Help me pick a 'laptop' for school

Discussion in 'MacBook Pro' started by businezguy, May 9, 2015.

  1. businezguy macrumors 6502

    Jun 23, 2003
    I've decided to go back to school to further my education. I'm looking for a versatile "laptop" specifically for this task. My plan is to use MS Office as it will work best for my classes and I'm very familiar with it. I'm very open on what I can use because I don't need any ports, the hard drive size won't be important to me, and I almost suspect Microsoft Windows might be better for my needs.

    Here are possible choices:
    -MacBook Pro 13 inch refurbished $929 (nice screen, good battery life, no touch screen, fairly portable)
    -MacBook Air 13 inch refurbished $749 (adequate screen, amazing battery life, no touch screen, good portability)
    -MacBook 12 inch new $1199 with edu discount (nice screen, good battery life, no touch screen, extremely portable)
    -Dell XPS 13 inch new $749 (nice screen, amazing battery life, no touch screen, good portability)
    -Microsoft Surface Pro 3 $837 with keyboard and edu discount (nice screen, good battery life, touch screen/stylus, extremely portable)

    I have to admit, this is a hard decision. Right now I think I'm favoring the Surface because I like the idea of being able to write with the stylus. The fact is, when you write down your notes, you use different parts of your brain that assist you in remembering the facts you are writing down.

    On the other hand, I really enjoy having a one piece laptop that I can use on my lap. I'm used to using trackpads, etc. since pretty much all of my experience with computers has been with laptops throughout the years. As a result, I'm also favoring the Dell XPS 13.

    The reason I'm currently favoring these Windows machines is because I expect them to do better with Office; Microsoft is putting in a lot of effort to release Microsoft Office 2016 for the Mac so that might change things.

    If anybody has personal experience with these devices, feel free to provide your personal experience. Thanks!
  2. cambookpro macrumors 603


    Feb 3, 2010
    United Kingdom
    I carry a 15" cMBP around school along with textbooks and folders for four different subjects a day - my bag can get quite heavy!

    Most of the time we're made to take notes with pen and paper, so I've invested in a few pens I like to write with (Parker Sonnet, 45 and 51; Twsbi 580; Lamy Safari) and a good quality pad of paper. However, this may not be a problem you're faced with!

    When we are allowed to take notes electronically, I tried for a bit to use my iPad with a stylus. It's not a great experience. The screen gets palm-prints everywhere from laying your hand on it, it's not very accurate, especially compared to pen and paper, and it's a lot less versatile than a laptop.

    That last point may not apply to the Surface, but I'd consider long and hard before writing notes primarily with a stylus. It's not a good experience - get a Bluetooth keyboard (or that Surface keyboard cover thingy) instead.

    If you want to take notes electronically, undoubtedly the best way is to type them. The Dell XPS is the laptop one of my friends has recently bough and seems like one of the best Windows machines you can buy, and the MBA is seemingly the go-to student laptop. I personally find laptops offer so much more flexibility, from being able to properly multitask, to being able to run apps iPads and Surfaces can only dream of.

    It all depends on what you prefer: Windows or OS X. I tried a retina MacBook out last week, and if your budget stretches that far, I'd say it would be absolutely brilliant. It's incredibly light, the trackpad and large keyboard feel great and the screen is beautifully crisp. It may not be powerful enough to play too many games on (not sure how important that is for you), but it's a beautiful machine.
    If you want something a little more proven, a 13" rMBP or MBA would be perfect. I'd personally go with the rMBP due to the screen and power, but depending on your needs you may value the portability of the MBA.

    I can't speak for the Dell having not used one extensively, but it should work out fine - it's certainly a pretty computer. I'm not sure what other devices you have, but I'd bear in mind that buying a Mac would better integrate with an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV etc.

    If money was no object, I'd go rMB and a pen and pad of paper for handwritten notes - I digitise most of mine using Scanner Pro so I don't lose out on that aspect. Otherwise, the other laptops you mentioned provide great alternatives. If you go with the Surface, I'd have a go at using a stylus to take notes for an hour of so first before buying one to see if you like it or not.
  3. RichardC300 macrumors 65816


    Sep 27, 2012
    Chapel Hill, NC
    I use a 15" cMBP for school, too. What I like about it is the screen real estate. Don't overlook the screen size in your decision! It's nice having two documents side-by-side and at a legible size. What I don't like about it is the laptop's footprint. A 15" cMBP takes up a lot of room on the table! Sometimes when you're sitting at a table, you'll have textbooks, notebooks, your phone, etc. all around your laptop. Weight isn't really an issue unless you're a smaller person. The couple of pounds extra won't matter too much with everything else in your backpack.

