There's nothing worse for a kid than when August rolls around and the words "Back to School" start appearing on shop windows and during commercial breaks. I know the words "Back to School" used to give me a profound sinking feeling, feeding my anxiety. Whenever I heard the phrase "Back to School" I knew summer was ending, when it seemed like it was just getting started.
What's that? Stop saying "Back to School?" Sorry, I'll stop saying "Back to School!" Back to School.
For a lot of students going Back to School means going to university or college, and that means shopping for a computer.
There's no shortage of options here, but I would really have to recommend that students forgo looking at desktops and get a laptop computer.
There are a few things you should keep in mind:
Size and weight and battery life - Chances are you're going to be lugging around 20 kilos of textbooks on some days, and the last thing you need is to add another few kilos of overweight laptop. This is where the trade-off comes in - a netbook from 10 to 12 inches is too small for a lot of things like watching movies and navigating multiple documents at the same time (although the Asus EEE PC 1005PR has an HD screen), but it's usually the best option for battery life (eight to 10 hours for some models). A full-sized laptop is heavier, bulkier and usually tops out at around four hours of battery life - enough for most students on the go, but you'll want to scope out classrooms, cafeterias, libraries, etc. for outlets where you can recharge on a longer day.
I have a 17-inch laptop with an HD screen that I wouldn't recommend for a student. It's too big, bulky and heavy and it only gets around two hours of battery life.
I would say 13 to 14 inches is probably a good size for an all-around laptop. And you can get a pretty good system for around $500. If money is no object then by all means get the 15 inch MacBook Pro (over $2,000), which is the top-rated laptop of the day.
I would look for at least 4 GB of RAM (but expandable to 8 GB - you may need it for course work), a 500 GB hard drive, a middle-of-the-road graphics card for movies and simple games, a built-in camera and microphone for video conferencing, Firewire and USB 2.0 ports, and built-in SD flash card slots. In other words, a fairly standard computer for this day and age.
Other things to consider include the keyboard (do you like it, and is it quiet enough to take notes in class?) an HDMI port (you can hook up an Xbox or PS3 to your laptop, or hook your laptop up to the television), and the processor (the new i3 and i7 chips can overclock to offer serious power but they run pretty hot if you have them on for a long time. That matters if you're putting the computer on your lap.) The difference between 64-bit, 32-bit, dual core and quad core computers can also be confusing, but I would try to get a PC with a 32-bit processor for the simple reason that a lot of software won't work with a 64-bit system.
Speakers can also be important, so be sure to test those (and test the built-in camera as well to make sure you're in focus).
Getting software is also important. You can use your student discount to purchase the latest version of Office. You'll want Word at the very least and One Note could quickly become your best friend. You should also have some kind of spreadsheet software.
If money is an object then you can generally get what you need for free.
Universities are the most wired and wireless places in the world, so you might not want to rely entirely on Google Docs or Microsoft Live for free online productivity software. Get OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) or Simplenote (www.simplenoteapp.com) just in case - you can always upload those files later.
Keeping your data online will keep it protected and accessible, but if you end up with a lot of documents on your system - and teachers will send you all kinds of attachments - then get a Drop Box account as well (www.dropbox.com) to back everything up in case your computer dies or is stolen, the sprinkler system goes on in your dorm, or some other disaster strikes.
Other software titles I would recommend for PC users include Windows Security Essentials (www.microsoft.com), Windows Movie Maker and Photo Gallery (www.microsoft.com), CCleaner (www.piriform.com) to keep your system clean and running quickly, Gimp (www.gimp.org) for image manipulation, Evernote (www.evernote.com) to keep notes and files and Remember The Milk (www.rememberthemilk.com) to keep your calendars and To Do lists. Evernote and Remember the Milk also have apps for all kinds of phones, which will make your data portable.
School can be overwhelming at times, but Back to School shouldn't be. Back to School.