10 Back-to-School Laptop Buying Tips

Today's students need a good dose of technology to do their best work. But the market for consumer tech is both crowded and confusing. Before you invest in a laptop--and, yes, you should get your student a laptop--here are 10 important considerations.

You know how it feels to wander down the grocery store cereal aisle, trying to pick out something new? "Overwhelming" is the word that probably comes to mind.

Deciding on a new laptop for your school-aged son or daughter isn't all that different, especially now. Windows 8 laptop with or without a touchscreen? Windows 8 tablet/laptop convertible or hybrid? Skip Windows and go for a Mac? Or say adios to both and get a Google Chromebook? Just buy a tablet and forgo the laptop entirely?

Otherwise clear heads are no doubt spinning. Let us help you figure out this whole back-to-school laptop thing right now. Here are 10 tips to help you make the best buying decision before the school bell rings.

Related: Top 13 Back-to-School Laptops and Tablets

1. Don't Buy a Tablet Instead of a Laptop.

We know iPads and Android tablets are awesome. They're highly portable, their batteries last an entire school day, there are plenty of apps and their prices are usually reasonable.

But a tablet isn't a laptop replacement—at least not yet.

As advanced as today's tablets are, they still can't do everything a laptop can do. As CIO.com blogger Bill Snyder recently wrote, "The Office-type software that's available for laptops is simply more powerful than anything youll get for a tablet, even though those choices are improving."

Snyder specifically cites footnotes, "an essential feature for many (school) assignments," as a major tablet limitation: "Even a colleague who uses tablets quite a bit says tablet productivity software generally lacks this key feature."

General rule for school: A tablet should only be a secondary computing device, something to use after school for Web browsing, email, music, video and general goofing off. (After homework is done, of course.)

2. Don't Buy a Chromebook Instead of a Laptop.

Samsung, Acer, Hewlett-Packard and Google all offer notebooks built on Google Chrome, a Linux-based operating system that works exclusively with Web applications.

Samsung Chromebook
The Chromebook, such as this Samsung model, is an inexpensive Google Chrome-based laptop, but its limitations mean that it shouldn't be your sole computer.

Chromebooks are tempting for several reasons:

  • The price. Acer's C7 Chromebook is a mere $199; Samsung's basic Chromebook is $249.
  • There's no software to buy. The vast majority of what you do—writing, spreadsheets and such—is done through free Google apps.
  • All Chromebook activity is in the cloud. You don't have to worry about backing everything up.
  • Chromebooks last at least four hours, often longer, on a single battery charge.

Tips: 5 Things You Need to Know About Google Chromebooks

So why not buy a Chromebook instead of a laptop? In most cases, nearly everything you do on a Chromebook requires an Internet connection, which you can't always count on. You can't install software you're used to, such as Microsoft Office or iTunes. You have to confine yourself to Google's world, instead of configuring your laptop for your world.

General rule for school: A Chromebook could be useful as a secondary computing device for, say, taking notes in class. Use it as your only computer, though, and you'd face too many limitations.

3. Go for Ultra Portability—If You Can Afford It.

Ultrabooks—a lightweight class of Windows laptops inspired by the success of Apple's thin-and-light MacBook Air—may be nearly ideal for students. When you're already shouldering a bulging backpack all day around campus, why further burden your back with a five-pound laptop?

Reviewers tend to particularly appreciate Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air (2.96 pounds), which was recently upgraded to last about 12 hours on a single battery charge. A base model costs $1,099.

Sony Vaio Pro 11
At 2 pounds, the Sony Vaio Pro 11 is the lightest laptop on the market. But you pay a premium for such a light weight.

If you need a Windows machine, consider the Sony Vaio Pro 11; at just under 2 pounds, Consumer Reports calls it "the lightest laptop weve ever tested, according to Consumer Reports. Beginning price: $1,150.

General rule for school: Ultra portability equals higher price.

4. Consider a Mac—If You Can Afford It.

Yes, you'll pay more for an Apple laptop. Apple's least-expensive laptop is the 11.6-inch MacBook Air, at $999. Some Windows laptops sell for half that, such as HP's Envy dv4-5211nr, currently on sale for $499.

