Buying a laptop for university? Read our jargon-busting guide…

Need a laptop for uni but don´t know where to start? Separate your CPU from your RAM with our jargon-busting guide to the main features

15 Jul 2013

Your first few weeks at university will be an exciting but confusing time as you acclimatise to your new course, friends and the politics of a shared fridge.

At least you can make sure buying a new laptop is crystal clear by checking out part one of our buying guide.


We know much of your time will be taken up sweating over those first assignments and working out which bands to tell people you've been 'into for ages', so we're making choosing the right laptop as easy as ordering a pint at the union bar.

A decent laptop gives you freedom over where you write assignments; be it your halls, the union or the train home.
Finding the right one is as essential to your uni life as separating those you want to befriend from those you'd really rather not during freshers' week.

But with oodles of specs and jargon to decipher, finding it can be tough.

We're offering a helping hand by listing the main features to look out for when buying a laptop, and explaining briefly what they mean in relatively plain English.
You may know this as the processor, but its proper name is the central processing unit - hence CPU. Ignore the confusing acronym and instead think of it as your computer's brain.

Processors in laptops and desktop PCs are generally multi-core; either dual (two) or quad (four). Think of them like one head with two brains, or four brains for quad core.

You've heard of Intel, right? Well, they make CPUs, as does AMD.

More laptops are built with Intel CPUs though, so here's a brief guide to how those are ranked.

Core i3 - If you're buying a budget laptop, it may well feature this. It's a dual core CPU which should do the job for basic, everyday computing.

Core i5 - This is Intel's main processor. Coming in dual and quad-core, this processor will be found on many 15-inch laptops.

Core i7 - You're not likely to need this much power, unless you're studying video editing at university or playing heavy-duty games in your downtime.

4th _Generation _Intel _Core _Close _i7


Having a multi-core CPU means the processor can work on multiple tasks simultaneously; or a large problem more efficiently. This is great if you're working on assignments while also checking out Facebook and celeb gossip sites, monitoring your emails and browsing for clothes for your next night out.

Put simply, a multi-core processor allows you to seamlessly switch between applications with no discernable impact on performance.

Hard drive
Your first few weeks at uni may be taken up with plenty of hard nights out, but it's worth taking five minutes to learn what a hard drive is.  It's pretty important, as this is where you store all your precious assignments and research, as well as your music and films.

Hard drives come in two main types: platter hard drives (HDD) and solid-state drives (SDD). The majority of laptops come with HDDs though.

Hard drives are measured in gigabytes, and the more you have the better. The first few weeks of uni will see new friends thrust favourite bands and films upon you as you all compete to be the house's hippest resident.

If you plan on keeping these newly acquired sights and sounds on your computer, you'll need a bigger hard drive. Movies, tunes and hi-res pics take up quite a lot of space - so look for laptops with hard drives with at least 320GB, while also considering those with 500GB or 750GB (they don't cost much more). Don't forget too, external hard drives can be bought and plugged into your laptop via USB.

Solid state hard drives use flash memory. Known as SSDs, these are more expensive but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. With one of these bad boys you can expect your machine to boot up faster, and applications and programmes to load quicker.

It'll be quieter than a regular hard drive too. You don't have to worry about them busting either as they have no moving parts. However, as well as being more expensive than a HHD, they also have less storage capacity.
When I was at school RAM was used as a universal term of derision, as well as being a Paul McCartney solo album. However, in terms of computing RAM stands for Random Access Memory.

Studentlaptopjargonbuster RAM

If you think that sounds familiar, Daft Punk recently borrowed it for the title of their new album. And who says computing can't be cool? Anyway, the more RAM your machine has the better it will run. If your computer doesn't have enough RAM, it will run slowly. Don't settle for less than 4GB of RAM, but push for 6 or 8GB. The more RAM you have the better set up you'll be for doing more than one thing at a time - think researching an assignment or scouring the web for distractions when looming deadlines mean it all gets too much.
Operating system
The operating system, also known as OS, runs much of what happens on your computer. It's generally a Dickensian tale of two cities, or two tech giants - Apple or Microsoft, or PC or Mac. Apple's OS X only runs on Apple laptops and computers, while Windows primarily runs on PCs but there's also a version for Mac.

Microsoft recently updated its core operating system, Windows 8, which is built around a touch-enabled Start screen filled with apps and programmes. These can be accessed by tapping and swiping colourful tiles on the Start screen.

Windows 8tiles

The latest OS was designed with a new generation of convertible devices in mind. These hybrid devices are laptops that convert into tablets, and Windows 8 is designed to get the best from both tablet-like touchscreen computing and traditional keyboard and mouse action.

You can also still access the traditional desktop mode in Win8, and Microsoft brought back the much-missed Start button in the latest Windows 8.1 upgrade.

Apple's current operating system for Macs, MacBooks and MacBook Pros is OS X Mountain Lion. OS X is known for its user-friendly controls, while the laptop and software is made by the same firm too so you get what Apple calls a "fully integrated system".

Mountain Lion is also designed to work well alongside iPhone and iPad, using iCloud to sync content across devices - something worth considering if you're already an Apple devotee. Among its features are gesture controls which allow you to "tap, scroll and pinch" your way around the Mac, and a Launchpad so you can easily start apps and programmes.

Apple will release the next version of its OS in the autumn, named OS X Mavericks.
Graphics chip
If you're just planning on surfing the web and watching video, an integrated graphics chip should be fine. This is the chip that's already built into your laptop.

Integrated means the graphics chip shares the computer's memory, which can make it slower to process video and images.

However, unless you're playing serious computer games on your laptop, this shouldn't be too much of an issue.
If you do plan on spending your downtime from essay writing playing serious games, you'll need a decent graphics card.

Graphics cards usually have their own dedicated RAM - the amount you need depends on what you plan to do but try to ensure you have at least 256MB in memory.  

The wrap
Now we've given you the rub on the main features to look out for when buying a laptop you can kiss goodbye to feeling your eyes unstoppably glaze over as you're given a run through of the specs by a charming sales assistant or a clued-up dad.

But there's much more to learn before stepping in to make your purchase.

For instance, you now know what this stuff means, but how do you know which laptops are going to be the best for you?
We'll be following up this guide with another breaking down the different types of laptop currently available, explaining the main differences between them and showcasing a model for each.

Be there or be square.

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