Published July 20, 2012
If I had been drinking something at the time, I would have spit it all over my screen. That's because I was reading a laptop buying guide that was so superficial, so full of errors, half-truths and oversimplifications, that I couldn't believe my eyes. I won't name any names (cough, The New York Times), but this was my favorite gem: "Most flash drives still exceed 300 gigabytes, which is enough for most people." Um, actually most SSDs start at 128GB.
Here's another: "Battery life specs mean little. Have a power cord with you." Oh, and the processor doesn't matter at all.
If I were a parent reading a guide like that heading into the back-to-school season, I would have just thrown up my hands and did some eerie eeny-meeny-miny-mo at Best Buy. But you don't have to. Just follow my simple buying tips.1. Choose Smaller Form Factors
Although 15-inch laptops tend to be the cheapest, 13- and 14-inch models are better for students because they usually weigh under 5 pounds, making them much easier to transport to and from class.
A smaller 11-inch laptop will often do the trick, but it's not as practical back at the dorm, where your student would probably want to plug it into a bigger monitor.2. Pay for Premium Design
One feature back-to-school shoppers tend to overlook is the look and feel of the laptop and materials used. After all, your student will want to be seen around campus carrying something that's sleek instead of clunky. At the same time, the notebook should feel like it's built to last. When possible, opt for a design that at least has a metal lid, which will help protect the display and resist wear and tear during those years away at school.
The HP Sleekbook ($599), for instance, has a brushed aluminum finish on the lid and around the keyboard, and a soft-touch finish on the bottom that's easy to grip. Another tip: if you press down on the lid or keyboard and you see a lot of flex, keep on looking.3. Pay Attention to the CPU, Hard Drive and RAM
Despite what you may have heard, the CPU can make a big difference. For instance, Intel's latest third-generation Core processor (also called Ivy Bridge) offers up to twice the 3D graphics performance, which means the difference between being able to play "World of Warcraft" at a smooth frame rate and watching it stutter on the screen.
If you're looking to save money, though, a second-generation Core processor will do the trick. Stay away from Pentium CPUs, though, as they're just not fast enough for the long haul.
As for memory, 4GB is sufficient, but if you can find a notebook for the same price with 6 or 8GB of RAM, get it.
A notebook’s storage drive has almost as much impact on its performance as its CPU. While more expensive and lower in capacity than hard drives, Solid State Drives (SSDs) dramatically improve the performance of the entire system so consider a system that has one.
If you’re buying a laptop with a traditional hard drive, go for one that operates at the faster 7,200 rpm speed and, when possible, opt for a minimum of 500GB, though you can get away with 320GB.
Intel and its partners are going right after students with a new class of laptop called Ultrabooks, which sport thin profiles and wake from sleep almost as soon Junior flips the lid. They also offer at least 5 hours of battery life.
These notebooks tend to be more expensive, but there are a few value-priced models that parents and students should consider, such as the 14-inch Dell Inspiron 14z (4.2 pounds, $699) and Toshiba Satellite U845 (3.9 pounds, $749).
Lower-cost Ultrabooks combine a solid state drive with a traditional hard drive, which is fine for students, but more premium notebooks, like the 13-inch MacBook Air and ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A, opt for all-flash memory. Your student will be trading blazing-fast performance for a smaller 128GB of storage, in which case the cloud will have to be their friend.
[Read: Top Ten Ultrabooks]5. Go for at Least 5.5 Hours of Battery Life
Saying that battery life specs mean little and that you should just bring the power cord is a cop-out. It's not always easy for students to plug in when they're going to class or finishing up a paper in the campus coffee shop. So get them a notebook that lasts at least 5 hours and 30 minutes on a charge. How can you tell? Our reviews include results from our homegrown battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi.
While it's too pricey for some, the 13-inch MacBook Air blew us away with its 8 plus hours of endurance in our tests (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi). Another long-distance runner that’s a good choice for students is the Sony VAIO S Series 13 ($899), which not only lasts more than 6 hours in our test but features an optional battery slice that doubles the endurance.6. Pick a Good Keyboard and Touchpad
Your student will be doing lots of typing, from writing reports to Facebook updates, so they should try it out to make sure there’s enough travel and springy feedback instead of a cramped or mushy keyboard. And don't ignore the touchpad, which is just as important. Make sure navigating the desktop is smooth instead of jerky and that multi-touch gestures like pinch to zoom and two-finger scroll are responsive. If the buttons are integrated into the pad, make sure they’re easy to press and not too stiff.
Doing more of our computing online has indeed made choosing an OS less important, but there are still fundamental differences in the overall user experience. For example, some may like the fact that Apple’s OS X Lion offers a Mission Control view to see all your open apps and an iPad-like Launchpad to see your apps, while some will prefer the way Windows 7 lets you multitask. Generally speaking, Macs are more secure and a little more user-friendly, while Windows’ systems tend to be cheaper and offer a wider array of programs (especially games).
The differences between Windows and Mac will become even more pronounced this fall with the introduction of Windows 8 and Mountain Lion. Windows 8 has an entirely new interface that, while dynamic, involves a learning curve. Meanwhile, Mountain Lion will bring more iOS features to the Mac while keeping the overall look and feel the same.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.