Back-to-School Laptop Guide



It’s that time again: time to start putting away summer gear and start gearing up for a new school year.

Back in the day, the most important items to stock your satchel were Trapper Keepers and No. 2 pencils, but these days, it’s all about the notebook – and no, that’s not a spiral-bound notebook…the notebook of today refers to a computer or laptop.

Despite the fact that laptops alone can easily cost what your entire back-to-school supply list cost years ago – multiple times over – there are deals to be found if you know what to look for.

And with all of the deals out there, you’re sure to find something to suit your student – just take a moment to consider all of your options before you plunk down your cash. Here are some of those things to think about and a few tempting traps to avoid.

College Crowd

One of the main differences between college computer needs and the rest of the student world is degree-specific course requirements.

At the same time, there are many bells and whistles that no student will ever “need” or even use, regardless of scholastic level (middle school, high school, college or grad school) or course concentration.

Unless you are taking courses on graphic design or video production, super-powerful processors that allow HD gaming and video editing are unlikely to be needed for academic purposes. Will they improve your kid’s dorm-cred? You bet! But helping your student getting better grades? Not so much.

*Bottom Line (Avoid): Don’t purchase a top-of-the-line anything until you have a firm course load in place and an itemized list of what is required from your various courses. The worst thing you could do is buy some great piece of PC equipment only to find out that your graphic design class – which is a pre-requisite for your major in your chosen profession – requires software that is only accessible on a Mac.

Back to School Laptop Basics

Now that we know what to stay away from, let’s consider what you should be looking for.

In terms of a computer’s computing power, Intel reigns supreme in the processor market, largely due to its superior performance over the competition. Accordingly, most mainstream computers come equipped with an Intel processor – usually a dual-core Core i5 system. Although they are a bit more expensive (typically about $50 more) than their entry-level Core i3 counterparts, the price difference is justified by the i5’s improved performance.

Battery Life
The college crowd lives from class to class, and in many cases, there are no breaks in between. Moreover, lecture halls and classrooms often have insufficient outlets or no outlets at all to keep computers continually juiced. This means they need a laptop that can withstand multiple hour-long+ lectures and the travel time between them before requiring a substantial recharge.

Where Intel is concerned, you have two basic processor series chip options:

Haswell (Intel 4th Generation)

  • Best Battery Life: These systems work best when not plugged in, making them great choices in the above scenario – students spending long periods away from a plug
  • Highest Price Tag: To save the most money, look for a Haswell system around the $600 mark
  • Designated by a “4” on the laptop spec sheet: if the first number after the type of processor is a “4” (“Core i7-4700MQ”) you are getting one with a Haswell chip

Ivy Bridge (Intel 3rd Generation)

  • Less Powerful: These are best if your student is taking notes, writing papers, etc. while connected to a power source rather than remaining unplugged
  • Less Expensive: Sometimes up to several hundred dollars less than the Haswell series, a 15” Ivy Bridge system can be found in the $300 range
  • Designated by a “3” on the laptop spec sheet (“1.7 GHz Core i5-3317U”)

Memory and Storage Capacity
RAM and hard drive capacity greatly determine your laptop’s performance: the standard today is 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. With the constant updating done by Windows 8, the more RAM and hard drive storage, the merrier (they both facilitate laptop longevity and smooth operating within systems).

Lowdown on Laptop Deals

Keep these tips in mind

  • To take advantage of student-only deals, be prepared to provide a valid .edu email address – and make sure to ask for these special student rates because the stores won’t offer up this info freely.
  • New touchscreens will be released soon, so avoid purchasing one right now if you can wait.
  • Ultrabooks are not ultra-deals (not yet, anyway) so stay away if the bottom dollar is your bottom line.
  • Beginning in mid-August, the deals start to taper off, so if you have been holding off, now’s the time to take the leap.
  • If you’re looking to buy a Mac, you can find deals outside of the Apple Store! In fact, you are more likely to find deals through certified Apple resellers than you ever will through the Store itself. But if you buy direct from Apple, consider their refurbished models with a three-year Apple Care service program.
  • For high school seniors who need a laptop for college-credit courses, go for something basic – while still a solid investment – that they can take with them next year and build upon as needed.

What are some of the ways you have saved on your student’s laptop purchases?

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