Back to school: laptops, tablets, and netbooks for college students

Consumer Reports News: August 12, 2011 11:38 AM

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College students head back to campus soon—and many of their parents will be sending them back with new computers. But which ones are best for returning students? These essential devices can be expensive, so getting the most for your money is key.

A student’s major is important to consider when choosing a laptop. Windows is the platform of choice for many business students, and engineering programs such as AutoCAD and Pro/Engineer are only available on Windows. Arts and sciences students should be safe with either Windows or Mac, a platform that tends to offer more security against viruses.

Furthermore, be sure to check your school’s website to see if the school recommends buying a computer with a specific operating system.

To help you make the right decision, we’ve listed several types of portable computers by category; all offer good value and performed well in our Ratings (available to subscribers).

11- to 14-inch laptops: Laptops in this size category pack power, speed, and durability into a compact package. They can actually be more expensive than mid-size laptops, but they make up for the price premium in slimness and portability—something on-the-go students definitely appreciate.

Apple 11-inch MacBook Air


The ultrathin 11-inch MacBook Air (64GB, $1,000; 128GB, $1,200) serves as an entry port for Apple laptop buyers, replacing the recently discontinued white MacBook. The updated Air runs the new Mac OS 10.7 Lion, which is easy to use and features multi-touch gestures and full-screen apps. The Air is pricier than other laptops, though: You’ll pay more for less onboard memory.

Dell Inspiron 14R 2nd-Gen i5


The Dell Inspiron 14R 2nd-Gen i5 ($650) is an affordable all-round machine for the mainstream user. While it doesn’t excel in a specific area, it offers flexible pricing and versatility. The battery life leaves a little to be desired, but the keyboard and touchpad are easy to use, and the graphics are solid for gaming (after studying, of course).

Asus U36JC


The 13-inch Asus U36JC ($1,000) offers an attractive design and is packed with power and features. It has a quick-start feature that lets you browse the Web before you boot Windows, and it’s both thin (0.76 inches) and light (3.7 pounds). The touchpad can be frustrating to use, but overall, the U36JC offers great value.

15-inch laptops: Midsize laptops offer plenty of features and versatility, and many of them won’t break the bank with lots of additions you might not need.

Gateway NV59C70u


The Gateway NV59C70u ($600 to $800) has an attractive design, about 5 hours of battery life, a Core i5 processor, and 640GB of hard drive space. It’s budget-friendly, probably because it doesn’t offer the extra features found on more expensive models. That said, this laptop is a solid value and has good-enough features for the average student.

Dell Inspiron 15R 2nd-Gen i3


The Dell Insipron 15R 2nd-Gen i3 ($550) has many of the same features as the 14R 2nd-Gen i5 (suggested in the previous category), but it improves greatly upon battery life. This Core i3 version is fast, functional, and more than adequate for everyday use. It’s a good laptop that offers a little something for everyone.

Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro


Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro ($1,700) is fast and powerful, but it’s significantly more expensive than other mid-size laptops. It features a sleek design, runs on a Core i7 processor, and like the MacBook Air, it ships with Mac OS X Lion. The MacBook Pro is pricy, but fans of Apple products won’t be disappointed by this high-performance machine.

17-inch laptops: These large laptops are really desktop replacements, offering much more power than smaller models—but they’re still portable. Just bear in mind that the extra power is most useful for gaming—which might not be the most optimal pastime for a college student!

Dell XPS 17


The Dell XPS 17 ($900; $1,300 with 3D) runs on a powerful Intel Core i5-2410M processor and includes 500GB of storage. It can play Blu-ray discs, but its most notable feature is an optional upgrade that adds a stereoscopic 3D panel to the display, so students can watch 3D movies or play 3D games in their downtime.

HP DV7 4295-US


The HP DV7 4295-US ($1000) has a Blu-ray disc drive and an HD display, and it delivers both power and performance with its superior audio, video, and graphics quality. The laptop runs on a powerful i7 Core and comes with a 1,000GB hard drive, and its battery lasts up to 5 hours.

HP DV7 6175-US


The HP DV7 6175-US ($750) isn’t quite as powerful as the 4295: It runs on a Core i5 processor and offers a 750GB hard drive. It also does not come equipped with a Blue-ray disc drive. But it has a 10-hour battery life--and lets you save a little money, too.

Netbooks: These smaller devices are useful for students who want to carry a computer with them to take notes in class or work on the go but don’t necessarily require all the power and features of a full laptop.

Asus EEE PC 1015PX-MU17-WT


A solid option is the 10-inch Asus EEE PC 1015PX-MU17-WT ($270 to $320), which weighs only 2.9 pounds. It features an Intel Atom N570 Dual Core Processor and a 250GB hard drive and includes a multi-touch touchpad, a built-in webcam, and up to 10 hours of battery life.

Tablet computers: Tablets may not be the first choice for schoolwork tools; most students probably wouldn’t opt to write papers on them. But choose the right apps, and tablets can serve as study guides and e-book readers, and they can let students do Web research on the go. Of course, tablets are also great for multimedia entertainment.

Apple iPad 2


The Apple 10-inch iPad 2 ($500 to $700), the leading tablet on the market, is lighter, thinner, and speedier than the original iPad. It has a fine display and includes both front and rear cameras for photo and video. Consumer Reports found the battery life to be about 12 hours, about 50 percent better than its predecessor. And the Apple App Store offers over 90,000 apps, including educational ones that can help students in math, science, and other fields.

Samsung Galaxy Tab


The 10-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab ($500 to $600) runs on the newest Android tablet OS, Honeycomb, and will soon be upgraded to include Samsung’s TouchWiz UX interface. That upgrade will add a tray of mini-apps, including a calendar and music player, as well as a Media Hub (for downloading movies and other content), a Reader Hub (for downloading e-books), and a Social Hub (for e-mail, instant messaging, and social networks). As for apps, the Android Market is growing swiftly and also offers a plethora of apps for students. The Galaxy Tab also comes in a 7-inch model ($350).

Other things to consider: Before purchasing a laptop, be sure to check out your school’s website to see if they offer any deals on computers or software. Many schools offer computers that come pre-equipped with the programs you’ll need for a specific major, and they often come with an extended three- or four-year warranty.

Apple also offers an education discount of $50-$200 (depending on the computer model) 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.

Finally, consider what extras you might need. A package like Microsoft Office may be necessary for students for word processing and presentations, and a laptop bag is an easy, secure way to tote your computer with you when you’re on the go. A USB thumb drive or external hard drive is also a good idea for students, because it allows you to save a second copy of your work in case anything happens to your laptop.

Check out “How to buy a laptop for a college student” for more information.

Evan MacDonald

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