GameCrate's College Laptop Buying Guide 2014

Choosing the right laptop for college is a crucial—yet daunting—task many young adults face when preparing for their upcoming academic year. Portable computing technology, once a luxury for college students, has now become the norm, both when taking notes in the classroom and when studying at home or in your dorm.

These days, there is an ever expanding selection of laptop styles and models on the market, so you really need to understand your individual needs when deciding which one to buy. Is having a lightweight, ultra-portable machine that you can effortlessly carry to-and-from school what you’re after? Perhaps you’re a frequent video and photo editor who also wants a high-performance device for gaming? Or maybe you want a versatile laptop with all the latest bells and whistles like a touchscreen interface and ability to convert into a tablet?

All of these are important questions to ask yourself before taking the plunge and investing in a new laptop. Remember, your new laptop is likely going to be with you for most, if not all, of your college years, so it’s vital to do your homework early in preparation.

As a helpful guide to get you started, we’ve compiled some of our favorite laptops—focusing on a range of common needs—into a guide that we hope will help you make this important decision.

High-performance / Gaming

Lenovo IdeaPad Y510p Gaming Notebook

Lenovo IdeaPad Y510p

There was a time, several years ago, when $1,000 was the typical price you’d pay for an entry-level laptop. Nowadays though, at that price point you can get much more powerful machines, like the high-performance Lenovo IdeaPad Y510. This popular gaming notebook is built for those with serious multimedia needs, whether it’s watching movies, streaming music, or playing video games. All your media will look great on the gorgeous 15.6” HD wide screen. It will sound great too, with the built-in Dolby Home Theater premium JBL speakers.

The laptop comes with a powerful 4th generation Intel Core processor for blistering fast computing speed, so whether you’re doing everyday tasks like web browsing and word processing or more demanding work such as audio and video editing or gaming, the Lenovo IdeaPad has the muscle to handle the job. The laptop also is equipped with a “solid state” hard drive that’s built for speed, and with a large 1 Terabyte capacity, you’ll have a huge amount of storage space to save your media files and school work. This laptop is not only powerful under the hood, it’s also quite stylish with its brushed-metal finish and backlit keyboard, perfect for typing in low light areas. If you’re looking for a powerful, feature-rich laptop that will handle all your school needs—as well as your media and gaming—this is an ideal laptop for you.

Balance of Performance & Value

Acer Aspire E1-572-6870 Notebook

Acer Aspire E1-572-6870 Notebook

If you’re on a budget and want a rock-solid laptop that you can depend on, the Acer Aspire E1 Notebook offers an ideal balance of performance vs. price. It may not have the high-end specs found in gaming laptops, but its Intel Core i5 processor is more than capable of handling your everyday school needs, like web browsing, creating presentations, connecting online, and collaborating with others. At just over 5 lbs. and less than 1” thin, the Acer Aspire E1 is also one of the slimmest notebooks of its kind, well-suited for those who like to tote their laptop to class, to a café, and then back home again.

For such a lightweight and slim laptop, the Acer Aspire E1 features a surprisingly large LCD display, measuring 15.6”, giving you a true high-definition widescreen experience that will make your HD movies, video games, and other digital content look great. There are also some great productivity features included, like a USB 3.0 port that can transfer data up to 10x the speed of a standard USB 2.0 connection, as well a ‘Fine Tip’ keyboard that has larger keys with comfortable spacing between them, and a numeric keypad that number-crunchers will find very convenient. Without a doubt, this affordable laptop packs a lot of bang for the buck, making it an excellent choice for those focused on productivity and performance.

 

Ultrabook & Tablet 2-in-1

Dell XPS 12 Touchscreen Ultrabook

Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook

 

Over the last few years, a range of convertible laptops have come to market that enable you to transform the device from a standard laptop with a keyboard to a fully-featured HD touchscreen tablet. One of my favorites is the Dell XPS 12, which has a unique flip-hinge design that enables you to effortlessly switch between a laptop and tablet configuration. While in tablet mode, you’ll be able to easily navigate web pages, play games, and switch between apps--and when it’s time to begin school work, the handy fold-out keyboard will keep your productivity high.

As far as performance goes, the Dell XPS 12 is a powerhouse sporting a 4th generation Intel Core i7 processor and 8GB of memory. This muscle will make multitasking a snap, no matter if you’re browsing the internet while listening to music, or collaborating with your classmates in real-time over Skype. The machine comes installed with Windows 8, which was built from the ground-up for a seamless touchscreen experience. It’s worth noting as well that the Dell XPS 12 was made with portability in mind. Not only is it a mere 3.24 lbs., the HD display is super bright and easy to see in brightly lit classrooms or when used outdoors. With this 2-in-1 convertible device you no longer have to choose between buying a tablet or a laptop—you can have the best of both worlds all rolled into one.

