A corner of a room dedicated to the computer has become a thing of the past in many households, and according to market researchers the trend is set to continue, with laptops set to outsell desktops by more than five to one this year.

And if they work for families, small compact computers are ideal for students who need something they carry back and forth to university for researching and writing assignments, producing presentations and, time permitting of course, keeping up-to-date on social networks.

Second-year student Andrew Gainsworth, a blogger for the Student Room, has advice for students looking for the right machine: “Before buying, consider the course you’re doing. Find out from your faculty if there is any specific software that is required, or certain work you need to do that could affect your purchasing decision.”

Is the software you require downloadable from the internet, or do you need a disc drive to install it? Does the machine have a powerful enough processor for your needs? Would you benefit from a larger screen for detailed work, or a lighter more portable machine for lectures? Does it have enough RAM to run smoothly all the programs you want?

“If you want the device to last for the duration of your course, consider what may be useful over the next three or four years,” Gainsworth says. Even if you think you might buy online, take the opportunity to go into a store, trying out one or two on your shortlist before purchasing.

What are the choices?

There are many types of portable computer, but we will focus on these five types:

Laptop. Probably closest to the traditional desktop computer, but can run unplugged for a few hours. Screens vary in size but can go up to about 17.3″. Typically, the machine has an internal CD/DVD drive with many laptops able to “burn” discs. The Apple equivalent is the MacBook Pro, which works on a different operating system to Windows-based laptops.

Convertible laptop. These are laptops that convert into a tablet by letting you either detach the keyboard or use a swivel hinge to move it out of the way, at which point touch screen technology takes over.

Netbooks. These have a keyboard but do not have internal disc drives, although you can normally add an external one. Battery life is generally longer than for a laptop. Selection is limited as the rise of tablets has stopped them taking off.

Subnotebooks/Ultrabooks These are thinner, lighter and quicker to start up than a typical laptop. Processors tend to be powerful and often use solid state drives (SSDs), which have faster speeds than hard drives but are more expensive. Most lack an internal disc drive, but have ports for you to add external products. The MacBook Air would fit into this category.

Chromebook Using Chrome’s own operating system, the Chromebook has a battery life typically in excess of fivehours. You can buy 3G or Wi-Fi Chromebooks with a start up time normally of less than 10 seconds. They do have a small hard drive, but are almost totally internet-dependent with the “cloud” storing all files and documents. Apps are accessed via the Chrome webstore with some available in offline mode. If you need specialist software for your course that is not available via an app you will need an alternative computer.