But if you only look at the price tag, you're not necessarily getting a good long-term value. In Consumer Reports' brand reliability survey (subscription required), Apple laptops had the fewest repairs and serious problems, followed in ascending order by Acer, Sony, Lenovo, HP, Toshiba, Gateway and Dell.

Apple also tops Consumer Reports' tech support ratings. Apple ranked 86 out of 100; the next closest computer maker was Lenovo, ranked at 63. Apple Stores have free workshops, and you can get free tech support from their Genius bars, too.

Finally, the incompatibility issues between Macs and Windows have almost entirely disappeared, thanks to the increasing importance of the Web and the cloud, the interchangeability of USB peripherals such as printers and the ability to run Windows on Macs, among other things.

Apple MacBook Air
Yes, Macs are more expensive than PCs. But they generally last longer, and Apple consistently tops all other PC makers in reliability and tech support surveys.

General rule for school: Go with Windows if you want more computer choices and want to reduce up-front costs, and if you want a touchscreen laptop—as of this writing, there's no such thing as a touchscreen Mac. Go with a Mac for Apple's solid reputation in reliability and tech support and well-reviewed products. There will be a learning curve when switching from Windows to Mac, of course. But students should be used to learning, right?

5. Don't Skimp on Specs.

If you buy a super inexpensive laptop, you're most likely getting a portable with slower processor and graphics performance, which affects video playback and gaming; minimal RAM and storage space; heavy weight; cheap construction, and so on.

How-to: 6 Ways to Use Multiple Displays With Your Laptop

Here are some important specifications to consider:

  • CPU. Intel's fourth-generation Core chip, Haswell, can prolong a laptop's battery life without sacrificing speed. If battery longevity isn't as important, look for laptops with the older Intel Ivy Bridge processor, which are likely to be less expensive than newer laptops with Haswell chips. (Note that laptops with AMD processors tend to be less expensive than those with Intel inside.) Also, stick with dual-core processors: quad-core chips are meant for heavy-duty HD video editing and other intensive tasks that most students won't need to do.
  • Graphics chip. Many laptops have an integrated graphics chip, which shares system memory. Such chips are perfectly fine for most everyday computing chores. If your student aspires to be a filmmaker or high-end game developer, consider springing for a laptop with a discrete graphics processor.
  • RAM. Get as much as you can afford, especially if you can't upgrade memory later (as is the case with MacBook Airs). For most students, 4GB is fine. But the more memory you have, the zippier your computer's performance will be. For example, having multiple applications open at once, and lots of tabs open in your Web browser, can slow laptop performance if it lacks sufficient memory.
  • Storage. Your hard drive or Solid State Drive (SSD) can impact your computer's performance, too, along with your ability to store lots of files. A laptop with a hard drive operating at 7,200 rpm will give you better performance than a 5,400 rpm hard drive, though the faster hard drive can drain your battery faster, too. SSDs are still much more expensive per gigabyte than hard drives, but the're super fast and have no moving parts to worry about breaking.
  • Optical drive. Increasingly, laptops are shunning the CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drive in order to shed weight. Also, more people are streaming video and music these days or downloading them from iTunes, Amazon and other online stores. Most software can be downloaded online, too. If your student truly needs an optical drive, consider buying an external one. They typically cost less than $100.
  • 4G connection. Some laptops have an optional 4G cellular modem built in, so you can go online virtually anywhere. But they typically add at least $100 to the laptop cost and you'll need to pay for a monthly 4G plan, too. (Yes, 3G modems still exist, but they are old school.) With nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi on campuses these days, 4G probably isn't a must-have.

General rule for school: The more up-to-date, powerful machine you buy today, the less need you'll have to upgrade the laptop again in a year or two. In the long run, you'll save money.

6. Give a Touchscreen a Chance.

The Windows 8 Start screen, with its live tiles, doesn't require a touchscreen—but it sure is nice to have one. Keep in mind, however, that once you start working in Windows apps, a trackpad, mouse, or other device can be more efficient. Also, laptops with touchscreens tend to cost a bit more (up to $150 extra) than those without.

