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. Battery power means no electrical outlet is required until it’s time to recharge. 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 essential in school or work settings. Two great equalizers are Microsoft 365 and Google’s online suite of applications, which is now known as Google Workspace.
Between Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace for Education, students are able to collaborate on assignments remotely and in-class, regardless of which laptop platform they choose. Most are also equipped with an integrated webcam and microphone, making them well-suited to remote learning and videoconferencing.
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 always a safe pick. Windows is the most widely used computer operating system. Many schools support Microsoft’s 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.
Windows laptops feature the latest Intel Core and AMD Ryzen processors.
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 who are concerned about security might want to consider laptops like Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Go, which runs Windows 10 S Mode.
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 (1.29kg, or 2.8 pounds), thin and solid, with an iconic solid-aluminum design. It also offers up to 18-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 downside is a smaller software library than Windows—although most popular apps are available. If you like touch control, sorry—macOS does not support that input (other than the MacBook Pro Touch Bar). Apple is also all-in on USB-C, so if you have USB Type-A accessories, you’ll need to invest in adapters or a dock.
Where things get interesting (or complicated) with MacBooks is the company’s move to its own M1 processors. You can read all about the M1 here. Advantages include high performance and extra-long battery life, but during the transition period, some MacBook are equipped with an M1 CPU, while some have Intel processors. For example, the 2020 MacBook Air is M1 only, the 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro is available with a choice of processors, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro is Intel-only. That will change as new models are released. The good news is that all MacBooks will continue to run macOS, and Apple provides an emulation layer so all apps will continue to run smoothly until they are optimized for the M1.
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. 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.
One 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, Chromebooks now support running Android apps from Google Play, opening a floodgate of applications and games.
Although they started out as low-powered laptops, performance and premium touches have increasingly come to the Chromebook world. Chromebooks offer better displays, faster CPUs (some with both Intel Core and AMD Ryzen options), more RAM and additional storage. Many support touch input and some offer a convertible form factor for use in a tablet mode. There are now Chromebooks like the ASUS Flip 436 I reviewed in the fall that offer a premium design and high end specs (including 16GB of RAM, PCIe NVMe M.2 storage, Wi-Fi 6, and a 14-inch NanoEdge display) that compare favourably with the best Windows laptops and MacBooks.
One 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 most wireless accessories like mice, keyboards and headphones. USB hard drives and thumb drives are also fine, so long as they are properly formatted. A Chromebook should also be able to print to Wi-Fi printer. But you do need to research a little more before buying specialized accessories for one of these laptops. Products like graphics tablets, for example, may not be compatible.
One final point to consider. If you are shopping for a laptop for a post-secondary program, check with the school to see if they recommend or require students purchase a specific platform. That’s not usually the case, but some programs may require Windows or macOS.
With the platform decision out of the way, it’s time for drilling down to picks based on features and price. That becomes an individual decision, but if you need some help, be sure to check out the Laptop Buying Guide for pointers.
The it’s time to make a choice, Best Buy has a massive selection of laptops, including the latest MacBook, Chromebooks, and Windows laptops. You’ll also find all the accessories you might need. No matter what you’re looking for, you’re covered.