Convertible Dual Screen 2-in-1

ASUS Taichi 31 Dual Screen 2-in-1 Ultrabook

ASUS Taichi31 Ultrabook

 

ASUS, one of the world's most reputable manufacturers of computers and electronics, has a unique take on the 2-in-1 convertible concept that’s sure to turn the heads of those on campus. The ASUS Taichi 31 is the world’s first dual screen notebook and tablet combination, featuring two full HD displays—one screen on the front, and a second on the back—allowing it to transform into four different modes. The first two, “Notebook Mode” and “Tablet Mode,” do what you would expect, with the former turning the device into a fully-featured notebook that’s great for working on school assignments, while the latter changes it into a touchscreen tablet suitable for web browsing.

The third permutation, called “Mirror Mode,” is where things get interesting. In Mirror Mode, the screen sits upright just like a regular notebook, with the back screen showing the exact same image as the front. Why would you want this functionality in your college laptop? Well, one great use of this back-to-back mirroring is that you could show a presentation or a video to your classmates while working in a group setting—without having to turn around your machine. Also, a fourth mode, called “Dual-Screen Mode,” turns the ASUS Taichi 31 into two computers in one, allowing one person to use the keyboard and multi-touch touchpad, while the other can use the multi-touch screen and stylus. If you’re one who constantly finds yourself collaborating with others at school, this 2-in-1 device (or perhaps more appropriately, a 4-in-1), may be the perfect fit.

Extreme Portability & Convenience

Samsung XE303C12-A01US Chromebook

Samsung XE303C12-A01US Chromebook

Introduced in 2011, the Chromebook is a revolutionary new type of laptop focused on speed, connectivity, and affordability. Samsung, one of the pioneers of this new line of laptops, has led this category with many different available models, including their flagship hardware, the Samsung Chromebook. This laptop is designed for internet-connected users that enjoy using the power of the cloud to create, collaborate, and share information. Powered by Google Chrome OS, which is basically an enhanced version of Chrome web browser, the Samsung Chromebook is lightning-quick and boots in 10 seconds or less, and lets you instantly resume web browsing right where you left off.

At less than $250, the Samsung Chromebook is by far the least expensive laptop on our list, and at this low price point it forgoes some common laptop features, in exchange for ease-of-use and accessibility. For example, this Chromebook comes with only a 16GB hard drive, enough to store basic files like spreadsheets, presentations, word documents, and drawings, but at the same time can easily connect to Google’s cloud storage to save and retrieve files. What this means is that you’ll need an internet connection in order maximize your productivity when using the Samsung Chromebook. In terms of weight, this laptop is only 2.43 lbs., and at less than 1” thin, this device is extremely portable when carrying around campus. If you’re a heavy internet browser and want the fastest machine available for this purpose, while also harnessing the benefits of Google’s many cloud services, the Samsung Chromebook is right up your alley.

Hybrid Laptop / Tablet

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

 

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, branded as “the tablet that can replace your laptop,” is the company’s latest and most feature-rich entrant yet in the hybrid laptop category. If it seems like Microsoft has been iterating fast on their Surface Pro line, that’s because this is the third Surface Pro model to come to market in less than two years (the original Surface Pro released in October, 2012). The most obvious changes with the Surface Pro 3 are the larger HD display, measuring 12”, and the much-improved kickstand that can now extend the full range of motion, instead of locking into pre-set positions. Included in the package is the Bluetooth Active Pen, a battery-powered stylus that lets you take notes or draw right on the touchscreen—a great asset for jotting down notes in class or creating professional drawings.

For pure productivity, the Surface Pro 3 is easily one of the best tablet/laptop hybrids available today. It runs on Microsoft Windows 8.1, which boots faster than previous versions of the Windows operating system, and it’s really easy to navigate between apps and windows using the multi-touch screen. By adding the Surface Pro Type Cover (a keyboard attachment sold separately), you can turn the Surface Pro 3 into a fully-functioning laptop with gorgeous 2160 x 1440 resolution (the highest of any laptop on our list), all in a package weighing less than 2 lbs. for maximum portability. This is certainly a recommended laptop for any college student, but in particular, if you’re an artist or rely heavily on the Microsoft Office software suite, then you’ll really appreciate the full range of the capabilities the Surface Pro 3 has to offer.

So, that’s our list of recommended laptops, we hope it’s helped you narrow down you choices. Have a favorite laptop that wasn't included above? We’d love to get your thoughts in the comments section below!