Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Open letter to parents: Laptop choice for college

Around this time of year, as the back-to-school sales start showing up online and in stores, I receive emails from parents who are asking my advice about which laptop to purchase for their college freshman. Of course, I have to write back and ask some additional questions about their choice of OS, their planned laptop budget, what major the student is planning to pursue, what else besides schoolwork the student wants to do with the computer, if the laptop is going to be the single machine of the student's, and what school their child will be attending.

The last question is really the most important. I have heard horror stories from college students who purchase a laptop online or in the store of a retailer. Then, at some point during college (usually when they need it the most) the laptop breaks down. The student winds up spending hours on the phone with the laptop manufacturer's tech support or winds up being without the laptop for a few days after they drop it off at the retailer's repair shop.

There are tons of laptops on the market to pick from, but my recommendation is for the student to purchase it through their college's online store. Many colleges have standardized on a Windows-OS laptop brand and the Apple laptops. By purchasing the laptop through the college, the student receives an academic discount as well as the peace of mind to realize their college usually has brand-certified repair personnel either on-staff or on-contract. The student can simply walk into the technology department in their college bookstore and get the help they need. (In addition, at this time of year, there are online purchasing incentives with the purchase of a laptop for college. For example, a Windows-based machine over $699 garners the student a free xBox360 and the purchase of an Apple laptop comes with a $100 gift card to the Mac App store.)

Some things to consider:
  • A budget for a laptop that will serve a student well will not cost under $1000. Matter of fact, that should be the starting point. Parents should plan to spend $1000-1500 for this new laptop.  If a student has a decent desktop, and will only be using the laptop for taking notes in class, then a less-powerful and cheaper one (or even an iPad and external keyboard! will work. Most of the price of a laptop is determined by the processor and its speed, the amount of RAM (4 GB minimum!), the video card RAM (512 or better) and the size and type of the hard drive. (The screen size is part of the cost, but, sometimes, the smaller screens carry a premium price!)
  • Even if the laptop is also going to be the student's desktop machine, do not go for the massive 16-17" monster machine. It is way too heavy to lug around and will not fit nicely on a college chair-desk. Keep the weight of the laptop to under 5 pounds. A 13 or 14" (maybe even a thin 15") with a decent resolution will be just fine.  The price of a large external monitor for the student's desk, if the student feels they need a larger screen at times, will be under $150. (I currently like the  Acer S211HL BD 21.5" monitor ($140) because it is really bright and crisp.)
  • Wait until the student visits the college bookstore to purchase their Office or iWork suite, since the academic pricing in the college store is often the best pricing.)
I also am often asked if the laptop will be able to last through the student's college career.  I tell them, with the wear and tear on a laptop that is carried around in a backpack, used everywhere from the cafeteria to the campus bus, it is likely that a second laptop will probably be needed at the beginning of junior year.

Any thoughts to contribute to the conversation?