Back to School Tech: What to Buy (and What Not to Buy) Your College Student

Laptops and smartphones? Yes. Tablets? No. College isn’t getting any cheaper, so now is the time to think about getting the right and affordable consumer electronics as your kids head back to campus.

It’s still summer, and as much as they’re trying to suppress the thought, students will be heading back to college next month and they’re going to need electronic devices to help get through the coming semester. If you’re footing the bills, it’s likely that you’re wondering if you should buy them a tablet or a laptop.

If you said tablet, you have plenty of company. BuyVia, an online shopping comparison site, surveyed tech-savvy consumers (the sample was randomly selected from a pool of buyers) and found that about one-third of the 1,000 respondents thought a tablet was the appropriate back-to-school tool, while only about one-fifth indicated a preference for a laptop. Majority rule works for politics, but not when it comes to buying consumer technology: A laptop is what students need.

Tablets are good for a lot of things such as reading books and magazines, watching videos, checking email, and surfing the Web, to name just as few. But they’re not nearly as good when it comes to serious content creation, a buzz phrase that means everything from writing a term paper to editing a video.

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I have friends who do a fair amount of writing on a tablet using a Bluetooth keyboard, but in my opinion, a laptop is much easier to work on. What’s more, the Office-type software that’s available for laptops is simply more powerful than anything you’ll get for a tablet, even though those choices are improving. One example: footnotes, an essential feature for many assignments. Even a colleague who uses tablets quite a bit says tablet productivity software generally lacks this key feature.

And when it comes to video editing or crunching complex numbers in physics or economics, a tablet is simply not a good choice.

What laptop to buy? As always, this is very much a budget-related issue. If money isn’t a big problem, Apple’s Macbook Air and Windows Ultrabooks are light, powerful and stylish. An extra pound or two makes a real difference when toting an already heavy backpack around the campus.

You can, of course, save money by buying something bulkier.

DealNews recently produced a good overview of how to find the right back-to-school laptop and its worth checking out. You probably know the basics already: at least 4 GB of RAM, a hard drive of 500 GB or more, and Windows 7 or Windows 8. I wouldn’t worry too much about the processor. If you’re buying an Intel machine, a core i3, is just fine. A lot of vendors are now pushing quad-core processors, but that will add a few hundred dollars to the price.

If your student wants a Windows 8 touchscreen, I’ll quote a section from the DealNews article that tips a good buy:

"The Microsoft Store has a great student-only promo (a valid .edu email address is required) on the ASUS VivoBook Intel Ivy Bridge Core i3 1.8GHz 11.6" Touchscreen Laptop bundled with a Microsoft Office 365 4-year subscription for $359. That's the cheapest price we've seen for an 11.6" touchscreen laptop, which is the kind of system that usually commands twice that price."

I’m not going to write about smartphones here, other than suggesting they are essential these days. Emailing, texting and on-the-go Web surfing are things students need to do, and it makes a lot more sense to do it on a pocket-sized phone rather than a laptop. But remember: A smartphone requires a data plan, so check with your carrier and look for a family or shared plan that makes sense.

Image: Mashable.com

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