If you are planning on attending college, online or on-campus, these days a personal computer is a necessity. Students in almost all disciplines are required to use computers not only to access information via the Internet, but also to send and receive emails, write reports, create diagrams or spreadsheets and/or access relevant texts or class materials. And owning a laptop can prove to be quite beneficial. Particularly, in the case of online classes, many students prefer to make their learning even more mobile. With a laptop, you can earn your online degree from a café, library, mall, or virtually any other location where you have access to Wi-Fi.

If you are one of many students who feel that the luxury of owning a laptop is out of your budget, you will be pleased to know that you can purchase your own laptop for as little as a few hundred dollars, and there is a growing trend amongst online schools to provide students with free, or deeply discounted laptops.

The Need for a Laptop

As discussed above, a computer, whether it is a laptop or a PC, is virtually as fundamental as a notebook and pen in your stock of “school supplies.” Many schools are reverting to the use of online course materials and eBooks. Accessing class Websites to for syllabi and assignments, email communication with professors and peers and Internet research are becoming essential for classroom success. And top students are found to often take notes during class directly on a laptop or tablet.

Also, most jobs, once you graduate will require at least some level of computer savvy. At the most basic level, your job will require basic data entry into a computer, while many jobs will require you to access a computer to produce reports, send communications or even operate machinery. Thus, the more familiar you are with the use of computers, the more prepared you will be for life, after you earn your degree.

Keeping all of this in mind, some schools are actually requiring that students own or have access to a laptop prior to enrollment in a degree or certificate program.

Schools that Provide Free Laptops

Currently only about a dozen on-campus and online schools provide free laptop computers to students. But, this number is growing. Some of the online colleges and universities, such as Stevens-Henager College, that provide students with free laptops actually give students ownership of the laptops, while other schools, including Wake Forest University and Villanova University, lend students the laptops to use while they are enrolled. Either way, students have a laptop to use for coursework, free of cost.

Some other colleges that provide students with laptops include:

Why Do Online Schools Gives Students Laptops Free of Cost?

Online education institutions recognize that whether you are pursuing an associates, bachelors, master or PhD, in order to earn your degree online, a computer is essential. And since some of the primary purposes of online schooling are convenience and flexibility, access to a laptop, as compared to a PC, is ideal. These schools also understand that the cost of a big budget item like a laptop can seem daunting to many aspiring students. Thus, by providing you with a free laptop, online schools aim to overcome this obstacle to student enrollment. They also recognize that a student with a laptop is more likely to succeed, as they can attend class, study and do homework more easily from wherever they may be.

When Do Online Students Receive their Complimentary Laptops?

Generally schools that provide laptops to their students do so on the day the student officially becomes enrolled in online courses at their institution.

Can You Keep the Laptop?

Even though these schools give you a free laptop, typically, during the course of your enrollment, the laptop remains the property of the online college or university. Most colleges allow you to keep your laptop upon successful graduation from the program in which you enrolled. However, if you drop out or leave the college prior to graduation, you will most likely be required to return the laptop.

Who is Responsible for Maintenance of the Laptop?

A majority of colleges require you to maintain the laptop at your own expense. But, some colleges, such as Wake Forest and Villanova, provide bachelors degree students with upgraded laptops upon successful completion of their sophomore year.

What if Your Laptop is Lost or Stolen?

If the laptop you are given is lost or stolen, generally you will be required to pay for it at a reduced rate. Also, your college may require that you file a report with the police. After the police report is filed, the school may allow you to purchase a new laptop from them at a reduced rate.

How do Schools Pay for these Laptops, i.e., are Free Laptops Really Free?

They say, “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” and for the most part, you can argue that “there is no such thing as a free laptop.” Typically schools, in order to recoup the costs of free laptops, either include the cost in the form of elevated tuition fees or as part of a technology fee they charge students.

Thus, do not simply choose a school because it appears to offer a free laptop. Consider the overall cost of education at that school verses the cost of education at others schools you are considering, including tuition, books, materials and a laptop.

Alternatives to a Free Laptop

As an alternative to offering students a free laptop upon enrollment, some schools lease students laptops for a minimal amount, or provide students with opportunities to purchase their own laptops at subsidized or discounted prices. Currently, the largest online colleges, including University of Phoenix, Kaplan University and DeVry University, do not offer their students free laptop computers. However, these schools do, for the most part, offer deep discounts on name brand laptops and necessary software through student programs. The benefit of such programs is that students have the ability to choose the type of laptop they prefer, whether it be an HP, Dell, Sony, Lenovo, Mac or other brand.