    With that said, I recommend a 13" rMBP. It has a compact footprint, and with a retina display, you can you can use some decent resolutions when you need more screen real estate. It's VERY light if you ask me, too. Not like the new rMB light, but still astonishingly light. I've used MS Office 2011 for Mac for 4 whole years, and it's literally done everything I have needed it to do. I don't know what Windows-only functionalities there are, but certainly, there's none that would tip me towards Windows over OS X.
  4. KUguardgrl13 macrumors 68020


    May 16, 2013
    Kansas, USA
    I've used 13" MBPs since I started college in 2009. Both the cMBP and the rMBP have been excellent machines. I love my late-2013 rMBP! I've always used MS Office for Mac and have never had any issues with either 2008 or 2011. 2016 should be a good update. OS X is an incredibly stable OS. I had some hardware issues with my 09 MBP, but I believe those shouldn't be a problem with the rMBPs.

    I haven't used any Windows machines in years, so I can't speak for them. It's probably because when I was shopping for a college laptop back in 09 all Windows had was Vista. However, of Windows meets your needs more than OS X, you might as well get a PC.
  5. brdeveloper macrumors 68020


    Apr 21, 2010
    Never tested a Surface stylus, but I have high hopes since it's an active one. The Galaxy Note pen is passive, so its tip never matches the exact point you're actually drawing in the screen.

    I would consider a Surface taking into account that you want replacing notebook paper. But you have to check yourself to assure it it's a good pen/paper replacement.
  6. Trogdor796 macrumors regular


    Apr 21, 2015
    Not sure if this was mentioned already, but if you like using your laptop in you lap...the surface may not be the best choice. Because of the kickstand and the way it works, it's much better on a hard surface like a table or desk, not so much on your lap.

    At work we have some Surface Pro 2's that I've used occasionally, and I've also used a Pro 3 at Costco. I thought the stylus on the 3 was very good, but I did not test it more that 5 minutes. I was also not a huge fan of the touchpad, it was not something I liked using for any length of time.

    Just some things to think about and maybe try in person before buying.

    I'm typing this on a new retina MacBook, and I love it. This is my first Macbook but it's very portable and the keyboard and touch pad are awesome to use.
  7. dogslobber macrumors 68040


    Oct 19, 2014
    Apple Campus, Cupertino CA
    Buy the cheapest laptop possible then use the rest of the $$$ to go to the student union for a drink.
  8. PaulWog Suspended

    Jun 28, 2011
    It's inconsequential which laptop you get so long as you:
    - Like the screen size & quality / keyboard layout / touchpad / operating system
    - Have enough battery life
    - The laptop doesn't break down on you randomly / have any strange heat dissipation spots like on the palm rest

    Now, if you start using the laptop for entertainment, media, gaming, storing things on the hard drive, etc, then you might care a little bit more about some things.

    Anything from what you've listed should be fine. Personally, I like keeping my laptop and my tablet separate: I carry both, or one, or none. I've used a tablet for note-taking... my opinion is that it's not the best experience, and it's not the same as writing with a pen or pencil. When I was in university (and I'll be going back for another year to finish an additional program come September), the only reason I used my iPad was for Notability... I only used it with PDF's, to add small notes to the provided slides. I would *never* use a tablet to actually handwrite notes, or do anything other than modify slides.

    If funds work out for me, I'll be going with the Macbook Pro 13-inch 2015. My reasoning: It looks like a lot of fun. I like the aesthetics, the screen, the keyboard, the touchpad, the performance is quite good given the form-factor, etc, etc. The only reason why I might hold off is the price-premium on a 256GB model, even given the education discount.
  9. mlts22 macrumors 6502a

    Oct 28, 2008
    For taking notes, a touch screen is just not going to cut it for most things. It might be good for dashing out a note or two, but especially when you start having to crank out those term papers, you will want a laptop with a decent keyboard.

    There is also the fact that a laptop may be OK for browsing and basic tasks, but there are always times when it is good to get one that can be used for some gaming, especially when you get those funky class blocks where you have 1-2 hours of dead time and don't care to go home, so need to find something to do for killing time.

