Budget laptops and cheap tablets for students are scarce. Here are the best early Black Friday and other deals for affordable student laptops and tablets to enable kids’ remote learning and homeschooling during COVID-19 closures. Discover how to save even more with education discounts on computers for students, parents and teachers.
This post contains a ton of (hopefully useful) information. You can use this article overview to navigate:
The challenge of finding a cheap student laptop for distance learning during COVID-19
It has been really difficult to find a cheap-but-decent student laptop amid the COVID-19 crisis. (That may be about to change with limited early Black Friday deals for budget laptops and tablets on the horizon.)
Parents and kids are bracing for a likely fall-stint of distance learning and homeschooling as many schools forgo in-person classes, while computer and device manufacturers continue to deal with supply chain disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic.
My wife and I are in that boat, scouring the internet for the right affordable device for our elementary school students. We’e also wrestling with questions like whether a laptop or tablet is best for online classes, and how to find the cheapest possible device for distance learning for kids that will function smoothly.
It’s been a maddening search so far: Computers that once sold for $250 are fetching $600. Costco’s tremendous $350 deal for an HP 14″ Laptop with really solid specs was sold out for weeks before it expired over the summer. Other deals come and go within hours.
I had been hoping to find a decent budget student computer for about $250, but the ship seems to have sailed on the deals for ultra-cheap-yet-speedy-and-well-equipped laptops that were frequently available in the Before Time.
How much should you expect to spend on a student laptop for distance learning?
Realistically, I’ve come to the conclusion that, if you can afford it, you should expect to pay $300-$550 for a Windows-based student laptop for distance learning that can handle Zoom calls and online classroom platforms and won’t frustrate you or your kids. You can likely find a decent Chromebook for between $150-$300, while an Android-based tablet should run between $75-$250. The lower the price, the more compromises you should expect to make.
This article is a guide to the best budget laptops and tablets under $550 specifically for student distance learning, online classes and homeschooling.
After diving into the best cheap student laptop and tablet deals, keep reading for ways to save even more with education discounts for students, parents and teachers, as well as several considerations that you should take into account when identifying the right specifications for your child’s remote learning device. (At least, I’ll outline the considerations I took into account when choosing my students’ laptops.)
The best budget laptop and tablet deals for students’ home learning available right now
There seems to be a shortage of truly affordable laptops and tablets for students at the moment, though some impressive early Black Friday deals from Walmart and Best Buy will start soon.
Normally around here, I write about the impressive direct-to-consumer e-commerce brands who are helping men dress sharp in the digital age. Lately, though, I’ve also been focused on how to maximize work-from-home life and taking up some projects that had been on the back burner:
- I finally found the perfect dedicated Bluetooth MP3 player for my kids;
- detailed where to find a new Zoom shirt for videoconference calls; and
- researched the heck out of where to buy washable, reuseable face masks online.
This post is a deep dive into budget student laptops and tablets.
It is the result of months of scouring the internet and warehouse stores to find an affordable-yet-well-equipped laptop in anticipation of my kids having to learn from home for the fall, and wrestling with a bunch of questions about what device is best for student learning and how much should I expect to spend for a cheap-yet-adequate laptop for my kids?
The best Black Friday deals for budget laptops and tablets
Black Friday is a great time to find deals on budget laptop computers for students.
Several retailers have already posted early Black Friday deals for budget laptops online:
- Walmart will stagger early Black Friday deals beginning November 4, which include tremendous savings on a number of budget laptops for students. As examples, for $449.99, Walmart will sell the HP Pavilion 15-dk0096wm GTX 1650 Gaming Laptop beginning November 4; for $179 after $120 savings, Walmart will sell an HP 14 inch 2-in-1 touch screen Chromebook beginning November 11.
- Best Buy is running early Black Friday deals on select budget laptops, Chromebooks and tablets.
The cheapest Windows 10 laptops for online classes
Here are the best options I’ve found so far for budget student laptops running Windows 10. Pricing and availability are subject to change.
