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Back-to-school laptops have never delivered more value for the money - these days, there are machines for as little as $500 that meet the needs of the average student. (Colin Archer/Associated Press)

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Technology

What to look for in a laptop computer for students

Last Updated August 24, 2007

Back in the day, back-to-school supplies meant binders and pencils, and maybe a swell new lunchbox. Okay, maybe that was when cars had fins and the idea of a gas crisis was science fiction — today, the shopping spree for kids heading off to college and even high school likely includes a laptop.

Laptops — or notebooks, call them what you want — are the hot computer commodity and getting hotter, especially during this crucial retail period. Three years ago, laptops accounted for 32.7 per cent of computer sales. This year, that's expected to reach 45.3 per cent in Canada, says Eddie Chan, an analyst with IDC Canada, a market research firm specializing in the technology industry.

"Clearly, there's a trend and there's lots of room for growth," Chan says. "Technology are really driving this market."

The good news for parents digging through their wallets is that laptops have never delivered more value. These days, there are decent machines for as little as $500 (although the ultimate-gamer Voodoo your son insists is the "right" tool for the job will still set you back $7,000 or more).

Lots of choices

Manufacturers are competing for the attention of the growing number of notebook customers by going after volume business — selling more machines for less to keep profits constant, Chan says. They're also offering buyers an ever-increasing range of models and features, which can mean confusion for students looking for a laptop that'll make the grade.

Even would-be teachers find the choices daunting. Fabian Saouda, 40, is going back to school after a 20-year absence to pursue his Bachelor of Education through an affiliate program with Charles Sturt University in Burlington, Ont., this fall, and found himself tested when making a notebook purchase.

"Some schools lease computers to you, some want to sell you one and sell you software, but for $479, I found the [entry-level] Dell Inspiron was what I needed for essays and e-mails," he says. "I upgraded the hard drive to 120 gigabytes and took a three-year warranty, so it topped out at $579. My big issue now is that what should take two weeks to deliver is back-ordered to the end of September."

What to look for

Processing power used to be a prime concern when buying a computer, but today's entry-level machines have what most students will need for jobs like web surfing, e-mail and writing up their homework.

But an issue to be aware of is whether the laptop has "dedicated" or "shared" graphics memory (RAM). Laptops with dedicated graphics memory tend to be more expensive because they have one pool of RAM to handle graphics and a separate one for running programs.

Machines with shared memory use a portion of the computer's main RAM to handle graphics, which helps manufacturers cut component costs. But it means part of the laptop's memory is not available to run programs, so it's a good idea to have at least 1GB of main memory in these types of laptops.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many budget notebooks are bare-bones machines, meaning users have to pay extra for office applications such as a word processor (although software like OpenOffice is available for free on the internet). As the price goes up, you're more likely to get some software as part of the deal.

In the $500 to $1,200 entry-level range, there's lots of choice from brand-name manufacturers such as Acer, Toshiba, Compaq, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett Packard and Lenovo, as well as generics with aggressively priced models. The Dell Inspiron 1501 that Saouda bought is typical of laptops in the lowest price range, with an AMD processor, 1 GB of RAM, an 80-GB hard drive, and a CD burner with DVD playback. With this configuration, you're better off with the older Windows XP operating system, since Windows Vista is a more demanding operating system that monopolizes a lot more of a computer's resources, such as graphics processing power and memory.

The uber-cool kids will likely demand Apple MacBooks, which are indeed robust, dependable machines with lots of great features, as reflected in their $1,260-and-up price. The good news for Apple addicts is that most of the software for surfing and doing basic schoolwork is included, though the files may not always be compatible with PC applications. Before buying, it's worth checking with the school to see if any of the year's classes will require the use of PC-only programs.

And size does matter: the smaller and lighter the machine, the bigger the price. Ultra-portables such as the Sony Vaios or Hewlett Packard tx1000, for example, cost $1,500 and up despite their small 12- or 13-inch screens because getting a notebook down to less than a kilogram without losing any functionality or battery life is quite a trick.

The sweet spot for both price and portability is generally in the 14- to 15-inch-screen laptops right now.

Though their larger siblings with 17-inch screens seem like a great idea, they often come with weight issues. It's nice to have a big display, but hauling a boat anchor across campus all day and then home on the bus is no fun. If a big screen is important, an alternative to a big laptop is a more portable notebook equipped with an external video port so a large desktop computer monitor can be hooked up at home.

The other category of laptop that seems like a good idea for students is the so-called "ultra-ruggeds," of which the Panasonic Toughbook is the best-known example. Built to military specifications, they are used by construction crews and others working in conditions in which dust, weather and physical risk would destroy regular machines. "Ruggedized" laptops can survive anything from a short drop to a coffee spilled on the keyboard. But while they'll get your kid through college, they're also heavy and pricey at around $2,000 — the equivalent of buying several entry-level laptops.

Comparing features

When comparison shopping, concentrate on the features that really count. Most students won't care if the processor in the laptop is a Celeron, AMD Turion or Intel Core-Duo, but they will fret over CD versus DVD players, screen size, weight, battery life, higher-capacity hard drives and memory.

Wireless internet access through WiFi networks is standard at almost all universities and colleges, with access in lecture halls, dorms, quads, libraries and hallways. Finding a laptop with WiFi networking capability used to be an issue, but these days it's standard on most machines. For the few models without built-in WiFi, a wireless network adapter can be added for less than $50.

As the price goes up, so typically does the capacity of the hard drive. You'll also find features such as sensors that lock the drive up in the event the machine is dropped, so that data isn't destroyed.

More expensive laptop chassis also tend to have stronger alloys, batteries are longer lasting, and graphics processors get faster (and more attractive to gamers). Webcams and microphones are built in, optical CD burners become DVD burners, and fingerprint scanners are included for locking up the machine's data, as is file encryption technology.

Tablets

The biggest change to notebooks since manufacturers added DVD players is the advent of the "convertible class," also known as tablet PCs.

These machines have touch-sensitive screens that twist around and fold flat, making the laptop into a digital clipboard. When a tablet is combined with handwriting recognition software, students can write their notes by hand and draw diagrams on the fly.

The touch screens add $500 or so to the price of a comparable laptop. Lenovo's 12.1-inch convertible X60 starts at about $2,000, for example, while HP's tx1000 is slighter cheaper at $1,300. (The more robust business version, the 2710p, starts at around $1,700.)

Tablets don't come cheap, but for students who will be copying down formulas or diagrams, it might be worth the premium in saved time and paper.

Finally, keep in mind that unlike a desktop PC, it's usually much harder (and sometimes impossible) to upgrade the components of a laptop. Make sure the machine you settle on has all the bells and whistles you'll need.

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