    I'd probably go for a MBA or a MBP, unless one has their heart set on the MacBook, and is willing to live with just that one USB 3.1 slot.
  10. MacRazySwe macrumors 6502a

    Aug 7, 2007
    I'm in my 3rd and last year of college. I'm studying business and economics and have been using the 13" MBA, 13" rMBP and also an iPad Mini during my studies.

    First of all, working in OS X and iOS is a joy. I have never had my computers crash on me in, never causing inconvenience. They all just worked. I used them for note taking in lectures, written assignments, office-work (more on that soon) presentations and will even be doing some statistical coding in R soon. It has all just worked. Also, the battery life on new macs is just amazing. I never ever bring my charger. I think Macs are perfect in the sense that they just work, and integrates so well in the college-environment, which allows you to focus on your work without updates, antivirus-programs, clean-up utilities etc getting in the way of your workflow.

    However, the one problem I have had with the Mac is the MS Office environment. Word, PowerPoint etc works well, but Excel for Mac is really bad in my opinion. I'm surprised no one else has pointed this out. Excel for Mac lacks many of the needed statistical functions which we often use in our assignments. They are absolutely non existent. You CAN install scripts that let you run the calculations but it is a hassle and never works well. This has meant that I've had to use the school computers or have friends enter the data for me and do the calculations and then send it to me (you can still see the work done on PCs). Unfortunately Office 2016 is no better. The statistical measures are still nowhere to be found. It's a shame really.

    As for the iPad Mini. I have now stopped using my laptop for note taking and using pen and paper instead, so the iPad is great if I just need to follow the lecture slides. It also allows me to travel very light.

    However, there is room for improvement with the iPad Mini. The Surface just slaughters the iPad from a productivity standpoint, which is why I'm seriously considering it. However I only have half a year or so left so there's probably no need now. But the point is that the Surface is a perfect student device. It will allow you to jot down your notes directly on your PDFs. It will allow you to record lectures WHILE taking notes. It will allow you to run full Office/files with better functionality than what's available on the Mac, etc etc.

    However, the Surface is meant to replace both your laptop and tablet. I'm not sure whether it could actually replace my rMBP or not... But I am absolutely positive that it could replace my iPad and do so without any compromises.

    I think my recommended setup would be one primary computer for heavy work, such as writing assignments and office and so on. Probably the rMBP 13" or MBA 13", or even an iMac... Depending on how often you would need it in school. You could even go with a used computer. Secondly, I would get the Surface. I think it looks awesome. Personally I think I would go with the normal Surface 3 (not pro) and only use it as an iPad replacement. The smaller size makes sense for lectures. It's also cheaper.

    Good luck with your studies!
  11. snaky69 macrumors 603

    Mar 14, 2008
    I'm simply curious, not criticizing. But what exactly is the deal with everyone wanting a touch screen laptop?

    To me, it's just about the most unergonomic, useless, finger-smudge inducing piece of technology you could have on a laptop(and I truly mean laptop, as in, having a fixed hinge and no other way to place it). Think about it, hold your arm up parallel to the ground like you would on a vertical touch screen. Now hold that position for a full minute. Not very fun is it? That's exactly what actually using a laptop's touch screen for any amount of time would do. It looks good in sci-fi movies, but it's just not a good idea.

    Something like the surface pro is quite different, as you can actually put it in a position where such a problem wouldn't occur. That's where a touch screen actually comes in handy.

    Back to the topic at hand, my rant is over.

    My first question would be, how much typing do you actually intend on doing? I've used the surface pro quite a bit and I can honestly say I don't car for the keyboard at all. Add to the fact that it can't really be used as a laptop (as in, on your lap) and that'd rule it out almost instantly for me.
  12. Altis macrumors 68030

    Sep 10, 2013
    I'd rule out the MacBook since it's the most expensive and nowhere near as practical as the rMBP. Not even having ports for USB drives, printers, docking to monitors, hooking up external mouse, etc.

    It would help to know what you plan on taking in school. If your classes are more lecture-style, OneNote on the Surface Pro might be the best tool you could have. I recommend checking out some in-depth videos of it as there's a lot to it, such as the way it can record audio from a lecture and match it up to each element in your notes so you can listen to the relevant parts (such as the professor explaining a diagram you just drew). The SP3 is really made to be exceptional at things a student would need to do, and it's pretty tough to beat.

    The XPS is really well reviewed and decently priced, too. With Windows 10, it should be pretty good. I think of it as a less expensive MBA that has a smaller footprint and better screen, though the trackpad isn't quite as silky as Apple's. The base model seems to be the best value.

