Buying Tech for University: A Quick Guide
Let’s say you’re thinking about heading to university this September, or you’re thinking of getting an upgrade; here's a guide for you! Buying a laptop, phone or tablet are often the biggest financial investments you’ll make apart from your rent, and it’s important to choose the best pieces of equipment for your course. Here’s a guide of things to consider, as well as a few things to avoid.
1. Screen size
This is a massive factor for students, regardless of what subject you study at university. Writing essays, creating presentations and simply taking notes will form the backbone of your experience, so it’s important to consider what size you'll need.
I have a 14” laptop, and I’d say that entry-range to mid-range laptops are commonly around this size. I find it comfortable for writing and researching, but it’s not too bulky to carry around campus. Mine will fit in my rucksack, which is useful for travelling or moving rooms to give presentations in. Small laptops can be much lighter and easier to transport, but do you really want to be staring at a tiny screen for hours on end? Quality of life is important when doing lots of computer work, and reducing eye strain can really lengthen the amount of time you'll be able to spend in front of a screen.
A 14” laptop would also be great for watching videos or playing games on, especially when the weather isn’t so good outside. You might get yourself a TV, but if not, do consider screen size when thinking about how you’ll use your laptop outside of university work.
2. Battery life
Whether a phone, laptop or tablet, having decent battery life is a must. Being close to a plug socket is never a guarantee, and you may find yourself turning up very early to class just so you can find a seat next to one. If you prefer to make notes on paper and leave your laptop at home, battery life might not seem so important, but you never know when you’ll be out without a charger. Running a laptop with lots of programmes on can drain your battery, so be prepared to carry a charger round anyway, especially if your course is taught through long days of lectures.
Anything with less than six hours of battery life isn’t worth having, regardless of it’s other features, as you’ll be tethered to a wall for most of your life. Getting a desktop might be an alternative if you prefer paper notes, maybe supplementing that with a cheap tablet to allow you to work online. There are lots of different combinations, but don’t be caught short due to battery life. Also be aware that your battery life will gradually diminish over time, and you'll laptop will be getting a lot of use. It isn't always worth putting a new battery in, as it can cost more than what your laptop is worth, so try and choose something with a decent battery life to begin with.
3. Laptop or tablet?
I have both, but that is a luxury. My laptop is mid-range, and it’s the second one I’ve had since starting university in 2016. My tablet is used as a second screen, and I don’t take it onto campus. There is of course the trend of taking notes on tablets, physically writing or typing using a wireless keyboard. For a history student, I’d always recommend a laptop over a tablet, as there will be so much information that you’ll have to collate during lectures and seminars.
Price-wise, tablets can be pretty expensive, so I’d suggest spending your money on a decent laptop or desktop before thinking about a tablet. If you already have a tablet though, bring it to university, as there will definitely be a use for it, just don’t go out and buy a new one.
4. New or refurbished?
Try and buy new, unless your refurbished device comes with proper warrantees and has good reviews from others. I buy a lot of things second-hand, but remain wary over pre-owned tech. Battery life will never be as good second-hand, so I’d advise paying for a lower spec laptop that’s new, rather than a high-tech laptop that someone else has sold on. A lot of reselling shops simply wipe the hard drive, clean it up and sell it on, so beware of the deal you think you might be getting.
Universities often have grants and bursaries to help students buy technology, especially after the distance learning necessitated by Covid-19. Ask at your support centre for more advice on how to apply or ask at open days what support is available for students who can’t afford a laptop. Universities will have their own computer suits in campus buildings and probably in the library, and they'll be loaded up with the programmes that you'll need for your course. It might be worth investigating what the availability of these PCs are, as that might influence your choice of new or pre-owned.
Try not to get too wound up in the specs of a device, especially if you need it just for studying and a bit of Netflix at the end of the day. Lots of places market high-spec kit for students when they simply don’t need it, and that stuff can be expensive to repair if it breaks. Instead, read reviews and ask around for popular models that students tend to buy and go from there. You’ll need decent storage, but don’t forget that there’s lots of free cloud storage available, either through your university or on Google Drive, and hard-drives aren’t that expensive to buy.
It's important that your device can run Microsoft programmes, as they’ll be the ones needed for submitting coursework at most universities. It is possible to get away with having devices that don’t run Windows, but make sure that you are aware of the workarounds that you’ll need. I’d always recommend a Windows laptop, purely for compatibility reasons.
In terms of brand, I’ve had laptops from Dell and HP, both of which had similar specifications and price points. Make sure to view the laptops in person to get a feel for their design, size and weight before you commit to anything. I had a Chromebook in sixth form (when they were first becoming popular), and they do have their advantages, mostly that they can often be cheaper than standard PCs. However, their storage is usually minimal, and a lot of them don’t have much internal storage, so that’s something to bear in mind if you’re not always connected to Wi-Fi.
Budgets are vital, so do some research as to what you can get for your money. It can be tempting to spend more than you need, but honestly no-one cares what specs you have, so don’t splash out unnecessarily. Buying the cheapest laptop that fits your needs is the best idea, so you have more disposable income left over to spend on other things. You can always upgrade if you come into some money, and don’t be afraid to sell on your used tech, as it is money in your pocket.
Overall, research is key! Everyone will prioritise different things in a piece of tech, so focus in on what you need the most. Having a laptop will make your university life so much easier, and I’d always recommend prioritising one over useless décor or fancy kitchen items. As well as buying the tech itself, don't forget to protect it. Buying anti-virus software is cheaper on Amazon or eBay, and cases are a must if you're travelling with your device. If you’re thinking about heading to university, begin saving up gradually for the items you need, and make sure that you choose the model that you like the most.