Between $100 and $350, the deals have been few and far between, and you’ll usually sacrifice processing power, short term memory (RAM) and/or hard drive size and speed in that price range. There are more frequent deals for laptops between $350 and $450, which should yield a well-equipped machine that can handle everything from Zoom calls to Microsoft Teams and Office to YouTube, Amazon Prime and PBS Kids videos:
- For $329, Walmart has the 14 inch Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5 Convertible laptop model 81X2000HUS with an AMD Ryzen 3 4300U processor, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD, and Windows 10S. (Spotted October 31, 2020.)
- For $399, Walmart carries an Acer Aspire 3 Laptop with 15.6″ Full HD, an 10th Gen Intel Core i5-1035G1 processor, 8GB DDR4 RAM, a 256GB NVMe SSD, and Windows 10 Home edition. (Spotted October 28, 2020.)
- At $329.99 (an earlier sale price of $279.99 expired), this HP 14″ Laptop via Best Buy has an AMD Athlon Silver chip, a solid mobile processor based on AMD’s Ryzen Picasso architecture, with 4GB Memory and a 128GB SSD and Windows 10 in S mode. Importantly, the laptop’s memory can be upgraded from the installed 4GB to up to 2 x 8GB modules for 16GB of RAM. (HP has a tutorial on how to upgrade RAM for HP and Compaq computers.) (Spotted October 27, 2020.)
- For $399.99 after $50 off, Costco has an HP 14 inch laptop with a 10th generation Intel Cor i3-1005G1 processor, 8GB RAM and a 256 SSD. Spotted October 27, 2020; savings expires 11/22/2020.
- For $499.99 after $100 off, BJs has the HP 15-dy1076nr Laptop featuring a 10th Generation Intel Core i5-1035G1 Processor, 8GB Memory, 256GB SSD and Intel UHD Graphics. Spotted October 27, 2020.
- For $479.99, Staples has an HP laptop model 15-DW2063ST with an Intel Core i3 processor, large 15.6″ screen, 8 GB RAM, 128 SSD, and Windows 10 Home. (An earlier price of $379.99 is no longer available.)
- For $199.99, Lenovo used to have an entry-level IdeaPad AMD operating Windows 10 Home in S mode, with a small 11” screen, a 7th Generation AMD® A4-9120E processor, 4 GB RAM and a 64 GB eMMC hard drive. At under 3lbs, it’s super light. It wasn’t in stock the last time I checked, but keep trying.
- For a low $299.99, the HP 14 inch laptop model 14z-fq000 features Windows 10 Home 64 an AMD 3020e processor, 8 GB memory and 128 GB SSD storage. While it’s not the snappiest processor, that’s a nice amount of memory and storage for a sub-$300 laptop. (Spotted October 28, 2020.)
- At $249.99 on sale from August 2, Staples has a Lenovo IdeaPad 3 laptop with an Intel Pentium processor, 15.6 inch screen, 4GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive available for pick up in store only. (See Staples’ latest circular for details. The price is not showing up online.) (Spotted August 2, 2020.)
- For $369.99 (or $389,99, the price has fluctuated), the Dell Inspiron 14 3493 14″ Laptop via Staples boasts an Intel i5-1035G4, 4GB Memory, a 128GB SSD, runs Windows 10 and is a great value for an Intel i5 processor. (Spotted August 9, 2020.)
- At $399.99 (an earlier sale price of $349.99 expired), Staples’ HP 15-DW20635T laptop with a 15.6 inch display, Intel i3 Core processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB Solid State Drive still appears to be a solid deal. (Spotted August 9, 2020.)
- The $299.99 Lenovo IdeaPad S145 via Walmart is a Windows 10 laptop that features an Intel Core i3-1005G1 Dual-Core Processor, 4GB Memory, and a 128GB Solid State Drive. While I’d prefer 8GB of memory to handle Microsoft Windows and Zoom calls, this is an outstanding value for a budget 15.6 inch laptop. (Spotted August 2, 2020.)
