You may have spent the last two weeks on the beach, but there’s no getting away from it: it’s nearly time to go back to school.
Whether you’re off to immerse yourself in fluid dynamics or Gide, need a lightweight laptop for lectures or a powerhouse for creative software, or simply want something cheap for your fourth child’s GCSEs, there’s a laptop here for you.
Best for portability: Acer Chromebook 14
Pro: Great value for money
Con: Chrome OS might be too limiting for some
A laptop thinner and lighter than a MacBook Air, with a Full HD screen and 10 hours of battery life, for £300? There must be a catch.
And there is, of sorts. The Chromebook runs Google’s Chrome OS, a Linux-based operating system that mainly exists to launch the Chrome web browser.
For many students, this could be all they need. Google Docs can take care of your word processing and spreadsheets (and can import Word and Excel files), while Google Keep is great for notes. You can store all your files in the cloud in Google Drive, and the Chromebook can keep several gigabytes of documents in local storage so you can carry on working when offline.
Chrome OS even now works with USB printers, although setup can be fiddly. If web applications are all you need, a Chromebook is a great budget choice – and it can also work as a portable counterpart to a more versatile desktop PC.
£300 inc VAT from www.currys.co.uk
Best Mac on a budget: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch
Pro: A Mac for under a grand
Con: Showing its age
It is possible to get your hands on a new Mac laptop for under £1,000 – as long as you’re willing to accept some compromises.
The MacBook Air’s basic design hasn’t been updated since 2015, which means it uses Intel “Broadwell” chips from a couple of years ago. Apple has at least bumped the speed of the base model’s processor to 1.8GHz, and 8GB RAM means it has no problem running macOS Sierra.
The design may look a little dated next to the MacBook and MacBook Pro, but it’s still slim and weighs just 1.35kg, and the keyboard is excellent. There are no USB-C ports, but you do get a couple of USB3 sockets, so can plug in most devices without needing an adaptor. Battery life is an amazing 13 hours.
The chief compromise is the screen: its 1,440×900 resolution is low by current standards, and its image quality is below par.
£949 inc VAT from www.apple.co.uk
Best all-round Mac: Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch
Pro: Powerful and gorgeous
Con: Expensive upgrades
A Mac is never going to be a cheap option, but if you’re after a hugely powerful laptop that can handle any task, from writing essays to graphic design, from video editing to coding, the MacBook Pro is it.
Apple has recently revamped the range with Intel’s latest processors, and if you go for the 13in model without a Touch Bar, you can pick one up for an almost-reasonable £1,249. For that you get a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a beautiful 2,560×1,600-pixel screen.
Those planning to use their Mac for creative work (and anything to do with 4K video) may want to budget for a larger SSD. The MacBook Pro also only comes with two USB-C ports, so you may need an adaptor or two to plug in USB flash drives, printers or a network cable.
£1,249 inc VAT from www.apple.co.uk
Best to replace a desktop PC: Dell Alienware 17
Pro: Huge power and massive screen
Con: Minimal portability and poor battery life
Picture the scene. You’re off to university to study meteorology. Your new room is smaller than a tollbooth. There’s no space for a desktop computer and, frankly, there’s no way you’re going to cope for three years without playing Cyberpunk 2077.
What you need is a no-compromise laptop that can do everything your desktop can do, whether that’s playing games or, of course, modelling weather patterns. Dell’s Alienware 17 is such a machine. For £1,416 you get a high-end quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB RAM and both an SSD for fast boot times and a 1TB hard disk for masses of storage.
There’s also a huge 17in Full HD screen and a GeForce GTX 1060 graphics chipset, which will handle any current game at high detail levels. Spend £250 more and you can get a super-sharp 2,560×1,440 panel and even fancier graphics.
£1,416 inc VAT from www.dell.co.uk
Best for freedom: Dell Inspiron 15 3000 Ubuntu
Pro: Cheap and secure
Con: Can’t run Microsoft Office
One of the biggest problems with Windows is its potential to be infected by increasingly nasty strands of malware, including those that can render all your files completely inaccessible unless you pay a ransom. You can avoid this almost entirely by buying a Mac, but not everyone has almost £1,000 to spend on a laptop.
There is a third way, and that is Linux: a free operating system that is effectively immune to viruses. Dell’s Inspiron 15 3000 comes with the Ubuntu version of Linux installed, giving you an easy-to-use and infinitely customisable operating system with a huge library of free software, from photo and video editors to office suites and even a few games.
What’s more, as Dell doesn’t have to give any money to Microsoft, you’ll pay just £229 for a laptop with a 15.6in screen, 4GB RAM, a 500GB hard disk and a DVD drive.
