Need a laptop for school, budget $2000, details inside
Hi everyone, I'm looking into getting a new laptop for university work. Thanks to a scholarship, I can get up to $2000 covered off a laptop purchase (and I'd be willing to pay a few hundred more out-of-pocket too).
I plan on using this laptop primarily for basic web browsing, word processing, and Zoom calls. I may be playing some video games on it like Slay the Spire or Hollow Knight, but these aren't too demanding and most of my time will be spent working anyway. My use case shouldn't require a lot of processing power or a high-end dedicated GPU. After graduating, I'll have more consistent access to my desktop anyway, which already has a dedicated card for gaming and can easily be upgraded to suit my needs if I get into video editing or programming, which further reduces the need for a laptop that can do these things. In light of this, I'm looking primarily at a laptop that is lightweight, has a long battery life, good build quality, and a 14-inch screen, to upgrade from my current 13-inch. I haven't decided whether I'll be dual-booting Windows/Linux or running Linux only, but I do plan on running Linux so compatibility is important. Ports aren't a huge deal since there isn't much need for anything more than HDMI/USB on a college campus and I can get a docking station for post-graduation needs.
After lurking around on this forum and others, I've settled on a few potential options:
- Thinkpad X1 Carbon
- Thinkpad T14s
- System76 Lemur Pro
- MacBook M1 Air (added after suggestions, link to specs)
ThinkPads seem to offer the best build quality and potential to last years after purchase, so I'm leaning towards those, but System76 appears to have upgraded their build quality recently, and I just love their designs as well. Lenovo will be releasing the next-generation X1 Carbon soon, but it may be priced out of my range, and I'd like to purchase soon. Even the Carbon Gen 8 is above my price range, though as I understand it Lenovo usually offers discounts so I'm waiting for the sale on customizable builds (they already have discounts on pre-designed builds). I'm totally open to suggestions not on this list, and I've also read that purchasing refurbished ThinkPads can be the way to go, though I'd like to take full advantage of my budget if possible. If anyone has any experience with the above laptops, reason to recommend one over the other, or knows why I might want to wait on purchasing (e.g. for a release of next-gen hardware), please let me know!
basic hardware comparison
|blank||T14s||X1 Carbon (Gen 8)||Lemur Pro|
|starting weight (lbs)||2.8||2.4||2.4|
|advertised battery life (hrs)||13.6||13.5||14|
|Linux compatibility||compatible||Fedora pre-installed||Pop_OS! pre-installed|
edit: Table working now!
edit2: Thanks for all the suggestions and discussion everyone. I've yet to make a final decision but will update again later.
This is fully my own opinion, but with that kind of budget, I would go with a premium ultrabook from a well established brand. Since it looks like you're not into macs (otherwise, the M1 Air is a dream computer for college students), I would recommend laptops like an XPS 13, Zenbook, Surface Laptop, HP Spectre. XPS 13 in particular, since Dell officially supports Ubuntu and it's just the best non-Mac 13'' laptop right now.
I started college with a Thinkpad, ended with a Macbook. It cannot be understated the advantages of having a beautiful, bright screen and a thin and lightweight build quality. A laptop in college is something you're going to for several hours, it's worth it to have something nice to handle and look at. As you have already identified, when making this choice do not fret over numbers like CPU performance or how much RAM the device has. None of that matters as much as how much it weights, how it feels to use, and how the screen looks.
Also, absolutely 100% avoid discrete GPUs. As far as I know, the situation with nvidia, linux, and GPU passthrough is pretty garbage still. You don't want to use the GPU all the time, since it kills the battery, but if you just disable it entirely when why'd you even pay the extra.
Just a bit of extra shilling for the M1 macs. If you handle MacOS and having an apple device, it seriously does everything a college student would need. Performant, great screen, good keyboard, the best battery life with zero competition, longevity from the complete lack of moving parts, and of course light and thin.
If I had to distill this into one laptop suggestion, it would be the XPS 13. Great build quality, beautiful screen, good battery life, official linux support (i.e Dell can ship with only Ubuntu, so at least the hardware is driver supported), light, and very premium.
