Students: Laptop Purchasing Guide

Posted June 9th, 2020 at 11:07 am.

Looking to bring a laptop to campus? This document provides general guidelines and recommendations for a typical undergraduate student purchasing a laptop for four years of college. For information regarding specific requirements, please contact the department of your major.

Looking for information for faculty or staff members? See the Questions? section below.

Table of Contents:


Operating Systems

Both Microsoft Windows¹ and Apple’s macOS will work at Bryn Mawr. If you aren’t sure which you’d prefer, consider what software you’ll need to use as well as any differences in pricing.

Note: LITS does not recommend Chromebooks/ChromeOS due to their limited support for third-party software. See Examples for low-cost alternatives.

¹We recommend Win10 Home, but Pro and Education will also work.


Recommended Hardware Specifications

CPU/Processor: 4 or more cores

Your CPU is integral to the performance of your laptop; we recommend at least a quad-core processor. For limited web browsing and word-processing, a dual-core can be sufficient.

CPU Manufacturer: Recommended Brands:
Intel Core i5 or Core i7
AMD Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, or Ryzen 7
Tip: Comparing two laptops?

Generally look for more cores or a higher clock speed (e.g. 2.4GHz) to determine which model will perform better.

Learn more: What’s a CPU?

Your CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the brain that handles all computations required for your PC to function. The more cores, the more easily it can break up tasks and the higher the clock speed, the more calculations it can do per second. It is a chip that slots onto the main circuit board (a.k.a. motherboard) of your computer.


Memory/RAM: 8GB or more

Memory matters when multiple programs, windows, or browser tabs are running or open. We recommend at least 8 gigabytes (8GB), but 12GB or 16GB can make a significant difference.

Tip: Can I upgrade RAM later?

Some laptops allow you to swap out your current RAM sticks for larger capacity ones. However, many modern laptops, notably ultrabooks and Apple laptops, have their RAM soldered to the motherboard, making your configuration permanent.

Tip: RAM vs. Intel Optane Memory?

Watc out: Optane memory isn’t actually RAM! Optane is used to improve the performance of a slow hard drive and won’t help if your computer runs out of RAM capacity. See the Storage section below for more info about hard drives.

Learn more: What is RAM?

RAM (Random Access Memory) is a type of high-speed volatile storage that assists other hardware by temporarily storing data used by programs, and feeding it to the CPU more quickly than normal storage could.


Storage/Hard-Drive/Solid State Drive: 256GB (or larger) SSD

Your storage drive holds all the data on your computer. Its specs are based on size and type.

Size: We recommend you have at least 256 gigabytes of storage. Keep in mind your computer’s operating system files can use up to 30GB!

Type: There are two types of storage: HDDs and SSDs. As you can see below, they’re quite different so look at the specs before purchasing!

HDD (Hard Disk Drive) SSD (Solid-State Drive)
✓ More affordable
✓ Larger storage sizes
Much slower
✗ Very vulnerable to physical damage
Much faster
✓ Resistant to physical damage
✗ More expensive
✗ Smaller storage sizes
Tip: Small SSD vs. a Hard Drive?

Sometimes you can’t find any laptops in your budget with a 256GB SSD. We recommend choosing a smaller 128GB SSD over a HDD for anyone without many large files to store.

Tip: A computer has an NVMe drive. What does that mean?

NVMe is a newer protocol used by SSDs when reading and writing data. NVMe drives can be 5x (or more) faster than older SATA SSDs. If just “SSD” is listed, you can assume it is using SATA.

Tip: HDD Speeds — 5400 vs. 7200

If you have the choice, always choose a 7200rpm hard drive over a 5400rpm one. The speed at which it spins directly affects how quickly it can read data.


Warranty & Damage Protection

Tip: Can I extend my warranty?

Many manufacturers allow you to extend your warranty if your current one is still active.

Extended Basic Warranty

While most laptops come with a brief pro bono warranty, we highly recommend purchasing a 4-year extended warranty. For those four years, this will ensure any failed components will be repaired at no additional cost.


Accidental Damage Protection

A basic warranty won’t cover spilling coffee on your new laptop or knocking it off a desk. As such, we also highly recommend purchasing a 4-year accidental damage protection plan. This may eat into your budget, but it is usually much cheaper than the price of repairing or replacing a laptop.


Additional Considerations

  • Get hands-ongo to a store and physically interact with it¹
  • Size and weight: Is it comfortable to use and easy to transport?
  • Overall build quality and design:
    • How do the trackpad and keyboard feel?
    • How much does the chassis flex when you type?
    • Does the hinge feel strong and durable?
    • How bright is the screen’s max brightness?
  • Available ports: How many & what types² of ports are present?
  • Battery life: many reviews include battery life tests
  • Wireless connectivity: must support WPA-2 Enterprise
Tip: MacBooks and Keyboard Reliability

Generally, MacBooks have exceptional build quality. However, be aware that there are widespread reliability concerns with the keyboards in the current Air, Pro 13″, and Pro 15″ models. Click here for more info.

¹Otherwise, pay close attention to the return policy.
²Some USB Type-C ports support charging, data, and video output; other’s don’t. Be sure to check.



The College provides Microsoft Office and anti-virus software to students free of charge, so there is no need to purchase these separately. You can find more information about provided software here.



Below are recommended specifications we would look for at a range of price points.

NOTE: You should always research what is available to you. This list is not comprehensive or necessarily up to date, and the models linked below are examples, not recommendations.

Before purchasing: Always look for reviews

Your own knowledge can only get you so far, especially if you can’t physically try out a laptop ahead of time. Always find a review from a reputable platform to make sure there are no issues with a product before you buy! A few reputable sources are: Notebook Check, Linus Tech Tips, Tech Radar, ars technica, but there are many others!

(Less than $600¹)
CPU Intel Core i3/i5
AMD Ryzen 3/5
Intel Core i5
AMD Ryzen 5
Intel Core i5/i7
AMD Ryzen 5/7
RAM 4-8GB 8+GB 16+GB
Storage 256GB SATA SSD 256GB NVMe SSD 512GB NVMe SSD
¹Prices listed do not include the recommended warranty & protection plans.
Last updated: June 5, 2020
Tip: Considering Apple’s MacBooks?

Current MacBooks start at $1000+ before warranty and repair plans, placing them in the high-end price range. While less expensive MacBooks (like the Air) are only suitable for basic use, more expensive models can perform quite well. Click here to compare MacBook models.


If you would like additional assistance, have any questions or problems, or are a faculty or staff member, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Help Desk!

Phone: 610-526-7440
Location: Canaday Library 1st Floor


Filed under: General Assistance by Roy Smith

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