First, check with the school
Before you start shopping, surf to your school's Web site and find out if the school recommends a specific operating system (Windows or Mac OS). Many students should consider a Mac because they are immune to most of the viruses and worms-a big problem because students often share files among themselves and may have unfiltered connections to the Internet. Business students should stick to Windows, the platform of choice in most business environments. Some engineering programs, such as AutoCAD and Pro/Engineer, are available only for Windows. We prefer the Home Premium version of Windows Vista for its multimedia features.
Arts and sciences majors are probably safe with either Windows or Mac OS. (If you must have the best of both worlds, you can buy a Mac and then install Windows as its secondary operating system.) Macs continue to outrank PCs in security and tech support, although they tend to cost more out of the box than Windows systems
If you buy a Mac, Apple's educational discounts can save you anywhere from $50 to $200 (depending on the model), or more if you buy an AppleCare extended warranty (which covers you for 3-years) or the latest version of Microsoft Office. You'll need a student or teacher ID to get such discounts.
For details on buying the proper computer, see our buying guide and Ratings.
Can you buy directly from the school?
Some schools recommend specific system configurations. We took a look at the hardware offerings on a few university sites and found that they offered well-equipped computers with long three- to four-year warranties. (If you're buying an extended warranty on your own, we recommend them only for Apple systems; other extended warranties fall short.) Most computers we saw offered by schools were business-level machines that tended to cost more than consumer systems. They also generally had fewer multimedia features.
As for software, you should almost always buy directly from the school, since the programs you'll need probably come with an educational discount. (For Microsoft Office see www.theultimatesteal.com). Your school will probably offer security software free, but if you need other free options, try Avira AntiVir antivirus Personal (free-av.com) and, for spyware, Microsoft Windows Defender (microsoft.com/defender). For commercial security suites, see our Security Software Ratings (available to subscribers only).
What's the school's repair policy?
This varies from school to school. The school's IT staff might repair computers you buy from the school directly; some schools might repair any PCs; others won't repairs any at all. (Before you let IT or any service repair a computer, make backup copies of critical files to an external device.) Also, find out whether any special training sessions are offered to help familiarize students with e-mail software, other applications, or operating systems.
Configure your system
Unless you need an extra-powerful system and don't need portability, buy a laptop. Check our tech-support and reliability surveys for the best brands (available to subscribers). Don't skimp: You want a model that will last four to five years. Be sure to get at least a dual-core processor (from Intel, that's a "Duo" or "Core 2 Duo"; from AMD, it's "X2"), a minimum 2 gigabytes of memory and a 250GB or larger hard drive. If you plan to use the computer as a gaming machine, you'll need a fast 3D graphics chip: Get an ATI or NVIDIA graphics card with at least 512 MB of memory.
Here's a quick rundown on the pros and cons of various computer types:
12- to 13-inch laptop: Easy to tote. Usually lightweight (almost a pound lighter), but can cost more than larger laptops.
14- to 16-inch laptop: Still OK to tote to the library or classroom. Less expensive than other laptop types.
17- to 18-inch laptop: Can serve as a desktop replacement and an entertainment center, but heavy to carry around.
Desktop: While you can't take one to the library, desktops are more ergonomic and less likely to be stolen. Keyboards cause less strain, and you can adjust the placement of the keyboard and monitor. Displays are generally larger. Save some space with a slim-line tower, or a compact all-in-one system. If you do choose a desktop, but still want something portable, consider a small, lightweight, inexpensive netbook. (See our Ratings for netbooks, available to subscribers only.)