I’ve been on both sides of the divide here, as IT staff and as a student, at a UK University. Now you get to benefit from all my tragic mistakes in this regard, and everything I’ve learned from it. Here is a basic set of guidelines that should apply year in, year out – they’re not a list of specific deals I’ve been sponsored to force on you, but a set of rules that should make it easy to survive tech.
Rule 1: Do, actually buy a laptop.
Gaming PC’s are awesome for chilling out and playing some Halo. Or, whatever it is you kids do nowadays.
Unfortunately, the desktop as a primary computer is very much historical. There are cases where it makes sense to have a desktop, including modelling, graphics design or video editing. However, in most cases you will be able to access shared resources at your University to provide that kind of specialist performance or software. What you need for a main computer is: An office suite, a web browser, Netflix, Zoom, Teams and probably some kind of VPN for those kind of activities you don’t want to have monitored (or filtered) on those long lonely nights. And you need to be able to do it from your room, from a lecture hall, from the library, and from other places where you are studying with a friend. Most universities will provide some shared computers – but likely on a 20-1 contention ratio. When it’s crunch time for your work, you do not want to be fighting with 19 other people to get a slot.
While we’re on the subject, neither a tablet nor a Chromebook is a proper Laptop. Mac, Windows or Linux are usually all fine, but only if you have the full versions. Cut down devices running things like Android, iPadOS and ChromeOS are not likely to meet your needs.
Rule 2: Whatever you spend, be ready to spend it twice.
There’s something deeply satisfying about buying a new computer for University. There’s also something desperately awful about looking down at your laptop and seeing the bubbles coming out after you pour a diet coke, or a hot cup of tea, or even just clean water into your keyboard. Whatever you spill on your laptop, there’s a good chance it’s not coming back from that.
Spending all your budget on the highest-end machine you can find is usually a false economy. If you’re not using all of it’s capabilities, you’re burning cash – and if you have cash to burn; you’re better off saving it for the days when the library has no copy of your textbook, or your laptop has an accident, or you suddenly need to deal with any number of other crises that can arise without warning. Warranties do not cover coffee or being dropped, and insurance is often deliberately vexatious as soon as you actually try to claim on it. It’s often better to just spend the minimum you have to, so that you can afford to put right any situations that arise.
Rule 3: Cheap laptops are a false economy.
All you have to do is wander in to a department store or a computer shop and you’ll be assaulted with all the offers for “back to school” computing. If it’s less than £700, it’s probably a bad idea. Cheap laptops often suffer from a host of issues. The most glaringly obvious will be build quality – cheap laptops will often be made much more of plastic than higher end models, and have much more flexible keyboards and fragile screen mounts. What this means is – they’ll usually be less hardy than expensive laptops. They also have much batteries with both a shorter discharge time, and a quicker “final death” – and often even come with hard disks, a technology obsolete in laptops since 2013.
Of course, short of buying a Panasonic Toughbook you’re not going to end up with a bomb-proof computer but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference in “ruggedness” between a £400 “Ideapad” and the £1500 “Thinkpad X Yoga”. If you have a low budget, you’re much better off buying a £300 used laptop that used to cost £1500 or more – than buying a brand new laptop for £300. Generally you’re best off going for one of the common professional brands: a Latitude 7000-series, a Thinkpad X or T series, or a Toughbook 31 or 53 (or later). The short hand is – you don’t want a computer older than about 2014, you must have an SSD (not a hard disk), and you’ll need at least 8GB of ram, preferably more. Ideally, you also want a laptop with more than 2 cores – but these will come with rapid price rises.
The downside is that these older laptops will likely not support the new Windows 11 operating system. On the other hand, Windows 11 looks to be as bad or worse than the legendary Windows Millennium Edition. Consequently – at time of writing I’d advocate using Windows 10 for as long as it’s supported (currently till 2025), and Linux after. The other “on the other hand” is that any laptop (new or used) that you buy for £500 or less will probably be reaching the end of it’s lifespan by about 2025, which will make that a reasonable time to upgrade.
Rule 3b: So are expensive laptops.
The counterpoint to the above (if you didn’t get the hint in Rule 2) is that spending vast amounts of money on a laptop is generally not sensible. For gaming, these machines will still be far outpaced by a much cheaper desktop; and for productivity you’re much better off A: having emergency cash supplies, and B: not being too scared to take your laptop out of your room. Of course, if you’re so affluent that you can afford to buy three fully-specced MacBook Pro’s a year – then go nuts. For everyone else – spending £700 to £1200 on something including a three-year warranty is about the sweet spot for new laptops – and it’s almost certainly what your University is doing for it’s own staff. Dell Latitude, HP Envy and Lenovo Thinkpad are all solid options in this price range, and there are others. Go watch reviews on a tech YouTube channel like LTT.
Above that price, you’re getting specialist features rather than “better normal computing”. That could be a GPU for gaming or productivity, or the ruggedness of a Toughbook, or the kind of vast internal storage that most people never need. If that is of benefit to your course (and you can afford to buy it twice), then maybe. But for 99% of people a solid business class ultrabook is going to be the right choice.
Rule 3c: Don’t buy used Macs.
