Colleges and academic departments usually require basic laptop specifications. Start your search with those in hand, then consider these tips for a laptop that'll get you through to graduation:
Current MacBooks should meet schools' general requirements. The entry-level MacBook ($1,000) features an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a 250-gigabyte hard drive, 2GB of RAM, a 13-inch LED-backlit screen, DVD burner and built-in webcam. Wireless networking is standard.
The MacBook Pro gives you more power and a nice aluminum body. The base model ($1,200) has an Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM. Graphics are stronger, and the hard drive is 320GB, the keyboard is backlit and there's a slot for SD cards. The MacBook Air (from $1,000) is less than ideal for students. There's limited storage and no disk drive. Plus, the screen is on the small side.
Go with a 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium or Ultimate. Select an Intel Core i5 or AMD Phenom processor, if possible. A dual-core model is fine for most students. Go with 4GB of RAM for 64-bit Windows. Storage space is important. Don't settle for a hard drive smaller than 250GB.
Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections should come standard. You also want plenty of USB ports and a DVD burner. Don't underestimate the importance of a large keyboard and screen, but you'll need to balance this additional comfort with weight. Anything heavier than 5 pounds may be too much to lug.
A machine meeting these specifications starts at around $500.
You'll still see netbooks on shelves. These low-priced machines have smaller screens and limited RAM. They mostly use Intel's Atom processor. Students need something more powerful. Stick with a real laptop.
These really can't replace laptops due to design limitations. Screens range from seven to 10 inches. The processor and RAM will be fairly limited. Also, you'll need to add a keyboard; touch screens aren't conducive to serious typing.
Connections are also limited on tablets. Some don't have USB ports. Ethernet ports and disk drives are also absent.
The biggest drawback to tablets may be the software. You can't install full-fledged programs such as Microsoft Office. You can only use apps. Further, there's no file system. This limits how you can use files. Moving files between apps can be a chore.
Still, a tablet can be a good supplement to a laptop, for taking notes and reading e-books.
Don't forget to claim your educational discounts.
You can save $100 or more on a laptop. Discounts on software are even higher. For example, you can save $700 on Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended.
Check your school's bookstore and manufacturers' sites for information on educational discounts.
Also visit JourneyEd, AcademicSuperstore and Gradware. Discounts vary, so comparison shopping pays off. Be prepared to show proof of enrollment.