* Mac or PC?We know we’re setting ourselves up for flak from both sides of the Mac/PC debate, but the truth is,
no matter which brand you prefer, computers are pretty much all the same inside. Generally speaking, you have a processor, an operating system, some memory, a bunch of internal and exterior connections, and a means of saving files and programs. Simple, right?OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to reality. The actual quality — and price — of all those things we just listed varies wildly not just between Macs and PCs, but also within both categories. Yes, everything you’ve heard about Apple’s design innovation, quality of materials, and overall reliability is true — but so is everything you’ve heard about how easy Windows 7’s hardware and software compatibility makes it to work, play and connect, both at home and on campus. So, whether your kids are nudging you toward the Apple Store or Best Buy, know this much: The only “right” computer is the one that does the things you need it to do, within whatever means you have to spend on it.
* How will they use it?
If your kids are anything like, well, most kids, they already have a specific type of computer in mind, right down to the hardware specs. As the voice of reason — and the one with the wallet — you should grill them a bit more about how they’ll actually use their new computer. Take some time to brainstorm a wish list of features, and organize wants and needs into
a spreadsheet that you can translate into hardware specs and computer models. (We’ll be adding to this sheet later.)
For instance, do the kids want to be able to play games or stream movies between homework assignments? That might lead you toward a PC with discrete graphics and built-in WiFi. Is your first-year English student planning to write the Great American Novel? You might be looking at nothing more than a glorified word processor. Also, look to your kids’ school or intended college for information and recommendations. Are you in a school that either lends computers to students or subsidizes PC purchases? Are there certain features your children’s instructors recommend?
* Laptop or desktop?
A computer is a computer, right? Well, sort of, but as you’re considering how, where and when the kids will use their new computer, it’s als
o important to consider form factor (a fancy term for the basic shell that holds the computer’s insides). Do the kids need a system that can go from classroom to bedroom to library? Look for a laptop. Does your engineering or design student need a computing workhorse that’s easy to upgrade? Look into a desktop (also called a tower PC) or fixed workstation.
Laptops and desktops, of course, are just the um
brella categories. A thin, light ultraportable laptop could be the ideal traveling companion for someone studying abroad. Students who primarily need a means to write papers and take notes might benefit from a small, lightly featured netbook or Chromebook (compact, bare-bones laptops that run solely on Google’s Chrome browser and a Web connection). Even workstations and gaming PCs can be squeezed into laptop form factors — although they do tend to run a bit heavy and large for backpacks.
* How much can you afford?
Once you’ve chosen your computer type and picked a side in the Mac-versus-PC debate, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Do you have more than $1,000 to spend on a new computer? If not, then your decision gets that much easier. Even the lowest-end Mac will cost you more than a grand after tax; however, you’re also getting an exceptionally well-built system that will last you several years even without upgrades, so eating into your budget today might pay off later.
For the rest of us, there’s no shortage of excellent finds on the Windows side of the aisle — particularly if you’re looking for a budget-friendly system that’ll get the kids through the next few years of school. Manufacturers such as HP, Dell, Toshiba, and Sony (to name just a few) offer dozens of options across multiple budget ranges — however, before you pledge allegiance to a PC brand based on this week’s sale price, you’ll want to dig a little deeper.
* How connected do they need to be?
We know: That’s a silly question for kids who’ve grown up with 24/7 access to smartphones and the internet. But when considering how, when and where your kids will need to connect, also consider the educational benefits of getting online. As classrooms evolve, even grade-school students are learning to share work online, participate in e-learning, and collaborate via whiteboards and other tools. And, of course, connectivity for older kids also means the ability to connect from anywhere on networked campuses while building their social networks through Facebook, Twitter and other means.
Look for laptops and even desktops that support a range of the latest connectivity options — from WiFi capability (read: free connections over campus and public networks) to Ethernet (wired) jacks that can be used when wireless isn’t available. Also consider battery life when you’re looking for a laptop — being able to connect for hours without a power cord matters when you’re in class all day. Just be sure to read the fine print first; PC user guides explain that battery claims are based on manufacturer testing, and these tests are typically run with virtually all battery-sucking features (i.e., the animated windows, applications and wireless capabilities we rely on for a pleasant computing experience) minimized.
* What are the most important specs?
