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Tips for Buying a Computer: Laptop vs. desktop, Mac vs. PC, and more

  • Mac or PC?

    We know we’re setting ourselves up for flak from both sides of the Mac/PC debate, but the truth is, no matter which brand you prefer, computers are pretty much all the same inside. Generally speaking, you have a processor, an operating system, some memory, a bunch of internal and exterior connections, and a means of saving files and programs. Simple, right?

    OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to reality. The actual quality – and price – of all those things we just listed varies wildly not just between Macs and PCs, but also within both categories. Yes, everything you’ve heard about Apple’s design innovation, quality of materials, and overall reliability is true – but so is everything you’ve heard about how easy Windows 7′s hardware and software compatibility makes it to work, play and connect, both at home and on campus. So, whether your kids are nudging you toward the Apple Store or Best Buy, know this much: The only “right” computer is the one that does the things you need it to do, within whatever means you have to spend on it.

  • How will they use it?

    If your kids are anything like, well, most kids, they already have a specific type of computer in mind, right down to the hardware specs. As the voice of reason – and the one with the wallet – you should grill them a bit more about how they’ll actually use their new computer. Take some time to brainstorm a wish list of features, and organize wants and needs into a spreadsheet that you can translate into hardware specs and computer models. (We’ll be adding to this sheet later.)

    For instance, do the kids want to be able to play games or stream movies between homework assignments? That might lead you toward a PC with discrete graphics and built-in WiFi. Is your first-year English student planning to write the Great American Novel? You might be looking at nothing more than a glorified word processor. Also, look to your kids’ school or intended college for information and recommendations. Are you in a school that either lends computers to students or subsidizes PC purchases? Are there certain features your children’s instructors recommend?

  • Laptop or desktop?

    A computer is a computer, right?

    Well, sort of, but as you’re considering how, where and when the kids will use their new computer, it’s also important to consider form factor (a fancy term for the basic shell that holds the computer’s insides). Do the kids need a system that can go from classroom to bedroom to library? Look for a laptop. Does your engineering or design student need a computing workhorse that’s easy to upgrade? Look into a desktop (also called a tower PC) or fixed workstation.

    Laptops and desktops, of course, are just the umbrella categories. A thin, light ultraportable laptop could be the ideal traveling companion for someone studying abroad. Students who primarily need a means to write papers and take notes might benefit from a small, lightly featured netbook or Chromebook (compact, bare-bones laptops that run solely on Google’s Chrome browser and a Web connection). Even workstations and gaming PCs can be squeezed into laptop form factors – although they do tend to run a bit heavy and large for backpacks.

  • How much can you afford?

    Once you’ve chosen your computer type and picked a side in the Mac-versus-PC debate, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Do you have more than $1,000 to spend on a new computer? If not, then your decision gets that much easier. Even the lowest-end Mac will cost you more than a grand after tax; however, you’re also getting an exceptionally well-built system that will last you several years even without upgrades, so eating into your budget today might pay off later.

    For the rest of us, there’s no shortage of excellent finds on the Windows side of the aisle – particularly if you’re looking for a budget-friendly system that’ll get the kids through the next few years of school. Manufacturers such as HP, Dell, Toshiba, and Sony (to name just a few) offer dozens of options across multiple budget ranges – however, before you pledge allegiance to a PC brand based on this week’s sale price, you’ll want to dig a little deeper.

  • How connected do they need to be?

    We know: That’s a silly question for kids who’ve grown up with 24/7 access to smartphones and the internet. But when considering how, when and where your kids will need to connect, also consider the educational benefits of getting online. As classrooms evolve, even grade-school students are learning to share work online, participate in e-learning, and collaborate via whiteboards and other tools. And, of course, connectivity for older kids also means the ability to connect from anywhere on networked campuses while building their social networks through Facebook, Twitter and other means.

    Look for laptops and even desktops that support a range of the latest connectivity options – from WiFi capability (read: free connections over campus and public networks) to Ethernet (wired) jacks that can be used when wireless isn’t available. Also consider battery life when you’re looking for a laptop – being able to connect for hours without a power cord matters when you’re in class all day. Just be sure to read the fine print first; PC user guides explain that battery claims are based on manufacturer testing, and these tests are typically run with virtually all battery-sucking features (i.e., the animated windows, applications and wireless capabilities we rely on for a pleasant computing experience) minimized.

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