- For $379.99, Dell has an intriguing Inspiron 15 3000 Laptop featuring a 15.6-inch HD screen, a 10th Generation Intel Core i3-1005G1 Processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 128GB M.2 PCIe NVMe Solid State Drive, and Windows 10 Home in S mode. You can upgrade the configuration of the Inspiron 15 3000 to 8 GB of RAM for $429.99. (Spotted August 2, 2020.)
- For a low price, Amazon has the lightweight Acer Aspire 5 Slim Laptop with a 15.6 inch Full HD display, an AMD Ryzen 3 3200U processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD running Windows 10 in S Mode.
- At $379.99, Best Buy has the Lenovo IdeaPad 3 Laptop with an Intel Core i3 processor, 15.6 inch screen, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. For $399.99, Staples has a similarly-spec’d Lenovo IdeaPad 3 laptop
- For $389.99, HP has a 15 inch laptop model 15z-ef100 featuring Windows 10 Home 64, an AMD Athlon Gold 3150U processor, 8 GB memory and 128 GB SSD storage. (Spotted July 2020.)
- For $499.99 until August 9 (after $100 savings), Costco has an Acer Swift 3 14″ Laptop featuring a Ryzen 5 4500U processor, a 512GB SSD, 8GB of RAM and Wi-Fi 6. I suspect this deal, which is for members’ only, will sell out quickly.
- For $549.99 after $150 off, Best Buy is featuring the ASUS Zenbook 14″ Laptop (model Q407IQ-BR5N4) with very attractive specs: an AMD Ryzen 5 processor, 8GB Memory, a 256GB SSD and NVIDIA GeForce MX350 graphics.
- For $549.99, from August 1, Sam’s Club is featuring a very impressive deal on a Windows-based 2-in-1 HP Pavilion x360 Laptop with a 15.6″ HD Touchscreen, 10th Gen Intel Core i5, 8GB Memory and a 512 GB SSD, as well as a 2 Year Warranty Care Pack.
- Sold out: For $299.99 after $100 savings, BJ Wholesale has the HP Laptop 14-dk1074nr Laptop featuring an AMD Ryzen 3 3250U(2a) Processor with 8GB Memory and a 256GB SSD, which is similar to the specs of the 14 inch HP laptop that Costco had on sale in June and July (the Ryzen 3250U chip is about on par with the Intel i3.) For these specs, this is an outstanding deal. (Spotted August 9, 2020.)
- Expired: At $349.99 (until July 26), the HP 14″ Laptop (14-dq1043cl) via Costco is very well-equipped for the price, including a 10th Gen Intel Core i3-1005G1; 8GB memory and a 256GB solid-state drive, but is sold out as of this writing. (Spotted July 2020.)
- No longer available: For $299.99, Costco had an HP 14″ Laptop with a Intel Pentium processor, 4GB of Memory and 64GB of storage, running Windows 10 in S Mode. It includes a one-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Personal. Last time I checked, the product was no longer showing up on its website, though Costco’s search results page for laptops still shows it is available. (Spotted July 2020.)
- No longer available: For $339.99, HP had a 14 inch Laptop model 14z-dk100 with Windows 10 Home 64, an AMD Athlon™ Gold processor, AMD Radeon Graphics, 8 GB memory and 256 GB SSD storage. It does not appear to be available as of this writing. (Spotted July 2020.)
- Expired and no longer available: For $299.99 from August 23, Target has a 15.6 inch HP laptop featuring an AMD Athlon Gold processor, 256GB SSD, 8 GB of RAM and Windows Home. (Spotted August 22, 2020.
Chromebook budget student laptops
There are also a number of cheap Chromebooks for students on the market:
- For $199 on sale, Walmart has the Samsung Chromebook 4 with a 11.6″ screen, Intel Celeron Processor, 4GB RAM and a tiny 32GB drive. (Spotted August 22, 2020.)
