Back-to-School Computer Buying Guide

One of the most frequently asked questions on our show is “How should I go about buying a new computer?”  This week Mark Kyrnin, at posted an excellent checklist for parents and students alike that we reproduce here in part. For all the links attached to the story see the original article at

Back to School Computer Guide

Tips for Buying an Educational Computer

By Mark Kyrnin , Guide


Computers play a large role in the education of students today. With the rise of word processing, computers began to make inroads into the education environment but today it goes far beyond that. Students use computers to do research, communicate with teachers and colleagues, and create multimedia presentations to name just a few. This makes purchasing a computer for the home or college student much more important, but how does one know what type of computer to buy?

Before shopping for a computer, check with the school regarding any recommendations, requirements or restrictions there may be on student computers. Often times colleges will have recommended minimum computer specifications that can be helpful in narrowing down your search. Similarly, they may have a list of necessary applications that require specific hardware. All of this information will be very helpful during the shopping process.

Desktops vs. Laptops

The first decision that must be made regarding a student computer is whether to buy a desktop or a laptop system. Each have distinct advantages over the other. For most individuals in colleges, laptops will likely be more preferable whereas high school students can get with desktop computer systems.

Desktops have several key advantages over their portable counterparts. The biggest advantage of a desktop system is the price. A complete desktop system can cost as much as half as a comparable portable computer system. This is a huge factor for those students on a budget. The other key advantages to desktop computer systems are their features and lifespan. Most desktop computer systems have more powerful components giving them a longer functional lifespan than a laptop computer. A high-end system will likely survive a full four years of college, but a budget system might need replacement halfway through. That is an important thing to consider when looking at the costs of the systems.

Desktop Advantages:

  • Less Expensive
  • More Powerful Systems
  • More Upgrade Options Instead Of Replacement
  • Less Likely To Be Stolen From Dorm Rooms

Laptop computers also have distinct advantages over desktop computers. The biggest factor of course is portability. Students will have the option of bringing their computers with them to class, to the library when they study or research and even during holiday breaks when they may need to do class work. With the increasing number of wireless networks on campuses and coffee shops this helps extend the usable range of the computer system. Of course, their small size can also be a benefit to those students living in cramped dorm rooms.

Laptop Advantages:

  • Computer Can Be Taken Practically Anywhere
  • Increased Communication with Wireless Networks
  • Require Less Space


Ultrabooks are simply a new form of laptop that puts a higher emphasis on portability and battery life. They generally are extremely thin (typically under 1-inch) and lighweight (roughly 3 pounds) while providing roughly five hours or more of running time. These qualities make them very useful for college students that have to carry their computer around campus frequently with a large number of books. Their performance is still generally more than the average student would need making them suitable as a sole computer system. The downside is that they tend to be a bit more expensive than your typical laptop with prices that range from roughly $700 all the way up to over $1500.

What About Netbooks And Tablets?

Netbooks are a class of ultra portable, low cost laptop computers. They sacrifice performance and features for portability and battery life. While these may make useful system for taking notes or working while on the road, they just lack too many features to make them really useful as a primary computer system for education. They are an option for those that are looking to extend their education computing beyond a desktop or larger laptop computer. Since performance doesn’t vary greatly in this category of system, primary focus should be placed on portability, keyboards and battery life. They have lost much of their popularity because of their limited performance and the rise of the new tablets.

Tablet PCs are extremely compact systems that give most of your basic computer tasks in a form that is no larger than a standard spiral bound notebook. They generally have very long battery life and can be used for written notes as well as a virtual keyboard or compact Bluetooth keyboard. The downside is that many of them don’t use standard PC software programs and applications which means multiple applications that may be hard to transfer between devices. Those interested in this should really compare what tablets offer versus laptops to see which would be better suited towards them. One nice aspect of tablets though is the ability to use them for textbooks thanks to applications like Amazon’s Kindle which may make them a bit more beneficial. Of course, tablets can still be quite expensive. They are best suited as a supplement to a standard desktop or laptop PC.

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