£229 inc VAT from www.dell.co.uk
Best for schoolchildren: HP Stream 14
Pro: Attractive and very, very cheap
Con: Small onboard storage, keyboard and touchpad only adequate
Astonishingly, HP will sell you a proper Windows laptop for the price of a cheap Android tablet. For just over £200 you get a dual-core Intel Celeron processor, 4GB RAM and a 14in, 1,366×768 display; not specifications to set the world alight, but fine for email and office applications.
The Stream 14 is attractive, and available in blue, purple, grey and white. There are three USB ports and a card reader, as well as an HDMI output, in a body just a couple of centimetres thick and weighing less than 1.5kg.
The main limitation is just 32GB of onboard storage, which will soon fill up if loaded with photos and videos. There’s still plenty of room for documents, and anything bigger can be stored in the free (for a year, along with Office 365) terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage, and then streamed to the laptop.
£209 inc VAT from www.hp.co.uk
Best for work and games: Lenovo Legion Y520 15
Pro: Nothing it can’t cope with
Con: You’ll need a big bag
Their parents may not approve, but there are plenty of students who would rather play games in between essays than watch Countdown. And where’s the harm in spending a little more on a laptop that’s built for entertainment as well as work?
Its 2.4kg weight means you’ll certainly notice the Legion Y520 15 in your backpack, but the trade-off is more than enough power for intensive applications and the latest games. There’s no compromise in the laptop’s specification despite its reasonable price, with a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, a 128GB SSD for applications and a 1TB hard disk for your files.
There’s also a 15.6in Full HD screen with a high-quality IPS panel, and the Y520 15’s GeForce GTX 1060 graphics have enough power to play any modern game at high quality settings.
£1,000 inc VAT from www.lenovo.co.uk
Best on a budget: Lenovo ThinkPad 13
Pro: Great keyboard, highly configurable
Con: No slimline beauty
The ThinkPad 13 is the best cheap laptop there is for serious work. It has an excellent, highly responsive keyboard and the traditional “TrackPoint” rubber joystick for those who don’t get on with a standard laptop touch pad.
It’s no looker, but it’s built to take some abuse: Lenovo claims the laptop is “tested against 12 military-grade requirements”. There’s also nothing left out: you get three USB ports, USB-C and a card reader, so you won’t need to mess about with adaptors.
The ThinkPad 13 starts at £442 for a model with a 2.4GHz Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB RAM and 180GB storage on its SSD. Spend another £50 and you can upgrade the 13.3in screen from 1,366×768 pixels to a sharper 1,920×1,080 model. Lenovo offers a number of other upgrades, such as an extra £53 for a quicker Core i5 processor or a worthwhile £34 for 8GB RAM.
£442 inc VAT from www.lenovo.co.uk
Best MacBook alternative: Microsoft Surface Laptop
Pro: Superb design, keyboard and touchpad
Con: Avoid the 4GB model
The days when the only way to get a top-notch keyboard and touchpad was to buy a MacBook are finally gone: Microsoft’s Surface Laptop is a genuine Windows alternative.
The laptop weighs 1.2kg and is just 15mm thick, and the combination of a highly responsive 13.5in touchscreen and optional Surface Pen makes it ideal for scribbling notes. The glass touchpad and keyboard are almost universally admired, but be sure the small left-hand Shift key won’t wind you up before you buy.
It’s fast, too, with the latest Intel Core i5 or i7 processors. The base £979 model has just 4GB RAM – only enough for light use. We’d recommend stretching to the 8GB £1,249 model, which will also double your storage capacity to 256GB. You should also take advantage of the free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, as the default Windows 10 S installation is restricted to Windows Store apps.
£979 inc VAT from www.microsoft.com/store
Best for artists: Microsoft Surface Pro
Pro: Tablet pros without the cons
Con: Surface Pen is extra
For artists and designers who need more flexibility than an iPad can provide, the Surface Pro is the answer. It may look like a tablet, but it runs the full version of Windows 10 and can be turned into a laptop with the £150 Type Cover.
You’ll also need to spend £100 on the Surface Pen to get the most out of it, but this can sense 4,096 different levels of pressure and now has a tilt sensor to mimic the different effects possible when tilting a pencil or brush. Couple this with the huge variety of creative software available for Windows, and budding illustrators are on to a winner.
There are several models available, from the base Intel Core m3-powered Surface Pro to Core i5 and Core i7 variants. The more power you have, the more the tablet will be able to keep up with your pen or brush strokes without lag.
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