College students: 4 tips for choosing a computer to buy

This step-by-step guide will help college students select the ideal hardware and software to meet their needs. The tips are also useful for small businesses and nonprofits.

Hand-drawn icon of person with graduation cap with tassel; above the person a question mark; above the question mark four boxes, each filled with a logo (from left to right): Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and Microsoft.

Image: Andy Wolber / TechRepublic

Most schools expect students to have at least a basic computer that can access the internet, so many incoming college and university students often purchase a new system. Generally, students should get a computer that will serve them well during their entire college experience--typically four years.

Many college and university IT teams recommend specific systems for incoming students, as well as faculty and staff. These suggested systems can help narrow the number of choices. The following four steps can guide you through the process of choosing a system appropriate for your needs.

Additionally, these systems and this process may also be helpful for any computer buyer. The makes and models suggested by the schools below all represent reasonable equipment choices for many small businesses and nonprofit organizations, as well as students.

SEE: Hardware inventory policy (TechRepublic Premium)

1. Ask people in your field of study

Some schools suggest specific equipment. For example, the Georgia Tech School of Architecture recommends students acquire a Windows laptop with a fast processor (i.e., Intel i7), significant amount of RAM (i.e., 16GB minimum), and capable graphics card (i.e., 4GB discrete graphics card). Check for department-specific computer purchase guidelines.

2. Explore suggested systems from your school

Check your college and university website for suggested computer systems. Some schools avoid specific system recommendations and instead offer general advice. One university starts its computer requirement statement with, "All undergraduate students at Michigan State are required to have a laptop computer that can connect to the internet."

Often though, a school will point students toward specific bundles or systems. Here's a summary of what three prominent schools suggested as of early July 2020.

The University of Michigan offers discounts on many devices, but prominently features six bundles (Figure A) for students:

  • 3 from Apple (iPad Air, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13-inch)

  • 3 from Microsoft (Surface Go, Surface Book 3, Surface Pro)

Figure A

Screenshot of University of Michigan Tech Shop page, with 6 suggested bundles displayed.

The six featured tech bundles for University of Michigan students are evenly split between Apple and Microsoft systems.

Stanford University provides a robust list of twenty laptops, desktops, and tablets recommended for faculty and staff (Figure B). The recommended devices include:

  • 6 systems from Apple (Apple iPad Pro 12.9", Apple 13" MacBook Air, Apple MacBook Pro 13" with Touch Bar, Apple MacBook Pro 16" with Touch Bar, Apple 21.5" Retina 4K iMac, Apple 27" Retina 5K iMac)
  • 6 systems from Dell (Dell Latitude 7310, Dell Latitude 7410, Dell Precision 5550, Dell OptiPlex 7080 Micro, Dell OptiPlex 7080 Mini Tower, Dell OptiPlex 7080 Small Form Factor)
  • 6 systems from Lenovo (Lenovo ThinkPad P1 Gen 2, Lenovo ThinkPad T490s, Lenovo ThinkPad X390, Lenovo ThinkCentre M720s Small Form Factor, Lenovo ThinkCentre M920T Mini Tower, Lenovo ThinkCentre M920x)
  • 2 systems from Microsoft (Microsoft Surface Pro 7, Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 - 13.5")

Figure B

Screenshot of Stanford University IT "Laptop, Desktop, and Tablet Recommendations" page for faculty and staff, shows selectors for type of operating system (Windows, Mac), device (Desktop, Laptop, Tablet), and processor intensive task needs, such as programming or graphics (Yes, No).

Stanford University IT offers a radio-button selector to help faculty and staff select from twenty systems from Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and Microsoft.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology similarly offers discounts on many devices. The MIT website highlights recommended configurations (Figure C) from selected vendors:

  • 3 from Apple (13" MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 16-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar)

  • 3 from Dell (12.5" Latitude 7300 / 7400, 14" Latitude 5400, 15.6" Latitude 5500)

  • 3 from Lenovo (12.5" ThinkPad X270, 14" ThinkPad X1 Carbon, 15.6" ThinkPad R570)

Figure C

Screenshot of MIT page with circle around link that take you to the MIT pages with Apple, Dell, and Lenovo contact info, discounts, and recommended systems.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides three recommended configurations each from Apple, Dell, and Lenovo.

Did you happen to notice that the systems suggested by these universities are from four major vendors: Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and Microsoft? Not surprisingly, all four of the vendors are enterprise-friendly brands with years of experience building reliable products.

3. Consider your needs and preferences

Next, consider what software you want or need to use. By software, I not only mean applications (e.g., G Suite, Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Cloud, etc.), but also the underlying operating system (e.g., Windows, macOS) you prefer. Your operating system and application preferences help focus your choices. Interestingly, no college or university tech recommendation site I visited addressed today's #MobileFirst world. None of the sites said "Got a recent Android or iOS device? That's all you need." (If your university supports a mobile-first world, please let me know!)

Beyond that, balance the factors of battery life, budget, performance, portability, and screen size. The ideal system is one with unlimited battery life, close to zero cost, incredibly fast speed, close to zero weight, and a screen that is as big as you desire. It doesn't exist. From the available set of systems, you'll need to choose the available combination of features that best meet your needs. Not sure which system to choose? For many students, a lightweight laptop (around 3 lbs.), with a mid-range processor (e.g., i5, not a slower i3 or faster i7), and boosted RAM (e.g., more RAM is often a worthwhile investment) makes a reasonable choice.

SEE: Which computer should I buy? How to find the iPad, Chromebook, Mac or Windows PC that's right for you (ZDNet)

4. Plan for additional requirements

You should be prepared to switch from in-class learning to online learning at any time. In response to COVID-19 containment efforts, some colleges and universities have announced plans for a mix of online and in-class learning, while others plan to keep courses online, at least in the near future.

With those changes, schools are suggesting that students may need additional equipment and services. The University of Chicago Law School includes a COVID-19 Considerations section (Figure D) of tech recommendations, in which it suggests that students consider systems with webcams, residential internet (10Mbps up and down), and a printer. Similarly, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, suggests that "a fully functional webcam, microphone, and speakers will be essential... Additionally, a strong, high-speed internet connection will ensure that you can converse and collaborate seamlessly with your instructors and colleagues."

Figure D

Screenshot from University of Chicago Law page with text mentioning webcam, internet, and printing needs. Above the text, links to Apple, Dell, and Lenovo systems suggested by the university.

In 2020, many schools also encourage students to plan for a mix of in person and online courses. For example, the University of Chicago Law School suggests that students may need a webcam, residential internet, and a printer.

Note: You might consider two systems, instead of one. If you have a budget of $1,500, for example, you might allocate $1,000 toward a laptop and $500 toward a tablet. This lets you join class with an app on the laptop, then refer to class materials and/or to take notes on the tablet. For some people, that may be a better use of funds than the purchase of a single $1,500 device. This same logic applies for people who work-from-home or meet online often: Two devices may be more useful than one.

What's your experience? 

If you recently selected a new computer for school, what process did you use? Were you limited in your options because of school requirements? Did your school's requirements help guide you toward a system you like? If you used a "non-recommended" system, have you encountered any challenges? If you're a small business or nonprofit organization buyer, do college or university system recommendations help your decision making process? Let me know what your purchasing experience has been, either in the comment or on Twitter (@awolber).

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