- For $219.00 from August 23 in-store only, Staples has an Acer Chromebook model CB314-1H-C34N with an Intel Celeron processor, 14 inch screen, 4GB of RAM and a 64GB eMMC hard drive. (Spotted August 22, 2020.)
- For $297.49 with its education discount available to students, parents and educators, Samsung has a Chromebook 4+ with a large 15.6” screen, 64GB Storage and 6GB of RAM, an exceptional deal for a well-equipped Chromebook.
- In fact, with its generous education discount program, Samsung is a stellar choice for a variety of affordable student Chromebooks. (Read more about Samsung’s education program below.)
- For $99 on sale, Walmart has a Samsung 11.6″ Chromebook 3 with an Intel Celeron N3060, 4GB RAM, and a minuscule 16GB eMMC under the hood, available for pick up in store only. Availability seems to come and go for this one, though you can get a sense of inventory on Walmart’s website. (Spotted July 2020.)
- For $199, BJ’s Wholesale Club has an Acer Chromebook with a 14 inch screen, Intel Atom Quad-Core Processor, 4GB memory and a 32GB eMMC hard disk.
- For $299, BJ’s has a better-equipped Acer CB314-1H-C34N Chromebook 314 with a 14 inch screen, Intel Celeron N4000 Dual-Core Processor, 4GB Memory and a 64GB eMMC disk.
- For $299, Costco offers a HP 14″ Chromebook Bundle with an Intel Celeron processor, 4GB of installed RAM and 64GB of hard drive storage.
- Target has a variety of lightweight Chromebooks in stock, including a HP 14″ Chromebook with 4GB RAM and 32 GB storage for $250.
Cheap Android or Apple tablets for online classes
Another affordable option is to choose an Android-based tablet, which tend to be cheaper than Chromebooks and Windows-based laptops.
On the plus side, kids can use a stylus to write and draw on the screen. You can also add a Bluetooth keyboard to increase the functionality of the tablets. You can find a Bluetooth keyboard via Amazon. I own a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse combo from Dell that has served me well so far though, at over $80, it’s not cheap. (Keyboards are particularly important from about the third grade, when many students are required to start writing on the computer.)
On the minus side, tablets generally feature a smaller screen, slower processor and less storage capacity. They may be most useful for younger kids.
- For $329.99, you can get an Apple iPad with a 10.1 inch screen from BestBuy, Apple or other leading retailers. (Spotted August 22, 2020.)
- For $59.99, the small Lenovo Tab M7 features a 7 inch screen, a MediaTek® MT8321 32-bit, Quad-Core processor, 16 GB eMMC hard drive, and 1GB of memory. (Spotted August 9, 2020.)
- For $99.99, the Lenovo Tab M8 HD has a 8.0″ HD (1280 x 800) touchscreen, an 8.0 inc high-definition touchscreen, 2GB of memory and a 32GB eMMC hard drive. (Spotted August 9, 2020.)
- For $127.49 with Samsung’s educational discount, Samsung’s Tab A has 32GB of internal memory, a an 8 inch screen and an Exynos Octa-core processor.
- For $195.49 with Samsung’s education discount, upgrade Samsung’s Tab A to a 10.1 inch screen with 32GB of memory. A version with a 10.1 inch screen and 64GB of internal memory is available for $237.99 with Samsung’s education discount.
- For $379.99 with Microsoft’s education discount, the Surface Go 2 has a 10.5 inch touchscreen, an Intel Pentium 4425Y processor, 4GB of memory, 64GB of disk space, and gets up to 10 hours of battery life and weighs a slight 1.2 lbs.
Keep reading for more details on the best place to buy a student laptop or tablet, what to consider when choosing between laptops and tablets running Microsoft, Google or Apple operating systems, and suggested minimum hardware requirements to ensure your student laptop can handle distance learning.
