The MacBook Pro (or PC laptop) that I would bring to college

Starbuck falling asleep while studying. The laptop and tablet combo is a good one for college.

Starbuck falling asleep while studying. The laptop and tablet combo is a good one for college.

The topic of what computer to take to college comes up often here. Jeremy and I may not fully agree on this (he’d say MacBook Air), but here is my advice.

I’m specifically highlighting which Mac I would recommend to take to college (with some equivalent PC options as well), because this is a recent question we were asked. I also use a MacBook Pro for graduate school and had to make this very decision two years ago.

Price certainly matters. Form a budget. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll need this computer to work well for at least four years, and I know many people who bought cheaper computers and had to replace them before college was over.

A good computer could even last you through graduate school.

Computers have gotten a lot cheaper over time, and there may be some temptation to get a random laptop for $450, but that could be a big mistake. I spent about $3,000 on computer for college, and that wasn’t abnormal at the time.

One of the big reasons that computers have gotten cheaper since I was in undergrad is that quality has dropped a lot. It was much more difficult to get a really cheap computer that was filled with poor compromises.

I’m not suggesting you need to spend $3,000 on a computer, but I’d hesitate to go cheap with this decision. It’s important.

Displays matter. Go HiDPI (Retina)

If you’re going to be doing a lot of reading or writing — and this is a lot of college students — I’d really only look at laptops with HiDPI displays. The most famous is the Macbook Pro with Retina Display, but there are several PC options as well. We explain how HiDPI displays can reduce eyestrain and make reading easier.

HiDPI stands for high dots per inch. It means more pixels and smaller pixels. It means fonts so clear that you can no longer see the pixels (your eyes will thank you for this). It means images that look like high-quality prints. It’s kind of the difference between an HD and non-HD television.

HiDPI is the future of computer displays, and it is already the present on smartphones and tablets. There is no reason not to get on this bandwagon now, and you’ll thank yourself for doing so in a few years.

I get many of my textbooks as Kindle ebooks. This is usually cheaper and much lighter and space conscious. I can often read these books on my iPad and iPhone too, making it easy to sneak in a few minutes of reading here or there. But sometimes I don’t want to carry an iPad or Kindle with me.

My MacBook Pro hooked up to my external monitor. It's a great way to do heavy-duty work.

My MacBook Pro hooked up to my external monitor. It’s a great way to do heavy-duty work.

There is also a Kindle Web app. Normally, I wouldn’t want to try to read a book on a low-resolution computer monitor, but now that I have a HiDPI display, I can also use my laptop for book reading.

Trust me, this makes a huge difference. I had a bad case of eye strain during college, largely from working on the student newspaper, and HiDPI displays are a way I manage my eyestrain today. My computer, smartphone and tablet are all HiDPI, and I’ll never buy a non-HiDPI display again.

This is why I do not recommend the MacBook Air, despite it otherwise being perhaps the best general college laptop around. Text isn’t as sharp on the display, and it will fatigue your eyes faster. The 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina is 3.46 pounds, and while it is not MacBook Air light, it is plenty light enough to carry around campus. I have the 15-inch MacBook Pro, and with the right bag, its 4.46 pounds doesn’t bother me.

The MacBook Air may go Retina as early as this year, and as soon as that happens, many of you may prefer the MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro is a more powerful machine, but the MacBook Air should appeal to more college students with its lighter weight and lower price. The lack of a HiDPI display, however, is not worth it to me, unless you are in a major that doesn’t require a lot of reading and writing. Or if you’re in a major that doesn’t require a lot of computer use

There is no such thing as too much ram

I would go with the maximum amount of ram you can afford. I’d also go with additional ram over a faster CPU any day of the week. This may not matter now, but it may come in handy 4-6 years from now. Newer applications and operating systems tend to use more memory over time, and this will leave you better prepared for tomorrow’s applications.

I believe in using computers for years and years and running them into the ground. I had an eight-year-old PowerMac as my daily machine for awhile. I plan on using this MacBook Pro for many years.

A lack of ram will hurt your ability to use a machine for a long time. A hundred dollars or so now could mean several years of additional life out of your machine later.

As of March 2014, I’d recommend going with at least 8 GB of ram. You probably won’t notice the effects of anything above that, but going with more ram will provide greater future proofing, which may come in handy post graduation when you can’t afford a new computer.

SSD all the way

I never want to own a computer again with a traditional spinning hard drive. Everything is faster with a solid state drive (SSD). Applications spring to life in an instance. You can go through hundreds of photos without hiccups.

SSDs also use less energy, allowing for longer battery life. You don’t want to rely on bringing a power cord to class because many classrooms don’t have power outlets. It’s usually my classmates with traditional hard drives that are crowding around the power outlets during class.

SSDs are also more durable, especially to drops. College students drop stuff. An SSD hard drive could save your data and your grades.

