MacBook Pro Retina Ain’t Worth It: Affordable Back-to-School Tech
Students need a good laptop, but don't believe the hype: You don't have to buy the most expensive machines at the Apple Store to help your children succeed. Here's how to save money on PCs, smartphones and software.
School is starting up across much of the country in the next few weeks, and anxious parents are already wondering how they can afford those sky-high tuitions and dorm fees. I can’t help you with those, but I do have some advice when it comes to the technology your teenagers will demand: Just say no.
I don’t mean saying no to the laptops and monitors and the like that students will surely need. But I do mean “say no” to unreasonably expensive gadgets that are undeniably cool, but hardly the stuff of necessity.
When you set a curfew, your high schoolers probably acted like you were the worst parent ever and you’d ruined their lives. (Mine did.) But you did it anyway. The same is true with technology purchases. You want your kids to succeed, of course, and if you have a reasonable income there are plenty of decent digital tools out there you can buy without having to mortgage the manse. When your kids have their own income, they can buy whatever they want. Until then, you’re in charge of the credit cards.
Laptops: To Mac or Not to Mac
In this post, I’m going to focus on the most basic item: a laptop. Every student in high school or college needs one. Before you buy anything, check with the college admissions or academic office and find out if the school prefers a Mac or Windows PC.
If you’re on the Windows side of the world, you have lots of choices, and there’s no reason to spend more than $700. The HP Envy, for example, weights in at just 3.9 pounds, comes with 4GB of a memory and 500GB of internal storage and is selling for $679 at Best Buy.
Your geeky kids may well know that the CPU, Intel’s core i3, is not the latest generation processor. They’re right, but it doesn’t matter. That chip has more than enough power for what they need to do.
Toshiba’s Satellite P645 is a bit heavier at 4.3 points, but is decently configured and somewhat cheaper at $599. And there’s plenty more in that price range. If that’s still too much, don’t give up. On a recent visit to Best Buy in San Francisco, I saw quite a few laptops well below $500. (Search the Web for other deals as well, of course.) Sure, there are tradeoffs. They tend to be heavier and use older technology. But these days, even a somewhat obsolete laptop that runs Windows 7 will be just fine for the basic student chores of writing, using the Web, watching videos (though not HD) and email.
If you’re going to go with a Mac, don’t buy a MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The Retina display is flat out gorgeous, and the system comes with lots of memory, a fast processor and plenty of ports. But it starts at $2,199. There’s simply no reason to spend that much money on a student’s machine. Remember, a huge number of laptops are lost and stolen every year, and no matter how much you warn your students not to be careless, they’re young people and they’ll make mistakes.
Instead buy the standard Macbook Pro. It’s quite capable and costs $1,000 less. Yes, the MacBook Air is even cheaper, but the Air’s claim to fame is its light weight (just 2.3 pounds). If you compare the specs, you’ll see the tradeoffs. The MacBook Pro gives you more storage, a DVD drive, more slots and a faster processor for less money.
Here’s another way to save money on a laptop: Don’t let it get stolen.
Try not to use a very conspicuous laptop bags. Better to carry it in a backpack than in a fancy nylon carrying case that tells bad guys there’s something inside worth stealing. It probably won’t do any good, but explain to your student that they should never leave their PC or Mac unattended in a public place.
Smartphone Yes, Tablets No
As for tablets and the like, I’d just say no, for now. A tablet is an excellent extra, but chances are students will do better with a laptop since it will certainly run all of the applications needed to get through the school year. If you do buy one, be sure to get a Wi-Fi only version, which will save money on the purchase, and more importantly, you won’t need a data plan.
Smartphones? They don’t have to have an iPhone 5. A number of vendors, including Metro PCS and T-Mobile, offer cheap, but adequate phones, and more affordable data plans than market bullies Verizon and AT&T.
Software? You don’t have to buy Microsoft Office, but if you do, make sure to get them the student version. It’s much cheaper. If you check eBay, you’ll find lots of older versions for sale, for example Office 2007, at a great discount. Or use open source software such as Open Office or Libre Office, which cost exactly nothing.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.