Where to buy a student laptop or tablet: Comparing Costco vs. Walmart vs. Best Buy vs. Target vs. Amazon for kids’ computers
Where you buy your student laptop is just as important as what kind of computer you buy. Deals, return policies, warranties and customer service can vary dramatically by retailer.
Some of the best places to buy a student laptop or tablet are Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club
I highly recommend purchasing a computer from a warehouse store for three reasons:
- BJ’s Wholesale Club, Walmart-owned Sam’s Club and Costco Wholesale all offer exceptional, 90-day return policies on computers and electronics. Here are links to BJ’s Wholesale Club return policies for computers, Sam’s Club return policies for computers, which are buried in their lengthy Terms and Conditions, and Costco’s return policy for computers and electronics.
- Importantly, Sam’s Club, BJ’s Wholesale and Costco reportedly accept returns of computers that were opened and used during their return period. Some other stores require computers to be unopened or defective for a return.
- Costco, BJ’s Wholesale and Sam’s Club tend to have some of the best deals around for well-equipped, budget student laptops. For the best warehouse deals on student laptops, check out Sam’s Club sales and promotions and savings event catalog, BJ Wholesale Club’s jaw-dropping Wow Deals and flash deals, as well as Costco’s member only savings coupon books and daily deals.
In addition, Costco’s Concierge Service is pretty hard to beat. Costco will extend the manufacturer’s warranty to a 2nd Year and offers free technical support along with its 90 Day Return Policy on computers and electronics. In addition, if you purchase from Costco using the Citi Costco Anywhere card by Visa, the card will extend your warranty for an additional 2 years.
The trade-off with warehouse clubs is that they ordinarily require an annual membership fee to shop.
There are, however, ways to avoid paying a large annual membership fee if all you want to do is shop Sam’s Club, Costco or BJ’s Warehouse online for a computer:
How to shop Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club without paying an annual fee
- BJ’s Wholesale Club has a fantastic “online only membership.” The Club provides a one-day pass to shop online, and after that “online membership” is only $10 annually. If you would prefer to have the option of shopping and returning your purchase in person, you can also get a discounted BJ’s Wholesale Club membership for just $25 for one year. I’ve also occasionally come across snail-mail offers from BJ’s Wholesale for a free three-month trial membership, so you can look out for those.
- Costco allows non-members to shop online, though some of its products and deals are for members only. Costco also charges a 5% markup for non-members.
- Sam’s Club will permit non-members to shop online, but charges a 10% “handling fee.”
Should you buy a student laptop computer or tablet from a retailer like Best Buy, Walmart, Target, Amazon or Staples?
When it comes to buying a student laptop or tablet from a retailer like Amazon, Best Buy, Staples or Walmart, It depends which retailer and how good of a deal you’re getting.
Let’s examine the return policies for PCs and laptops and tablets from the major retailers. I’ve listed the policies from most-generous to least:
- Walmart: Most items sold & shipped by Walmart can be returned for free, either to a store or by mail. Walmart will take care of delivery, returns and customer service for these items. According to Walmart’s return policy, “most electronics, including but not limited to… tablets, laptops, PCs” … “must be returned within 30 days with a receipt to obtain a refund or exchange.”
- Target: Target doesn’t break out computers as a separate category. According to Target’s returns page, “all electronics and entertainment items must be returned within 30 days for a refund or exchange. For these items purchased between 11/1-12/25, the 30-day refund period will start on 12/26.”
- Staples: According to Staples’ return policy, “technology and business machines, such as computers, laptops, digital cameras, printers and tablets, may be returned within 14 days of the date of receipt.”
- Best Buy: According to Best Buy’s return policy, most products may be returned within 15 days for a refund. One note of caution: The internet is littered with complaints about Best Buy not honoring its stated return policy or authorizing a third party firm to over-ride their policy by claiming a customer is making a fraudulent return.
