Choosing a Laptop on a Budget: Tips for Canadian College Students

one thing everything canadian college students going to need these days is a laptop. The main advantage of a laptop over a stationary PC is its size and portability. For many degree programs, a laptop can be an indispensable tool for most, if not all, of their classes. In the modern digital age, most teachers or class readers use PowerPoint or Adobe formats for their class notes and presentations. Most provide copies to students via class websites to download and print, and many classes even require them as daily class supplies. While printing out your notes or presentations and tracking them is a perfectly acceptable way to manage your classes, using a laptop puts everything in one place.

Imagine sitting in class, following the notes and writing your own comments or memory aids just below each slide. At the end of class, hit save, close the laptop, go to your next class, and rinse/repeat. While this may seem obvious, it is the not-so-obvious benefits that are causing more and more students to switch from the old pen-and-paper system to a digital one. While you’re following the class, you can catch up on emails, use Wikipedia or Google for more explanations on topics you’re not 100% sure about, or even participate in real-time class discussions on the same notes. you’re covering! I had a professor who encouraged the use of laptops not only to manage digital notes, but also to participate in a live Twitter feed that I would set up every day. Instead of raising their hand and asking a question out loud risking embarrassment and ridicule, he would have students tweet the class Twitter account and answer student questions that way. I have never seen a class discussion as helpful and extensive as the one I saw in that class, even if it was partly digital! Anyway, onto the tips!

Tip #1 – Choose your size wisely!

While laptops larger than 16″ are easy on the eyes and very comfortable to use, they really aren’t that practical for a student who intends to use them in class. Here’s why: Many lecture halls and classrooms try to pack as many desks and students as possible. Personal space is not as abundant as a result. Some classes have long tables with chairs that can accommodate a large laptop, but definitely not. Most conference rooms have chairs with an attached surface that is sometimes as small as 12″ wide! They were built with sheets of paper and clipboards in mind, not 16″ supercomputer laptops. So beware of larger “entertainment” laptops and always keep in mind what you’re buying this laptop for. I recommend no more. bigger than 15.1″ and even then they can be a pain at times. Try to go as small as you can tolerate.

Tip #2 – Battery Life

For most students, a day at school can be 6 hours or more. While much of your time is spent running from class to class or eating lunch or coffee, the rest is spent sitting in class, probably using your new laptop. This is where it really pays to have a laptop with excellent battery life. If you buy from an electronics store, ask the salesperson how long you can expect a full charge to last on average. Try to find a laptop that has a battery capacity of at least 2 hours. Apple laptops are famous for their long battery life, often lasting 4 hours or more, but they are also famous for being quite expensive and probably not an option for anyone choosing a budget laptop. If you’ve found a laptop you like but find it has poor battery life, buying a replacement battery is always an option. If your salesperson is working on commission, see if he or she offers one for free. If all else fails, tuck the power cord into your backpack and keep your laptop charged during breaks between classes.

Tip #3 – Memory

There are two types of memory in a computer, RAM and storage memory (hard drive).

  • RAM is what your computer uses to load programs, play videos, music, etc. Think of it like a handyman’s workbench. The more space you have, the more projects you can work on simultaneously, and the faster you can access each one. More is always better when it comes to RAM, so don’t try to cut costs on this feature, but don’t break the bank with huge amounts, either. 4 GB should be enough.
  • Storage memory is what your hard drive is. It is where all the things you install and save are stored. If you plan to use your laptop for music, video, games, etc. you’ll want as big a hard drive as you can afford. If your laptop is going to be used only for browsing the internet, sending emails, instant messaging, writing essays, etc. then this is definitely a feature you can minimize to save some money. I would advise getting at least a 100GB hard drive, as Windows, Microsoft Office, and other essential programs can really add up to memory usage over time.

Tip #4 – Processor speed

This again depends on your planned usage. If you want to play movies and games, you’ll need a processor that’s powerful enough to handle it. But if you are just doing casual tasks like browsing the web, sending emails, etc. So this is another feature where you can cut costs to save a lot of money. Don’t go below 1.6 GHz though, this should be the bare minimum.

