How To

How to Pick a College Laptop That Will Last as Long as Possible

There are two ways to pick a laptop if you want it to last as long as possible. One is to buy a super-reliable model with a reputation for durability. Another is to buy a laptop that’s known for its ease of repair, availability of spare parts, and upgradeability.

We will always encourage you to go for the repairable option, and we’ve ranked laptop models to make the choice easier. But even if you go the durability route, you don’t have to be stuck with a dead battery or broken screen when your warranty runs out. With screwdrivers, some elbow grease, and a good set of repair guides, you can breathe new life back into most old laptops. 

Upgradeability

One way to keep a computer going longer is to upgrade its parts. You can add more RAM, replace batteries, and swap in bigger SSDs when the current one is full—all of which will extend the life of a computer.

One classic upgrade for older machines is to swap out a slow hard drive for an SSD. It’s like getting a new computer. Depending on your model, you could even swap your disc drive for a second SSD, using a dual drive adapter. At iFixit, a lot of us are still using 2012 MacBook Pros with a second SSD installed where the optical drive used to be.

If you buy a MacBook Air, then you are buying a machine that will probably keep on trucking just fine. Aside from Apple’s weird butterfly keyboard fiasco, Apple laptops are generally well built and reliable. I have old MacBooks dating back a decade that run just fine, and the new M1 and M2 models have no moving parts, not even fans, to go wrong.

But they come with a huge downside. You cannot upgrade anything. Even the SSD is a part of the main board, so you run out of storage, then you need to use an external SSD, or buy a whole new computer. That’s neither sustainable, nor cheap. (Some microsoldering technicians have reported success upgrading M1 MacBooks, but it’s a difficult, finicky job even for experts with fancy equipment—not a job for the rickety card table in your dorm rec room.) 

At the other end is the Framework laptop, which scores 10/10 on iFixit’s repairability scale. It’s a modular system that lets you open it up and swap batteries, storage, even the main board—and the screen bezels can be replaced. The Verge’s Monica Chin called it a “repairability dream.” 

The downside here is that it doesn’t have great battery life, and it’s quite expensive compared to similarly-specified Windows laptops. 

The best option, assuming that you don’t want or need to run macOS, is a compromise. HP’s EliteBook range scores high on the iFixit repairability index (the EliteBook 840 G6 earned a 10/10 repairability score, for instance). While it isn’t as all-out-repairable as the Framework, it’s close. 

For Chromebooks, Asus’ Chromebook C202 is an education-focussed machine designed for repairability. 

Keep it safe

Another key part of making your laptop last is not breaking it. That sounds obvious, but a bit of extra care makes a huge difference. And the first part of that is keeping it clean

One method that applies to most gadgets is a cloth, lightly-dampened with soap and water. I just mix a little washing detergent with warm water, dip in the cloth, and wring it out. Then, you can lightly rub at any grubby surfaces. Don’t press too hard, or you may squeeze drops of water into the guts of the machine, which could be disastrous. This works for the outer casing, and keyboards. 

Screens can be cleaned the same way, but first you should make sure that there is no loose debris. The last thing you want to do is clean the screen, only to find you’ve picked up grit and scratched it across the surface. Regarding grit, a clean paintbrush is an excellent tool for keeping dirt and dust off your gear, and can reach between keyboard keys and other nooks and crannies. If things are really grody down there, then some canned air can help. And if you’re trying to fix sticky keys, we have a guide (and an iFixit kit) for that. 

Speaking of drops of water, liquids and laptops don’t mix. Or rather they do, but like a college student mixing their drinks, you’ll regret it in the morning. Keep open beverages away from the computer, or keep them in closed containers. 

Also, protect your laptop when carrying it. A closed notebook is fairly tough, but if you drop it, even while in a bag, it can get dented, or worse, the screen can crack. Either use a bag with a good protective compartment, or put the laptop in a protective case.

But even that might not be enough. I once bent an iPad Pro by squeezing it into the laptop compartment of a backpack. I managed to bend it back with no lasting effects, but now I avoid too-full bags, and I pack it with a light but rigid sheet of plastic to stop the bends. 

Also, be careful with cables. USB-C is sturdy, but it will also pull a laptop off a desk if you trip over the cord. Apple’s proprietary MagSafe chargers avoid this by detaching when you yank them. Abusing your cables can also lead to fraying, which can lead to electrical shorts, which can lead to damage. 

Repair

What do you do if and when your computer does need a repair? The first step is diagnoses, and finding out whether you can carry out the repair yourself. The obvious (and might I suggest best) place for that is iFixit’s extensive set of repair guides, and question-answer community. If you’re not familiar with the repair guides, they’re community-created step-by-step instructional walkthroughs, complete with advice, and lots of pictures, that will get you through many kinds of repairs, and you don’t have to be handy with a soldering iron to follow them.

A big part of repair—perhaps the biggest part—is not making stuff any worse than it is. Take it slow, and these guides will make sure you don’t yank and snap an irreplaceable cable when removing the laptop’s lid, for example. 

The other part is using the right tools for the job. Yes, maybe you can jam a regular jeweler’s screwdriver into a Torx screw head, and twist it open, but good luck getting it all back together. iFixit guides tell you ahead of time what you’ll need, and there’s satisfaction in buying and using the right tool for the job.

Plus, it’s an investment, and it makes the entire repair much easier. I have removed the glass cover from my old iMac’s screen several times, both with and without suction handles, and I can tell you which one was easy, and which one was terrifying.

In general, though, you’ll need screwdrivers with tips to fit regular screws, but also Pentalobe, Torx, and tri-point screws, all of which are used to stop users from getting into their own devices. Also handy is a spudger, which is a pointy plastic stick used to tease apart small fixings, and various opening tools, similar to guitar picks and bike tire levers. 

iFixit’s store stocks both tools and spare parts. If you’re aiming to be prepared for whatever repairs dorm life might throw your way, your best bet is probably the Essential Electronics Toolkit, which contains, you guessed it, all the essentials for $30. 

Repair tips

Finally, a top tip on repairs of all kinds. Often, reassembly can trip you up, so prepare for it by taking plenty of photos with your phone (or somebody else’s phone if you’re repairing your own), especially if you’re not following an iFixit guide. Note which cables are connected to where, before disconnecting them.

And keep all the little screws and components safe. You can use a magnetic mat to organize them, or place them into the sections of a pill organizer. Or, if you’re really on a very strict budget, attach a strip of painter’s tape to the desk, sticky side up, and place your tiny screws on that, in strict order of removal. I did this with my own early repairs, and while it’s a bit flakey, it gets the job done. The main hurdle is realizing that you can repair almost anything yourself, including seemingly-impossible-to-open phones. The first step is knowing that anyone can do it, with a little help. The second step is trying it on somebody else’s device first. Kidding. The second step is to prepare yourself and your tools—then relax and get started. It’s not hard. And in fact, it can be a lot of fun. Plus, if you get good at it, you can repair your friends’ gear, and make a little beer money, and who doesn’t like beer money at college?