August 11, 2012, 7:13 AM — It's back-to-school time, and retailers are inundating everyone with back-to-school specials, ads, email promos, and even direct-mail offers, all promising the best possible computer deal for your student. The problem is that many of these deals focus on some generic student, failing to address the needs or wants of individual students. Sure, the bargains often look attractive, but before you whip out your credit card, you should spend a little time with your student to figure out what they need.
College students, for example, don't have an easy time buying a computer for school. Budgets can be tight. Space is at a premium--particularly today, when colleges are cramming three bodies into rooms designed for just a pair of students. And computer needs may change due to class requirements.
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That's not to say that high school students don't have their own needs. Nowadays, high school juniors and seniors face more-demanding curricula, with an increased homework load plus a growing need for collaboration and teamwork. They may have more space than college students, but not necessarily more budget.
Since today's students are more mobile and more connected than ever, laptops are typically a better choice for students than desktop PCs. Students who require a larger display can always connect to one at their home desk.
My younger daughter, Emily, is heading off to college this year, and we just finished researching and buying a laptop. In addition to talking about technology and products, I'll share some of our experiences and thought processes.
Before Buying: Research
First of all, PCWorld is an excellent tool for researching laptops. Our laptop reviews give you an edge, helping you zero in on the models you should consider. You can sort the reviews by price, size, brand, and other features.
Don't forget to check with the college or university your child will be attending. Schools often have listings of deals from different manufacturers, including discounts that may not be readily visible on the manufacturers' websites.
Also check any specific requirements the university has for hardware, software, or accessories. While most colleges may be brand agnostic, a few support Apple or Windows exclusively. Other colleges restrict certain types of hardware, forbidding items such as routers or network-attached storage. You'll want to know about such conditions before you buy anything.
Work Versus Play: A Reality Check
Sometimes it seems like the ideal laptop for a student weighs under 4 pounds, sports a 24-inch display, carries 5TB of storage, and has a 175W graphics processor. That's an impossible mix, of course, so your first task is to talk with your student and do a reality check. Emily is a good example. She's a pretty serious PC gamer; she likes playing MMOs and PC-based role-playing games that often demand serious graphics horsepower.
You need to impress on your student that a laptop for school should be optimized for the work, not the play. When we bought a school laptop for my older daughter, Elizabeth, we didn't quite grasp this concept. She ended up with a 15.6-inch laptop that had a decent mobile GPU and a very nice screen--and weighed nearly 7 pounds. She came to dread lugging it around, even when she needed it for class. Next time around, she'll get something lighter, as she has come to realize that she doesn't really use her laptop for gaming; her most demanding application is photo editing. Classes change, and so do hobbies.
I told Emily that if gaming was truly important to her, she should consider making room for a desktop system of some kind. For a school computer, mobility was more important than the ability to run Mass Effect 3 at high detail levels, I said. On the other hand, she wasn't willing to sacrifice usability for sheer portability. (I'll get to what that means shortly.)
She's also a pretty good touch typist, so both keyboard and touchpad feel are important to her. Performance is a high priority, too--but when Emily talks about performance, she really means "responsiveness." So although raw CPU or graphics horsepower may not be critical, having adequate memory to allow a lot of simultaneously open windows and browser tabs is pretty important.
Ask your student several questions: What types of classes are they taking? Will the emphasis be on math or writing, or will it be a blend of both? Online collaboration is more common now than in past years, so reliable networking capabilities and a good webcam are must-haves, too.
Let's run down a list of key considerations.
- Budget: Before you begin shopping, set your budget. That will narrow the choices substantially. Try not to set the budget too low. Newspaper ads are often full of $499 laptops, but those models tend to be bulky, with less-than-robust plastic shells. The sweet spot for performance and durability seems to be between $800 and $1200 these days. Spending more than that will get you nice luxuries, such as a large solid-state drive or a beefier CPU, but typically those aren't necessities.
- Mobility: This term means different things to different students. Some people are willing to lug around 7 pounds of laptop all day long, but most aren't. Remember to factor in the weight of the charger.
- Battery life: A high-performance laptop will do little good if the battery dies after a couple of hours. You can't always find wall power on the go.
- Usability: A good keyboard and a usable touchpad are both important, but the feel is a personal choice. Some folks are willing to give up a little tactile feedback in the keyboard if it saves them a pound of weight.
- Display: The most common LCD-panel resolution today is 1366 by 768. But if you can find a laptop with a good 1600-by-900-pixel screen or even a 1080p display, that machine becomes even more usable, particularly for Windows 7 and the upcoming Windows 8.
- Mac versus PC: This is another personal choice. My older daughter might have been perfectly happy with Mac OS X, but Emily was adamant about getting a Windows-based system.
- Storage: Since laptops are often a student's only PC, adequate storage is essential. A 128GB SSD might be ideal for a business road warrior connected to corporate servers, but students will want their music, their photos, and even their games on the one system. Typically that means picking a laptop with a large hard drive over one with a smaller SSD.
- Secondary storage: In addition to primary storage, your student will need backup storage. Although backing up to cloud services is an interesting option, having a portable, bus-powered hard drive is crucial.
- Connectivity: If the laptop lacks an ethernet jack, as some ultraportable systems do these days, you'll want a USB-to-ethernet adapter. While most universities now have Wi-Fi in most places, not all of them do. For example, Emily's dorm rooms require a wired ethernet connection, even though Wi-Fi is available on the main campus.
- Support: Springing for an extra warranty is worthwhile. First-year students in particular tend to bang up their laptops, spill coffee on them, lose them. Extra support services, such as an extended warranty that also covers accidental damage, can be indispensable. Many companies now also offer location tracking, such as Intel Anti-Theft technology, Lojack for Laptops, or Apple's Find My Mac. A tracking feature could be a lifesaver if your student leaves the laptop in a coffee shop or if someone steals it.
Don't Sweat the Jargon
You'll find laptop ads full of terms like "turbo-boost," "3rd-generation Core processor," "400-nit brightness," and other jargon. Most PCWorld readers already understand a fair amount of this stuff, but you don't need to obsess over the raw spec details. In a mobile PC, usability, battery life, and ease of transport are much more important.
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