I would strongly advise against a college student using a Mac, as generally schools are very Windows-oriented. The only exception would be people who know enough of what they're doing to make it work (Bootcamp, VMs, etc). Everybody I've met with a Mac was anxious about doing their coursework or has to use our school's virtual machine system. Granted, I'm doing Information Systems, so we're very much Office focused (Word, Excel (which causes some analyisis issues from Mac to Win)), but I've seen similar in general ed and community college business majors. My school's CompSci department has their own Xubuntu spin for some Linux stuff, but everything else, from what I've heard, is also Windows.
As a counterpoint, when going to UT for computer science in the 2000s, I'd estimate a full 65% of students and 90% of faculty had MacBooks.
(As a side note, despite tempest's resistance to Macs, I'm going to join stu2b50 and recommend an M1 Air - I can't imagine picking that and ending up disappointed)
Oddly, I've got professors using Macbooks, but even they're having to fight stuff occasionally, if not constantly explain caveats pertaining to the students who are required to use Windows.
I'd also doubly not recommend an M1 Macbook as of yet to somebody who has professed an interest in gaming at all. Rosetta doesn't seem to support Steam fully, and I imagine would have issues with it's library.
I have to say that wasn't really my experience in University. For most classes, what you'll be doing is web browsing, documenting writing, powerpoint making, and pdf reading, for which a mac will do just fine, and with 50% more battery to boot. Many students use the Google tools for collaboration anyway.
For CS, I find that very strange, honestly. Windows is the black sheep of the developing world and often gets things last, and it's often a pain to get things to work. That's why Microsoft had to start shipping a linux kernel (with WSL) to make the developer experience less bad.
MacOS has a strong developer base from both history and because it's heavily used in industry (macbook local linux server very common for the typical SaaS tech company), and I'd expect in most CS department's you'd have an easier time getting things to work with a Unix derived system that has a well supported package manager (despite how much people gripe about homebrew; macports exists too) and my favorite terminal emulator (I like Iterm2 more than any my current linux terminal emulator!)
edit: I would also anecdotally agree with andre, when I was a student (much more recently evidently), it was at least 50% macbooks for students and a good 70% mac 30% linux split for faculty.
I suppose I can see how it could be a problem in IT, but Microsoft does release their office suite.
Which is why I use Linux specifically for a few things. That's also partly why my school's CompSci department has a custom Xubuntu distro.
Most of the issue is very non-technical. It's simply that the curriculum is designed one way, and needs to be followed, often down to specific file formats. If your Google Doc results in a distorted .docx, you've lost points on that project. Most professors are pretty flexible, they want 12-size Times New Roman, but won't freak out if it's Liberation Serif in a PDF as long as the formatting is right, but you're just as likely to get somebody who wants Office .docx with the exact right font.
There's a bit of an issue where Mac's Excel will produce different outputs to the Windows version. These are statistically insignificant differences, but can cause issues on tests. There's also the very non-technical issue of it being easier to teach according to one set of keybindings, and I'd argue this is an issue for any major doing analytics with Excel (obviously, compsci, engineering and stats majors will probably move to MATLAB or R).
There's also the issue with engineering where a lot of stuff, at least for education, is Windows only. I expect that the day I graduate from school with my business degree my operating system won't matter, but until that point I at least need Windows around to get the job done to my professors' requirements.
It's been a long time since I've seen courses require Windows software. Most professional/creative software is available for Mac and Windows. CompSci courses focus on cross platform languages, my first classes were all in Java and could easily be done on a Mac or PC back in 2006.
All I'm doing is reporting from the trenches I inhabit. I think it's unfortunate that Windows is practically a requirement, being a huge fan of Linux.
I've been there, I just pushed for PDFs, so other people could use it. I've had quite a few professors accept PDFs, which is convenient, and even then LibreOffice can do decent docx these days, unless you've got crazy header and footer action going on. My only points are in keeping up with coursework, not actually doing things in the real world, where it doesn't matter as much as long as you can get the job done in a way your boss/colleagues can easily open and read. You could do everything in R and LaTex and export to a PDF and you'd be fine, until you specifically have to submit a docx report and xlsx of your analysis to get a passing grade on the project.
I would like to shill for the M1 a bit more. Please indulge me :)
I just bought a bit of software to upscale my parents vhs wedding footage. Topaz labs video enhance AI. This software will use any and all gpu power you can throw at it. My desktop has a GTX 1070ti and a quadro M4000. This software runs at the same speed on my 1070ti as it does on my M1 air.