All MacBook Pros with Retina displays and MacBook Airs come with SSDs standard. But if you’re going to get a PC laptop, get an SSD. This is what my Windows 8 laptop has, and you’d be shocked at how fast it boots up and wakes from sleep. Spinning hard disks are for big storage needs, and you can always get an external hard drive if you need more storage.

With external hard drives with 2 TB of storage less than $100 now, don’t worry about internal storage. Speed, durability and reliability are more important for your internal hard drive.

Consider an external monitor

I’m writing this post with two monitors right now. I have my text editing window on my MacBook Pro, and I have websites and resources that I’m looking up on my 22-inch external monitor. Having two monitors makes you more productive and cuts down on errors.

Here is a very good 22-inch LED monitor for $150. The other advantage of an external monitor is that it allows you to go with a smaller laptop, because if you ever need more screen real estate you can just plug in your external monitor.

Most college students would be best served with a 13.3-inch laptop such as the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. I think this size is the best balance between power and portability.

Now, I do have the larger 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (partly because there was no 13-inch version at the time), and there are advantages. The 15-inch version is quad-core and can support a dedicated GPU. If you don’t know what this means, you probably don’t need them.

Students doing video editing, photography, 3D animation, computer science (for compiled languages, not Web development), graphic design and perhaps a few other areas would benefit from the increased power. But for writing papers and doing research  — what the vast majority of college work is for most students — a 13-inch laptop is fine. And frankly, you can do all of those things I mentioned above on the 13-inch MacBook Pro, just a little slower.

It is very hard to find a HiDPI external monitor, however. This issue will be sorted out in a few years, but right now your best option is to get a 22-inch 1080p monitor. It’s not HiDPI, but it will be fine for a secondary monitor as long as you do most of your work on your HiDPI laptop monitor.

Look at all of your computing and technology needs together

Form am overall budget to spend on computing and technology. If you want to do photo journalism, for instance, budgeting for a decent digital camera would be wise. Many of you like using an iPad or Kindle for textbook reading. Budget for that as well.

ipad

Reading for class on my iPad.

You may get more enjoyment and productivity out of going with a cheaper laptop plus a tablet than you would out of a more expensive laptop. I would encourage you to think of your technology needs together and form an overall budget.

I do a lot of my reading for school on my iPad and Kindle, both of which I received before graduate school, but if I had nothing right now, I would budget for a tablet and a laptop. This would require me to make sure my laptop didn’t eat up my entire budget.

Unless a paper book is a lot better than the ebook (this does happen with more graphical textbooks), I go with the ebook.

Backup, backup, backup

I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you to backup your data. There is no excuse for a college student today to lose data. If you do, it’s because you didn’t prepare ahead of time.

The most important kind of backup that anyone can have is remote. Local backup is an added layer of protection that I’d recommend, but remote backup handled by a company who specializes in data integrity is a must.

I would either go with Backblaze, Crashplan or another similar backup-everything-for-a-fixed-cost-every-month service or with Dropbox, if you need syncing and the ability to pull up files for class. You can even go with a combination of the two services by utilizing the free Dropbox account for storing smaller amounts of data. Several of my classes have used shared Dropbox folders, and it is a great tool even if you don’t use it for backups.

Backblaze and Crashplan are dead simple to operate. They backup everything on your computer in real time. They are always running and always backing up your data. If you have an Internet connection, your data will be backed up. Both are around $50 a year or so.

If you go with a Mac, I’d also suggest using Time Machine. A simple USB 3.0 hard drive will do just fine, and it will provide fast, local backups for under $100. The benefit of a local backup is that they are much faster for retrieving lost data. It can take a considerable amount of time, sometimes days, to get all of your data back from a cloud backup service.

Time Machine also does versioning. Sometimes you just want to get back a file you deleted, and Time Machine will provide daily backups for at least the last month. You’ll want your Time Machine hard drive to be at least twice as big as your internal laptop hard drive so that it can handle doing many versions.

Don’t forget your academic discount!

You don’t need to go through your college or its technology center to get an academic discount. Most major computer makers offer educational discounts through their online stores.

Don’t buy a random laptop; a computer is more than just specs

The quality of a laptop goes far beyond specs. You can have two laptops with identical specs, and one will be great and the other will cause you to pull your hair out. In particular, there is huge variance in the quality of keyboards and trackpads.

If you want to get a laptop that I don’t specifically recommend here, at least read reviews elsewhere to get a good idea of what you’re getting into. Using a computer in store is a good option too. I’ve used countless laptops with virtually unusable trackpads. Do you really want to carry a portable mouse with you everywhere (and be almost unable to use your computer when you don’t have it)?

There are some really bad keyboards out there, especially on thinner laptops. Some are very hard to type accurately on.

Every Apple laptop has an incredible trackpad. I’ve never seen a PC laptop with a trackpad that is anywhere near this quality, and I never feel like the trackpad doesn’t meet my needs.

Macs have very good keyboards too. I’d say the keyboards on Lenovo ThinkPads are the best, and they generally have good trackpads too. My No. 1 PC recommendation is usually to check out a ThinkPad first.

