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How to pick the perfect back-to-school laptop

By Guest Blogger(view all posts by Rick.Broida)
at 9:30AM Thursday July 18, 2013
under Money Saving Tips

With summer halfway over already, it's time to start shopping for the inevitable return to school. [Cue sound of kids everywhere screaming, "Noooooo!"] For a lot of students that means eyeballing a new laptop.

For a lot of parents that means dollar signs--and more than a little confusion. How much do you really need to spend on a school-minded PC? And how can you make sure you're getting a system that will go the distance? (Hopefully just four years, if you're packing a kid off to college.)

Have no fear: Even with a zillion models to choose from, picking the right laptop is easy if you follow a few simple guidelines.

1. Know your needs

When it comes to computing, different students have different needs. Some require little more than word processing, Web browsing, and e-mail, in which case an inexpensive system (something in the $350-500 range) should be sufficient.

However, if the kid's course-load is going to include graphics-intensive stuff--3D models, CAD drawings, video edits--you'll want to make sure the laptop has a higher-end processor (an Intel Core i5 or i7) and a discrete graphics card. This can push the price tag closer to $800-$1,000.

I should also note that if you're looking for a MacBook, plan on spending a minimum of $1,000. But Apple often offers student discounts that can help ease the pain a bit.

2. Size matters

Screen size is also an important consideration, as it dictates the overall size (and, often, weight) of the laptop.

Anything larger than 15.6 inches won't fit easily (or at all) into a backpack. But if it's smaller than, say, 13.3 inches, it might prove too cramped for comfort. Whatever size you land on, be sure to check the weight of the machine. Anything over five pounds might prove uncomfortable to schlep across campus all day.

3. Thin is in

If the kid is concerned with style, consider an Ultrabook. These systems tend to offer above-average power and battery life in thin, lightweight, sexy chassis. They're also very fast, especially at booting. But prices start at around $800 and can easily stretch into the four figures.

That said, I've been using a Samsung Series 9 for the past few months, and it was worth every penny. It's literally my favorite PC ever.

4. Don't overpay for software

Most students will need a basic suite of productivity tools--word processor, spreadsheet manager, presentation builder--and many new laptops come with a trial version of Microsoft Office 2013.

However, unless the school specifically requires Microsoft's suite, I highly recommend a free Office alternative. I'm partial to the new Kingsoft Office Suite Free 2013, which closely resembles Microsoft Office 2010 and offers nearly all the same features.

5. Reconsider the campus store

Many college campuses have computer stores that claim to offer the best discounts on student laptops. However, make sure you do your homework before shopping. These stores don't always have the best prices, and their selection may be limited compared to what you can find online or in a big-box store like Best Buy.

The flipside is that buying from a campus store may entitle your student to local tech support, which could be worthwhile for those times when a paper is due and the printer won't print.

Indeed, for any computer you're considering, check the warranty terms (one year is standard, but you can often extend it) and especially the company's tech-support hours. Students tend to keep late hours, so 24/7 phone support is definitely a desirable feature.

Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and, and also writes for PC World and Wired.