Wow!, this question should yield a lot of controversy as well as a large variety of answers. It would be similar to asking what is the best Automobile for driving to work each day, has the best gas mileage, longest driving range between fill-ups, holds the most passengers and would be a bonus if I could occasionally race it in the Daytona 500? If there was such a car, there would only be one model on the market and everyone would buy it. There is no ideal computer that will meet all the needs of every user and everyone has their personal favorite as well as a personal worst. Just like cars, every manufacturer has had a lemon or two as well as a few good models.
One major thing is to avoid waiting to long to buy your computer, this time of year as you get closer to school opening, the best and most popular models will be gone. The same thing is true as you start to approach Christmas. You want to get your computer early enough to give you time to set it up, make sure it is working correctly and check for any problems. You will also need time to clean up all the junk that came preinstalled on it as well as install additional software and printers that you may need. This is also a good time to transfer all you CDs or MP3s to your new computer.
You are going to have to sacrifice some features to get others. For example: If you want a really small, lightweight model that will be easy to take to class, you will end up with a screen size that is probably too small to play high-end games, a keyboard that is a little small and typically a slower processor and graphics card then one of the larger models. Now having said this, if money is no object, there are ways of putting together a complete system that can approach the ideal, but it will cost you.
For example: You could purchase a really high-end Mini Notebook(~$3000) with removable drive bays that will accommodate extra batteries so you can take it to class and not worry about battery life. Then when you get back to your dorm room, you drop your laptop into a docking station that is connected to a large 30 HD flat LCD display(~$2500) or even an LCD Projector, High-end sound system(~$500), full size wireless keyboard and mouse(~$100) and a few 500gigabyt external Firewire/USB hard drives(~$600) filled with all your favorite MP3s and Movies. Boy!, I wish I was going off to college
Ok, enough dreaming. Even the least expensive, new laptop you can buy today for about $499 will be capable of basic word processing, spreadsheets, Web browsing, MP3s and playing some simple games (not the high end games) as long as you have the proper software for these tasks. It may not be real speedy and some games may be choppy or will not play at all. But keep in mind that most computers do not come with some of the software that you may need for school and you will probably want to purchase something like Microsoft Office. There is a special Student/Teacher version of Office for about $99-$149 that includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Your computer may come with a Trial version that will have to be paid for when the trial period expires.
Picking out a Laptop
Not knowing your budget as well as what features are the most important to you, makes is impossible to actually recommend a specific model and I am not sure if I would really want to, but I can give you some general guidelines to selecting a laptop. In general, lets start with the generic, standard laptop for about $500, you typically get a 14.1 screen, DVD Combo CD-RW drive 256meg of ram, 40 gig hard drive and a single 1.6 ghz Celeron M or AMD processor. Keep in mind that what is standard today will change next month and that 14.1 screen may be a 15.4 for the same money. You will generally pay extra for any of the following:
Faster Processor or Duo Processor In general, the faster the processor the higher the cost. Processors made by AMD generally cost less than Intel and as you go up in performance the price increases. You will also pay a premium for the new Duo (Dual Core) processors. If you dont play games, I am not talking about Solitaire, but games like Counter Strike, Half Life and Age of Empires, and you are not editing and burning videos or using power hungry programs like Act!, then most any of todays processors will be just fine. But if you are an avid user and tend to have lots of programs running at the same time, you will benefit from a faster processor or the new Duo processors. If you plan to Upgrade to Windows Vista, this may also dictate your processor choice.
Extra Small Portable You will pay a premium for ultra small portables and you usually will also notice slower processors as well in most of these models. To reduce weight and size, some of these models may be lacking an internal DVD/CD drive, yet you still pay more for the small size.
Larger Screen Sizes Laptop Screen sizes are now available up to 17 and I have even seen a 20 model. Some models also offer wide format screens that can improve DVD viewing as well as allow you to view the entire width of documents and web pages without having to scroll from left to right. One thing you should make note of is that most of the new laptops have high-gloss screens that can be really annoying when it comes to reflections.
Brighter and sharper screens There are different qualities of screens and some models offer ultra-sharp screens that may be easier to view in high ambient light.
Lighter Weight In general, the lighter the model the higher the cost. But watch out that you dont sacrifice battery life, performance or other features you may need for the lighter weight.
Extra long battery life Battery life can be deceiving and will depend on how you use your laptop. A laptop that advertises 8 hours, could end up only to be 2 hours if you are running the wireless adapter, Bluetooth, watching a DVD or even listening to MP3s stored on the hard drive. Some models offer larger capacity battery options as well as secondary batteries that replace the DVD drive when needed. Many models achieve longer battery life by throttling back the processor speed, dimming the screen and turning off various features. If you are a heavy user, you may not get anywhere near the rated battery life.
DVD Burner instead of Just a CD burne Most models now come with a combo drive that can read DVDs and CDs and Write (burn) CDs. If you have a need to write DVDs that will cost a little extra.
