Students’ Guide to the Galaxy of Laptop Options

By Owen Sherman, ’20.

Almost every Upper School student and many middle school students at LCA have a laptop or tablet for school. Unfortunately, there are so many different options to choose from that buying one seems daunting, and buying a device that does not suit your needs can be a costly mistake. This guide, the product of months of research and trial and error, is designed to equip you with the information you need to select the perfect school device.

    This guide will cover the three most important factors in making an educated purchasing decision:

  1. Platform
  2. Price
  3. Specs

Platform:   

Let’s start with platform. The term “platform” refers to a computer’s hardware and operating system. Since certain platforms are better for certain tasks it is important to identify which platform is right for you. The four* major platforms used by LCA students are PC, Mac, Chromebook, and iPad. Here is a breakdown of each platform, its benefits, and the types of users that it suits best. Yes, Linux and Android exist, and I have used both. However, I did say major.

PC:

Pros:

  • Lots of feature, aesthetic, and price range choices
  • Good program/game compatibility
  • Features such as the ability to fold into a tablet (very useful for note-taking)
  • Flexibility and upgradeability for more more tech-savvy users
  • Usually have a good price to performance ratio (depends on the model)

Cons:

  • Sometimes unreliable (depends on the vendor/model)
  • Not very secure compared to other platforms
  • Windows can sometimes be difficult for less technical users

Who should buy:

  • More technical users
  • Anyone trying to get the most out of their budget
  • Gamers

Mac:

Pros:

  • Good build quality and reliability
  • Compatibility with other Apple devices
  • Excellent customer service from Apple
  • Incredibly easy to use
  • Still very flexible and functional

Cons:

  • Expensive (less performance per dollar than PCs, start at $1,000)
  • Few model/feature choices
  • Notorious for poor game performance

Who should buy:

  • Users already invested in the Apple ecosystem
  • People who don’t want to deal with computer problems
  • People looking at ultra-premium devices ($1500+)

Chromebook:

Pros:

  • Very affordable (often < $250)
  • Compatibility with Android apps (on higher-end models)
  • Many hardware options

Cons:

  • Often cheaply built
  • Incompatible with almost all traditional programs and games

Who should buy:

  • Students on a tight budget
  • Anyone who does exclusively web-based work

iPad:

Pros:

  • Easy to use
  • Lightweight and portable (Some support cellular connectivity)
  • Apple reliability, build quality, and customer support
  • Compatibility with iOS apps and other Apple devices

Cons:

  • No mouse/touchpad support
  • Lacks many features of traditional computers
  • Expensive

Who should buy:

  • Users already invested in the Apple ecosystem
  • People who need a thin and light device
  • Users that don’t need many traditional laptop features

Price:

    Another crucial decision that you must make when buying a new laptop is your budget. Cheaper laptops can be had for $250 or less, but ultra-premium devices can cost up to $3000 and more. While it goes without saying that you will get a more powerful, better built, and better looking laptop if you spend more, there are plenty of options in every price range. Here is a chart showing what you can get at each price range:

You will get…
Price:PCMacChromebookiPad
Budget ($299 and below)A cheaply built and often unusably slow device. Proceed with cautionNothingA low-end device that lacks bells and whistles but can run Chrome smoothlyNothing
Lower Midrange ($300-$699)A device that will run well, albeit with poor build quality and few special featuresAn older refurbished model with questionable reliability. Proceed with cautionA super smooth Chrome OS experience in a well-built deviceThe iPad (not iPad Pro). Lacks support for critical features like Pencil/keyboard. Proceed with caution
Upper Midrange ($700-$999)Either a cheap looking device with excellent specs, or a basic thin-and-light laptopA decent refurbished Mac or an older MacBook Air with dated specsA powerful device packing features like tablet mode and Android app supportA capable iPad Pro 11 inch with a relatively small amount of storage.
High-end ($1000-$1500)A powerful thin-and-light laptop or a decent gaming laptopA new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, or 12″ MacBook that will run wellThe best specs and features offered by ChromebooksA 11″ model or 13″ model with plenty of storage
Ultra-premium ($1500+)All of the premium features and power that PCs have to offerA MacBook Pro that packs large amounts of power into a slim chassisA device with more power than you could need in a Chromebook. Proceed with cautionThe same as above except with more storage, which is unnecessary in most cases. Proceed with caution

Specs:

    Once you have chosen your platform and what you are willing to spend, you have to choose the individual model that you want. However, even within price ranges, different devices have different capabilities and it is easy to over or under spend if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for. That is where a basic knowledge of specs comes in handy. Knowing generally what specs you are looking for is a huge advantage when navigating the ocean of potential laptops to buy (most of these don’t apply for iPads). Here are some of the important specs to consider when buying a laptop

Processor (CPU) – Processes everything you do on your device

Without going into too much detail, an Intel Core i5 is best for everyday computing tasks, while a Core i7 can better handle more demanding workloads like gaming, photo/video editing, and the like. Below that, there is the Core i3, which is usually found in budget devices and can only do basic tasks like browsing the Web. Any processor not listed here is likely less powerful than these and will feel sluggish in everyday tasks (except in a Chromebook, which will run well regardless). Note: AMD Ryzen processors use the same number scheme as Intel and the same rules apply.

Memory (RAM) – Determines how many programs you can run at once

Memory usually comes in increments of 4, 8, or 16 gigabytes (GB) in most laptops. While 4GB will likely be too little for a PC or Mac (again, it’s fine for a Chromebook**), 8GB will be more than enough for most people, even most gamers, and 16GB is only necessary if you plan to do something like photo/video editing, 3D design, etc.

Storage – The amount of files and programs your computer can hold

    Storage comes in many different increments, but a general rule is that 128GB will be too little, and 256GB will probably be adequate unless you are storing lots of photos or games, in which case 512GB or even 1024GB (1TB) is probably best.

Graphics – Determines how well your computer will run games/3D apps

    Finally, if you are into gaming, graphics are also important to understand. This gets rather complicated due to the myriad of graphics solutions out there, so just remember that non-gaming branded laptops (with the exception of the 15” MacBook Pro) will seldom have enough graphics muscle play demanding games.

    With a platform and budget in mind, you are ready to find your ideal laptop. If you are buying a Mac or an iPad, it is best to go to an Apple store to do it because they can walk you through the process and answer any questions you may have. With PCs or Chromebooks, it is best to either order online or go to Best Buy, which has a much better selection than the local Microsoft store. Unfortunately, the folks at Best Buy may try to upsell you, so keep your wits about you.

I hope this guide helped, and good luck.

Have unanswered questions? Want recommendations or assistance in the buying process? Contact me at owen.sherman@lca.edu and I would be happy to assist.