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How to Buy a Laptop: 3 Basic Computer Terms Every College Student Should Know


Laptop computer
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As the school year winds down to a close, it’s time to take stock of the damages that the year has wrought: friends lost, friends won, classes passed and failed, and, on the tech side, what shape your computer is in. We may do our very best to protect these incredibly expensive machines from damage, but accidents happen, screens get stepped on, nail polish remover gets dumped everywhere… Even the best of us may need to buy a new laptop for next year.

If you’re covered under warranty, fantastic. But if not, or you’re looking to upgrade your machine before the cold march of progress leaves you behind, where do you start? and reviews will only take you so far. Sometimes, you need to cut out the middleman and learn what exactly that product specifications page is babbling about.

Below, I’ll explain three of the most basic computer terms you’ll see under “specifications” when buying a laptop. Once you know what exactly you’re buying, you’ll be able to make an informed, smart purchase.

1. CPU

Computer CPU
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The CPU (central processing unit) is the heart of your computer and controls basically every function you might concern yourself with. Faster CPUs mean faster laptops, but usually also mean decreased battery life. If you want a laptop that you’re primarily going to use for lectures and papers, the difference between a fast and a slower CPU isn’t going to mean much to you. Any CPU over 2.0 GHz should be enough to keep up.

2. GPU

Laptop screen
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The GPU (graphics processing unit) is responsible for everything you seen on the screen, whether you’re a hardcore gamer or a complete n00b. More importantly, many GPUs accelerate video decoding, meaning they help online videos from sites like Hulu and YouTube to look better and run more smoothly, among other functions.

Most laptops offer the choice between discrete and integrated GPUs. Discrete GPUs are dedicated solely to graphics, offering better performance, while integrated GPUs are built into the CPU itself but often come with lackluster video decoding. If you play anything other than Web-based games or watch tons of videos, discrete GPUs are definitely the way to go.

3. RAM

Robot holding computer RAM
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RAM, or Random Access Memory, can make all the difference between a fast and slow computer. Long story short: The more room there is for your computer to store data in memory, the less times it has to access and load information from the hard drive. When data access is fast, your computer feels fast and responsive. Generally speaking, 4 GB is the recommended amount of RAM for a new laptop; any more, and prices start jumping exponentially, with little increased benefit.

Laptop memory comes in two types: DDR2 and DDR3. The latter is faster, but if you’re primarily using your machine for schoolwork and casual entertainment, the difference won’t matter much. The RAM number is often accompanied by some kind of clock speed, which will determine how fast the RAM is. But in this case, size definitely matters more than speed. (I.e., 4 GB is better than 2 GB.)

Take-Home Points:

The market being what it is, laptops now come equipped with thousands of bells and whistles that would take years to explain, but the CPU, GPU, and RAM are the three basic considerations that every consumer should keep in mind when shopping for a new laptop.

And remember: Even though money is often a concern for the poor college student, don’t let yourself get seduced by those shiny happy reviews or sweet-talked into buying an expensive machine that does far more than you need it to. Figure out what you need from your machine, then find a machine that fits you.

Your thoughts?

What else do you look for in a laptop? Do you prefer laptops to desktops? Any laptop recommendations for fellow readers? Share your thoughts and more in the comments below.

Posted on on April 25, 2012 / Filed Under: Shopping / Tags: , , , ,

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20 Responses to “How to Buy a Laptop: 3 Basic Computer Terms Every College Student Should Know”

  1. 1
    April 25th, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    I admittedly didn’t know any of this until now. Great article.

  2. 2
    April 25th, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    This should be required reading for every college undergraduate… great tips, I learned a lot!

  3. 3
    April 25th, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Perfect timing for a computer-centered article! My laptop is completely fried and I definitely need a new one. This is a huge help and I definitely think there should be a follow-up for this. Great job!

  4. 4
    April 25th, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Great article! I had no idea what any of this meant before to be honest, this’ll come in handy when I buy a new laptop this summer. :)

  5. 5
    April 25th, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Thanks so much for this informative article! I’m on the hunt for a new laptop, and this was super helpful! :)

  6. 6
    April 25th, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    great article! i defo recommend macbook and dell – the latter because you can customise the laptop to suit your needs

    i usually consider the colour of the laptop and screen size too! plus battery life and after sales support :)

  7. 7
    April 26th, 2012 at 12:07 am

    Please, please, please, from a computer science major-

    NEVER EVER buy a macbook, or any computer just because you think it looks cool. When it comes down to the processing power, Dell is far superior to HP’s (which are cheap) and macbooks (which are overpriced because they’re trendy). Finding a student offer for a Dell is your best option. Also, the keyboards and track pads for a Dell are far better than HP/ Apple.

    If color is an issue, then getting a full-body laptop sticker may be the way to go. Paying $300 extra to get a mac in pink instead of a black/ silver Dell loaded with extra goodies is not kind to your wallet.