Apple have made some great products over the years. Few to none of the Macs made since 2012 have been in that list. They’re not especially powerful, have no special reliability, much less flexibility and a disturbing amount of lock-in. They’re hard to repair, hard (for most people impossible) to upgrade, and have issues running alternatives to Macos. If all that wasn’t enough, they have just done another major architecture change – and based on the last four Apple architecture changes, that means anything Intel based is not long for the scrap heap.
If you happen to be in the camp of affluent students who can afford a Mac (and to handle the situation if it gets damaged or destroyed) then the only products you should be buying are the “Apple Silicon” Macbook Air or Macbook Pro. And realistically, you might as well buy a new one as one that is three months old.
Rule 4: Connectivity is everything.
The last 18 months have been very strange for students and educators. From the perspective of a University IT professional – it has been impossible to always meet the internet requirements of our students despite our best efforts and more than a few sleepless nights spent in a server room. Most particularly, WiFi has been a limiting factor. So, if there is one thing you need to make sure, it’s that you have an Ethernet option. For the cohort buying used – most pro laptops have (or at least, until-recently-had) this feature which makes it easy. For those doing the £700-£1200 Ultrabook method – this is going to be a struggle. Fold-out ethernet jacks are a disaster. Your best bet is a USB-C ethernet adapter. This is fine on Windows and Linux, but Mac users could struggle as Apple have discontinued theirs.
There is however another option for ethernet, though –
Rule 5: Comfort is 9/10ths of computing
There is every chance that we will once again be spending months locked down again. Even if not, you can still expect to be working a lot more from your rooms than most students of yesteryear. For this an Ultrabook – especially a flip-around model like an Envy X360 is pretty ideal, as it can be comfortably used when chilling in bed – for Netflix, for reading, for casual studying and for anything else you might want to do that involves both your bed and and internet connection (See: VPN’s).
But for serious work, such as thesis writing and research – you will want to be working at a desk, and taking into account proper “DSE” – or in English, ergonomics. For that, a tiny 12″ laptop is going to give you a bad neck and bad wrists. Instead, you want a monitor, keyboard, mouse – and ideally a proper webcam. This will make it easier to work for long periods, and will probably improve your concentration at the same time. That said, these do not need to be high end – a basic Microsoft or Dell optical mouse, low profile or ergonomic keyboard, and a 22″ height-adjustable monitor with at least 1080p resolution is more than adequate for most people – and even brand new shouldn’t hit £200 – generally I’d advise a new keyboard and mouse, but a used monitor should be more than fine.
It’s also worth keeping a back-up on a USB hard disk in your room. This is less about physical comfort and more about emotional. Things can and will go south, and if three years of research vanishes in a puff of smoke or in the agile hands of a thief – you may never fully recover from it. If your research is not confidential or commercially sensitive, keeping it on services like OneDrive or Backblaze may also be prudent (Google “Offsite Backup” and “Backup rule of three”), but there’s nothing so convenient as a hard disk locked in a secure place for the day your laptop goes out twenty minutes before a presentation. This doesn’t need to be particularly big or expensive, however use a proper drive and not a “USB stick”, as the latter are prone to data loss.
If you recall, I was leading into something at the end of the previous rule. This is the “Docking Monitor”. These are found from the brands Dell (for Dell and possibly Apple computers) and Iiyama (For… everyone else). They connect by a single USB-C cable, giving the display signal, power for your laptop, ethernet networking and USB for devices like a keyboard, mouse and webcam – all from that one cable. They can even daisy-chain to a second monitor for dual display use, and can be used with some Android phones for use as an “emergency fallback” computer, or for displaying video content from those phones. These are not cheap, and rare on the used market – but if you choose one that works well with your device, it means you no longer need to connect a spaghetti of cabling to your laptop – and you can leave the power brick in your bag where you won’t forget it in the morning.
Rule 6: PhD in Carryology.
This is the last rule, and it underpins many of the others. The most useful feature of any laptop is the ability to take it with you. This is why we choose an Ultrabook, why a docking monitor is useful, why we want something with a good battery and why we don’t just buy desktop PC’s like it’s 2003.
Laptops are fragile, and they’re expensive. They are also likely to carry every possible piece of information about you as a person. These things mandate that when they are carried out of your room, they are carried with care. Make sure you put some of your budget into a good bag. Just like the keyboard and mouse, this is primarily to protect you – properly managing the weight of a computer and power brick is important for your health, especially if you’re likely to routinely be carrying notebooks or binders, food, hygeine products and your martial arts uniform in there too.
Personally I’m a big fan of Scaramanga’s leather backpack, but there’s no need to get anything fancy as long as it is a pack that you can wear comfortably for long periods, fits your laptop snugly and which keeps weight close to your body. As a Physics undergrad from a relatively privileged background, I never paid any attention to style at University. I knew others that ignored function and ergonomics to their detriment. The correct answer is somewhere between the two.
I put a lot of love into this so shame on you. Small yes, light yes, Chromebook no, iPad no, desktop no. Don’t overspend, don’t underspend, buy used, Macs suck. Desk like a business, ethernet ftw, get a good bag. Good luck, congrats, see you in September.
P.S. Don’t take a WiFi router to Uni halls. They will be annoyed.