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How to Buy a Back to School Laptop

Give us four minutes and we'll make you an expert on buying a back to school laptop

Lost in a whirl of specs trying to find a new laptop for your proud student? Here’s a rapid-fire course on everything you need to know.

Which Processor?

For the average student who browses the web and works in Google Docs or Microsoft Office, any current Intel processor will do the job. The fastest model is the Core i7, followed by the Core i5, i3, and Core M at the bottom. All of these are great chips, but Core M offers the best battery life while Core i7 delivers the best performance. Frankly, most students don’t need more than a Core i3 or Core i5.

The confusion starts with the Celeron and Pentium processors where Intel builds them on two very distinct technologies. All you need to know is a Celeron or Pentium with an “N” in the model number will give you fantastic battery life at the cost of overall performance. Celeron and Pentium models will give you much better performance but have less battery life.

Laptops are often upsold on CPU cores so you’ll see quad-cores and dual-core thrown around a lot. Most students don’t need a quad-core so don’t fall for the upsell trick.

In convertible tablets that turn into laptops, you’ll find mostly Atom processors. The z-series is the most common and fine but slow. The new Atom X7 or X5 is a better processor but difficult to find right now.

How much RAM?

This one is easy. Don’t buy less than 2GB and don’t buy more than 8GB. In fact, 2GB isn’t recommended unless you’re on a realy tight budget. The sweet spot is actually 4GB with 8GB preferred for people who like to have a lot open on the screen at once. Anything else is a waste and anything less is a big mistake.

Storage options

The best thing you can do for your student is buy a laptop with a solid state drive, or SSD, in it. It’ll make everything just run faster. But, unfortunately, SSDs are expensive.

For a student, a 32GB SSD won’t hack it and 64GB barely works. So, assuming you can afford it, you better opt for an SSD that’s 128GB. Most students have massive music collections, and if you buy any less storage, your kid will cry foul.

Vendors are also pushing hybrid drives that promise “SSD-like” performance. Don’t believe that. They’re faster than old-school hard drives, but they don’t compare to an SSD. You’re better off just buying a regular-old hard drive, and if you go that route, 500GB or 1TB should be plenty of space.

Graphics chip

Is your kid going to school to play games, or to earn a degree so they can support you when you’re old? I say that because the graphics already included in all modern laptop processors is good enough everyone except the hardcore gamer. The only reason you’d really want to pay for a discrete AMD or Nvidia graphics chip in a laptop is if your student is in a field that requires it. Some fields, where they might editing video or engineering might actually require a graphics chip so I won’t rule it out but for 90 percent of college students not going to school to be a professional gamer, they don’t need it. Most laptops with discrete graphics also get bigger, heavier and have shorter battery life.

Screen resolution

For what most students do in PowerPoint, Word, Google Docs and web browsing, an “HD” resolution of 1366x768 is actually easier on the eyes, especially on a small screen. That said, this smaller resolution limits the number of open windows you can fit on screen. For this reason, I think the sweet spot is 1920x1080 -- or what’s commonly called FHD or “full HD” resolution. There really isn’t a need for more resolution on a student laptop and higher resolutions hurt battery life and can make the text look funny.

Beyond that, it’s just how the speakers sound, how the keyboard and trackpad works, how many ports it has and how big it is.

There you’re done. Believe it or not. But now you’re an expert on how to buy a laptop. Just let me know where to send your blue shirt so you can give advice to people in your local store