Additional Memory Even though Microsoft claims that 128meg is the minimum requirement for Windows XP, it is common knowledge that 256 meg is really the minimum. However, with so many background processes running today to protect us against viruses and spyware, the new minimum is 512 meg. If you are thinking of upgrading to Windows Vista when it comes out, then you will need to consider 1 or 2 gig of memory.
Larger Hard Drive Laptop hard drives are now typically in the range of 40-120 gigabytes. 40 gig is generally fine for the average person who uses their computer for Word and Excel documents, email and surfing the internet, but if you plan to store tons of music and/or photos, install several games, or edit or store video, then a larger hard drive will be needed. To put this into perspective the average computer with Windows XP Home uses about 7 gigabytes just for basic operation (including Microsoft Office, AOL, and some internet security software). I usually recommend never filling a drive beyond 85% leaving 15% as a safety net. So, if you have a 40 gig drive that leaves you with about 27 gigabytes of storage for your personal use. MP3s average about 3 megabytes per song or about 300 songs per gigabyte. Photos depend on the resolution and format of the photograph, but for example if you have a 4 megapixel camera, you might get about 600 Photos per gigabyte (check your own photos to determine how much space they will take). Graphic intensive games can take as much as 5 gigabytes each to install.
High-end graphics Card Most laptops come with integrated Video which is part of the motherboard and shares the main memory. This is fine for basic computer usage. Gaming, and other graphics intense programs will run better or may even require a dedicated graphics card with its own dedicated video memory. Many games will not even run without this upgrade.
Finger print security Some laptops offer added security with finger print recognition for computer access. This cool feature can save you from having to enter your password. More fun than a necessity, in my opinion.
Built-in Web Camera A few laptops have a built-in camera that can be used as a web cam or for low quality photos and video.
Blue-tooth capability Some laptops offer Bluetooth which is a short range wireless standard commonly used for wireless head-sets, keyboards and mice.
Integrated Mobile Broadband such as Verizon or Cingular card This is not your standard WiFi but rather wireless technology that uses cellular phone network for true mobile internet. Anywhere you have cell phone coverage, you would be able to have internet and email access. These special cards typically add about $200 to the cost of the laptop and you have to pay a monthly usage fee just like a cell phone. There are unlimited plans available for about $80 per month.
Built-in Television tuner A built-in TV tuner can be a great addition for the college student, thus eliminating the need to bring a television to school. Note: you will need to connect it to your cable TV line or external antenna to receive anything. When my son went to school with his desktop computer, I purchased a computer monitor with built-in TV tuner to save space.
Improved Sound card Standard built-in sound is generally fine for basic use, but if you are really into music or gaming, you might want to upgrade the sound card. You may also want to purchase external speakers that will improve the sound quality when you are working at your desk.
Docking Station Some models have a docking station port that allows you to drop your laptop into a dock that has many of the features of a desktop computer. This can simplify your ability to just pickup your laptop and go without having to unplug a bunch of wires such as power, printer, external monitor, external hard drives and a full size keyboard and mouse. Note: Dont confuse real docking stations with port replicators. Docking stations use a special connector on the bottom or back of your computer, whereas the replicator just plugs into a USB port.
Computer Checklist For College
Computer Check with your School first for any requirements they may have. They may also be offering some great student deals on computers. Some courses such as graphic Arts may be using Mac computers instead of PCs. In general the trend has gone from Desktop Computers to Laptops for College. Not only do they take up less room in an already crowded doom room, especially if you get stuck in a forced triple, but you will be able to take it to class, the library, student center or under a nice tree to work. A laptop is also much easier to bring home on break. PC or Mac is up to you, unless you have some specific course requirements. I prefer PC but will leave it at that.
Printer Just about any <$100 inkjet printer will do just fine, I prefer HP myself because they seem to do better when not used during the summer or school breaks. Some of the other inkjet models tend to clog up when not in use. If you prefer or have the need, you can get a nice All-IN-ONE printer that will give you the ability to Scan, fax and print for about $150. If you are planning to do a lot of printing, a small B&W laser printer (~$149) may be a good idea. I sent my son off to school several years ago with both a small laser for black and white papers and a color inkjet for color jobs. 1 laser cartridge lasted all four years and cost about 1/10 of the price per page as inkjet.
Printer Cable Most printers do not come with the printer cable, so make sure have the proper cable with you.
Printer Supplies Make sure you bring some extra ink cartridges and Paper. Nothing worse then running out of ink at 3am with a paper due in the morning.
Software You will probably want Microsoft Office and as I mentioned above, the Student/Teacher version is a great deal if all you need is Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.
Security Software Again, Check with your School, because many schools offer free antivirus and internet security software to their students. If they dont or you want to use your own, you will definitely need protection and will want a package that includes at least Antivirus, Antispyware and Firewall software. Most all computers come with trial versions of either Norton or McAfee, but you will have to make sure that you pay for them when the trial period ends (usually 60 days). There are also many free versions available for download such as AVG Free. DO NOT LEAVE HOME WITHOUT A FULLY PROTECTED COMPUTER
Ethernet Cable Depending on your specific College Dorm room, you may need a long Ethernet cable to connect up to the college network. I would recommend bringing along both a short 7 cable as well as a 25 cable just incase your desk is located on the other side of the room. Some colleges are now offering wireless networking, so check with your school.
