Not having a suitable computing device is a huge handicap for university students. Even before COVID-19 necessitated Home-Based Learning (HBL), universities have long since been operating in highly digitised learning environments. Lecture notes, course readings, administrative details and course notifications have been distributed online for years, and of late, Zoom has been the norm for HBL.
If you have just matriculated and are waiting for classes to start, you may not necessarily need to purchase a laptop straightaway – you can use a hand-me-down for a semester or two while figuring out your schooling needs. However, avoid buying second-hand laptops because they are hard to resell and are likely to break down before you graduate. Having your laptop crash while you are rushing to submit your term paper or graded project can be very stressful and may even make or break your grade point average.
Some key considerations for choosing a laptop are price, battery life, and portability. Power plugs are still scarce on campus, so at least 6 hours of battery life is recommended. Carrying a bulky laptop around campus is no fun, especially when you have to hike across campus for your next class. That said, some students (Eg. Media, Design, Architecture, Engineering) may need more powerful laptops to run certain applications, so it is best to check with your faculty seniors before purchasing.
With these considerations in mind, here are recommended five laptops for university students:
#1 iPad 10.2
This is technically not a laptop – most might consider an iPad to be relatively underpowered to perform the functions of what a university student might need, especially considering that Apple doesn’t even consider it to be something that fits the description of a ‘laptop’. However, the newer generations of iPads have become more capable; able to do quite a lot of the word processing functions that a laptop can. Aside from the fact that the universities largely runs on Windows applications which may not be compatible with iOS, the iPad is able to do most things that university students need – Zoom, view webcast lectures, word processing, scribble notes, download readings.
Do note that the keyboard is sold separately. While you can use the onscreen keyboard for quick google searches, trying to write a term paper on it would be a huge pain. While Apple/Logitech sells its own keyboards ranging from $100-250, other Bluetooth keyboards are available. Just make sure that they are iPad-compatible before purchasing.
[+] Light and small, highly portable.
[+] Good battery life – 10h
[ – ] Cannot run windows-based applications
[ – ] No USB port – cannot easily transfer files to/from project mates by thumb drive.
[ – ] No HDMI port – will need adaptors to connect the iPad to a display for presentations
[ – ] Tiny 10.2” screen
[ – ] 32GB memory – should be sufficient if you do not store music or videos on the device.
#2 Acer Aspire 5
The Aspire 5 is a good budget option, giving you decent specs for under $1,200. While this laptop is somewhat underpowered to be playing AAA game titles, heavy video editing or other heavy processing functions, it is still sufficiently capable for light video editing or other lower-intensity processing functions, and even for a quick light game during breaks.
Price: $898 to $1,198 depending on which variant you choose
[ + ] 6 to 8h battery life
[ + ] Inexpensive for the specs at under $1,200
[ + ] Upgradeable
[ + ] Large 15.6” screen
[ – ] Less portable at 1.45kg and with its bulky form factor
[ – ] No stylus or touch screen
#3 Surface Pro 7
The Surface Pro is a tablet and laptop all in one, packing some really powerful specs into a very compact form factor. Being able to use it in tablet mode is a huge boon for students who like to make annotations in their readings.
While the i5/128GB costs $1,388, you would have to account for the additional cost of the keyboard and pen which are sold separately. It’s not recommended to forgo either the pen or keyboard since they provide some of the key advantages of the Surface Pro. Additionally, 128GB is really small for storage, but you can expand your storage by up to 512GB with an SD card for about $100 rather than topping up $400 to add 128GB for the next higher model.
The i7 model’s price in above $2,100, which is pricey but can be justified by the fact that the Surface Pro is the only option in the market that offers this in such a compact and well-built package, along with the keyboard and pen functionality. However, at that price range, if the touch screen and pen are less important to you, there are better options in the market.
Final note, Microsoft regularly offers 5 to 25% discount off most items for students – log in here using your university email address to view the discounted rates.
[+] Highly portable – 0.9kg
[+] Stylus has lowest latency on the market.
[+] Stylus can be used as a clicker for Powerpoint Slides.
[+] Has a USB-C port which can be used for charging.
[ – ] Pricey for its specs after including Type Cover (keyboard) and Stylus
[ – ] Low Memory at 128GB (but can be supplemented by SD card).