Also, some schools, such as Bethel University in Tennessee, in lieu of offering free laptops offer their students free iPads or other tablets upon enrollment. A tablet can virtually serve the same function as a laptop for purposes of online education and is even more portable. Other schools that offer students free iPads include:

Online Guide to Purchasing a Cheap Laptop for College

Although the idea of receiving a free laptop from the online school you attend sounds appealing, in many cases you may find that purchasing your own laptop and then attending an institution that does not provide a laptop may be cheaper. Also, currently, a majority of online colleges do not provide students with laptops. And most online students will have to purchase their own laptop for college.

Thus, we have put together this short guide to help find and purchase the cheapest and best laptop for your educational purposes.

Step 1 – Determining Your Need

The first step in purchasing a budget laptop is determining why you want/need the computer. What do you intend to use the laptop for? Will you use it only for attending online classes and doing homework? Or will you use it for things such as email, Internet surfing, gaming, live streaming, etc.

You will need to make sure that the computer you purchase has the capability to support all of your intended uses. The computer must be fast enough and have enough memory to support any programs you may want to run. And, for example, if you want to use the computer for gaming or video streaming, you will need a computer with a good graphics card.

An Overview of Specifications to Consider

Some of the factors you should consider when purchasing a laptop include:

Basic Components

Hard Drive

Most laptops have a standard-issue drive with 100 to 500 gigabytes of space for storing files. This is typically sufficient for storing thousands of songs and pictures or dozens of movies. If you need extra memory, for example if you are a photographer who needs to maintain a significant number of large, uncompressed media files, you can purchase a light, portable external hard drive with plenty of extra capacity.

There is a newer, faster kind of hard drive called the solid state drive (SSD) available, however, if you are looking for a budget computer, the cost of an SSD is not worth it.

You can read more about hard disk drives and solid state drives on PCMag.

Memory

When computers load programs, they take the information from the hard drive and temporarily store it in their Random Access Memory (RAM) drive, which is much faster. The more RAM your laptop has, the more programs you can simultaneously open without slowing it down.

Most budget laptops come with 4GB of DDR3 memory. You should probably not settle for anything less. If your laptop has less RAM, you should at least make sure that your machine allows for the ability to upgrade at a later date.

Processor Speed

The processor is thought of as the brains behind the computer. Ideally, an Intel Core i3 processor is the best available in budget laptops. But, you could also settle for Intel Pentium and Celeron processors, which may not be as fast, but are energy efficient.

Machine Weight

As an online student, one of your primary purposes of purchasing a laptop over a traditional desktop computer is portability. Normally the trade-off between a lighter and more heavy machine is battery life, because the battery is generally the heaviest part of a laptop. But, screen size and peripherals, such as DVD drives, can also make a difference. Typically a three to five pound laptop is ideal if you want to be able to travel comfortably with your machine. But keep in mind, lighter laptops generally cost more.

Display

Screen Size

Laptop screens can range anywhere from 8 inches to 17 inches in size. If you are planning on simply surfing the Internet or reading emails on your laptop, 8 or 9 inches will be sufficient, but you will need at least 11 inches if you plan on working with larger documents, photos, or movies. Remember, the larger the screen size, the heavier the computer, and generally, the more costly.

If you get a small screen and later realize that you need more screen space, an option is to connect your laptop to a larger monitor on your desk.

Screen Resolution

Resolution also plays a role in determining how much information you can see on your laptop’s screen. The higher resolution, the more text you will be able to see on your screen. The majority of websites are optimized for a screen at 1024×768. Thus, you should use this as a minimum requirement.

For a more thorough discussion on screen size and screen resolution and how they can effect the amount of information displayed, take a look at this Short Course.

Screen Backlight

LED screens offer a better picture, are more durable, and consume less power than the older LCD screens.  Thus, you should opt for a computer with an LED screen. Traditionally LED screens were far more costly than LCD screens, but that is no longer the case. LED screens are quite affordable and fast becoming the norm.

Graphic Card

The video card on most laptops, although not nearly as powerful as the video card on a desktop, should be sufficient for using office productivity applications and viewing media files. But, if you are planning on connecting your laptop to an external monitor, ensure that the video system in your laptop is capable of supporting that configuration.

Key Components

Battery Life

Depending on where and when you intend to use your laptop, a long battery life may be critically important for you and worth the extra cost. If you will be using your laptop where plugging in is not an option, you will need an extended battery life. To increase battery life, either you can buy a laptop with a bigger heavier battery, or you can buy a laptop that has an LED lit screen, a solid state drive or a low-power processor. The best laptops can offer up to 10 hours of battery life. But, again, keep in mind that longer battery life generally goes hand-in-hand with higher prices.

Trackpad

A trackpad provides the functionality for a laptop that a mouse provides for a desktop. Depending on the model and manufacturer, trackpads can be made of a variety of materials and have a wide range of capabilities. You should be sure to test out trackpads to make sure the one you get responds to your movements and that you like the “feel” of it. This is very important, because you will be stuck with the trackpack for the life of your laptop.

