Thursday, June 10, 2010

What is the Best Student Laptop?

Houma Today

“What’s the best laptop?” I get this question a lot. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple.

Much depends who’s using it and for what purpose. This time of year, laptops are being scooped up by grads. Many schools and majors list general computing requirements. This is a great place to start for the right machine specifications. In addition, that alone might help you settle the whole Windows vs. Mac dilemma.

Here’s some of what’s available this year.


Mac users have things fairly easy. Any current Apple notebooks should meet general use requirements. The entry-level MacBook ($1,000) has an Intel Core 2 Duo processor. It also has 2 gigabytes of memory and a 250GB hard drive. A 13-inch LED-backlit screen, built-in webcam and DVD burner round things out. Wireless networking is standard.

Go with a MacBook Pro, if you can afford it. The base model ($1,200) has many of the same features. However, memory is doubled to 4GB. There’s also a backlit keyboard and a slot for SD cards. And the aluminum body is more durable.


Things are more complicated with Windows computers. Many manufacturers make Windows laptops in a variety of form factors. Specifications vary widely. There are also a few different versions of Windows.

First off, watch out for netbooks. These small, inexpensive laptops often use Intel’s Atom processor. They have small monitors and keyboards. They’re also less powerful than a standard laptop. Students need a full-fledged laptop.

I recommend Windows 7 Home Premium or Ultimate. Go for a machine running the 64-bit version. It will be able to support more memory for faster performance. It will also handle multiple open programs better.

Select a dual-core processor like Intel’s Core 2 Duo or AMD’s Turion II. Newer processors may have more than two cores. These top-of-the-line processors are often a waste of money. Most students won’t need anything that powerful.

For 64-bit Windows, go with 4GB of memory. With 32-bit Windows, don’t pay for more than 3GB of memory; it won’t be supported above that level. I recommend a roomy hard drive; 250GB is probably good for most.

A DVD burner can also be helpful. Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port are mandatory. They should come standard. Look for plenty of USB ports and a large keyboard. Small keyboards can make typing uncomfortable.

A large screen is nice. That’s particularly true if you want to add a TV tuner card for watching TV. But if you’re carrying this around, balance size and weight with screen size. A six-pound computer can be a real back-breaker.

Expect to pay at least $600 for a machine meeting these specifications.

Claim educational discounts

Your student should qualify for educational discounts. You can save $100 or more on the price of a laptop. But, it still pays to comparison shop. Start with the school’s bookstore. Manufacturers like HP and Apple also offer discounts directly. You can also try sites like JourneyEd, AcademicSuperstore and Gradware.

Educational discounts also apply to software, printers, discount laptops and other extras. For example, students can get Adobe’s Photoshop CS5 Extended for $199. That’s a savings of $700 off Adobe’s regular price. Check with the computing department before buying software. Some schools have licensing agreements with software companies. You may be able to get software for $10 or so.

Be prepared to show proof of enrollment to get the discounts.