I have a Toshiba Windows 8.1 laptop, and it is virtually unusable without an external keyboard and mouse. Yes, it is light, relatively fast and has an SSD and all the modern specs, but its keyboard and trackpad is atrocious. It’s hard to believe that this was allowed to be shipped, and this experience is not that uncommon for PC laptops.

A good keyboard and trackpad is worth hundreds of dollars.

My MacBook recommendations

Every computer listed below has distinct strengths and weaknesses. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is the most balanced, but you need to ask yourself what your needs are. I felt having a lot of CPU and GPU power was important for the kind of work I do, and that’s why I went with the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina for most college students

  • 8 GB of ram and a 256 GB SSD are fine for most students. I wouldn’t be opposed to upgrading the ram to 16 GB and the SSD to 512 GB.

15-inch MacBook Pro for power user college students

  • This is a little more confusing. There are two distinct versions here. Most just have integrated graphics, but one model has dedicated graphics. This makes a big difference in price. If you need a dedicated graphics card, this model has a loaded CPU, GPU, lots of ram and a big SSD. It should last you many years. It’s the model I have, and I highly recommend it.
  • If you’re not going to get the version with a dedicated graphics chip, the main reason to get it is for the bigger screen. You have to ask yourself if a bigger screen is worth $500. I’d say that for most of you, the 13-inch version with an external monitor is the better option.

11-inch MacBook Air

  • The 13-inch MacBook Pro and 13-inch MacBook Air are similar in size. I think most students would be better off just going with the Pro, unless money was a big issue. In that case, the MacBook Air is a solid option.
  • The one thing a MacBook Pro can’t compete on is really small size. If you want a really portable laptop, the 11-inch MacBook Air is compelling. It still has a full size keyboard and a great trackpad. You can still hook it up to a big external monitor and all of that. But it is really small and light. You can basically take it anywhere. If you envision yourself always with your laptop, typing away in all sorts of nooks and crannies, this might be a compelling option.
  • This laptop will be a writer’s dream when its a Retina display.

My graduate school computer setup

15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display

  • 8 GB of ram
  • Dedicated graphics chip
  • External 22-inch monitor
  • External keyboard and mouse for heavy duty work at my desk
  • OmniOutliner for note taking in class
  • Ulysses for writing reports
  • Microsoft Word for formatting written assignments
  • Coda and Sublime Text 2 for writing code
  • Photoshop, Illustrator and Pixelmator for graphic design

iPad with 32 GB of storage

  • This is the main way I read textbooks and PDFs (we read a lot of journal articles).
  • Kindle textbooks work well and sync back to Kindle, phone and Web.
  • It syncs to OmniOutliner, allowing me to read and edit notes that I take in class.
  • I have the 9.7-inch version, and I think it works better for many textbooks than smaller tablets, but if you mostly read novels or text-based books, the iPad Mini and similar smaller tablets may be a better option.
  • I have the wifi-only version, and most college campuses are covered with wifi. I wouldn’t worry about getting a version with a data plan.

iPhone 5 with 32 GB of storage

  • I mostly just use this for email and checking in on our online learning system.
  • I also read Kindle books on this. If you’re going to read Kindle books for class, I’d recommend getting a smartphone that has the Kindle app. It’s more useful than you’d think.

Kindle

  • I’m talking about the basic black and white E-ink Kindle here. It has great battery life, is durable with a cover on it and is very, very easy on the eyes.
  • This is how I read textbooks right before bed so that the blue light from my iPad doesn’t keep me up late. It is not recommended that you use an iPad right before bed. The same goes for any laptop not running software such as Flux. Flux is a free utility that I recommend every computer user run (when not doing color sensitive work). You will sleep better with this installed.
  • I have the version “with special offers.” It saves money, and it doesn’t impact the user experience.

Recommended PC laptops

ThinkPad T540p with solid state drive

  • This is a 15-inch laptop with a HiDPI display.
  • It also has an optional dedicated graphics chip for more graphics-intensive work. This is the closet thing you’ll get to a 15-inch MacBook Pro from a PC.
  • It’s heavier than I’d like at almost a full pound more than 15-inch MacBook Pro.

ThinkPad X1

  • This is the closet thing to a PC MacBook Air. It’s very well made, and it weighs less than 3 pounds.
  • A HiDPI display is optional for $150. I think it’s money well spent. But, again, if you don’t think you need a HiDPI display, you can forgo it and this is still a great laptop.

Acer Aspire S7-392-6807

  • Considered one of the best Ultrabooks around.
  • Very nice design.
  • Is not a HiDPI display, but it is 1080p. It’s similar to a MacBook Air.

Thinkpad T440 with solid state drive

  • It doesn’t have a HiDPI display, but if you feel you don’t need one, this is a very good, reasonably priced Windows laptop. Great keyboard too.

Leave a comment below if you have questions about what you or your child should bring to college. We’ll do our best to give you answers based on your needs.

For more on technology in the classroom and thoughts on what to bring to college, check out Episode 101: Technology in the classroom.