MTTN’s Laptop Buying Guide for College

Buying a laptop for college is one of the most important purchases you can make before joining. Or, you are already in college but need some advice on what to buy. MTTN’s Laptop Guide for 2020 is aimed to help everyone in doubt understand what they may need in their laptop, depending on their requirements as laid out by your stream. There may be few direct recommendations because this guide will help you understand whether whatever you are looking at is good for you or not.

 

We can broadly categorize the perspectives using which one would buy a laptop in two categories, one which would be you purely looking at what you want for college work, while the other being the point of view of someone who wants to do something more with their laptop that may be demanding for their machines. In the former, we can differentiate with your stream what you would rather like. We shall begin with that as more people seek a laptop that will be perfect for their respective streams:

Category I 

You will be attached to your laptop: You are probably in one of the Computer Science or Electronics streams (but we are not exclusive here) and your college work will include working with your laptop more than any other stream. You will be programming, running several specific software, or may even be using Linux. All these are not particularly “heavy” workloads on their own, but that still should not mean that you should grab any random laptop off the shelf. Your purchase should reflect the amount of time you will spend using that machine if that is possible. And for that, you should keep some key things in mind:

  • Ditch the hard disk. If your friend who is particularly into computers has already not trumpeted the benefits of them, here is an introduction on Solid-State Drives. An SSD is a substitute for a hard disk and is significantly faster than a hard disk drive in booting up and loading any apps or files. They are a more expensive option, so you will not get the same amount of storage for similar price. One helpful way to look for an SSD is to see if you have “128/256GB of storage” on a new laptop. That will most likely be an SSD. If you are buying a physically larger laptop, you will see “128GB+1TB storage”, which means that the laptop has both a hard disk and an SSD, which could be beneficial for you, if you want the best of both worlds. 
  • Plan the rest. The CPU may not need that much thought. For sure, the CPU is the heart of your laptop, but it is very common to give it too much thought instead of other things, like the presence of an SSD. Try to not rush towards, say an “i7” just because it is an Intel Core i7. First, because you may be actually buying an older laptop for a cheaper price which happens to have an i7 and is cheap because it has already been refreshed. And secondly, because you may just not need that CPU. CPUs can still be a little tricky to navigate.

Even then, the CPU may not matter so much, but try to acquire some information via the Internet on what would be the best value for your money. 

  • RAM and upgradability considerations: With RAM, you may not get much to choose outside of 8GB, which is a reasonably good size and will suit most people’s needs well enough. Parts other than RAM that can be swapped out are the storage media. You can get a larger SSD down the line for your laptop, and can also get your hard disk replaced with an SSD as well. If you own a laptop with a hard disk and would really want it to work better, consider buying an SSD. Any SSD at all. It will be the most effective upgrade you may make.
  • Linux? A lot of users in this category might want to use Linux down the line, or already do. The ones who are not familiar with it may be doubtful of what they may require to run Linux. Well, you can run Linux on anything, so do not worry at all about it. The process of getting it to run, though, is rather complex and beyond the scope of this article, but is one Google search away. 
  • Other needs (user-specific): Something like a touchscreen display is your choice entirely, and comes at a premium that may seem worth it to some, although is not necessary for any college work. More important may be physical dimensions and weight for the user. Most laptops on a decent budget will be 15.6 inches in screen size and weight roughly 2 kilograms. This may be what many may need, but some require more portability, which may come at a premium, as well as make you sacrifice other features like RAM and your CPU. However, a smaller laptop almost always guarantees an SSD, so that may even turn out advantageous for you.

With all this in mind, you will be ready to make an informed purchase quite easily. The amount of money you should pay is entirely up to you, but a laptop worth around Rs. 45000 will be a good place to start. Most of these considerations apply to Windows laptops, while it is quite straightforward if you buy an Apple laptop. Any recent model will suit you just as well, although you should prefer a MacBook Pro over the MacBook Air because the Air may be a bit too lacklustre for your use. Leave that for the Category II users.

