Back to school laptops: Buying guide

Posted: 21 January 2022 3:12 pm
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It's back to school time and many families will be investing in a first laptop for their kids. But, what are the things to watch out for when buying?

It's that time of year again when parents are pulling out their wallets and making sure their kids are ready to go back to school. In fact, Finder research shows we will burn over $20 billion on back-to-school costs this school year. This breaks down to over $3,000 per primary school kid and $6,000 per secondary school child – with laptops being of the most expensive purchases.

So, what should you look out for to be sure you are getting a good bang for your buck? Here's a quick round-up of the specification to keep an eye on – in order of importance.

Woman on laptop

Processor

The processor determines how fast your laptop runs software. A faster processor is better, not only for current performance but also to future-proof your laptop and make sure it can run the software required in the years to come.

There are 2 main manufacturers of processors – Intel and AMD. Intel processors are the market leaders, with AMD hot on their heels. Thankfully, their main processor ranges break down into the following similar tiers:

  • Intel Core i3/AMD Ryzen 3 - These are mainly low-cost processors.
  • Intel Core i5 processors/AMD Ryzen 5 - These are the minimum you should look for in a laptop. They will run most tasks well, but do not perhaps have a lot of future-proofing built in.
  • Intel Core i7 processors/AMD Ryzen 7 - Processors with this tag will handle today's and tomorrow's tasks well. This would be my recommended starting point if you can find a model in your price range.
  • Intel Core i9 processors/AMD Ryzen 9 - The top of the line, these processors are very expensive and generally only seen in powerful business computers.

RAM

The RAM or memory determines how much data the laptop can handle when running programs. Higher RAM means more data that your laptop can handle.

I would recommend a minimum of 8GB of RAM for a budget laptop, and 16GB if you are expecting your machine to last a few years and be able to handle any task you throw at it. Business power users and those doing a lot of data analysis or graphic design would be better off with 32GB or more, but that is unnecessary for most users.

Screen

Many people would say that the hard drive is the next most important component, but the screen is actually the element of the laptop that you interact with most. Most of the people who I have worked with who do not enjoy working with their laptops have small or low-quality screens.

Generally, you want your screen to be big, bright and high-resolution. The size of the laptop determines the size of the screen – go for the largest size you can afford and carry.

Brightness is measured in nits. 300 nits is a solid base to work up from while 400 or more is recommended if you plan to use your laptop outdoors regularly.

The most important specification is resolution. This describes how many pixels of light fit into a square inch. It also describes the sharpness of the image. They increase in detail going down the list below. QHD should be your starting point in 2022, but the lower you can go in this list, the better.

  • Full HD
  • QHD
  • Retina (Apple)
  • QHD+
  • UHD
  • OLED

Hard drive

The hard drive is also an important consideration. This is where all your files are stored permanently. As many modern applications store your files online, a large hard drive is less important than it used to be.

Also, most modern laptops come with a solid state drive (SSD). It's a unit with no moving parts and is much faster than the old spinning disc drives. Make sure your machine has an SSD and look for at least 256GB of storage. 512GB will give you more space to store media. Anyone aiming to do video editing should be on the lookout for a 1TB hard drive.

Next steps

If your are looking to purchase a laptop, Finder has a full 2022 purchasing guide, as well as a feature looking at all the best new laptops from CES 2022. Before you buy, be sure to check out our list of laptop and tech shopping discounts.

Finder's Insights Blog examines issues affecting the Australian consumer. It appears regularly on finder.com.au.

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