Keyboard

The screen size will determine the size of your keyboard. Smaller laptops will have less than full sized keyboards. Like the trackpad, you should try out the keyboard before purchasing your laptop to make sure that it fits your hands and is easy to use.

Connectivity and Accessories

Wireless Capability

Virtually all laptops come with standard wireless capabilities as well as Bluetooth. Wi-Fi allows you to connect to the Internet and Bluetooth enables you to use devices such as headsets and wireless mice, without the use of cables. This will be critical for taking online courses that are often interactive.

Camera

Like wireless capability, almost all laptop computers come with a small camera above the screen. The typical camera has 1.3 megapixels of resolution. This should be sufficient for video conferencing. If you need a higher resolution camera to take pictures or to create higher quality videos, you can purchase high-quality external USB laptop camera.

Ports

At a minimum, you will want your laptop to have two USB ports, and in the latest laptops, these are generally USB 3.0 ports, which are faster than the older USB 2.0 version. If you use a digital camera, then an SD card slot is so a must have.

Meeting School Requirements

While working towards your online degree, you will use a computer to complete assignments, download course materials and work on other tasks. Thus, you will be expected to have access to and use certain hardware and software as determined by the school.

Online schools generally specify the minimum computing requirements necessary on their websites. But, these requirements are fast changing, so you will need to make sure you access the most current requirements prior to purchasing your laptop.

An example of typical computer requirements can be found on the University of Phoenix website:

Hardware & Peripherals

You are required to have use of a computer system with the following specifications and components:

  • 2 GHz processor or faster
  • 1GB RAM or greater
  • 80 GB hard drive or larger
  • Cable/DSL broadband connection or better
  • 1024×768 resolution monitor or greater and supporting video card
  • Sound card with speakers
  • CD-ROM drive
  • Inkjet or laser printer
  • Computer microphone
  • A web camera capable of video web conferencing and editing

Software/Applications

You are required to have use of the following operating systems and applications:

  • Operating system:
  • Windows® XP or later OR
  • Mac OS 10.4 or later, with Windows XP or later Boot Camp partition (for selected courses)
  • Microsoft Office 2007 (PC) or later, Office 2008 (MAC)
  • Office suite must include Microsoft Access.
  • Recommended is Microsoft Office Professional Academic 2010 (PC) or 2011 (MAC)
  • Microsoft® Project (for selected courses)
  • One of the following Internet browsers:
  • Microsoft® Internet Explorer 8.0 or later
  • Mozilla Firefox 3.5 or later
  • Google Chrome 7.0 or later
  • Apple Safari 5.0 or later
  • Adobe® Reader 9.0 or later
  • Adobe Flash plug-in 10.0 or later
  • System configured to allow installation of browser plug-ins as required
  • Local administrative privileges (for required software installations)
  • Anti-virus program (updated regularly)
  • E-mail account
  • Broadband Internet access

Step 2 – Setting a Budget

But, remember, although a laptop is a significant out of pocket expense, it is a one time expense and should last you through the course of your online degree program. A few years ago, a budget laptop easily ranged over $1,000. But, now, you can get laptops for as little as $200-$400, and generally only premium laptops cost above $1,000. In fact, the new Google Chromebook by Samsung sells for around $250. But, the smaller, cheaper laptops have their limitations. Generally speaking, a mainstream slim laptop that will have the essential components you need should cost you close to $700.

Student Discounts

Many computer manufacturers, including Dell, HP and Apple, provide student discounts if you buy directly from them and can show proof of being a registered student. Dell and HP discounts, which can be found via Dell University and HP Academy, vary. On the other hand, Apple’s “education pricing” is a fixed 10% discount for all college students.

If you are currently working, your company may also have a tie up with various technology companies for discounted pricing. You should inquire with your company for further information.

Refurbished Laptops

Refurbished or reconditioned laptops are often sold at nearly 25% off the original retail price. A refurbished laptop is one that has either been returned to the retailer or manufacturer for a refund by a customer or that has just come off a lease. It is not necessary that the computer be defective, it may simply not have met a customer’s expectations. Regardless, before a laptop marked “refurbished” is resold, any defective components are repaired or replaced. The computer is then carefully examined to make sure it is in full working condition. It is then marked as refurbished or reconditioned, prior to being resold.

A refurbished laptop can be a great bargain, but you need to make sure that it is not too old and its specifications are not outdated.

Some reliable sites that sell refurbished laptops include:

Added Costs

When you purchase a laptop, you should be aware, the expense generally does not stop with the cost of the laptop. You may need to purchase peripherals such as a laptop bag/sleeve, headset, printer or particular software. These items can add up to several hundred dollars in additional costs. So be sure to factor for these items in your budget.

