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Tech buyers' guide for students

Find out exactly what technology you need for university

Best student laptops

If you're going to university and want advice about what laptop, PC, tablet, printer and software you'll need, look no futher. Read our Tech buyers' guide for students, all the information you need is here.

Here we aim tell you everything you need to know when buying a laptop, desktop PC, tablet, printer or anti-virus/security software for university.

For most of us, university is a time when you really learn how to look after your money and buy what you need rather than what you want (that comes once you graduate and get a job… providing you're not studying to become an actor).

So in an attempt to share some of our knowledge with you, here is a buyers' guide for all the technology you're going to need at university.

Remember, the most important thing to consider when buying any piece of technology is 'what am I going to use it for?'. There is no point in opting for a dirt cheap laptop, only to then realise that it is incapable of doing half of the things you need it to. The same can be said for buying a mega-expensive laptop, as there is little point spending more than you need to if you're not going to use half of the features it has. This applies for all forms of technology be it a laptop, desktop PC, all-in-one PC, tablet/iPad, printer or even a piece of software.

Note: All group tests in this buyers' guide are updated every month to include the newest and best products available.

Ok, here we go.

Laptops buyers' guide for students

Laptops: Tech buyers' guide for studentsToday, there are so many laptops and so much competition in the market you should have no problem finding one that suits your needs at a reasonable price. Here we'll give you a quick run-down of the key specs for which you need to look out, and a basic summary of what they mean. Once you've read that you can make an informed decision about what is right for you.

However if you're a bit of a technophobe and just want to know what the best budget laptop is, you can always skip right to our Group test: What's the best budget laptop?

Similarly if you're loaded and just want to buy best laptop on the market today, you can also go straight to our Group test: what's the best laptop?

We're going to break down laptop specs into different sections. These are storage, memory, graphics card, software and extras.

Storage: This is your laptop's hard drive and is pretty straight forward on the top level, the more gigabytes (GBs) your laptop has, the more you can put on it. So if you want to carry round tons of music, videos and pictures - and university work - on your laptop you're going to want one with a lot of storage.

However, things get a little confusing when you learn that there are two main types of hard drives these days. Solid-state drives and hard disk drives, or SSDs and HHDs.

The difference between these is that SSDs are newer and have no moving parts in them (unlike HHDs, which have a spinning disk). What that means in layman's terms is that the SSDs give your laptop a lot more speed and efficiency. Unfortunately SSDs are a more expensive per GB and tend not to be able to compete with HHDs in terms of sheer storage space.

Memory: Random Access Memory (RAM) in your laptop is a lot like your storage, the more of it you have the better. Nowadays most laptops that are worth their salt come with at least 2GBs of RAM, but if you want a machine that runs swiftly you should be looking for a laptop with around 4GBs of RAM.

Software: We're not going to getting in to the whole 'what operating system is better Windows or Mac?' because that's a debate that has been going on for years and neither side of the argument has ever gained or lost ground. So in the completely cowardice act of fence sitting, we'll say it's a matter of personal preference.

That said, as you're on your way to university you should definitely choose a laptop that comes bundled with Office Student software. There are tons of deals out there offering this. Otherwise you might have to fork an an extra £90 for Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Graphics card: For the smallest or cheapest laptops, the graphics processor will be soldered to the circuit board or even built into the main processor chip – both options are so-called integrated graphics.

Integrated graphics solutions such as those from Intel remain popular, as their power consumption is low and they take little space inside small portables. The latest Intel Core series processors’ integrated graphics are sufficient for very basic gameplay; for more realistic gaming, you’ll still need a decent graphics card. There’s no clear choice between AMD (formerly ATI) and nVidia, as performance varies depending on product. For gaming use, look for at least 256MB of graphics memory.

Some laptops feature switchable graphics, using an integrated chip to preserve battery life, and a dedicated graphics card for maximum performance. You’ll find such switching tech available with both AMD and nVidia processors, and for Windows and Mac notebooks. See also Group test: what's the best graphics card.

Extras: Here are a few things you should also consider

USB 3.0: USB 3.0 has been for a while now and walks all over USB 2.0s, it boats a transfer speed of 5 gigabytes per second which is roughly 10 times quicker than its predecessor - so we'd advise you to future proof your laptop a little bit and ensure it is USB 3.0 compatible, many of your gadgets will be using USB 3.0 quicker than you'd imagine.

Optical drive: You might not be aware of this, but some expensive thin and portable laptops such as the Samsung NP900X3A-B01 and the Asus Zenbook UX31E don't come with optical drives. Which means you won't be able to fight off your hangover watching DVDs on your laptop in bed. So it's definitely worth double-checking a laptop’s specs for a DVD drive.

For a complete guide to buying a laptop see Laptop Buying Advice.

Desktop PC buyers' guide for students

Desktop PCs: Tech buyers' guide for studentsBuying a desktop PC is a lot more straightforward than buying a laptop, as space and upgradability is not really an issue. So if you're set on buying a Desktop PC you simply want to be greedy and get as much storage, processing power, memory and cool extras (like a big monitor) as you can for as cheap as possible. If you need to add more at any time, you can - although you'll have to know how and it will cost you money.

Bear in mind that if you already own keyboard, monitor and mouse, you don’t have to shell out for them.

Processor: Provided you have sufficient RAM, almost any modern CPU will provide enough power for low-level administrative tasks such as writing essays. An exception here would be Intel’s Atom processor, which barely has enough grunt to run Windows alone. Intel’s dual-core Core i3 chips should provide ample performance for general use and come with integrated graphics, saving you the cost of buying an additional card. And Intel Core i5 chip is the next step up.

AMD's Llano series of processors, such as the A8-3850, offer value for money, but with performance shifted towards graphics processing rather than general-purpose computing. Our student performance benchmark scores are therefore considerably lower for AMD-based PCs than Intel-based ones at any given price.

If you want power, excitement and flat-out speed, and if you have the money available, you could go for the faster Intel Core i7 processors.

See our PC Upgrades How-To section for everything you need to know on the subject.

Before you rush out and buy one take a look at our Desktop PCs Buying Advice page. Here you'll find complete buying advice from Budget PCs to top of the range Media Centre PCs.

Quick links:

Group test: What's the best budget PC?
Group test: What's the best mid-range PC?
Group test: What's the best power PC?
Group test: What's the best media centre PC?

Tablets buyers' guide for students

Tablets: Tech buyers' guide for studentsAhh tablets. They're an interesting one. Strictly speaking a student doesn't have much use for a tablet PC. They're a bit of a nightmare to do any real work on and rely on other technology to work properly. So if you end up in a halls with no Wi-Fi and you have bought a tablet instead of a laptop, you could end up having a very frustrating year, or shelling out a lot for 3G connectivity.

Anyway, enough of the sensible advice, if you do have a laptop and you want to add to your tech firepower here are a few things to consider when buying a tablet.

The iPad is still the king of tablets and you shouldn't believe people who tell you otherwise. It's cool, powerful, reliable and has an abundance of apps that make it very useable and fun.

That said if you're an Android man, there are a couple of devices that give the iPad a run for its money, but on the whole are a little buggy and still not quite as good. See Group test: what's the best tablet PC? for more information.

One thing that is worth bearing in mind is 7-inch tablets, namely the Google Nexus 7 which retails for an incredibly cheap £159 for the 8GB model or £199 for the 16GB version. The Nexus 7 certainly couldn't take on the iPad in a toe-to-toe fight, but it wouldn't lose too badly either. In short, it offers great spec and represents value for money like no other tablet on the market.

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NEXT PAGE: all-in-one PCs, printers, and security buyers' guide >>

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