Back-to-school Laptop

youth-studying-with-books-and-earbuds-smartphone-image-from-shutterstockBack-to-school Laptop: a reader asks…

I’ve got a teen heading off to college in a few weeks, and I want to make sure he has the right technology. He has an iPhone 6, and we’re shopping for a laptop – or should he get an iPad? If not, should we get him a Macbook Air, a Macbook Pro, or a Windows PC?

It boils down to a few key questions. Namely, your budget for a laptop, his experience (and your’s) with laptops, and personal preferences. I would not suggest he try to get by with an iPad alone, although that might be a nice adjunct to the laptop if your budget allows. Whether Mac or Windows depends in part on your budget (Macs are more expensive up-front, although the total cost over time is about the same), and in part on which he prefers or is used to.

If Macbook, then the choice of Air or Pro depends on partly on what he’ll be doing in college. If his major is in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics) discipline, then the power of a Macbook Pro may be worth the extra money. Particularly in majors such as Computer Science or any of the digital imagery types of majors. Also consider what he’s used to, and what his college recommends. For Liberal Arts degrees, the Macbook Air is a great choice.

lenovo-convertible-laptop-image-from-lenovodotcomIf Windows PC, then you have a wide variety of possible choices. some important things to consider:

  1. Touchscreen or no? Many Windows 10 laptops have a touchscreen, some at no additional cost.
  2. 2-in-1 or no? Some Windows 10 laptops can be used as a tablet PC. Some models have the screen folding over completely so the keyboard is underneath, others where the screen detaches from the keyboard.

For either, you need to make sure the screen size is a good compromise between comfort and portability. Screens from 13-15″ are such. Also make sure the laptop has enough memory (aka RAM), about the minimum I’d recommend these days is 8gb (Mac or PC). For storage space, the size of the hard drive (in gigabytes) is now less important than the type. You really want a Solid-state hard drive (aka SSD) instead of a standard spinning hard drive. For SSD-equipped laptops, 256gb is probably the minimum you want, 512gb is preferred – but that’s also a budget question.


The case for the SSD is three-fold: reliability, speed, and serviceability. SSDs are much more reliable now than a spinning hard drive, and much faster. For serviceability, consider the environment: a laptop is much more likely to be bumped and jarred around, and possibly even while it’s being actively used. An SSD is impervious to motion, unlike a spinning hard drive. Drop a laptop and the SSD will be unharmed – more likely the screen will crack or some other catastrophic damage before anything affects the SSD. With a spinning hard drive, any jarring motion while it’s in use can cause serious drive errors, even if there’s no outward-apparent damage.

So if you are going towards a Mac, then you have a relatively simple set of choices: one of the new Macbooks (12″ screen), a Macbook Air (11″ or 13″ screen), or a Macbook Pro (13″ or 15″ screen). If you’re going Windows, there are a ton of choices for both brand and model, so it’s hard to give you more specific recommendations until your budget and choices above are known. Here’s a few general recommendations for a Windows laptop:

  1. dell-laptop-image-from-delldotcomI like both Lenovo and Dell for brands, other brands have their strengths, but in my opinion more weaknesses on balance. There are a lot of models to choose from, such as Lenovo’s Thinkpad, Yoga, and IdeaPad lines, or Dell’s Inspiron or XPS lines. I find Lenovo’s keyboards to pretty much the top-quality in the Windows PC world. If your budget allows, look at so-called “Ultrabooks”. If you’ve a penchant for some other brand, feel free to leave me a comment and I can give you more specifics on what I think about the brand.
  2. lenovo-for-those-who-do-logoFor a Windows laptop, I think touchscreen and any 2-in-1 capability are going to be marginally useful (if at all) for your son, but personal preference is key here. Choice of major can effectively pre-select certain capabilities, so check the college recommendations.
  3. Budget is going to be the primary deciding factor, if you assume the RAM and SSD requirement above.

Feel free to leave a comment with more info based on the above and I can give you more specific recommendations. Or use the above to help you narrow down your choices and pull the trigger. Once the laptop shows up, I highly recommend you follow my New Laptop Setup guide, it’ll save you a lot of headache later!


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  1. Ed Roberts

    Hi Chris,

    I would also suggest checking to see if the school has specific recommendations based on the student’s intended major. STEM and arts (music, graphics, video) majors may have different recommendations for Mac vs PC and/or for power/size.

  2. Replacement Laptop Keys

    Hey Chris, such great suggestions you have shared for teens in your article. I hope this article will help them to make the right choice. I’m amazed by your way of including some useful links in your post. Great share!!

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