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
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.
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.
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 Savings.com, and also writes for PC
World and Wired.