 

Category II

You need a laptop, but you won’t be working on it, necessarily. This category will have all students who are in streams where you don’t work with computers so much, as well as people who may need it, but not all the time. The latter is especially for students who want to work with AutoCAD and CATIA as part of Engineering Graphics. Your choice may not need too much thinking, but it is always a great feeling to know that what you are buying is a good value. Here are some pointers to help you out:

  • SSD, unless you have a small budget: It will always be a worthy choice. However, few brands sell an SSD if you have a smaller amount of money to pay. But since you may not feel the need of having such fast speeds (although you will be thankful for it), you can still skip it for saving your money.
  • CPU won’t be an issue: Make sure its a recent model, and even if it isn’t, make sure it is not older by more than a year, and the CPU you get inside it will be enough for you. However, make sure it is not too low-end, which can be ensured by checking for the brand of the CPU. AMD’s Athlon and Intel’s Pentium and Celeron brands may be a bit too low-end, and you can do better, especially with a budget higher than Rs. 30000.
  • RAM? “I don’t need much of that either, right?” Not absolutely correct. Having 8GB of RAM with a Windows laptop is an absolute must, even if you don’t want to use it often. More is better, and most laptops these days will have 8GB RAM out of the box. If your budget doesn’t allow for such a laptop, consider other options listed further
  • You probably would like a tablet more: If you are sure that you have absolutely no use for a PC other than for reading textbooks, checking presentations and to watch videos, you may do better with a tablet instead of a full laptop. In that case, a recent iPad or a tablet by Samsung may end up being a cheaper option as well. Although you must be sure. It is a much more portable alternative, but if you have an old laptop and were looking to upgrade it, you may be better off using that whenever absolutely needed, and carrying the tablet to the library and such.
  • Maybe a Chromebook? ChromeOS is a curious choice for a lightweight user, but it may have the same caveats as a tablet. It will be a cheaper, more stable and more handy alternative to a cheap Windows-powered laptop, but you may have less in the way of compatibility with programs that you may need to use for college. If it has an Android alternative, though, you will be just fine. So, it is a cheaper option, but you will sacrifice a little bit. 
  • AutoCAD/CATIA: AutoCAD is a Windows-only piece of software, and you will need that to run it and practice graphical work. In subsequent years, Mechanical Engineering students use CATIA for 3D modeling as part of the college curriculum, and although the college lets you use the labs for practice, if you want to practice it on your own, you should stick to Windows. It is also a heavy application on your CPU and GPU, so you may need a powerful laptop to run it well. If that’s not an option, it will be a sluggish experience, but a compromise you may manage getting through.

So with all these considerations, you have more in the way of choosing a less obvious option than someone who will require a laptop to work in college, which also helps you to save up a bit of money at a low budget. It is best to venture towards a traditional Windows laptop only if you have more than Rs. 35000 to spend, as any options below that threshold will be bested by a Chromebook or a tablet PC with an old laptop as a backup (which is an optional aside).

 

The next part of this guide discusses the requirements of any user who needs a laptop for something more than college work. A lot of you may be a tad more informed about what you should buy, yet this section is for you to consider your options.

Choosing a laptop for college is mainly influenced by your daily needs, but what if you want to delve deeper into making games, music or digital art? The good news is that for music production and basic photo editing, any laptop will suffice. So, you can pick a laptop suited to your college needs, and you will go sufficiently far with it, without a hitch. 

For those interested in creating digital artwork and animations, we recommend a computer with 8GB or more RAM. A graphics card may not be as important. Instead of going for a touchscreen laptop with a stylus, it is also good enough to buy a traditional laptop with an external graphics tablet (available for cheap) to stay on a budget.

Video editing and 3D design are two things that demand a little extra juice from your computer. Make sure to get at least 16GB of RAM and a decent discrete graphics card to keep your laptop future-proof. Although, you can start these ventures decently with a less powerful system well enough to try your hand at these.

If you simply wish to game with your machine, you have many tiers of gaming systems you can choose from. The higher your budget is, the more informed you should be before you pull the trigger, and the more extra reading you should do. However, a proper gaming laptop that will be a decent experience with recent and future games will be around Rs. 80000 to 100000. Keep in mind that sales often bring these prices further down, and online retailers often have them around Diwali. The price difference between brands for the same specifications can occasionally be a bit jarring, but it is not a worry. Asus (TUF), Acer (Nitro, Helios), HP (Pavilion Gaming) and Dell (Inspiron Gaming) have reasonably priced gaming laptops in India, while other series may be a bit too inflated in pricing. 

If you plan to make games, then prepare to go all out into the gaming laptop territory. The requirements will vary depending on the type of games you wish to design. While simpler 2D platformers can be made on low-end and mid-end laptops, you require a high-end laptop to develop a full-scale 3D game. Of course, this is a niche use of your system, but an expensive one indeed. 

Happy hunting! If it is safe, check local retailers in-stores, compare them with online retailers, and don’t forget to check the brand’s official site as well. A lot of them directly sell laptops too, and it is good to compare the prices you may get through them with others.

Written by Harshaj Sood and Yatharth Sood for MTTN

Featured image by Tirthik Saha for MTTN

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