[ – ] Only one USB A and one USB C port. Will need a USB C-to-HDMI adapter for displays.
[ – ] Thick bezels. While they are somewhat necessary to ensure a good grip in Tablet mode, they can look quite ugly especially for a device in 2021.
[ – ] Not upgradeable
#4 Dell Inspiron 14 2-in-1 Laptop
If the touchscreen and pen functionality are less important to you, this laptop is a good choice at $1,599.01. Even after you include the purchase of the separately sold stylus, you can get an i7/16GB RAM instead of an i5/8GB RAM if you bought the Surface Pro. With that said, the Inspiron 14 2-in-1 is cumbersome when used as a tablet, and there are some obvious trade-offs portability-wise.
Price: $1,599.01 for i7 variant
[ + ] has most of the upsides of the Surface pro at the same price, but with better specs.
[ + ] Has 512GB NVME SSD
[ – ] Stylus sold separately, and there’s no obvious way to keep it in/with the device. With the Surface Pro, it can be magnetically attached to the side, but not with the Inspiron.
[ – ] Significantly heavier and bulkier than the Surface pro, making it quite difficult to use as a tablet.
#5 ASUS Zenbook Pro UX535
The Zenbook Pro is mainly for students who need a dedicated graphics card, mainly in cases where you need to use applications like Adobe Premiere or AutoCAD for your course. As far as laptop graphics cards go, while the GeForce GTX 1650 Ti is a relatively old card, it still outperforms the GeForce RTX 3050 cards in the market. Given the current global graphics card shortage, the 3060 or 3070 cards are going to set you back an additional $1,000 to 2,000. Most “Gaming” laptops currently stock either the RTX 3050 or GTX 1650, so this is as good at it gets for now.
While powerful, this laptop requires a larger battery capacity, adding weight and bulk to the laptop. While reviewers have tested the battery life to be 8 to 10h, this is based on regular usage. If more demanding applications are used, the power draw will be higher resulting is shorter battery life.
The touchpad functions as a secondary display. While it functions just fine as a normal touchpad, its functionality as a secondary screen is not great, so don’t base your purchasing decision on this.
Price: $2,298 from ASUS Store
[ + ] has a dedicated Graphics Card (NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 1650 Ti)
[ + ] Has HDMI port for plugging into a larger screen
[ + ] 8 – 10h battery (regular usage)
[ + ] 512GB NVME SSD storage + 1TB HDD storage
[ – ] More expensive than most laptops
[ – ] Less portable at 1.8kg and 35.4cm x 23.3cm
[ – ] No touch screen
To cap off this article, I have also decided to include some optional but very useful accessories.
Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter
This dongle is a seamless Miracast device that allows you to connect from any Windows laptop. The dongle comes with an HDMI and USB port for power. Note that if your display does not have a USB port, you may need to supply power to the dongle separately, e.g. from a power bank. Once connected, the Wireless Display Adapter allows you to present wirelessly from a 10m radius, eliminating messy long wires when you need to stand some distance from the display console. With a Surface Pro, that means that you can hold the Surface in one hand and be free to move around while presenting.
Price: $97 on Microsoft Store
Logitech MX Anywhere 2 mouse
This mouse is on the pricey side, but aside from being an already very comfortable mouse to use, it has phenomenal battery life, lasting anywhere from 3-6 months of active usage. To top it off, the quick charge feature gives you a full day’s worth of charge in just 5 minutes, so on the rare occasion that you do run out of battery, you only need to plug this mouse in for just 5 minutes and you have enough power to use it until it is convenient to properly charge the mouse.
While you can get a much cheaper mouse on the market, most other mice are wired or require the use of a dongle that takes up your USB port, and either require frequent charging or use AA batteries. Either way, the convenience is worth the additional cost.
Price: $89 on Shopee
Baseus 65W GaN charger
The USB C and power delivery charging protocol bring a whole slew of new options to the table. Using this charger, you can now charge many different laptop models which have USB C charging capabilities.
The main advantage of GaN (Gallium Nitride) chargers is that they are incredibly compact, especially compared to the charger that your laptop manufacturer provides. Given that it is Quick Charge 3.0 compliant, it can also very quickly charge your phone at the same time without drawing power from your laptop.
Price: $39.90 on Shopee
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