- Amazon: According to Amazon.com’s return policy, computers purchased from Amazon.com that, “didn’t start when they arrived, arrived in damaged condition, or is still in an unopened box can be returned for a full refund within 30 days of purchase.” Computers purchased from Amazon Marketplace sellers are subject to the return policy of that seller. Amazon.com’s return policy does not appear to state whether a consumer can return an opened computer if it is not defective.
Buying a student laptop or tablet direct from manufacturers like Dell, Lenovo, Samsung and HP: Look for education discounts, but be wary of return policies.
Another option is to buy a student laptop or tablet for distance learning directly from the company that manufactures it. Dell Computer, Lenovo, and HP run frequent sales on their websites.
Several manufacturers like Microsoft, Samsung, Dell and Lenovo also offer education discounts or other promotions.
However, computer manufacturers’ return policies are not uniformly consumer-friendly. Comparing Lenovo, Dell, Samsung and HP’s return policies, all four require you to obtain a return authorization form prior to shipping your computer back. In addition, Dell and HP may charge restocking fees and/or shipping charges for returns:
Buying a student laptop or tablet from Samsung through its Education Discount Program.
If you’re looking for a Windows or Chrome-based PC or Android-based device, among computer manufacturers, Samsung offers some of the most generous discounts and return policies for student laptops and tablets among major manufacturers.
Samsung’s Return Policy indicates that, “Samsung.com will accept return requests for purchases within the first 15 days of delivery” and that “all merchandise must be in the original packaging and have all the original items (such as manuals, remotes, cables, etc.)” You must initiate a return authorization online before returning the product.
What makes Samsung a great option for a budget student laptop for home learning is its generous Education Discount Program for students, parents and educators.
While the standalone sign up page for Samsung’s educational discount program indicates that you need to have a .edu email address in order to register, you can sign up for the program while you are placing your order as a parent, student or educator, and discounted prices appear instantly on their website and in your cart.
In addition, if you purchase through the Education Discount Program, Samsung will extend its return period to 30 days after delivery.
Samsung’s discount program makes it a great option for budget Chromebooks or tablets for students, as well as for higher-end Windows-based laptops like the gorgeous and kitted-out Galaxy Book Flex with a QLED screen. Samsung does not produce very many budget Windows-based laptops.
Purchasing a student laptop or tablet from Lenovo through its education discount program
Lenovo offers an 8% education discount sitewide for qualified buyers. Lenovo will accept returns of its computers within 30 days and does not charge shipping and handling fees or a restocking fee, according to Lenovo’s return policy.
I have ordered directly from Lenovo before and had a good experience with them. (My Yoga 2 laptop finally died after 6 years of use.)
Buying a student laptop from Microsoft through its education discount program
Microsoft maintains a discount of up to 10% for students and parents via its online education store for its Surface tablets and laptops. Students can also apply to get Office 365 for free. Microsoft has fast and free shipping and free returns within 60 days via its Surface Promise policy.
Microsoft also maintains a store that features cheap student laptops from a variety of PC makers, though be discerning: Many of the cheapest models available feature skimpy hard drives and aren’t the best deals.
Should you buy a student laptop direct from Dell or HP?
Dell has an education landing page and will take $100 off select computers for students, parents and educators, but the deals I see are for bigger budget laptops. Dell permits returns within 30 days of the date on the packing slip, but may charge a 15% restocking fee, in addition to return shipping charges, for returns except for reasons of a defect, according to Dell’s return policy.
HP will accept returns within 30 days of delivery but may charge up to a 15% restocking fee according to HP’s return policy.
After reviewing the return policies of Dell and HP, I personally would choose to purchase a student laptop from a wholesale club like BJs, Sam’s Club or Costco, or from a store like Walmart or Best Buy, instead. I don’t want to be saddled with a restocking fee or to be on the hook for return shipping charges.
Overall, if you are going to order direct from a manufacturer, you should be pretty confident that you’re going to like that laptop and pay close attention to return policies, procedures, fees and cut-off dates. They may be more onerous than retailers’ policies.
Which is the best device for online classes and distance learning?
