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Guide to Buying a Computer for School

Tips for Finding the Right Type of PC for a Student


Teacher and Student at a Computer
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Computers play a large role in the education of students today. Word processing helped bring computers into education but they do so much more today just than writing up papers. Students use computers to do research, communicate with teachers and colleagues, and create multimedia presentations to name just a few. This makes purchasing a computer for the home or college student much more important, but how does one know what type of computer to buy?

Before shopping for a computer, check with the school regarding any recommendations, requirements or restrictions there may be on student computers. Often times colleges will have recommended minimum computer specifications that can be helpful in narrowing down your search. Similarly, they may have a list of necessary applications that require specific hardware. All of this information will be very helpful during the shopping process.

Desktops vs. Laptops

The first decision that must be made regarding a student computer is whether to buy a desktop or a laptop system. Each have distinct advantages over the other. For most individuals in colleges, laptops will likely be more preferable whereas high school students can get by with desktop computer systems although a laptop does have some flexibility that is useful.

Desktops have several key advantages over their portable counterparts. The biggest advantage of a desktop system is the price. A complete desktop system can cost as much as half as a comparable portable computer system but the gap is much smaller than it was in the past. The other key advantages to desktop computer systems are their features and lifespan. Most desktop computer systems have more powerful components giving them a longer functional lifespan than a laptop computer. A mid to high-end system will likely survive a full four to five years of college, but a budget system might need replacement halfway through. That is an important thing to consider when looking at the costs of the systems.

Desktop Advantages:

  • Typically Less Expensive
  • More Powerful Systems
  • More Upgrade Options Instead Of Replacement
  • Less Likely To Be Stolen From Dorm Rooms

Laptop computers also have distinct advantages over desktop computers. The biggest factor of course is portability. Students will have the option of bringing their computers with them to class, to the library when they study or research and even during holiday breaks when they may need to do class work. With the increasing number of wireless networks on campuses and coffee shops this helps extend the usable range of the computer system. Of course, their small size can also be a benefit to those students living in cramped dorm rooms.

Laptop Advantages:

  • Computer Can Be Taken Practically Anywhere
  • Increased Communication with Wireless Networks
  • Require Less Space


Ultrabooks are simply a new form of laptop that puts a higher emphasis on portability and battery life. They generally are extremely thin (typically under 1-inch) and lighweight (roughly three to four pounds) while providing roughly five hours or more of running time. These qualities make them very useful for college students that have to carry their computer around campus frequently with a large number of books. Their performance is still generally more than the average student would need making them suitable as a sole computer system. The downside is that they tend to be a bit more expensive than your typical laptop with prices that range from roughly $700 to well over $1500.

What About Tablets or Chromebooks?

Tablets are extremely compact systems that give most of your basic computer tasks in a form that is no larger than a standard spiral bound notebook. They generally have very long battery life and can be used for written notes as well as a virtual keyboard or compact Bluetooth keyboard. The downside is that many of them don't use standard PC software programs and applications which means multiple applications that may be hard to transfer between devices. Those interested in this should really compare what tablets offer versus laptops to see which would be better suited towards them. One nice aspect of tablets though is the ability to use them for textbooks thanks to applications like Amazon's Kindle and textbook rentals which may make them a bit more beneficial. Of course, tablets can still be quite expensive. They are best suited as a supplement to a standard desktop or laptop.

Chromebooks are a specialized laptop that is designed for online use. They are built around the Chrome OS operating system from Google and generally are very inexpensive (starting around $200) and offer the ability to have cloud based storage making data backup quick and easy along with potential to access it from just about anywhere. The drawback here is that the systems have less features than many traditional laptops are don't use the same applications that you would find in a Windows or Mac OS X based computer system. As a result, I don't really recommend them as an educational computer for college students. They may work sufficiently for high school students especially if there is a secondary desktop or laptop they can access when needed.

Don't Forget The Accessories!