To be clear, don’t expect the same gaming performance as a 1070ti on the air. But if and when you need to do some heavy compute tasks, the air will do very well. This is insane performance for a fanless laptop that has insane battery life.
One caveat to be aware of is that support for Linux on the new Apple M1 chips is in progress. It'll definitely work, eventually, but it's under active development at the moment and it certainly won't be the hassle-free experience you'll get with an x86-based Lenovo or System76 (or, for that matter, one of the older x86 Macs)
You can also run linux in a vm.
I would recommend against the XPS 13, M1, and similar solely because of their port situation.
Two USB-C ports are not enough and dongle land is not a good place to be, especially in university. My current laptop (an older XPS 13) doesn't have an HDMI port, and that's enough of a pain - carrying around a Thunderbolt ==> HDMI adapter is yet another thing to keep track of, and I've misplaced it too many times before I needed to give a presentation. I can only imagine not having USB-A ports would be even worse.
Out of curiosity, what ThinkPad did you have in college?
Obviously it's all personal preference, but I've never quite got the dongle hate - at home, I have ethernet, HDMI, and power all plugged into the same box, so hooking my laptop up to everything is as easy as putting it on the stand and plugging in the charger would have been.
I have a similar, smaller dongle permanently in my work bag, which is the only thing I ever carry my laptop in. I also threw in a USB C-External HD cable, USB C-Micro B cable, and USB C-C cable because those are things I'm likely to need semi-regularly, although they could all be covered by the USB A ports on the dongle if we're comparing to a USB A laptop. I don't personally need an SD reader, but if you do, you can easily get a dongle that supports it.
Maybe it's just my use case, but having the option to dock everything on one port seems more convenient, and choosing a dongle with your own preferred selection of ports doesn't strike me as a hardship, especially when the tradeoff is encouraging more new hardware to support USB C directly.
Pretty much my only complaint, in fact, is the difficulty of identifying the different capabilities of a given port or cable. That's a legitimate hassle, and it frustrates the hell out of me that the standards body seem to be competing with themselves for the worst, most unnecessarily complex naming conventions.
In my opinion HDMI is one of the easiest ports to go without. Type-C to HDMI/DisplayPort cables are cheap and you’d need to carry a cable anyway or just leave it on your desk. My monitor even charges my MacBook from a single type-C cable, which is fantastic. It’s stuff like FIDO/U2 keys, SD card readers, and Ethernet that are annoying for me.
I rarely found myself connecting up to projectors at school, but I suppose it’s normal to just leave an HDMI cable at the projector so I see your point.
I believe it was a T480.
For the port situation, honestly it's not that bad. I have one of those multi-dongles which ran like $30. It has HDMI, ethernet, three USB A's, a usb-c (with passthrough power), and an SD card + micro sd cart slot, which should run the gamut for most people.
And, to be honest, the only one I commonly used was the HDMI port. I can't think of too many reasons a student would need to use all of these ports now that everything is fed to you from whatever portal the university is paying for online, thumb drives have mostly died since cloud storage became cheap, and you can email your professor your slide deck/link to google slides.
I used a T430 in college. In fact, it’s my main computer today. It’s upgraded to its limits and only barely handles my workload, but it’s fun seeing an 8 year old laptop still meeting my needs.
I have it hooked up to a 1440p display and external mouse and keyboard. Outside of really intensive unoptimized web apps it’s perfect.
Strongly agree on this. @tempestoftruth I recently picked up this with the 4k screen for a family member, and would have loved to have something with such a great form factor and screen in school. Form factor, resolution, and brightness are far more important metrics than computing power in a machine like this, and if you need computing power for some reason set up ssh to your desktop (or reverse ssh from a VPS from a cheap provider like OVH if your school has a firewall).
You’re on the right track with a ThinkPad. Just don’t get an Intel one, get an AMD one. Make sure you upgrade to the brightest screen you can get as well.
I also agree with the M1 MacBook Air idea, though perhaps wait for the 14” MacBook Pro refresh.
Any particular reason to prefer AMD over Intel? I'm hoping to get a Carbon instead of a T14s if budget allows, and if I recall correctly Lenovo doesn't offer Carbons with AMD chips.
