Laptops for Back-to-School: How to Make the Right Choice

Listening to Needs: It’s Not Obvious

Even within the framework of the basic considerations I listed on the previous page, you'll find a huge variety of products, so take some time with your student to check out different models that may fit your child's needs. Look at a bunch of products, and quiz your kid. Remember, though, that the answers you get back won’t always be particularly revealing.

As I noted, my daughter Emily is a touch typist, so the keyboard feel is important to her. When I sat her down with a bunch of different laptops, she tried typing on them. Some she liked better than others, but the reasons weren’t always obvious. I had to ask some very specific questions, trying to get her to explain what it was about a particular keyboard that she did or didn’t like.

Laptops for Back-to-School: How to Make the Right Choice
The Fujitsu Lifebook EH572 was a no-go because of its perfectly flat keys.
It took a number of questions, but eventually I discovered that two aspects of the keyboard were important to her. First, the individual keys needed to respond significantly; she didn’t like keyboards where the keys depressed only slightly. Second, the keys had to be sculpted a bit, to have a little depth to them. Many modern keyboards have perfectly flat, Chiclet-style keys. So laptops like the Fujitsu Lifebook EH572 were no-gos.

Emily told me that the keyboard layout wasn't critical to her, but that she had some definite expectations of the touchpad. Palm detection was very important: She would get annoyed when the cursor would fly around the screen for no apparent reason. The other issue with the touchpad was click pressing. Requiring excessive effort to click was a big negative, even given that most touchpads today support double-taps. She rejected the HP Envy 4 because the touchpad buttons required a lot of force to press.

She had no awareness of gesture recognition; I had to teach her about multitouch gestures, but after a few minutes, she was scrolling and changing page sizes like a pro.

Screen resolution turned out to be less of an issue than screen size. Unsurprisingly, a physically larger screen was better, provided that the weight increase wasn’t too much. On the other hand, too few pixels in a large screen was problematic. The Acer TimelineUltra M5, with its 15-inch screen at a 1366-by-762-pixel resolution, lost out because of the visible pixels.

The bottom line here is that it’s worth the effort and time to examine various models at your local electronics store or PC-dealer kiosk. There’s nothing quite like hands-on experience.

Do Brands Matter?

Brands do make a difference, but they all have their pros and cons. Large manufacturers, such as Dell, Lenovo, and HP, typically have deeper support organizations; if you buy one of their machines, however, it’s also easy to get lost in the shuffle. On top of that, they tend to have a vast array of models that often differ dramatically in usability and in overall features.

Laptops for Back-to-School: How to Make the Right Choice
The Acer TimelineUltra M5 didn't have enough pixels on its large screen for my daughter's taste.

Second-tier companies such as Acer and Asus usually offer innovative models that take some risks, but their support can be iffy. Quality can vary dramatically from one model to the next. And boutique companies like Origin PC tend to have their machines manufactured at the same Asian factories, so their systems tend to look very similar to their competitors' laptops.

In the end, what matters most is the individual laptop, which is why getting hands-on experience is critical. When Emily was looking at laptops, she dismissed the Dell Inspiron 14z after only a few minutes, deeming it "uninspired and clunky." Yet she liked the Dell XPS 14, a laptop similar in shape and weight to the Inspiron 14z, quite a lot. The differences weren’t in features such as the CPU or screen, but in usability.

Which Specific Model?

The days of built-to-order systems seem to be at an end. Instead, manufacturers usually ship a set of discrete submodels, varying just a few features, including the CPU, the graphics chip, the storage, and the memory.

Let’s say you’ve chosen a laptop brand and model. You’re still not done making choices. Take the aforementioned Dell XPS 14 as an example. The lowest-cost model is $1099, but it ships with Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics. All the pricier versions include Nvidia GT 630M discrete graphics, which improves PC gaming a bit. As you go up the price curve, you add more memory, a faster processor, and even an SSD. By the time you hit the top price, you’re at nearly $2000, which doesn’t even factor in the extended warranty, the taxes, or the shipping. Two grand for a college student’s laptop seems a little excessive for most families.

Of course, since it is back-to-school time, assorted manufacturers, your local big-box store, or online retailers such as Amazon.com may offer specials. Dell, for instance, has a deal that includes an Xbox 360 with a laptop purchase. Closer examination of the offer reveals that you can forgo the Xbox 360 and substitute a $200 gift card, which you can then use to buy external storage, a wireless mouse, or other useful accessories. HP, meanwhile, seems to be offering a straightforward, tiered discount for students, but only on specific models. As you examine specials, keep in mind that comparing models is often difficult, as PC manufacturers sometimes offer targeted models for certain retailers, such as Best Buy. And some deals might be hidden: While Dell seems to be pushing Inspirons for students, it's also offering discounts on some of its other brands, such as XPS.

Don’t Forget Software and Accessories

Students can make out like bandits on the software side, as Microsoft, Adobe, and other companies frequently offer steep student discounts. Microsoft Office University 2010, which includes full versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, and Publisher, costs $99. Adobe Photoshop CS6 Extended is $249 for students.

Laptops for Back-to-School: How to Make the Right Choice
As for peripherals, I’ve already mentioned external storage for backups; you might want to take the time to set up a formal backup plan with your student. Consider your child's comfort, too: Although they’ll use the touchpad for on-the-go computing, a Bluetooth mouse (and maybe even a full-size keyboard) will be useful on their desk. They might need other gear, as well, such as an ethernet cable or a printer. If your student is sharing a dorm room, they may want to discuss sharing a printer with their roommates. A single, shared wireless printer takes up less space than three direct-connected printers in a cramped room.

Final Thoughts

If your student picks the right laptop, they’ll be satisfied with it for several years. You'll be thankful, and they’ll be more productive as students in their new, unfamiliar environment. And who knows: You may find your copy of Skype pinging you one day, and discover that your son or daughter is just calling to say “hi” between classes. Then you’ll really be sure that their laptop choice was the correct one.

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