Buying a Capable but Budget-Friendly Back-to-School Laptop

computerBuying a laptop for your young scholars can be as complicated as buying a car. There are so many choices on the market, and it can be really difficult to figure out what all the various technical specifications mean. What kind of processor should you get? How much memory is enough? Should I splurge for a bigger hard drive? What software should I installl? Will this expensive investment last multiple years, or will they start lobbying for the next latest-and-greatest techno-beast this time next year?

I’m grateful my kids are still in elementary school, so I don’t have to get them a back-to-school laptop. If I did, however, this is the advice I’d like someone to give me:

Think PC, not Mac. The bite in the Apple logo is like the bite its products take out of your wallet. I’ve tried to be open-minded about this for years, but I have never been able to understand why people pay at least $300 more for a laptop with equivalent specs. Yes, Apple laptops look pretty. Yes, your son or daughter will stand a better chance finding their one true love if they’re spotted working on a Macbook in the coffee shop instead of a PC. Yes, Steve Jobs looked so hip in a black turtleneck. But, these are laptops, not prom dresses. Unless your academic program specifically recommends that students use a Mac, think PC.

Windows 8 is great. Don’t believe the haters. I have used Windows 8 for nine months now, and I love it. It’s rock-solid stable, fast, easy-to-use, and pleasing to the eye. So what if you have to press the Windows key instead of the Start menu to access your apps? Windows 8 is simply Windows 7 with a glitzier and more functional front-end, and it’s nothing but pleasant to use, even without a touchscreen.

Thrive with an i5. The brain of a computer is its processor or CPU. There are two major manufacturers of CPUs for laptops: AMD and Intel. AMD generally beats Intel on price, but not on speed, which is what matters most when you’re trying to figure out which CPU is best. I’d stick with an Intel CPU. Specifically, I’d go with an i5 processor. The i3 processors are too slow, and the i7 processors are too expensive. i5 is just right.

See the world at 1368×768. A screen’s resolution measures how much detail you can see on a screen. When you see a resolution expressed as 1368×768, that means that the screen displays 1368 squares horizontally, and 768 squares vertically. Each of those tiny squares can have its own color. So, the greater those two numbers, the higher the level of detail the screen can show. Resolution is the great equalizer, as you can choose a laptop with a smaller screen if the resolution is high enough for you to see everything. A 13″ laptop (and maybe even an 11″ laptop, since your kids don’t have old-person-eye-weakness yet) with 1368×768 resolution will help them see everything just fine. Don’t settle for less than that resolution, or they’ll have to do without certain useful features of Windows 8.

Thanks for the (4GB of) memories.  Just like you, a computer comes with two types of memory: short-term and long-term. The amount of short-term memory, called RAM, has tremendous impact on the speed of a computer, particularly as you run lots of applications simultaneously. Don’t settle for less than 4 GB of memory. In fact, buy a laptop that has 4 GB of memory, but make sure that it is expandable to 6 GB or 8 GB down the line. You can upgrade to 8 GB of memory for under $100 next year if your student starts to complain about speed.

Hard-drive space is so overrated. The other kind of memory is long-term memory. The hard drive provides long-term storage of files. Don’t go wild on this spec. You don’t need a 1 TB drive in a laptop. A 320 GB or 500 GB drive is more than enough. With so many expandable options for storing files, such as plug-in flash drives or cloud space, investing in a bigger hard drive simply isn’t worth it. It would be better to get a smaller hard drive and pay a monthly fee for upgraded storage on Google on Dropbox if they start to run out of room.

Want your kids to love you? Get them an SSD. Now here’s a luxury item I heartily recommend. We’ve all experienced the phenomenon where your computer slows down dramatically as it gets older. It’s as if the computer suffered from some form of silicon arthritis. The biggest cause for this is that the hard drive, a crude mechanical device, is filling up and accumulating more errors that it has to sift through. The delay is perhaps particularly bothersome at startup. In the old days (prior to a year ago), I’d have to wait 5 minutes for my machine to reboot. An SSD can help. An SSD, or solid-state drive, is a purely electronic form of long-term memory. Since installing an SSD on my machine, I can reboot in half a minute. I actually replaced the hard drive in my laptop with a 256 GB SSD drive. That may be a little expensive for a budget-friendly PC. Instead, choose a laptop that has a small SSD for startup and system files (say, 16 GB or 24 GB), and a larger traditional hard drive for storing everything else. This will go a long way toward mitigating one of the most frustrating experiences with using a PC.

When strapped for cash, choose free applications. I like Microsoft Office, but it’s pricey. Yes, there is a Microsoft Office for students available at an attractive price, but you don’t necessarily need it, at least not right away. Instead, choose a free option. Google Docs (also called Google Drive) offers a wonderful suite of productivity tools for creating documents online that can then be downloaded in a variety of standard formats, but you have to be online to use it. If you want a free but capable solution that doesn’t require you to be connected to the Internet, choose OpenOffice.

And don’t buy antivirus. Choose a free option like Avast.

We need power! No matter how powerful your laptop is, if it runs out of juice and you’re not near an outlet, you might as well be computing with a kitchen mixer. Choose a laptop that has a six-cell battery. You should be able to get at least a 4 or 5 hours of batter life out of a capable, modern laptop.

Don’t get suckered into a warranty. Laptops are not investments. They are commodities that, although somewhat expensive, are usually not worth protecting with a costly warranty. The basic one-year warranty that comes with most laptops is usually sufficient. Beyond that, just roll the dice.

Don’t buy everything at once. You don’t have to have every feature right from the start. If the model you’re considering doesn’t have Bluetooth, you can buy a plug-in Bluetooth adapter later for $20. If you think your student isn’t going to like using the trackpad and would prefer a mouse, get a wireless mouse later for $30. If you think you might need an extra battery or an external drive or an external monitor, you can delay those purchases, too. Don’t break the bank right away. Besides, adding features little by little will keep your student satisfied with her laptop longer. Incremental novelty makes old things shiny and new.

To summarize, the perfect budget-friendly but capable laptop

  • is a PC
  • runs Windows 8
  • has a resolution of 1368×768
  • has 4 GB of RAM
  • has a 320 GB or 500 GB hard drive
  • has an SSD for fast start-up
  • has four or five hours of battery life
  • runs free productivity applications and antivirus
  • has a basic warranty
  • has room to grow

Happy shopping!

 

Ray Klump

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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