Power Strip You will probably need a good surge protected power strip or two to plug in your computer, printer, refrig, TV and Microwave oven. Bringing along an extra extension cord would be a good idea.
Lock I would recommend a good computer lock. Laptops have a way of disappearing very easily at school.
Carrying Case Try to find a good rugged carrying case for your laptop. Most laptop damage comes from dropping or bumping, so you want the case to be well padded.
USB Thumb Drive I would recommend having at least one USB thumb drive for backup and moving files to other computers. You can get a 1 gig model for about $50 now and smaller sizes for even less. Keep a copy of that critical term paper on it at all times.
Blank DVD or CDs All it takes is to drop your laptop and you could lose everything. You will need some blank media to backup all your important data.
Recovery CDs Many manufacturers no longer include the original Windows and drivers CDs that may be needed, should something go wrong. They are including a recovery partition on the hard drive, but if the drive fails, this partition will do you no good. Some computers have software that will allow you to create your own set of recovery disks, and you should do this as soon as you get your computer. If you are purchasing a Dell computer, they offer the option to purchase the original installation disks for $10 and I would do this. You will have to call and demand these disks from the other manufacturers and may have to pay for them. If you wait until your drive fails, which it will at some point, you may no longer be able to get these disks and will be forced to purchase a new copy of Windows.
Warranty People ask me all the time about buying extended warranties and this is really up to you, but you should know that repairs to laptops can be very costly. I just ordered a new screen for a customers Sony Mini TR3 for $700. In my opinion, if the price of the laptop is under $800 it is probably not worth pay an additional $200 for an extended plan. But if you are buying a $2500 laptop, you might want to consider the warranty. If you decide to purchase an extended warranty, MAKE ABSOLUTLY SURE you understand what is covered, who is going to fix it, how long it will take to get it fixed. Some plans may look great but do not cover accidental damage, some cover software and some dont, other may even cover viruses. The screen is generally the most expensive part of the laptop, so double check the coverage for this. The other thing to keep in mind is that some warranty services can take 3 weeks or more, plus you may have to pay for shipping and insurance. So if you just cant be without your computer for this long, maybe the warranty is not worth it.
Cooling Pad Some laptops can tend to run pretty hot, especially if you leave them on all the time. I strongly suggest getting a cooling pad that sits under your laptop when it is at your desk. This can help reduce the build up of heat and prolong the life of your computer.
Full Size Keyboard and Mouse Many users still find it faster and easier to work with a regular full size keyboard and mouse. You can add these to any laptop by simply plug into any USB port. You can even get wireless versions. At the very least, a mouse can make life a lot easier when you are working at your desk.
Setup and Test Your Computer before taking it to School
It is important to setup your computer before going off to school. You want to make sure everything is working correctly before you leave. Activate Windows, Install your printer and all of your software and test it thoroughly. Setup, activate and update whatever internet security package you have. You want to correct any and all problems before you get to school. This is also a good time to uninstall all the junk that the manufacturer pre-installed that you dont want. Manufacturers install all kinds of trial software and free offers that can really slow down even the fastest new computer. It has gotten so bad that some retailers actually offer a $30 service to clean your new computer before you even take it home. Some of the software that is often installed that you may not need are: Trial versions of Quicken, AOL, Earthlink, Microsoft Money, Trial Spyware Scanners, Netscape and many others.
Tips for keeping your Laptop Running Well
Cooling Issues All computers generate heat and need some way to remove it. Laptops usually have tiny fans that force hot air out of small vents typically located on the sides, back and bottom of the computer. These vents must be kept clear of dust and dirt for proper cooling and should be blown out with compressed air every few months. One common problem with laptops that can be avoided is overheating. Using your laptop on soft surfaces such as rugs, pillows and bed covers can block some of these vents leading to overheating or failure. Depending on the exact model, various things can happen when a laptop overheats.
-- Miscellaneous Computer Crashes
-- Sudden restarts or shut down.
-- Slow performance
-- Fan starts getting louder, coming on more often or is on constantly
-- Long term overheating can also lead to premature failure of internal components and especially the hard drive.
Routine Maintenance Performing routine maintenance can go a long way toward keeping your computer in top condition. Here is a quick list:
-- Run Windows Update
-- Run Diskclean to remove temporary files
-- Updating and running all virus and spyware programs
-- Delete/remove unused programs and files
-- Clean and blow out all cooling vents
-- Run Disk defragmenter every few months
There are a lot of great deals on laptops right now and even if you are planning to purchase online, I would recommend just checking out some of the models at your local retailer. This will make it easier to decide on things like screen size and other features that you may want. Again, dont wait too long, because the laptops get cleaned out this time of year and you dont want to get stuck with a model that you really didnt want.
--Submitted by: Dana H. of Wayland, Massachusetts