Whether it’s for school or work, a laptop is the perfect form factor. It has a keyboard for typing, the display is built in and it’s compact so it can be easily used in a classroom or carried from room to room in a home. No being tied to one spot like a desktop PC. Which laptop to choose is where it gets tricky. And I’m not even talking about features and design, the first step is to pick a platform: Windows laptop, MacBook or Chromebook.
Each platform has its pros and cons. The good news is that all three platforms have come a long way in terms of collaboration support, which is very useful in school or work settings. Two great equalizers are Microsoft’s Office 365, which allows for collaboration between Mac, Windows and now Chrome users (via Android support and Google Play), and Google’s online suite of applications which can also be used on all three devices.
Here’s what you need to know in order to make an informed back to school choice between a traditional Windows laptop, a MacBook and a Chromebook.
Windows laptops are the safe pick. Windows is the most widely used computer operating system, and most schools have standardized on Microsoft Office applications. When you’re looking for compatibility and the ability to run the most diverse library of software, Windows laptops are an easy choice. They are also the preferred platform for PC gaming—something that is particularly popular among the student crowd.
Windows laptops are also the clear winner in terms of variety. There are dozens of major PC manufacturers making Windows laptops, including trusted names like HP, Acer, ASUS, Dell, Lenovo and even Microsoft itself. This means an almost overwhelming choice of form factors (not just traditional laptops, but also 2-in1 and convertible options), sizes, capabilities and price ranges. There are ultra-portable Windows laptops priced from just a few hundred dollars, up to high performance gaming laptops with 17-inch displays and the power to take on a desktop PC.
Many of the latest Windows laptops also offer touchscreen support, and can be used for Windows Inking. This is a feature that can be particularly useful for students, who can use a stylus to take notes and easily edit files (you can learn more about Windows Ink here).
Parents worried about security can choose a model like the Microsoft Surface Laptop that runs the new Windows 10 in S Mode, with an emphasis on online security protection.
MacBooks have always been favourites of young professionals. A big part of that is style (design is an Apple strong suit) and a reputation for premium quality. Historically, macOS has also been less likely to be attacked by malware.
Apple doesn’t make a “cheap” laptop, so MacBooks don’t compete at the entry level of the laptop market. However, the most affordable model—the 13-inch MacBook Air—has been a top choice among students for years. It’s light (1.35kg, or just under 3 pounds), thin and solid, with an iconic solid-aluminum design. It also offers 12-hour battery life.
At the higher end of the spectrum, MacBook Pro models are often picked by students in programs that involve photo and video editing. They offer the combination of power and beautiful displays that makes them ideal for such tasks.
The downside to MacBooks? Besides the fact that there no models competing at the low end of the laptop price spectrum, the primary downsides are a smaller software library than Windows, and the fact that Apple laptops don’t always adopt the latest mobile CPUs as quickly as Windows laptop manufacturers do. And if you like touch control, sorry—macOS does not support that input (other than the MacBook Pro Touch Bar).
Finally, a choice that has become increasingly popular among students: Chromebooks. These laptops run Google’s Chrome operating system, which offers a number of advantages. The focus is on apps that run in the cloud, offloading the need for processing power. That means Chromebooks can use relatively inexpensive CPUs and minimal storage, resulting in a very affordable price. Despite the low powered hardware, low system overhead means Chromebooks are able to start up almost instantly.
Another key selling point of Chromebooks has been security. They are automatically updated, most apps are run in the cloud instead of locally and sessions are sandboxed. Malware is virtually unheard of on this platform.
A key downside of choosing a Chromebook used to be a lack of software. Users were largely relegated to Google’s productivity suite and a web browser. However, the latest generation of Chromebooks now supports running Android apps from Google Play, opening a floodgate of applications and games (you can learn more about this on Chris Loblaws’ Chromebook explainer). Performance has also picked up with many Chromebooks adopting better displays, faster CPUs, more RAM and additional storage. Some now support touch input and even offer a convertible form factor for use in a tablet mode.
The other thing to be aware of with Chromebooks is that one reason the operating system is so streamlined is it lacks drivers and support for some accessories. If a Chromebook supports Bluetooth, it should be compatible with many wireless accessories like mice, keyboards and headphones. A Chromebook should also be able to print to Wi-Fi printer. But you do need to research a little more before buying accessories for one of these laptops. Wired and specialized accessories (like graphic tablets) especially may not be compatible.
With the platform decision out of the way, it’s time for drilling down to picks based on features and price.
Best Buy has a massive selection of laptops, so no matter what you’re looking for, you’re covered.