You also should consider purchasing a laptop warranty or insurance if you choose to buy a new, or even refurbished, machine. But, be sure to read the fine print prior to purchasing laptop insurance. The manufacturers warranty generally will already cover the first year of ownership for any manufacturers defects or system malfunctions such as the if the screen or camera stop functioning or if there is a motherboard or CPU issue. So if the insurance you are purchasing only covers the same, it is not worth it. In fact, if you purchase your laptop using certain credit cards, the credit card company will typically match the length of any manufacturers warranty, up to one year.

But, these days, you can often purchase insurance that covers the cost of battery replacement and even accidental damage. This type of insurance can be well worth the cost. Laptop batteries alone can cost anywhere from $15 – $200, and generally need to be replaced every 2-3 years. And, for example, Best Buy accident insurance covers not only battery replacement, but also covers your laptop if you spill water on it or drop it. For the rough and tough use most laptops go through, this type of insurance can be a lifesaver. Browse through this Notebook Warranty Guide for a more thorough discussion of the pros and cons of purchasing a warranty and what to look for in a warranty.

Best Time to Buy

According to a new study by Decide.com, one of the best times to purchase a new laptop is late June through early July. This is a time when manufacturers release new products and discount older ones.

If you are forward thinking and do not need to purchase a laptop right away, another ideal time to purchase laptops is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Many retailers offer discounted laptops. You can get a preview of what discounts to expect through certain Websites that display Black Friday ads well in advance.

Many stores also offer back-to-school discounts and incentives in the later summer, early fall. For example, The Apple Store typically offers students a discounted printer and an iPod with the purchase of any laptop prior to the start of the new school year.

Also, you can use to sites like Decide.com to see if the price for the laptop of your choice is projected to drop soon.

Step 3 – Choosing Mac vs. PC: The Big Debate

On the software front, there is the debate of whether to opt for a computer that runs on the Windows operating system, or one that runs on the Mac OS. If your budget is under $1,000 for a new laptop, then the question of Mac vs. PC is already answered for you. You will need to purchase a PC because brand new Macs generally start at the $1,000 price point. However, if you are willing to spend a bit more, you may want to consider purchasing a Mac.

Many users find the Mac experience to be more user friendly and overall more stable and predictable. Also, when it comes time to upgrade, Macs have a much higher resale value. However, Windows users appreciate the fact that their operating system allows for extreme tweaking and personalization and they have a much larger available software library, especially when it comes to free software and games.

The choice really comes down to what you prefer, and what you can afford. Note, however, if you are considering purchasing a Mac, be sure to inquire of your school whether all necessary software will be Mac compatible or whether you will need a PC.

Step 4 – Reading Reviews

Once you have decided on a laptop, or narrowed your choice down to one of a handful of laptop options, be sure to read expert and consumer reviews. It is important to know how others rate their experience with the machine you are considering purchasing. By reading reviews, you will also learn about and bugs in the system or functionality that is lacking that you may not have been aware of.

Some review sites that you may find useful include:

But, in general if you type in the exact name of the laptop and model number into a search engine, you should be able to find several reviews.

Also, as you narrow down your search, you can compare different laptops and the specifications on site like Versus.com.

Step 5 – Finding a Store

Once you have decided on which budget laptop to purchase, the final step is deciding where to buy the laptop, i.e. where you can get the best deal. In today’s day and age, you no longer are limited to brick and mortar stores. There are many reliable online retailers to choose from as well. If you are purchasing from a reputed online retailer, you typically do not have to worry about the security issues of entering your credit card number or other such information over the Internet. Their sites are relatively secure.

If you know exactly which laptop you want to purchase, consider using a comparison shopping site such as NexTag or Bizrate to find the cheapest deal.

If you are not so sure of which computer you are interested in, and your main criteria is just getting the most inexpensive machine, try looking at BensBargains a site that summarizes all of the latest laptop bargains.

If you want to look at different laptops in person, in terms of brick and mortar retailers, ones to consider include Best Buy, Costco, Staples, Office Depot and The Apple Store. Best Buy has some of the best insurance options, as mentioned above, and price match policies. It even matches some online retailer prices.

In terms of online retailers, the most popular is Amazon. Amazon offers some of the best prices around and charges no sales tax.

Ebay also charges no sales tax, but, you may find yourself having to wait and bid on laptops to get the best prices. Also, if you buy on Ebay, make sure the seller has a high rating, in order to avoid scams.

Other sites that you may consider include:

If you feel that a new laptop is out of your range and would rather opt for a used machine, you can check Craigslist. But, beware that such laptops generally are sold “as is” and can have many hidden issues. A common issue is a weak battery. In contrast to refurbished laptops, used or second hand laptops have not been thoroughly checked for faults and neither have their defects been repaired prior to their resale. But, that said, you can often find a good deal on Craigslist if you know what you are looking for. If you have a friend who is computer savvy, take them along with you when you meet the seller and try the machine out before purchasing.