Unclutterer’s 2016 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Buying a laptop for school

2016 gift giving guideWhen I was a high school and college student, computers only existed in the school’s library or in the computer lab. Today, they’re as ubiquitous as group projects and starchy cafeteria meals. Elementary school students will be introduced to computers, and by the time they’re in junior high, kids will receive, complete and turn in homework assignments digitally. As such, a laptop makes a great gift for many students. In this article, I’ll go over how to approach this shopping task. The first thing to determine is what type of computer they’re going to need. The best source for an answer is the school itself.

Ask the school

My first bit of advice applies to buying any school supplies: check with the school. The IT department at your student’s school — junior high, high school or university — has probably published minimum requirement guidelines. For example, something like these recommendations from my alma mater. They’ll include the preferred operating system, hardware requirements, security concerns and so on.

You’ll notice that the guidelines I linked above are for architecture students. Those studying different disciplines will have their own requirements. Again, checking with the IT department is the best way to start. For example, my kids’ school uses Google Classroom extensively, and therefore suggests that students use Chromebooks.

The specifics

The school’s guidelines are a good starting point, but there is always a little leeway. If the school is suggesting a Chromebook but you would prefer to buy a Windows machine or a Mac, you may be able to do so.

Consider how your student will use his or her machine. For instance, should you buy a bigger/heavier or smaller/lighter machine? Will it be carried from class to class or sit in a cart between assignments? Perhaps it will stay home and not travel to school at all.

Next, look at internal storage. A solid state drive (SSD) will perform much better than a traditional, mechanical hard drive because it is fast with super snappy search and retrieval. But if the student will mostly do word processing, a less expensive hard drive is just fine.

Lastly, look at peripherals that you’ll need. A sturdy, ergonomic mouse is a good idea, as is a good laptop stand. A simple bag is useful as well, especially if the computer will be traveling to and from class.

What to buy

With all that said, here are my picks — one of each operating system.




The Dell Chromebook 13 is a fantastic little computer. At $430, it feels like a laptop that cost hundreds more. It’s got a fantastic keyboard, a solid, quality trackpad and enough “oomph” to get kids through their assignments with ease. The eleven-hour battery life is a bonus, as is the 16 GB solid state drive and 4 GB of RAM. This is the Chromebook I would buy if I were in the market.



If you prefer a Windows operating system, consider the DELL XPS 13.3″ Ultrabook. It offers a great-looking display and has small, portable body. It’s perfect for any coursework assignment. The aluminum body will take minor bumps and scrapes (let’s face it, kids aren’t always kind to their things).



For most students, a MacBook Air will serve their needs. I recommend an Apple-certified refurbished model like this one. The Air is ultra portable, features startup times that are incredibly fast and has access to Apple’s ecosystem of apps and services. Plus, Apple laptops retain their resale value very well.

A laptop makes a very nice gift indeed, and hopefully this guide helps you choose the very right one. Happy shopping.

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

One Comment for “Unclutterer’s 2016 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Buying a laptop for school”

  1. posted by Jason on

    > Those studying different disciplines will have their own requirements. Again, checking with the IT department is the best way to start.

    This is the most important line in the article. It doesn’t matter if a student “wants” a particular kind of computer, the first question should always be “will it run the software that the academic program requires?” A student not taking math, science, or engineering courses may be able to get away with just about any machine. For those pursuing any discipline with a technical component, not only will your operating system be dictated, as well as specific applications it must run, so too will likely be minimum amounts of storage, memory, and processing power.

    Even if a minimum isn’t stated, speaking as a former student in a technical discipline, there’s a big difference between having to wait 60 seconds for a processing command to finish and waiting 10 minutes, particularly when you’ve got homework involving dozens of such steps, and no amount of pretty case, lighter weight, or longer battery life is going to matter to you if your machine doesn’t do what you need it to do

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