    To learn more: take an intro level computers class! You’ll really get a feel for how computers work. :)

  8. 8
    April 26th, 2012 at 12:19 am

    I had a SONY VAIO and then conformed to getting a MacBook Pro & I love it! You guys should definitely believe the hype and go for the Macbook. Better battery life (10 HOURS!!) + better processor + better design :P

  9. 9
    April 26th, 2012 at 12:36 am

    I’m about to buy a new laptop and this was fantastic! THANK YOU!

  10. 10
    April 26th, 2012 at 3:57 am

    As a Computer Science major I find it hard to believe that people don’t know stuff like this already!

    Still it’s handy to have a summarised spec list, good job. :)

  11. 11
    April 26th, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Macbooks are in no way overpriced. I’ve seen people go through so many PCs while I still have my Macbook pro. I’ve had it since I was a junior in high school and I’m coming up on my senior year of college. I’ve never had too many issues with it while I see people with HPs and Dells consistently struggling with repairs. Apple has amazing customer service while most other companies do not.

  12. 12
    April 26th, 2012 at 10:29 am

    This article made it clearer for me, and then the comments made me confused again. I feel like everyone has their own opinion. Are there any tips or suggestions for finding laptops that will last a long time (i.e. 5 years or longer)?

    I have a gateway right now that has crappy battery life, but otherwise is a great computer. It sometimes has its slow spell days (which I call its “sick days”). It has lasted really well for me since summer 2009. I’m looking to get a new one next summer before I start my masters though, and I want one that will last a long time.

  13. 13
    April 26th, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Great article! I’m a techie “nerd”, and this was still informative.

    I grew up with Macs my whole life, and as far as laptops go, they are extremely overpriced and not worth it at all.

    I love my HP…I’ve had it for 6 years and have had no problems! I hear Dell is ok too.

    I think looking at individual laptop reviews is key if you’re looking to buy a new one. Not all HP’s are made the same, nor are all Dell’s.

  14. 14
    April 26th, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    I have a Lenovo Thinkpad Edge and I love it. It was not that expensive compared to other laptops.
    I think the best thing to keep in mind is that technology is always changing.
    My sister bought an HP only about 1.5 years ago and its going down the drain. HPs were built better a couple years ago.
    I don’t know that much about Dell but Apple has a high intial cost but I do know that you pay less in maintenace. It depends on your budget if you could afford a MacBook.

    Another thing to think about is if you will bring it to class every day. My laptop is a 15′ but some people spend so much money on a 17′ then they can’t bring it to class because its too heavy. Just something to keep in mind!

  15. 15
    April 26th, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Here’s another CS major’s opinion to add to the list :)

    My initial advice would also be to avoid Macbooks if possible. They’re highly overpriced and many programs aren’t supported by Mac operating systems.

    However, if you really want one… Macbooks are fine if you have the money to splurge and you don’t plan to game on your laptop. They can be good for image processing (Photoshop) and are pretty reliable for general purpose activities like word processing, web surfing and so on. Plus, if you end up wanting certain programs only available on Windows machines, you can always dual boot Windows; on a Windows-native laptop though, you can’t dual boot Mac operating systems.

    Seconding the suggestion to avoid HP. Toshiba, Lenovo, ASUS and Samsung are other brands to look into in addition to the ones mentioned already.

  16. 16
    April 27th, 2012 at 11:00 am

    I highly recommend Macbooks. Even if you buy one from a previous owner, it will last forever and don’t worry about the programs, you can always find the mac version and if not, changing them is as simple as a click. Faster, easier, prettier, stronger (;

  17. 17
    April 27th, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    I got an original Macbook (2006) for college. Its gonna be six years old in june. I tool excellent care of it, it was a graduation gift and now i gave it to my mom when her pc stopped working. I now have a macbook pro. Excellent value over time, lots of software works for mac dont be fooled. Mac OS uses can run the office suite etc.

  18. 18
    May 15th, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Lovely article! I usually go to my brother for this advice – but it’s nice to know these terms.

    I got a Macbook to use for my undergrad, and I’m not planning to buy a new one to replace it in the future. One thing that bothers me about Macs is how they eventually force you to update to a more recent OS (true, it may be just 25~30 dollars), but it annoys me because Windows users DON’T have to do the same! Now I can’t access iTunes, my instant messaging clients, update my iPod, etc… on my old Macbook. D: Plus, Apple doesn’t have any Macbooks anymore – just the Macbook Air (overpriced Netbook, imo), and the expensive Macbook Pro.

    So no more Apple laptops for me. /rant over

    However, I do admit that they are very pretty… and I wouldn’t say no to an iMac… or an iPhone, haha. :D

  19. 19
    September 10th, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    be aware of the customer service support! you don’t want to make an investment in a machine without support to back it up, in case accidents happen (and many times they will). i have a dell laptop, and when i had issues, they let me get another warranty two years after mine expired, and sent people to fix it for me. it’s not a macbook, but it works fine for me, and the CS was worth it!

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