    Personally, I consider the rMBP to be better value than the Air. I don't think the Air is much more portable, yet the screen is nowhere near as nice and the bezels are colossal. My girlfriend has had several problems with hers over the last 18 months, but that could be somewhat isolated. I've had to do a fresh reinstall on it and there are some sreen defects... every now and again it refuses to turn on at all for about 4 hours. Nobody can figure out why.

    A rMBP also is better suited at running Windows in a VM if you need it. Again, depending on what you're taking, you may find that you use some software that only runs in Windows.

    Office for Mac still doesn't feel right and has had some bugs (though not nearly as bad as 2008 was). I look forward to the day when they make it the same as the Windows version, but that shouldn't be far off as you know. In the meantime, you could use the online version of Office for free, which is actually quite good.

    One final thought for you: consider the cost of the tools as part of the cost of your education. When you look at how much school is costing you overall (both in time and money), it makes sense to get what you need, using sense and reason.

    I'd recommend: (1) Surface Pro 3, (2) rMBP, (3) XPS 13
  13. sladeski macrumors newbie

    Jan 28, 2014
    I just finished my first year at University, studying computer science. I used a retina macbook pro 15" (2012 model).

    From my experience, the device to pick depends on the types of classes you're taking. My laptop was great for taking electronic notes for my elective classes, which included classes that were simply write-down-memorize (introductory anthropology, introductory micro/macroeconomics). The reason I chose to use my laptop for these was the fact that typing is simply so much faster than writing (for these classes, anyway). For most of my note taking, I used Apple Pages. It was great for me, super smooth and the note taking template was perfect for organization without really putting too much effort into it. In these types of classes, most people typed on laptops. There were a few people who used tablets, and less who wrote on paper. Whoever was using a tablet was using a keyboard for it.

    However, for my classes that were more complex writing-wise, such as calculus, linear algebra, etc. I used pen and paper. I highly advise against trying to use a surface/iPad for these. For one, you look ridiculous writing calculus on a tablet, and it's simply not enjoyable to use a stylus and tablet when you can just have a nice pen and good paper, for me. If you do want to keep your notes in digital form, as somebody else said, you can digitize them.

    One thing that I found useful was using tablets for things like textbook PDFs. Other than that, I really see no way to justify buying a tablet over a laptop. If writing with a stylus is the only thing drawing you to a tablet, I highly suggest, as someone said, trying to write notes for a good hour on a tablet. I much prefer a good pen and paper.

    As far as laptops go:

    My roommate had a Dell XPS 15, and I had the rMBP 15. I know you're considering 13" models, but I think most of my experiences will apply anyway. If you do for some reason end up going with a 15", they're not too big. I was concerned at first because I thought it would be too big for tiny desks, or whatever. But, they're just small enough.

    I wasn't a huge fan of the XPS, but it's a great computer none-the-less. I absolutely despised the keyboard. That being said, I'm not sure if the 13" and 15" share the same keyboard design. I also didn't really like the trackpad. As far as trackpads go, you simply can't beat Apple's. The computer was also very loud compared to mine, as the XPS did not have SSD like my Macbook. From what I'm reading on Dell's website, it looks like the new 13" XPS comes standard with SSD, but I'm unsure if it's the same model you're considering. Either way, SSD is the way to go.

    I've used Windows for the majority of my life, but now that I've made the switch I've really started to appreciate Mac for student-use. Everything is very fluid and simple for me. If you would like Windows, you can always have both operating systems installed onto your Mac, and choose which one suits best for each situation.

    You mentioned that ports aren't of a huge concern, and neither is storage. If I were you, I would get either the new 12 inch Macbook, a 13" rMBP, or a Macbook Air. With one of these choices, you get solid state storage, which gives you the speed that you'll really come to appreciate when you're running late for the start of a class, or whatever. Plus, they're incredibly portable. I would probably rule out the 13" non-retina Macbook Pro, because it doesn't have SSD. From there, you just have to think about whether or not having a retina display is really worth the extra cost for you. For me, it is, BUT if you're going to use Microsoft Office, take note the current version is a tiny bit fuzzy on retina displays. It's still completely usable, but it is something to be aware of.

    As said above, I would personally opt for the rMBP over the new Macbook simply because of better value (for me). If you can get a refurbished 13" retina Macbook Pro, I'd snag it.