So you’ve figured out that each of your two kids will need a laptop for college, but your oldest is an Apple fan and your youngest won’t touch anything that isn’t Windows 7. That solves your user needs and half of your brand-loyalty problem; now it’s time to compare specs to make sure the computers the kids want are also the computers they need. There’s a whole world of specs we could get into here — discrete graphics cards for games and HD movies; Bluetooth, Thunderbolt and HDMI for state-of-the-art connectivity to TVs and gadgets — but for most parents’ money, the big four specs to consider are processor, memory, storage and battery life.
Get the fastest processor, or CPU, and the most memory, or RAM, you can afford, even if you have to stretch your budget to do it. Together, these components give your computer its multitasking muscle and help keep you future-ready as new, more robust programs come along. Given how much space can be taken up by music, photos and videos, you should also look to get the most storage for your buck. Internal hard drives tend to range from 250GB to 1TB or more, and you might also consider buying an external drive for backups. Those media libraries can grow quickly, and all it takes is one hard-drive crash to wipe out all that saved homework.
* What software do they need?
Depending on the brand of computer you buy, you may initially spend more time focusing on the software your kids don’t need for school. That’s because many manufacturers get paid to add trial or full-release software to their new systems. Luckily, getting rid of “bloatware” can be as easy as running your PC’s built-in uninstaller — and if you can’t cut the crap that way, services such as Best Buy’s Geek Squad will happily either remove or add programs at your request, albeit for a fee.
What about the software essentials your student actually needs? Along with a Web browser (Safari, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox are all free and reputable), you’ll want a basic productivity suite, an antivirus program, and some sort of email/scheduler program. Microsoft Office offers a Home and Student Edition (for both PC and Mac) that covers everyday productivity, email and scheduling needs, as well as the ability to create presentations and take notes. (Be sure to look into student software discounts while you’re shopping, too.) However, you might also want to check into Google Docs or Open Office for free alternatives. While Mac owners laud their systems’ built-in virus resistance, PC owners can either purchase antivirus software (your new PC likely includes an un-lockable trial version) or get free protection from sources such as Microsoft Security Essentials or AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition.
* What happens when something breaks?
Technically savvy families are right to raise an eyebrow at many PC warranty and service offerings. PC manufacturers value these services for their low overhead and high margins, but if you’re not careful, you can find yourself being gouged for routine tasks — disk defragmenting, bloatware removal, creation of backup discs — that can be mastered through information found in a simple Google search.
Cautionary tales aside, kids do have a knack for destroying things, so you’re not unwise to extend your standard warranty (typically a year of limited hardware coverage) for as long as you think your kids will need the extra protection. Online backup services — such as SOS, Norton and IDrive — can also be a smart investment. Not only do these provide a way to back up homework in the event of a hard-drive crash, but many of them also enable you to share and sync files across computers, and even devices — your phone, for example.
* What else do they need?
Remember that wish list you put together when you were anticipating the kids’ needs? Revisit it again while you’re shopping to make sure you don’t overlook any extra gear or gadgets — software included — that might complete their computer experience. For instance, a desktop PC won’t do you much good unless you pair it with a monitor, and if ergonomics are important, an off-the-shelf keyboard or mouse can make using your desktop a lot more comfortable.
Similarly, laptop-toting kids might benefit from a wireless mouse, as well as a docking station — which essentially converts your laptop into a desktop with the addition of a keyboard and monitor — for improved productivity in the dorm room. Given how often kids will need to print hard copies of reports and other assignments, an inkjet or laser printer is also a smart investment. Look for package deals as you’re shopping, too. PC manufacturers will often bundle desktops and laptops with printers, monitors, digital cameras and other hardware — even, in the case of a recent Windows 7 deal, with Xbox 360 systems — for a special price.
* Where are the best deals?
So you have your hardware wish list, your spreadsheet and your list of brand preferences — now it’s time to hit your local big-box electronics store with credit card in hand, right? Not so fast — because while you’re likely to find plenty of deals in this week’s circular, you can save even more with some additional research.
Next to the holidays, back-to-school time is computer manufacturers’ biggest season, and with so much new inventory arriving, you can save a bundle by purchasing last year’s — or even last month’s — model. Register with manufacturers’ education sites — HP Academy, the Apple Store for Education and Dell University, for instance — for offers exclusive to your children’s schools, and look for additional deals and coupons at sites such as TechBargains and RetailMeNot. Have an .edu email address? Use it to cash in on thousands of student software discounts, some of which can even net you top-name software free of charge.- Babble Editors