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Tips for students buying a computer for college

Many college students will be buying new computers before the start of the next school year.
Many college students will be buying new computers before the start of the next school year.
Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images

With a new school year comes the need for many students to get new computers; but the process can be confusing and daunting.

It’s easy for consumers to walk into any electronics store and buy whatever computer an expert recommends. But the process requires more research and understanding of the PC market to find a device that will last years to come. Here are some key tips to keep in mind when buying a new PC or tablet.

How will you use the computer?

Knowing how you plan to use the new device provides the first and largest step towards deciding what to get. Do users need something small and light with good battery life to take on campus or a desktop for an apartment or dorm? What kind of software do users plan to run? What size and weight configurations are best? What about running games or other hardware-intensive software?

This can be the trickiest thing to figure out because of the sheer difficulty of predicting usage months and years down the road. If you invest a limited college budget in a desktop, you might find a laptop would have been better to take with you. If you decide to buy a tablet, the software needed for class might not run on it.

While knowing intended uses for a future computer is paramount, users must also future-proof devices. Students can always get great deals on older computers or computers with toned down hardware. But, it’s best to get newer, more powerful computers to handle the demands years down the road. The last thing any buyer wants is purchasing a device that will become outdated in only a few years. But having a grasp on intended usage helps determine what’s best to buy.

What is the price range?

Once a student determines a computer's intended usage, the next step involves setting a budget.

While retailers sell computers at all price points, striking a balanced budget is key for college students. It’s as impractical to buy a cheap computer replace it in a few years as much as it is to pay a lot of money for underutilized hardware. Stores price a typical desktop computer anywhere from $300 to $1200 range. A typical laptop can range anywhere from $500 to over $2000. Tablets and Chromebooks, while limited in functionality, may only cost a few hundred dollars.

For a typical college student, the best bet is to find a desktop priced around $1000 or a laptop between $1,000 and $1,200. Running resource-intensive programs requires more expensive hardware. Be sure to check system requirements for software to make sure a prospective computer can run it.

What features are necessary? What aren’t?

After determining a price range, it's time to find balance between affordability and functionality. Doing so requires research to see what's needed and what unnecessary features can buyers remove to lower the price.

Many computer manufacturers today offer devices with an ultra-fast solid state drive, or SSD. This type of hard drive loads files much faster and is less prone to failure than the old spinning hard drives. While solid state has clear benefits over spinning drives, expect to pay much more to upgrade. Many new computers with a solid state drive come with only 128 or 256 gigabytes of storage space. Laptops with the older technology come with more than 500 gigabytes of storage. Compared to cheaper spinning hard drives with much more space, SSD isn't practical for many users yet.

CPU and memory selections also affect the prices of computers. Many newer computers run Intel’s Haswell chips, which come in i3, i5, and i7 varieties. The i3, while the most affordable of the Haswell chips, is also the least powerful. The i7 on the other side of the spectrum is the most expensive and most powerful in the Haswell family. The i3 works well in low-powered desktops and laptops, perfect for basic computer applications. On the other side of the spectrum, the i7 can run many commercial software applications. The i5, which falls somewhere between the i3 and i7, balances power with price and suits the needs of most users.

Many manufacturers now sell ultrabooks, an ultra-thin line of light, power-efficient laptops. They come with powerful features like solid state drives and i3, i5 and i7 processors with prices around $1,000. But, to achieve the thin form factor, manufacturers removed some less-used internal components. Users can replace those components with USB-powered CD-ROM drives, wired Ethernet adapters and microphones. For users who prefer thinner laptops to CD-ROM drives, ultrabooks provide the best balance of power and price.

Windows, Mac, or Tablet?

While Windows-based PCs dominated the market for many years, more and more people broke ranks in recent years. Apple's MacBook laptops grew in sales within recent years, and the tablet market emerged in the last few years as well. Between Windows, Mac computers and tablets, all three device types come with their shares of pros and cons.

Users who upgrade from one Windows device to another have an easier time adapting to the familiar Windows look and feel. PC software manufacturers develop products to work on Windows more than other operating systems. But, the changes made to Windows 8 made things difficult for some users. PCs without touch screens can't take full advantage of the start screen, which alienated some users.

Apple’s MacBook Air and MacBook Pro line of laptops are becoming more popular in recent years. Since 2006, Apple’s computer products have used the same Intel processors as Windows devices. This spurred developers into creating more programs for Macs and, the lack of which had been a drawback of Macs for many years. Users also find OS X easy to use, any many popular PC programs have Mac counterparts. Individuals who need Windows can install it as a second operating system or as a program inside OS X running as a virtual machine. But, Macs can be more expensive than similar PC counterparts and may not have software necessary for some classes.

Students may find tablets to be a great solution for simple word processing and taking down notes in class. The small form factor, long battery life, and affordability makes tablets great for students. But, tablets can only run apps developed for tablets and not full programs like PCs or Macs. At the same time, some devices lose functionality such as printing and USB ports. Tablets make a great supplement to an existing computer if the money is available, but may not be adequate as the sole device. Some tablets like the Surface Pro 3, which runs laptop hardware in a tablet form factor, combine the best of both worlds.

Software and Education Discounts

The costs involved with buying a computer don’t stop after the initial sale. Popular software like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud can cost hundreds of dollars. On a student's budget, it’s important for buyers to factor software costs to avoid breaking the bank.

Luckily, student discounts can negate the price of both computers and its corresponding software. Apple offers up to $200 off the price for students buying Macs without needing to verify student status. Software like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite offer student discounts after proving eligibility. Before buying a computer or corresponding software, search the web for discounts. Also be sure to browse the website of a college or university to see if educational discounts are available

Ensuring a long lifespan

Once buying the device and its software, take proper care to ensure the computer will last for the rest of college or beyond.

Obvious steps exist such as use antivirus software and avoid physical damage. But it’s also important to avoid moving the computer if it’s turned on, especially if the device has a spinning hard drive. Buying a protective case can prevent damage, and investing in a warranty provides peace of mind. Some insurance plans cover the cost of replacement if lost or stolen, and regular file backups to or the cloud helps avoid data loss.

With proper research, college students should have no problem finding the best device for school and work. Having a capable device empowers students with tools needed to succeed and be a more effective learner.

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