What’s the best cheap laptop for university?


I read your article regarding which laptop to get for university this year: I’m one of those on my way there this September. However, I’m still stuck on which laptop to buy for my history course. Obviously there will be a lot of note taking and essay writing, but I’m unsure whether I need to splurge £1,000 on a MacBook or Dell XPS or whether something around £500 would do the job. Fraser

I should have known I wouldn’t get away with the generic answer I offered in June. In particular, I accept that saying “for many courses, almost any laptop with 4GB of memory and an Intel Core processor would be fine” is short on specifics.

Portability, power and price

Your choice will depend on whether you plan to carry your laptop to lectures. If you plan to leave it in your room, you can buy a mainstream laptop with a 15.6in screen. It won’t be light or have good battery life, but neither will matter. If you plan to tote it around, those things matter a lot.

The problem with ultraportables is that they’re generally either cheap and slow or fast and expensive. Fast processors cost more, use more power, and generate more heat.

If you need a laptop that is both portable and powerful then you may have to spend around £750 to £1,500. If you want to spend less, then you will either have to sacrifice power or portability, or find a compromise that provides a bit of both.

Either way, try to visit a store where you can look at the machines mentioned below, and shop around for prices.

Target specs

Students on history and general arts courses don’t usually need powerful laptops, unless they edit videos, so you have a number of cheap and cheerful options. However, I strongly recommend against buying an entry-level laptop with only 2GB of memory and 32GB of storage. These are fine for casual use, but modern browsers can easily consume 2GB. It’s also going to become increasingly difficult to update Windows 10 on a 32GB drive.

Your minimum target specification should therefore include 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage; more is better.

Cheap laptops use 32GB and 64GB eMMC chips as drives. These chips are similar to SD cards. They’re not as fast as solid-state disk drives (SSDs), which nowadays usually store 128GB to 512GB.

Laptop processors range from cheap but slow Intel Atom and AMD chips to fast but pricey Intel Core i7 processors. You can compare their performance using Passmark benchmark scores or Notebookcheck’s Comparison of Mobile Processors. You don’t have to swot up on the tests, just get something as high up the table as you can afford.

For speed on a budget, you’d usually choose the latest Core i3-7100U or the very similar i3-6100U. However, cheaper laptops usually have Intel Atom processors, or Celeron- or Pentium-branded chips that are usually, but not always, Atom designs.

The Pentium 4415U, released earlier this year, seems to offer good performance for less money than the i3-7100U. The 4415U has a Passmark score of 3192, which is much closer to the i3-7100U (3882) than to the Atom x5-Z8350 (1063). Otherwise, pick a Pentium over a Celeron, and avoid the very slow Celeron N3060 (Passmark 987). The N3160 (Passmark 1702) is OK.

Cheap detachables

For your purposes, today’s bargain basement portable is the 10.1in Linx 10V64. It has a quad-core Atom x5-Z8350 processor with 4GB of memory and 64GB of eMMC storage. Like the original Microsoft Surface, it’s basically a Windows 10 tablet with a thin, detachable keyboard that doubles as a screen cover. It’s great value at £229.99 from Argos.

The keyboard isn’t as good as a Microsoft Type cover but at least it’s better than the one Microsoft shipped originally. The Linx also has a full-size USB port so you can use an accessory keyboard while keeping it plugged into the mains via a phone/tablet-style micro-USB charging cable. I have one on loan and it feels quite durable – the back is metal, and the front is glass – and it’s hard to grumble at the price. At 974g, it’s certainly portable.

The Linx 10V64’s main limitations are the 1280 x 800-pixel touchscreen and the relatively slow Atom processor, but these are shared by rivals such as the Asus Transformer Mini T102 and the HP x2 210. The Asus T102 is somewhat nicer and lighter, but it’s much more expensive at £329.99. The 4GB/64GB version of the HP x2 210 is even more overpriced at £385.60.

However, I think the best value of this class of machine is the Lenovo Miix 310, which is available with a three-year guarantee from John Lewis for £269.99. It has a much better keyboard than the Linx or even the Asus T102.

Convertibles

Many laptops now have 360-degree hinges so they work in a variety of modes: as conventional laptops, as tablets, and in a “tent mode”. I think this is your best choice in providing touch in a laptop that is light enough to carry around.



Lenovo Yoga could be a good option at £499.95. Photograph: Lenovo

The 11.6in Lenovo Yoga 310 (80U2003AUK) is a good choice in this class of machine. It has a quad-core Intel Pentium N4200 processor (Passmark 2022), 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD for £429.95. There’s also a better version, the Lenovo Yoga 710 (80V6001PUK), which has a Core M3-7Y30 (Passmark 3641) for £499.95. This is pretty much what I use myself, except my old Yoga 700 is orange, has 8GB of RAM and weighs 1.2kg not 1.35kg.

The HP Pavilion x360 11 is an alternative. You can get one with an 11.6in touch screen, quad-core Intel Pentium N3710 processor (Passmark 1890), 4GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive for £449.95 from John Lewis, or for £379 from Tesco Direct. However, the Yogas have better keyboards and screens, and an SSD is more responsive than an HD.

Moving up to 14in screens

Laptops with 14in screens are heavier and not as portable as machines with 11.6in screens, but they are also easier to cool. If you compromise on portability you can get a fast laptop for a very reasonable price.

For example, the Lenovo Ideapad 320S is a step up in quality from the popular but slow Ideapad 110S (£249.99), and you can get a Pentium 4415U (Passmark 3192), 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD for £349. The drawbacks are that it doesn’t have a touch screen, and it’s relatively heavy at 1.7kg (3.75lbs). For comparison, the 13.3in MacBook Air weighs 1.35kg (2.96lbs).

You can also get a get a Pentium 4415U in a 14in touch-screen HP Pavilion x360 (14-ba094sa) for £479.99, or in a Lenovo Yoga 520 for £499.99, among others. The HP weighs 1.63kg while the Lenovo weighs 1.7kg.

There are also 14in laptops with faster Core i3-7100U processors (Passmark 3885) within your price range. Examples include the 1.7kg Lenovo Ideapad 320S for £399, the 1.6kg Asus VivoBook X405 for £429.99, and the 1.7kg Lenovo Yoga 520. All three have 4GB of memory and 128GB SSDs.

From the 14in laptops mentioned, the £349 Lenovo 320S is good value and should do everything you need. However, I still like the 2016 Acer Swift 3, which I mentioned in my previous answer. Argos is currently offering the 1.5kg aluminium Swift 3 with a 14in 1920 x 1080-pixel screen, Core i5-7200U processor (Passmark 4723), 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD for £539.99. It’s overkill for a student historian, but it’s still a bargain.

Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com


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