Is your laptop right for your major? College students have new tech options

Do you know someone headed off to college soon? It’s a cherished rite of passage that many look forward to, but it inevitably brings with it a very important purchase decision that some may be dreading: What laptop to buy for school.

After all, while a college-bound computer notebook’s primary intention is, of course, to help with schoolwork, realistically it’s also going to be used to do just about everything else. A new student will need something for communicating with friends and family, watching favorite programs and movies, gaming, and much more.

Thankfully, the PC industry offers an impressive range of choices, many of which are particularly well-suited to new (and returning) students.

While most of the latest PCs can cover the basics, it is important to remember that different fields of study are going to place different demands on the type of computer that’s best suited for a given student.

What are your college laptop options?

For people studying topics in the liberal arts or business, a good option to consider is a range of high-performance general purpose computers powered by giant chipmaker Intel’s Evo platform.

Evo, which is now in its third iteration, is a set of various standards and recommendations designed to make the experience of using PCs as positive as possible.

It does so via requirements for things like longer battery life (a minimum of nine “real-world” hours), wake times of less than a second, latest generation Wi-Fi 6E support for faster wireless connections, a full HD or 1080P resolution webcam and the latest Intel 12th generation processors, or CPUs.

Big PC vendors Dell, HP, Lenov, and Microsoft (via its Surface line) along with some lesser-known names like Asus and MSI, all make numerous laptops that match the core Evo standard (you can simply look for the Evo badge on the box).

Note, however, that not all Evo systems are the same – parts of the standard only include recommendations instead of requirements – and there are inevitably differences in things like screen size and type, amount of memory and storage, all of which translate into different price points.

Evo still is, however, a good baseline for performance to start the shopping process.

Another good option is AMD Ryzen CPU-powered machines, meaning computers that are built using AMD’s competitive answer to Intel’s Core CPUs. As with Intel, AMD’s Ryzen CPUs are found in education-focused PCs from major PC vendors like Acer, HP, and Lenovo among many others.

Which laptops are created just for STEM?

For people who are studying STEM-related topics, you’re going to need to look at machines that have significantly more powerful graphics capabilities.

Nvidia has had a platform it calls MaxQ for several years now that combines one of its current RTX3000 series discrete graphics chips, or GPUs, along with a powerful CPU from Intel or AMD, into a lightweight package.

Nvidia recently applied MaxQ to the educational market and put together some useful information on laptops designed for students planning to study computer science, engineering and traditional sciences.

As it turns out, many of them happen to be very good gaming PCs as well.

What's a discrete GPU?

The importance and necessity of this extra graphics power for school work really hit home for me recently when my daughter, who is pursuing a doctorate in a STEM field, shared the real-world challenges she was having.

While for most purposes the computer I supplied her with was more than sufficient, the performance of science-focused applications like Ansys, Solidworks and MatLab, on her integrated graphics-equipped laptop (meaning it didn’t have a separate GPU) nearly ground to a halt. That made it very difficult for her to get her work done in a timely fashion.

To be clear, laptops with these separate or “discrete” GPUs are more expensive than some of the more general purpose PCs. But for certain applications, the difference could be getting your classwork done versus being stuck troubleshooting and/or hoping it will finish on time.

Are Apple laptops good for college students?

Of course, instead of all these various Windows-based laptop options, some people prefer to stick with Apple Macs, and they are a very good option as well.

Thankfully, Apple just made their powerful new M2-based Macbook Air available in time for back-to-school, and for those wanting a slightly less expensive option, the original M1-based Macbook Air introduced last year is a great value.

Speaking of value, one last option for those on a really tight budget is not a new laptop at all, but a clever new piece of free software from Google called Chrome OS Flex.

How to convert a PC or Mac into a Chromebook

Chrome OS Flex essentially converts any existing Windows PC or Mac – even those that are several years old – into a Chromebook.

You download the software onto a USB stick, boot the old machine, start the installation process, and in about 20 minutes, you end up with a fully functioning, secure, and from what many have reported, speedy new Chromebook.

For students who can’t afford a new laptop but will primarily be using cloud-based applications, which is what Chromebooks are made to do, it’s a great new choice.

Getting the right laptop for college is an incredibly personal and important step for students. Thankfully, the options have never been wider and never been better.

USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Amazon, Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Best college laptops 2022: Options for your field of study growing