I spent a lot of time wrestling with the question of what is the best device for my kids’ online classes. We went back and forth about whether a tablet or laptop is best for online classes and distance learning.
Three factors to consider when choosing between devices running Chrome, Windows, macOS, iOS or Android are cost, software requirements and personal preferences.
Chromebook vs. Windows vs. macOS vs. Android: What is the best operating system for a student device for online learning?
In addition to choosing where to buy a laptop or tablet, you should consider what operating system is under the hood.
Comparing the cost of Chromebooks, Windows-based PCs, Macs and tablets
All else equal, Chromebooks tend to be slightly cheaper than Windows-based PCs, while Windows-based PCs are almost uniformly cheaper than comparably-equipped Macs running Apple’s macOS.
An entry-level Chromebook can be had for between $150-300. A decent Windows-based student laptop should cost between $300-$550.
There’s really no such thing as a cheap Macbook. The cheapest Macbook in 2020, the 13-inch Macbook Air, sports a list price of $999.
Software requirements should weigh heavily on your choice of operating system for a student laptop or tablet.
The software requirements of a student’s learning environment should factor heavily into your choice of an operating system for a new computer.
Some schools run their learning platforms using Google Classroom and other Google products, which makes Chromebooks a practical choice (though Google’s tools can run pretty seamlessly on Windows and macOS as well).
My daughters’ school has a contract with Microsoft. Their teachers utilize Microsoft Teams, Powerpoint, Word and other tools from the Office 365 Suite for online education.
While Microsoft offers various apps and web browser-based interfaces that can be run on macOS and Google Chrome, I’ve found Teams and other Office products work much better in the Windows operating environment. (Let’s be honest: Microsoft Teams doesn’t exactly run seamlessly anywhere, but its better in Windows than elsewhere.)
Other schools have issued Apple iPads or Macbooks to students, in which case you may wish to stay in a macOS environment.
Think about your personal preferences when it comes to choosing your student’s operating system.
Finally, consider your personal preferences and technology environment at home. If you and your family are used to using PCs, do you really want to figure out the quirks of the Chrome operating system on top of everything else? If you are comfortable with Android, do you really want to take time to figure out new iPads and iOS?
Over the past year, my kids have become familiar with the Windows environment, and I’m not keen on teaching them a new operating system when school starts.
Minimum hardware requirements for a student computer
Minimum hardware requirements will vary depending on operating system you choose and use case. (Note that this section applies to laptops, not tablets.)
Select a student laptop with at least 4GB of RAM to handle Microsoft Windows, Zoom calls and multi-tasking
Think of memory as the computer’s short term memory, like your brain’s frontal lobe. RAM is what allows your computer to load programs, execute tasks within those programs, and switch between browser tabs and other programs.
All else equal, more memory means your computer can run more tasks at once and operate responsively rather than sluggishly.
These days, 4GB of RAM is about the bare minimum for a laptop for students. If your student is using the laptop primarily for simple word processing and web browsing, 4GB of RAM may be sufficient, particularly if the laptop is a Chromebook.
However, a computer running Microsoft Windows 10, particularly one that will utilize Zoom videoconferencing and/or other Microsoft products like Teams, should realistically have a minimum of 8GB of memory installed to run smoothly.
If you can afford it, purchasing a student laptop with 8GB of memory, or buying a computer whose memory can be upgraded later, should enable the system to multitask better and be more responsive, as well as play some light games and stream music and videos without stalling.
Look for a Solid State Drive with a minimum of 128GB of space
Solid State Drives (SSDs) have become increasingly common in computers, even in budget student laptops.
Unlike traditional hard drives, which utilize moving platters to store data, SSDs do not contain moving parts so they tend to be more durable and energy efficient. They are a kind of flash memory — sort of like a large USB jump drive inside your computer.
At the very bare minimum, you will want a 64 GB hard drive in your computer. If you are running Microsoft Windows, which occupies 16-20 GB for an install, it would be prudent to buy a computer with at least 128 GB of hard drive space.