General rule for school: Windows 8 is more fun to use with a touchscreen. Most likely, touchscreens are the future. So for not a whole lot more money, a touchscreen Windows laptop may be just the ticket.

7. Consider a Tablet/Laptop Hybrid or Convertible Carefully.

There are traditional Windows 8 laptops. And then there are Windows 8 convertibles and hybrids.

Windows 8 hybrids can be used as a stand-alone tablet or, when docked in a compatible keyboard, as a laptop. (Hybrids are also called "detachables.") One example is Samsung's Ativ Smart PC, which currently costs $602 on Amazon.com with a keyboard.

Most hybrid tablet/laptops are criticized as being too heavy to be tablets and not powerful enough to be laptops. But Consumer Reports (subscription required) gave Samsungs Ativ Smart PC an overall score of 80, praising it for portability, versatility and touch response.

Feature: 15 Hot Windows 8 Hybrid Notebooks and Tablets

More: Is it a Laptop? A Tablet? Whatever, PC Makers Just Hope You Buy it

Tablet/laptop convertibles are another option. Unlike hybrids, the keyboard is attached to the screen. But the keyboard can be folded behind the screen, or the screen can be twisted away from the keyboard, among other contortions.

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
Tablet/laptop hybrids such as the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 let users flip the screen and easily convert from laptop to tablet orientation.

Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga 11S ($750 and up) and IdeaPad Yoga 13 ($899 and up), which are as flexible as their names suggest and generally earn solid reviews, are classic examples, while Dell's XP2 12 (starting at $1,100) also gets good grades.

General rule for school: Not to over-generalize (much), but students tend to lose things. So a hybrid tablet/laptop with a detachable keyboard may be asking for trouble.

8. Always Check for Student Discounts.

After spending all that tuition money, any savings will be greatly appreciated. Fortunately, nearly every electronics retailer offers back-to-school specials. Some hardware makers offer student discounts, too. For example, if you buy a Mac for college before Sept. 6, Apple will give you a $100 App Store gift card, along with educational pricing.

General rule for school: Not sure how to find a student discount? Try a Google search using the name of the computer maker followed by the phrase student discount 2013. Googling Lenovo student discount 2013 will lead you to a page about Lenovo's Academic Purchase Program.

9. Pay With Amex or Discover.

When you buy a new laptop, you'll inevitably be asked if you want to cover it with an extended warranty, which can add several hundred dollars to the total. If you pay for the computer with an American Express or Discover card, however, the manufacturer's warranty is automatically extended. (MasterCard and Visa cards may also offer extended warranties, depending on the issuer and the card.)

Tips: Extended Warranties on Gadgets: When to Pay, When to Pass

But Amex has been singled out for having the best overall extended warranty coverage. "It is the only card that extends the manufacturer's warranty on refurbished items, like computers, which are becoming increasingly popular," notes The New York Times. Amex will extend a manufacturer's warranty by one year, on warranties of up to five years, according to its Extended Warranty policy.

General rule for school: Pay for the computer with an Amex card, especially one that gives you mileage points. That spring break trip will be here before you know it.

10. For Additional Savings, Consider Refurbished Laptops.

You can often save several hundred dollars buying a refurbished laptop. Refurbished computers were purchased and returned for whatever reason—whether it was a technical problem or the owner didn't like the keyboard.

Speaking of Refurbs…: Top Back-to-School Laptops of 2012

Once returned, the laptops are wiped clean, tested, repaired (if necessary) and then resold for less. HP, Dell and Apple are among those with a refurbished section on their online stores. A refurbished MacBook Pro with a 13-inch screen recently sold for 15 percent off its original price.

Apple MacBook Pro
Before paying full price for a laptop such as an Apple MacBook Pro (which starts at $1,199), consider a refurbished model. You could reap substantial savings.

General rule for school: Refurbished laptops aren't always the latest, current models. And you can't customize them.

James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter @james_a_martin and on Google+. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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