AMD chips are just superior to Intel right now. Although, to be honest, I wouldn't worry that much about it... because you may not be able to buy one right now. AMD is being stretched to the absolute limit with the fab space they have, what with the new Xbox, new PS5, new GPU, new desktop CPUs, and new laptop CPUs all sharing fab space.
It's pretty damn hard to actually buy a laptop with an AMD cpu right now.
Lower power consumption, more cores, better performance. There currently aren’t any ThinkPads with Ryzen 5000, which is a shame. Those chips look crazy good next to Intel’s. It’s really all about AMD’s 7nm process advantage.
There’s also something to be said about security mitigations over time, but those don’t usually get applied to personal computers. Historically AMD has a better track record than Intel on that front.
Edit: one of these bad boys would make for a perfect ThinkPad https://www.anandtech.com/show/16446/amd-ryzen-9-5980hs-cezanne-review-ryzen-5000-mobile-tested
AMD battery life top notch right now. Can easily get 14+ hours of light-medium usage out of a charge. You can get a real good AMD thinkpad for well under $1500 now.
My x395 has two USB C side by side, and either can be used for charging. This is great for log term usage as USB grip weakens over time... probably the main upside to old cylindrical charging cables.
I love the X1 Carbon series.
Long battery life ✅️ caveat, I'm on Linux
Good build quality ✅️ basically indestructible, fantastic keyboard and trackpad, touchscreen if you want it
Searching here may help you evaluate pros and cons that matter to you: https://www.reddit.com/r/thinkpad/
The Thinkpad X1 Carbon is probably the laptop for you.
I haven't heard much about the Lemur Pro, but looking it over, I don't see anything that makes it compellingly better than a ThinkPad. They're both going to have perfect Linux support, it looses a USB-C port for a chunky single-use power supply, and it's very likely going to have a worse keyboard and trackpad than the X1 Carbon. The T14 looks much more comparable, but I'd still pick the X1 Carbon over it for being 15% lighter.
I have three X1 Carbons (from a Gen1 I bought used, originally as a BSD test laptop, plus 2 newer ones my work bought...I think a Gen4 and Gen6?) and heartily second this. It would take an act of one or more gods to get me to buy something else for future laptops (though, as mentioned elsewhere in the thread, I'd really like my next Carbon to be AMD-based).
I don't think the ThinkPad X1 Carbon offers an Ethernet port. The Gen 8 and prior had a proprietary port that could connect to an Ethernet dongle, but the Gen 9 scrapped it (for good reason - if you're going to need a dongle, you may as well just use a USB-C to Ethernet dongle).
It's definitely not a full-size Ethernet port. The X1's body is too thin for it and so it has to be a dongle instead. Even my gen1 Carbon, which feels thick compared to the newer ones, is too thin for Ethernet.
Similar story with the T14, where the full-size T14 has an Ethernet port but the T14s doesn't.
Ethernet ports are generally the "tallest" port that a computer has, so it's no surprise it was the first to go in the fight to make laptops thinner. USB-A and HDMI were next, replaced by USB-C and the various micro-HDMI / mini-HDMI / mini-DP standards.
Second this. The X1 Carbon is by far the best on the market for general. I only will, and have bought Thinkpads for the last ten years and will be the only one brand I buy going forward unless something catastrophic happens (unlikely). I would opt for a new Thinkpad T4**, but the X1 has some killer specs.
Incredibly upgradeable, high quality, can take massive beatings, easily repairable, great hardware warranty (best in the industry), runs Windows and Linux distributions better than anything else, and lots of ports.
Some of the many reasons Thinkpads are the preferred (and standard!) in heavy industries (Construction, Business, Mining, Manufacturing) and for developers of all types (great heavy-duty specs).
Out of your options, I'd frankly get the Lemur Pro. You can replace the storage and RAM and you can run two SSDs on it, which may benefit you if you choose to dual boot. You can't replace the RAM on the Lenovos, so if something happens to that, the laptop's dead. The only reason I haven't bought a System76 yet is because I've got a refurb'd T430s with a whitelist-modded bios that does everything I want.
For running Linux, because you're looking at two Thinkpads and a System76, any issues you have will be well-documented and trivial to fix anyway, so you don't necessarily have to worry about that.