When purchasing a computer system for school, there are a number of accessories that one probably needs to buy with the computer. A printer can be extremely useful during school but is not the requirement that it once was as teachers accept electronic documents through email. Still, it can be useful for draft work or being able to print out online research. Laser printers make for better values thanks to the long lasting toners used instead of inks. Admittedly color laser is quite expensive and not as good for images. Multifunction printers can also be useful for scanning and copying research materials as well. A great place to begin the search for the right printer is with the Buyer's Guide from About Printer/Scanners.

Living in a college dorm can be quite problematic for those with computers. Roommates may want to borrow a computer to write a paper or even worse, items can be stolen from rooms. Computer security devices such as cable locks are a good idea particularly for those who use laptop computers. This can help prevent the unwanted theft of a computer system.

Students with portable computers will need many more accessories. A good computer bag or backpack will be the most vital accessory. Having to carry a computer around a campus requires a comfortable and durable bag. In addition to this, students may want a compact mouse if they dislike the built-in trackpads. A secondary or external battery pack can also be useful for those students that need to use their laptop for extremely long periods of time away from a power outlet.

Finally, do not forget the software. It's a good idea to try and look for software packages that are compatible with the applications used by the school the student is attending. This can save the student a lot of time as they will only have to learn one application instead of several. Many computers have minimal software packages that are sufficient for the most basic of tasks. College students will generally require much more flushed out office suites. Once again, it is advisable for the college students to buy software through the college bookstore. Academic software packages can be as much as 75% off the retail prices.

When To Buy?

Buying a computer system for school really depends on several key factors. Of course price is going to be the most important factor for most individuals, but the best prices are not always found during the back to school season.

Students who are in grade school typically do not require very powerful computers. It is during these years that the children need to be first introduced into the usage of a computer system for things such as research, paper writing and communication. Even the low-cost budget desktop systems will provide more than enough computing power for these tasks. Since this is the most competitive segment of the desktop market, deals can be found year round. Prices have little room to move so just shop around for what meets your needs any time of the year.

Students entering or in high school tend to need a bit more computing power. Because of this, the mid-range desktop computers and 14 to 16-inch laptops tend to offer the best market values. This range of computer system fluctuates the most in prices based on technology, time of year and overall market sales. The two best times to purchase systems in this segment would probably be during the back-to-school time frame of July through August when retailers are competing for sales and the post-holidays of January through March when retailers face a lull in computer sales.

College students probably have the most flexibility on purchasing computer systems. The great advantage of being a college student is the academic discounts offered through college campuses. These discounts can range anywhere from 10 to 30% off the normal prices of name brand computer systems. As a result, it is best for new college students to try and hold off purchasing a new computer system until they check with the school for any academic discounts that may be offered. It is possible to check on discounts for students at the university without being a student, so go ahead and shop early and buy once they are eligible or if you think you can find a better deal in the July and August back to school sales.

How Much to Spend?

Education is already extremely expensive and buying a new computer system just adds to the cost. So what is the right amount to spend on a computer system with all of the accessories and applications? The final cost will of course depend upon the type, model and brands purchased but here are some rough estimates on costs:

These are average prices for a system factoring in such items as the system, monitor, printer, accessories and applications. It may very well be possible to get a complete computer configuration for less than these amounts, but it is also possible to spend much more than this. If you aren't quite sute, you might want to check out my How Fast of a PC Do You Really Need? article to get an idea of what you can buy.


It is very hard to point at any specific system as being the best for a student. Some computers are better suited than others depending upon factors such as grade level, what subjects the student is studying, living arrangements and even the budget. Shopping for that system is also difficult due to the rapid technology changes, price fluctuations and sales. Hopefully this article has cleared up some of these things for picking up a good computer, but it is only a start.

This information should help to narrow down a search for a student computer. For more detailed information about selecting specific computer systems, I would recommend looking over the various buying guides and reviews.

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