    TL;DR: I used a laptop for easy-to-type classes, pen and paper for math, etc. I don't recommend a Tablet as a primary computer, and I recommend an SSD-based laptop, such as an Air, a 13" retina Macbook Pro, or the new Macbook.
  14. glenthompson macrumors 68000


    Apr 27, 2011
    I am able to type notes faster on my MBP than I can writing them on a notepad. My handwriting isn't the most legible and writing neatly takes me more time.

    The only way I would go with a Windows machine is if I needed to run a lot of Windows programs for my classes. If you can do most of it in MS Office then the Mac is a better choice IMHO.
  15. businezguy thread starter macrumors 6502

    Jun 23, 2003
    I can't answer your question about laptops with touch screens. None of the ones I'm considering has one. The Surface Pro 3 does, but I'm sure you'll agree that isn't a laptop persay.

    I've been reading all of the posts, and I have to admit, I'm trying to eliminate choices and I'm finding it difficult. It should be noted that I have a 27 inch iMac at home so I have access to a beautiful, large screen should I need one.

    I think I'm going to eliminate the MacBook because of battery life. I do want all day battery life and it appears to be the device with the least battery life based on reviews. It also doesn't have the best keyboard, which is very important for my needs.

    So, I'm down to the Dell XPS 13, Surface Pro 3, MacBook Pro 13, and MacBook Air 13. One of the reasons I had the Air on the list was because of it's battery life. How would the 2014 edition of the MacBook Pro compare battery wise?

    One other thing to clarify, when I'm in a lecture, I plan to type. There's no way I could handwrite my notes fast enough during class. I type probably 6 times faster then I can write by hand. However, there will be a lot of memorization on my part and when I take notes while reading a book it's my understanding I can better commit to memory items I write down by hand more then items typed. I'm going to have to remember incredible volumes of inforation, more then I ever have in my life, which is why I'm so serious about the tool I use for school.
  16. PaulWog Suspended

    Jun 28, 2011
    The 2014 version gets a rated 9 hours I believe. From a lot of reviews I've watched, the difference between the 2014 and the 2015 is about 2 hours when it comes down to it (despite the ratings being 9 hours vs. 10 hours).

    Really it should come down to what toy you like typing on better. You could be saving a lot of money and getting a much cheaper laptop than anything you've listed, but you want comfort and style to go along with the laptop. Pick what you want & can afford.
  17. dubhe macrumors 65816


    May 1, 2007
    Norwich, UK
    You will appreciate the biggest screen you can afford, and that is both on pixel count and dimension. 13" rMBP is what I use for my further education study.
  18. TapticJab, May 11, 2015
    Last edited: May 11, 2015

    TapticJab macrumors newbie

    May 1, 2015
    AS SOON AS I SAW THE DELL XPS 13 ON THE LIST I CRINGED AND HAD TO REPLY. Let me tell you my sad tale with the Dell XPS 13. Like you, I was on a quest to find the ideal computer for school. I initially wanted to purchase a MBA/MBPr but friends convinced me to purchase the Dell XPS 13. Don't get me wrong--it's a beautiful computer. It's sleek, portable, and the infinity display is amazingly built and vibrant. The carbon fiber and the exterior metal shell was a nice touch that made it feel like a high quality product.

    Once you dive into the computer however, you'll soon realize that the touchpad is absolute crap. In the week and a half that I owned my Dell XPS 13, I suffered with ghost clicking, slow scrolling in chrome & various apps (oddly enough, IE always had smooth scrolling), scrolling that wasn't always registered (I would drag my fingers down the pad with two fingers and it would ignore my input), failed clicks (clicks that weren't registered even when done by pressing down instead of touch click), broken pinch to zoom, broken left to right scroll, wonky touch clicks/double clicks/right clicks (they worked maybe 20% of the time), and finally, the touchpad is an oil magnet! After three days, I had little splotches of oil from my fingers that could not be wiped. WTF.

    Obviously, the machine was flawed. Since the trackpad is an integral part of the computer, I had to return it. In the support chat, one of the technicians actually suggested that I purchase a mouse to use with the laptop. I should not have to do that. If a car is advertised as new, I should not have to plan repairs for it the moment I buy it. So I got on the internet and looked for other people who had the same issues. Interestingly enough, one link led here and the people who had issues like mine were hushed by people who owned macs and were advocating for the new "MBA killer" *sigh*. Please. Save yourself the hassle of dealing with Dell's archaic return process and invest your time in the other options you have listed. Having money in limbo for nearly two weeks is an extremely annoying experience that I would not want anyone to deal with if they can help it.

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17 May 9, 2015