As we hit the halfway point of summer vacation (for kids), back to school is starting creep closer. For many parents, that’s going to mean a mad scramble to find a laptop for their university, college high school or even elementary school student. But which one to choose? Best Buy alone stocks hundreds… I can’t tell you the perfect laptop for your student —the best advice I can offer is to make certain you understand your student’s requirements, research the options and don’t leave your choice until the last minute when popular models might be in short supply. To help you get started, though, here are my picks as some of the best laptops of the year for back to school.
Light Duty/Budget: Acer C720P Chromebook
Chomebooks are becoming extremely popular with school boards and students. They’re inexpensive, easy to maintain and secure.
They lack many of the advanced capabilities and peripheral support of Windows and Mac laptops and don’t support Windows software. The light duty CPUs make them a gaming no-go, but if you’re okay with the Chrome operating system and primarily working online (using apps like Google Docs), then a Chromebook is an affordable, light duty laptop option.
Out of the Chromebooks I’ve used, my current favourite is the Acer C720P. There are cheaper Chromebooks out there, but this one is still half the price of many PC laptops. The 11-inch 720p display supports touch input (although you probably won’t care about that with Chrome) but is also bright and good quality for such an affordable laptop.
The Acer C720P uses an Intel Celeron CPU (many cheaper versions use a less powerful mobile CPU), its keyboard is quite usable, and it has a 32GB SSD —twice the size in most Chromebooks and plenty of room for keeping local copies of documents music and even some digital movies.
Compact: Apple MacBook Air 11-inch
Apple has always had a big presence in the education market —and if you look around any post-secondary campus you’re going to see a lot of these. The MacBook Air.
I own both an 11-inch and a 13-inch MacBook Air and my preference is for the 11-inch model. This is a great machine for a student, extremely compact and lightweight at just 1.08 kg and 1.7 cm at its thickest point with a nice keyboard that’s backlit (great for working in low light). The MacBook Air uses all Flash storage, so boot time is seconds and the Haswell CPU means all-day (9 hour) battery life. Its display is still 1366 x 768, but in the 11-inch form factor that is still fairly sharp.
The downside is a lack of upgradability, so buy the best specs you can afford —mine is maxed out with a Core i7 and 8GB RAM making it a deceptively powerful little machine.
The Gamer: Eurocom X3 15.6-inch Gaming Laptop
Gaming laptops are built with one main goal: to move as many pixels as possible, as quickly as possible. As a result, they tend to be bulky (a dedicated graphics card needs to be jammed in there) and on the expensive side.
I’ve had the opportunity to try out several Eurocom gaming laptops and I’d suggest checking them out as an option offering a nice balance between affordability and performance.
The Eurocom X3 15.6-inch Gaming Laptop, for example, offers a big 15.6-inch display with Full HD resolution, an Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 765M video card with 2GB of video RAM and a fast 7200 RPM 1TB hard drive.
It packs quite a bit of power, plus has tons of room for future expansion (support for up to 32Gb of RAM and up to 5 drives), has all the ports you’ll need and with its subdued black case the Eurocom X3 can pass as a professional business model too.
General Purpose/Business: Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro 13.3-inch Touchscreen Ultrabook
A laptop designed for general purpose or business needs will also satisfy virtually any educational needs and makes a great back to school choice. These machines offer the performance needed to run professional applications, yet are portable enough to easily carry around.
I like the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro 13.3-inch Touchscreen Ultrabook in this category. Professional looking, compact, reasonably powerful with a Core i5 CPU and running Windows 8.1, it also offers up to 8 hours of battery life for a long school day.
The Yoga 2 Pro’s touchscreen display supports Windows touch control but at 3200 x 1800 pixels, it’s incredibly sharp. Better yet, because it’s a Yoga, that display can fold back (up to 360 degrees) making it ideal for watching movies or showing presentations.
Multipurpose: Microsoft Surface Pro 3
While the Yoga Pro 2 can technically be used as a tablet, if you want a true multipurpose experience –as in both tablet and laptop combined in a single device— the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is the one to beat.
A big (as in 12-inch Full HD) device that packs an Intel Core CPU and runs Windows 8.1 Pro, the Surface Pro 3 is an impressive tablet with an included pressure-sensitive stylus and friction kickstand that lets it be solidly adjusted at almost any angle.
Add the Touch Type keyboard cover with its magnetic fasteners and the Surface Pro 3 transforms into a laptop form factor (although it’s best suited for use on a desktop). With a range of CPUs (Core i3 to Core i7), Flash storage up to 512GB and lots of accessories like that Type Cover and a dock, the Surface Pro 3 would make a solid choice for the student who wants a tablet and a Windows laptop, but doesn’t want to buy or carry two different devices.
Money’s No Object/Power Option: 15.4-inch Apple MacBook Pro With Retina Display
When it comes to premium laptops, Apple’s MacBook Pro line is a tough one to top. These machines feature thin, unibody aluminum construction, Flash storage and 4th generation Haswell CPUs.
This 15.4-inch Apple MacBook Pro With Retina Display packs over 5 million pixels and offers a 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU with an NVIDIA GeForce GT750M video card. It’s loaded with 16 GB of RAM and an unbelievable 1TB (yes, Terabyte!) of Flash storage, support for 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Thunderbolt 2, and 8 hour battery life.
Despite the impressive specs, this laptop is just 1.8 cm thick and weighs only 2 kg.
The 15.4-inch Apple MacBook Pro With Retina Display runs OSX Mavericks, but if Windows is your thing you can run Windows 8 in emulation, or install Windows 8 right on the MacBook Pro and run it as a Windows machine using Apple’s Bootcamp feature.
For a student who wants the best or one who really needs the power for crunching numbers, rendering graphics or editing high resolution digital photos, Apple’s flagship MacBook Pro is sure to please.
The laptops on my list aren’t going to meet everyone’s needs. But they provide a starting point. Once you know your requirements —your budget, what your student wants and the software/tasks their back to school laptop needs to support— it’s time to start shopping. And with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 300 different laptops, Ultrabooks, Chromebooks and MacBooks to choose from (along with carrying cases and accessories), BestBuy has all your needs covered.