laptop. The most common is that you have already been using a Mac and you are used to how the system works. If that is the case, then yes, stay with a Mac!

The reason I made the shift to a MacBook laptop was due to Apple’s requirement that if you are going to publish mobile apps to the iTunes app store, the final compile must be from a Macintosh. I have found the MacBook is great for all of the game development and mobile app development that I do as a professor and as an indie developer.

My more artistic students seem to prefer the Mac operating system over Windows and are able to easily complete their graphics, 3D modeling, game design, and film rendering projects.

I have found that (generally) my MacBook Pro can perform for the full 4 years between replacement cycles as long as I get a high-end MacBook.

If you are going into a liberal arts field where you will be focused on researching, taking notes, writing papers, and watching Netflix or Amazon Prime, a MacBook Air should take care of most of your needs. Unfortunately, MacBook Air does not have a lot of internal storage, so I recommend an external hard drive for your pictures, papers, and projects. If you are going into a more technical field (science, engineering, computer science, IT, game design, or film), then you will need the extra power of a MacBook Pro. The better processor and graphics card will be a lifesaver when you are trying to compile or render that final project.

Why you should choose a Windows Laptop 
Just as with the Mac, if your previous experience is with the Windows operating system, then stick with windows. You will find Windows is still the predominant choice for business and science majors. With a Windows laptop, you have the added bonus that they are usually a little less expensive and have a wider selection of software (and games). 

If you are going into a major that is computer-demanding, make sure you get something with enough processing power, RAM, and graphics capabilities. For my students, I recommend that they look at gaming laptops as they usually have the power and cooling capabilities to not overheat the first time they go to compile/render a big project. 

What about Chromebook Laptops?
Chromebook laptops are an inexpensive option if you are looking for a laptop to take notes. Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome Operating system instead of Windows or Mac OS. They are designed to use Google’s cloud resources (Doc, Sheets, Drive, etc) and have very little stored on the local computer, so you have to have good internet service. This has the added advantage that should something happen to your laptop, the papers and projects that you have spent hours writing are still available in the cloud.
If you are majoring in something that needs computing power (Film, Computer Science, Game Design, Engineering, etc), a Chromebook is not a good choice. If your major is focused more on research an writing papers, then you might be able to get by with a Chromebook.
Yes, you can watch Netflix on a Chromebook via the app (found on the Google Play store) or the Netflix website. If you just need something for notes and web-surfing, at around $200, the Chromebook is a nice option!

What about tablets?
Using a tablet for your laptop is definitely an option. The low weight, great battery life, and easy doubling as a reading device make a tablet a good choice for many situations. Tablets come in 3 operating systems: Android, iOS, and Windows.

Android tablets (including Amazon Fire and Samsung Galaxy) are generally the least expensive tablets. You can use it with Kindle (a nice way to get textbooks), and add an external keyboard to make note taking easier. My wife and son both prefer their Android tablet to anything else.

The iPad and iPad Pro are popular tablet devices. I have used both. If you are going into the Arts or a digital media field, the iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil makes for a great digital drawing tool. I stopped using my Wacom Cintiq and just use my iPad Pro for drawing, reading, responding to messages, and taking notes. You can use the Apple iBook or Amazon Kindle apps for your textbooks, saving a lot of pain from an overloaded backpack.

The Windows Surface straddles the line between laptops and tablets. It is popular with many of my students for note-taking and working on class projects. With prices around the cost of an iPad Pro, it is a nice option.

What about desktop computers?
Depending on your major or hobbies, a desktop computer might also be a good idea. Game Design, Film, Digital Media, Computer Science, Information Technology, and Information Systems majors can all benefit from the extra processing power provided by a desktop computer. This doesn’t remove the need for a laptop, but you won’t need as powerful of a laptop if you have a good desktop computer. 
If you are going to have a desktop computer and are in a field that requires a lot of rendering or computing power, then I recommend having an RTX graphics card. While raytraced grames and rendering are cutting edge now, they will be commonplace and expected very soon. We are already seeing raytraced rendering in popular game engines and 3D modeling tools.

What Am I Going to Purchase?
Replacement time for my main laptop is fast approaching. For the last 12 years, I have always purchased a MacBook Pro to complement my Windows desktop at home. The primary reason for this was the need to publish to the Apple app store, which requires a Mac to publish. At this time that is less of an issue as my research and publishing have shifted to using web publishing instead of using stores.

This leaves me with a tough decision: Mac or Windows for my laptop.
I had originally planned to go with a Windows laptop so that I would have a portable device to work on VR. Then the Oculus Quest became available, so that is now less of an issue. 

So I plan to go with a MacBook Pro 15″ inch laptop. While the hard drive is smaller than I would like, I will follow my own advice and get an external drive for my project files. The primary reason that I decided on getting a MacBook was that I could configure it for dual-boot very easily and get the best of both Mac and Windows, and, I have found that the MacBook Pro can usually make it through 4 years (my university is on a 4-year rotation for computer hardware. That’s right, they ignored my advice), unlike most of the PC laptops that I have had in the past.

UPDATE: Between the time that this article was written and a laptop was purchased, a new line of MacBook Pro became available. The 2020 16″ MacBook Pro is much more powerful and, more important to game dev’s, expandable! I ended up with a system with a 1 TB SSD hard drive (a little smaller than I need, but I can upgrade it in a year or two as drives drop in price), 32 GB of RAM (a must for the work I’m doing), an I9 processor, and an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M graphics card, which is capable of supporting the Oculus Rift S or Oculus Quest (again, something that I’m doing a lot of). While the system isn’t cheap, it should last for the next 4 years or so. I did configure the system with Boot Camp so that I could use Windows-specific software. So far it is working great.

I did decide to get a docking station to go with the MacBook as all of my equipment uses traditional USB and HDMI connectors. I didn’t want to have to get all new adapters. I found this docking station on Amazon and am excited to give it a try. Frankly, I was disappointed. It did not support the HDMI external monitors that I use. The USB-A connectors are great, as is the ethernet connection. But the monitor connected with the HDMI flashes regularly, making it unusable. I ended up getting a few USB-C to HDMI cables so that I could use my external monitor.

One last note: If you are using your laptop for a demanding project, make sure that it stays cool! It’s not uncommon for my students to see their systems overheat and crash. Getting a laptop cooling pad can be a laptop-saver!

Dr. Burton is a teacher and professor with over twenty-five years of experience, teaching Information Technology, game design, CGI, Computer Science, and MIS.

*Note: We use affiliate programs to help pay for this advice. All recommendations are based upon experience. We do not recommend or link to anything we don’t use.

© 2020 – Brian Burton, Ed.D.  Dr. Professor-Dad

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