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Choosing a New Laptop for College: A Guide

Six basic features to consider when buying a new laptop for college

student with laptop

Buying a new laptop for college can be overwhelming with the multitude of choices available. You might be considering a portable Ultrabook­, a thin notebook like the MacBook Air®, the new MacBook® Pro with Retina Display, or an all-purpose PC laptop. Before you make a decision, check with your school as some programs have specific requirements. Then use this basic shopping guide to get started.

Of all the components, the CPU (central processing unit, also known as the "processor") has the greatest impact on the speed of a laptop. The more cores a processor has, the more adept it is at multitasking. Most laptops are available with either Intel® or AMD® processors (there are several models within each family). For everyday schoolwork, you don't need the most powerful, top-of-the-line processors. An Intel Core™ i3 or Core i5 or an AMD Phenom™ II should do the job.

Operating System
The choice depends entirely on your personal preference and the type of software you intend to use. The common options are Mac OS, found on Apple® MacBooks, or Microsoft Windows, found on most PC laptops. Microsoft Windows is available in different versions, but the Windows 7 Home & Student edition is a good choice for the typical student.

Memory (RAM)
Most laptops come equipped with between 2GB and 8GB of RAM. If you plan to use your laptop mostly for basic activities such as e-mailing, writing papers and Web surfing, then 2GB of memory should suffice. However, if you will be working with larger files, 4GB of RAM or more is ideal.

Hard Drive
Your hard drive is where you store all your photos, documents, music and movies. Obviously, each student will have different storage requirements. A 200GB–250GB hard drive should meet a typical student's needs. For more storage capacity, look for 500GB or more. Another option is to buy an external hard drive, which not only provides additional storage space but is also portable.

Size and Weight
Portability is an important factor since most students tend to carry their laptops to class and the library. Look for a laptop that weighs five pounds or less to make life easier. Screen size is a matter of personal preference, but a screen within the range of 13"–15" should be a good choice.

Graphics Card
For the typical student, the graphics card built into the laptop should suffice. Discrete or add-on graphics cards are an option for students who work with video editing — or just enjoy gaming in their spare time.

Other Questions to Ask:
1. Does the laptop have a built-in webcam? This is especially important for students who plan to keep in touch with their families via Skype.

2. How long does the battery last?

3. What special features does the laptop offer? (For example, high-definition screen, HDMI output, fingerprint reader, or built-in Bluetooth.)

Related: Best college laptops and gadget picks | Laptop deals | Shop the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display | Shop PC laptops | Sign up for exclusive college student deals