Once you have some baseline specs, and some suggestions based on the kind of work you’ll be doing, take your own needs into account. What are some of your favorite applications, and what would you like to do with your laptop once you buy it? Here are a couple of questions to consider:
Do you want a Mac or a Windows PC? A lot of this comes down to personal preference, but if your school or program has a recommendation, pay attention to it. There may be software you’re expected to use that will influence your decision (CAD or engineering software that requires Windows, or design software that’s better in OS X, for example.) Most Apple laptops have great build quality and can run Windows through Boot Camp, as long as you purchase a Windows license. You can even run Windows from an external SSD to save space. However, if you’re a gamer, you may prefer a Windows-based laptop, just for selection’s sake. Buying a Windows PC gives you more options, brands, and overall selection to find the perfect spec combination for you. Either way, long gone are the days where having the “wrong” laptop meant your favorite apps were incompatible, or you wouldn’t be able to work with your classmates. You’ll still run into a little of that, but not with anything major, and even then you’ll probably be able to find alternatives.
How big is too big for you? Portability is important, but it comes with tradeoffs in processing power and battery life. Start with screen size and weight. A 15” laptop will often be powerful with lots of screen real estate, but if you plan on lugging it around campus, a 13” will usually be significantly lighter. Or, you could buy a really small 11” laptop for portability, and a desktop for your apartment or dorm. In fact, sometimes buying two computers is cheaper than buying one.
Get as big a battery as you can. Everyone thinks they can squeak by on a few hours of battery life until they’re on campus all day and run out of juice. Check if your candidate laptops have replaceable batteries. Of course, outlets shouldn’t be too difficult to come by, but you’ll probably want to be able to go more than one or two classes before having to plug in. Bigger batteries mean more weight, so keep that in mind as well. When you read estimated battery life specs from manufacturers, make sure to corroborate those numbers with reviews at sites like PCMag and CNet. They usually do real-world battery tests that will tell you how long you’ll actually get doing things like streaming movies, working on documents, or checking email. Also, keep in mind that sometimes higher-end laptops can actually have worse battery life, since they have to power features like high-resolution touch displays. You may find better battery life in a more modest machine.
Get the right hard drive for your storage needs. Think about some of your hobbies and interests. Do you think you’ll be streaming a lot of video or music, or are you the downloading type? If the latter is true, maybe you’ll want a laptop with enough storage (or external drives) to accommodate. Getting a laptop with an SSD is a great idea—it’ll be fast and boot quickly—but high capacity SSDs can be pricey, so take that into account.
What external peripherals will you need? Working from a laptop is convenient when you’re out and around, but back home, at your desk, you’ll probably want an external monitor and keyboard, just to save your neck and back. Even if they’re cheap, budget for peripherals that will keep you comfortable when you sit down to work and give you a nice, ergonomic workspace at home or in your room. That includes things like laptop stands,laptop bags, chargers, and so on. Also, make sure the laptop you buy has the ports to connect what you need to plug in!
Do you play video games? A “yes” answer here will have a huge impact on the specs of your laptop. We’re not saying you should buy a gaming laptop, though. Gaming laptops are notoriously expensive, big, and heavy. However, you might want to look at higher-end models than you would have considered otherwise. Consider laptops with discrete graphics, speedy SSDs, crisp, high-resolution screens, faster processors, and more RAM. When you find one you like, make note of the laptops graphics card, and then head over to sites like Passmark’s benchmark database and Anandtech’s GPU bench and see how that model performs in your favorite games. On the other hand, this is another situation wherebuying two computers might be better than trying to cram everything into one. A portable, affordable laptop may be ideal for work on the go, and maybe a budget gaming desktop would be better for your wallet and your gaming experience.
Those are the basics to get you started. If you have specific needs, you’ll have a longer list of questions. In every case, find your own power-to-portability sweet spot. If you don’t expect to tote your laptop around from class to class and prefer to use a tablet (or heaven forbid, take paper notes), then portability may not be a huge factor for you. Taking a laptop from your room to the library and back doesn’t demand the latest in thin, light hardware. However, if you plan to carry your laptop around with you to every class, you won’t want a five-pound brick in your bag.