Tip #5 – Sound and video on board

Don’t let a salesperson talk you into buying a laptop that has separate video and sound adapters, as these add dramatically to the overall cost of a laptop. A sound card and video card can often DOUBLE the price of a proper laptop. Again, unless you’re doing heavy gaming or video editing, these aren’t necessary and you’ll never fully utilize them. It’s like buying an automatic machine gun when all you need is a slingshot.

Tip #6 – Pre-installed software

Make sure your new laptop has at least Windows 7 and some productivity software. If you don’t have Windows 7 or Microsoft Office, you’ll probably want to try to negotiate with your vendor. If they try to sell it to you at full price or even a slight discount, no, DO NOT buy it from them. Students get deep discounts through their campus computer and software outlets, often in the 80% off range. For example, I can get a full version of MS Office Home and Student Edition for $60 and Windows 7 Professional for $99. They’re regularly priced at $160 for Office and $329 for Windows 7 Pro, both on the Future Shop. (Time of Writing: Jul 12, 2010) This is another great area to save a lot of money on a student laptop.

Tip #7 – Everything else is extra

As for all the features I haven’t covered, consider them extras or extras. Digital card readers, fingerprint scanners, integrated web cameras, auxiliary ports, etc. are things you don’t really need to consider. If the model you choose has them and they don’t add much to the end result, great. If a salesperson tries to convince you that you’ll be struck by lightning if you don’t have them, walk away. Never forget what you’re buying this laptop for, and don’t let words like “premium extras,” “limited-edition model,” or “media-friendly” fool you into opening your wallet more than necessary. Over the life of your laptop, you may use those features once or twice, so they’re definitely not worth the $100 or $200 they’ll add to the price.

Tip #8: Check around!

Don’t let commission sellers manipulate you into buying right then and there. “This sale ends tomorrow…” is the oldest line in the book. What they are not telling you is that this sale ends, but right after that a newer and even better one begins. He never feels pressured to cash in on what seems like an amazing deal. If they can afford to sell you that laptop at that price today, they can afford to do it again tomorrow, or even next week. Be sure to compare prices with other stores like Future Shop, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Costco, London Drugs, and Staples. Then check online Canadian sites TigerDirect.ca and NCIX.com to compare how good the deals really are. You’ll often find better deals online while checking the prices of deals you found in the store, so keep an eye out for those “online-only deals.”

Tip #9 – Accessories

The only accessories I would recommend are a small mouse and a laptop sleeve. Note: It is not a laptop bag, but a rubber sleeve with a zipper, they are much cheaper. It’s like a wetsuit for your laptop. That’s all you need to keep it safe from bumps and scratches and it fits perfectly in your backpack. I also recommend a mouse for those times when you’re at the library or at home and have room to spread out. Touchpads are great for portability and comfort, but nothing beats navigation with a real mouse that you can hold in your hand. Look out for the small wireless mice designed specifically for laptops. Some of the good ones combine a data storage key along with the wireless mouse’s USB connection component, giving you a great place to keep documents, resumes, and anything else you might need quick access to from any computer.

Tip #10 – Guarantees

Many electronics stores and computer outlets offer their own store guarantees on the sale of an item. For computers, this can be a good thing if the price is right. They will often tell you how any problem big or small will be fixed for free if you buy a warranty. What they don’t tell you is that there is almost no limit to how long they can keep your laptop for a repair. Major electronics stores in Canada have central service offices where they submit their warranty claims for repair. In layman’s terms, you’re stuck without a laptop for the time it takes for it to be shipped, fixed, and shipped back to the store where you left it. Depending on the repair and parts availability this can take up to 6 months in some cases! I personally think warranties are a waste of money as I have never run into a problem so bad I couldn’t fix it myself. But I’m sure everyone has heard the story of someone who bought a computer and it broke the next day, so it’s all about budget and personal choice. For me, I’d rather save $50-$100 and pay a local repair shop for faster service if something goes wrong.

Conclusion

I hope you found these tips helpful! I am writing these from experience as a Canadian University student who owns a Hewlett-Packard G10 laptop that I bought with the Future Shop gift cards I received last Christmas! I managed to get it $200 cheaper using the tips above, so they definitely work! If you think I’ve missed something or if you have any feedback, please let me know in the forum or comment below. Happy laptop shopping!

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