I learned this the hard way. Over the years, I’ve bought several very inexpensive Windows 10-based machines with 32 GB of storage. The problem is that Microsoft saves a backup copy of Windows when it installs an upgrade, which means, these days, a laptop with 32 GB of storage cannot properly handle Windows upgrades. I know there are ways to shrink the size of Windows and boot from an external USB drive, but that’s not something I want to have to troubleshoot.
If you are comfortable hosting most of your files in the cloud via a service like Dropbox, Onedrive or iCloud, or if all you really need is a web browser to participate in classes via Google Classroom, Zoom or Microsoft Teams, a small hard drive — potentially as small as 32 GB — could be sufficient for your case.
In the opposite direction, if you need a lot of space and you are on a budget, you could order a student laptop with a traditional spinning hard drive, which tend to be cheaper.
Is an 11, 13.3, 14, or 15 inch screen the best for a student laptop?
A laptop’s screen size comes down to personal preference.
Student laptops with a 15.6 inch screen tend to be bulkier and might be too heavy, especially for young kids, to lug around. Fifteen-inch screens may also have trouble being crammed into backpacks and computer bags.
On the other end of the spectrum, 11 inch screens seem super-tiny and may not provide the screen real estate to enable you to see what the teacher is teaching on screen.
Screens measuring 13.3 inches and 14 inches tend to hit the sweet spot in terms of visibility and portability. (I wound up purchasing a 14 inch laptop for my kids.)
Use the right credit card to extend your student laptop warranty
It’s a good idea to use the right credit card to purchase a student laptop for your child, which can extend the manufacturer’s warranty by up to two years:
- A variety of American Express credit cards will extend the manufacturer’s warranty for a year.
- Select Citi cards will extend the manufacturer’s warranty for up to two years.
- Select Capital One credit cards will extend manufacturers’ warranties for up to one year.
- Select Chase credit cards will extend a manufacturer’s warranty for up to one year.
Consider monitors and accessories for your student laptop
If your budget allows, consider some additional add-ons for your student’s laptop:
- A computer monitor: Laptop screens can be small. For under $100 via Amazon, you can purchase a computer monitor that measures at least 20 inches and plug your laptop into the display, which should help save your student’s eyes.
- An adjustable laptop stand or monitor mount: Another option is to purchase an monitor stand or a an adjustable desk riser to raise your student’s laptop up to eye level. I purchased a Rocelco Portable Desk Riser from Amazon and am happy with it so far (though we will see how stable it is over time).
- A lapdesk: I bought an inexpensive Lapgear Home Office Lapdesk from Best Buy on a whim for myself, and it’s turn out to be one of my best purchases of the pandemic. I’m resting my laptop on it right now as I type this sentence. I wouldn’t use it all the time, but if your student likes to switch up their environment and spend some time typing or learning on the couch, it’s a nice change of pace.
- A Wireless or Bluetooth keyboard: When typing for long amounts of time, I find that I prefer to have my laptop on my desk and a keyboard in my lap (or rather, on my lapdesk). You can find USB and Bluetooth keyboards and mice via Best Buy. As I mentioned earlier, I like my Dell
The perfect laptop for my situation is…
Ideally, the perfect laptop for distance learning would have a minimum 14 inch screen, at least a 128 GB Solid State Hard Drive, a minimum of 4 GB of Random Access Memory, a modern microprocessor like the AMD Ryzen 3200 series or Intel Core i3, and run Microsoft Windows 10.
It would also be bought with a Citi credit card to extend the manufacturer’s warranty for 24 months.
What’s your perfect student laptop for distance learning? Share tips and deals in the comments.
Photo credit: Featured photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters via Unsplash.
About JakeJake is an expert on men’s style and fashion based in Washington, DC. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs and innovative clothing and lifestyle brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. He has published hundreds of articles on style and apparel, and regularly interviews small business CEOs and startup founders about industry trends. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine.
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