My son is off to university and needs a laptop for his history course. His needs are coursework, watching movies, listening to music and gaming. Our needs are best value for money on a budget of £600 or less. What do you think of reconditioned laptops? We are not a poor household, but we are going to have to make a few sacrifices to get him through university. Linda
It’s always a good idea to see if the university and/or department have any recommendations, discount deals or special requirements. This can be important for courses that use professional software, though I don’t expect history needs anything that won’t run on most laptops.
In fact, any mainstream machine should suffice for most undergraduate purposes. Just make sure it has at least 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD or larger hard drive, with 64GB of eMMC storage being the minimum. Also, aim for a processor that scores at least 2,000 on PassMark’s list of CPU benchmarks.
More is better. If possible, double all those numbers. Don’t halve them.
In other words, avoid low-end netbooks with 2GB of memory and 32GB of storage, even if they are as cheap as the quite nice Asus VivoBook E203 (£139.98). Netbooks are fine for light use where you do almost everything online, but Microsoft Windows 10 and Google Chrome will soon gobble up all your free space.
A fast PC could be considered a luxury for a student, but it saves time – and the extra cost per week is relatively small over a three- or four-year course.
However, gaming could still be a problem. A £600 laptop will run games, but it won’t run AAA games at high frame-rates with all the graphical effects. In student flats, the best answer is usually a communal Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
Laptop, convertible or smartphone?
Traditionally, students have used mainstream laptops with 15.6in screens. They are cheap and do the job. However, they are too bulky to carry around all the time, and tend to have poor battery life.
If your offspring wants to take a laptop to classes, it would be better to buy an ultraportable, or a convertible machine that doubles as a laptop and a tablet. There are plenty of cheap 2-in-1s and convertibles around but the powerful ones tend to be expensive.
Microsoft Surface Pros are good for students because they are very robustly made and work with pen input: you can take handwritten notes and annotate things. However, they are beyond your budget, and there’s no point in paying for extra functionality if your son wouldn’t use it. Lenovo Yoga and HP x360 laptops are more affordable alternatives.
You can also do quite a lot with a 6in smartphone and a small Bluetooth keyboard. Indeed, Android speech recognition is now so good that you don’t always need the keyboard. The smartphone also works as a note-taking camera, voice recorder and music player.
Refurbished laptops are a good option for students and may look less nickable than shiny new ones. Ideally, buy direct from the original equipment manufacturer, such as Dell Outlet, or from refurbishers such as Tier1Online, which sells ex-corporate business laptops. These are built to a higher standard than consumer designs. However, you won’t save much unless you buy quite an old machine. A third-generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon from 2015 could still bust your budget.
I often suggest Tier1Online because the company will upgrade most laptops. You can usually get 8GB or more memory or swap a hard drive for an SSD at extra cost. It also guarantees laptops for up to three years for a small fee.
In general, you should look at refurbished ThinkPads, particularly the X and T ranges. Dell Latitude and HP EliteBook laptops are also worth considering.
For more tips, see my earlier answer to the question: would a cheap refurbished laptop run Photoshop?
The best support option is a next-business-day on-site service from a supplier such as Dell or Lenovo. My son went through university with Dell’s on-site service and they came and fixed it both at home and at university. However, the cost varies. It can be cheap on desktops but expensive on cheap laptops that are more likely to break.
An external monitor can make long sessions at the desk easier.Photograph: mihailomilovanovic/Getty Images
Bear in mind that you may have extra costs on top of the laptop. Students must have backup systems to avoid losing work – especially essays and theses that may take months or years to write. A portable hard drive is good for backups, though notes and essays can be saved online to Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive or other cloud-based services, and on handy USB thumb-drives. I like to have three copies of every work file, on different media in different places, to guard against hardware failures, theft, and natural disasters such as fires, floods, lightning and meteor strikes.
Laptops have terrible ergonomics, so every student should also have an external USB keyboard and a riser for sustained work. Fortunately, standard keyboards are cheap, though gaming and split ergonomic keyboards are better.
It’s also not much fun working on a small screen with Windows’ standard resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels (aka HD). Think about adding a cheap 1,920 x 1,080 (Full HD) Samsung, Dell or similar 24in monitor to go with the external keyboard. Movies will look much better, too.
Lenovo’s IdeaPad 3xx machines have recently been good choices, being better than the entry-level 1xx versions and cheaper than the more upmarket 5xx models. Today it looks as though the popular 320 and 320S are making way for the 330 and 330S so you may get an older one for less. Prices vary depending on the processor, memory, storage and screen size, but most fall within your price range.
Currys PC World is selling the 15.6in IdeaPad 330S with an AMD Ryzen 5 2500U (PassMark 7,516), 8GB of memory, a 265GB SSD and Full HD screen for £599. This is overkill for a history student, but the Ryzen 5 has Vega graphics that make it better for gaming. However, at this price level you should bust your budget and get the smaller, nicer 14in IdeaPad 530S for £629.
These laptops don’t have touch screens and don’t double as tablets. You’d get those features with a 14in Lenovo Yoga 520, which has a Core i5-8250U processor (PassMark 7,678), 8GB of memory, a 128GB SSD and a fold-back Full HD touchscreen for £579.98. (Shockingly, Currys’ 14in HP Pavilion x360 – which I otherwise like – only has a 1366 x 768-pixel screen for £589.97.) However, these machines are not as good for gaming.
Check the screen and keyboard quality in store and try other retailers – such as John Lewis, Argos and local shops – for possible alternatives. The HP Pavilion and Envy, Acer Swift and Asus ZenBook ranges may have laptops with your target specs.
You can save money by looking for the same or similar laptops with less memory and/or cheaper but slower processors. The market is moving to Intel’s eighth generation of the Core design, so laptops with older Core i3-6xxx and i3-7xxx chips can be good value. For example, Currys PC World has the IdeaPad 320S-14IKB with a Core i3-7100U (PassMark 3,816), 4GB of memory, a 128GB SSD and a 1366 x 768 screen for £379.98.
Laptops with new Intel Pentium Gold 4415U (PassMark 3,168) and Pentium Silver N5000 (PassMark 2,434) processors are also worth considering. The Gold 4415U is almost as good as a Core i3-7100U. The N5000 is a bit better than the old N4200 (PassMark 2,017) and about as slow as I would very unwillingly go.
An IdeaPad 320S-14IKB with a Pentium Gold 4415U should be a perfectly good history student system for £299.98 – half your budget. Alternatively, you could order the latest 330S version from Lenovo’s website for £349.99 and buy the on-site service.
Either way, avoid the new Celeron N4000 chip (PassMark 1,435). Buying an IdeaPad 330-141GM with an N4000 for £279.99 would be a terrible way to save £20.
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