This time of the school year, I am often contacted by parents who are getting ready to send their child off to college, and they are confused by the array of laptop choices. (It was a busman's holiday this week, too, while I was helping parents at my son's college orientation session!)
Here, in a nutshell, are the things I tell parents to think about and questions to answer before they begin the process of trying to buy a laptop.
Price: think about the most you want to spend before you begin the process
Portability: Will your child be taking the laptop to class, study group, and the library? Consider the fact the bigger the screen, the heavier the item and the less battery life (usually) the item will have. Large, wide-screen laptops are great as desktops, but toting a 10 pound laptop around campus can get old really fast! Consider getting a 17" LCD monitor for the student's dorm room desk that will give them more "screen real estate" when they connect the laptop to this monitor when they are at their desk. (Thanks to Alfred Thompson for this suggestion!)
Processor: Consider the area your child will be majoring in when looking at the processor types and speeds. A Celeron processor is not the best choice for an engineer, math major, or someone who is going to be using applications that take a lot of rendering or computation. You will also see laptops with Pentium M, Centrino, Centrino Duo, CoreDuo and AMD chipsets. Each type of processor has different functions, so investigate this if you feel it is important for your student.
Package: I do suggest customizing a laptop to allow for the best expandability in the future. For example, I recommend 1 gigabyte of RAM and suggest, if possible, this be on a single chip (to allow for expansion later to more RAM), since most laptops have two slots for RAM. I would suggest a DVD+-RW/CD-R drive since data files are getting so huge, a CD-R of 700 megabytes might soon not be large enough! I would also suggest, based on intended usage, that the hard drive be at least 80 megabytes in size. You might also take a look at a convertible TabletPC as one option for your child. It is not for everyone, but the price difference for the added functionality is not too great.
Ports: There are an array of ports available on laptops today. Noticeably absent is a parallel port and a serial port, so, if your child has legacy hardware that requires these type of ports, you will need to shop carefully. Most laptops have 2 or 3 USB 2.0 ports (for printers, a mouse, a scanner, a handheld computer, an portable audio player), a IEEE1394 (aka Firewire) port (for external large hard drives and video cameras), a modem jack, an Ethernet jack, an internal wireless (802.11 b/g) network card, and some have slots for secure digital or compact flash memory cards (found in cell phones, handhelds, and digital cameras.)
Pen Drive: Also known as flash drives, thumb drives, and USB drives, these devices are essential adjuncts to the use of the current day laptop. Sure students can load files up on the network to share with others, but the easiest way to transport files from one computer to another is the pen drive (the equivalent of the old floppy drive.) Don't skimp on the size-- get at least a 512 megabyte version.
Postscript: Students in K-16 have access to academic pricing for all types of software packages. Don't buy the Office suite at a retail store-- either take a look at the college bookstore or use one of the sites that allow for academic purchases (I use CampusTech.)
This is not intended to be the be-all, end-all laptop purchasing guide-- just some tips to help you help in the purchasing process!