Back to School: Computer shopping tips for back to school
Shopping for back to school used to mean a trip to Target to buy notepads, binders, pencils, erasers and a "Spongebob Squarepants" pencil box.
Now it means a visit to Best Buy, Office Max or clicking online at Newegg.com to buy a laptop and Microsoft Office.
Those lucky enough to have money to buy their kids new laptops this year needn't be in a perpetual state of confusion. Here's a guide to what to look for in a computer for your student's needs.
Mac or PC? It's a question as old as computing itself, but what still rages between tech-heads is a nonissue in education.
Public schools across Utah use both Windows-based PCs and Apple Macs, said Rick Gaisford, educational technology specialist for the Utah State Office of Education, so choosing either will not cripple your student's work or progress.
But some schools do use one platform more than another, as do some specialized classes. When shopping for the right laptop, find out which platform your child's school mostly uses. Also, learn what kinds of computers are used in the specialized classes your child wants to take. If they are business classes, for example, most schools use Windows-based PCs. If it's graphic design or video editing, consider a Mac.
In theory, your student is only going to be writing and browsing the Internet for research on the computer. But the reality is your child is also going to be listening to music, watching YouTube videos, and may get sidetracked by an episode of "Adventure Time" on Netflix.
To meet those needs, the computer still doesn't have to be a powerhouse machine. If you're looking for a PC, get one with an Intel processor that's an i5 or i7 chip. If you're buying new, search for a laptop that has the new Intel "Haswell" chip that will boost battery life significantly over the previous processor.
It also doesn't need more than 4 gigabytes of RAM (system memory). Finally, a hard drive with no more than 500 gigabytes is fine. You also won't really need a DVD drive anymore because most software is available via digital download, and not getting a drive can save money. A Windows-based PC laptop for about $500 or more could fill those needs and easily last until your pre-teen enters college.
If you choose a Mac, the cheapest MacBook Air for $999 or the least-expensive MacBook Pro for $1,199 will easily fit the bill. Also consider buying a cheaper refurbished MacBook from a third-party Apple retailer such as Expercom. If you're looking at a MacBook Air, however, the newest model with the "Haswell" processor from Intel is the best choice because it has much better battery life than last year's model.
Laptop or tablet
More schools are using computer tablets such as the iPad and Kindle Fire for student work, Gaisford said. But that doesn't mean it's necessary to buy a tablet over a laptop, he said, especially because many schools now provide them to students to use in class.
A downside with tablets is they don't have built-in physical keyboards, making them a bit tougher for writing papers. But tablets are more portable and on the whole cheaper than laptops.
Apple's iPad holds a majority of the market in computer tablets and also has more applications available for it than Android-based tablets such as the Kindle Fire. But the cheapest 9-inch iPad ($499) is also much more expensive than the cheapest, comparably sized Kindle Fire ($269). The same goes for their smaller 7-inch models.
If you buy a tablet, also look into a portable wireless Bluetooth keyboard/case from manufacturers such as ZAGG, Belkin or Logitech.
With the growing popularity of free Web-based solutions, you don't need to buy additional educational software such as Microsoft Office.
Today, kids are using free online applications such as Prezi for slide presentations and Google Docs (which is now called Google Drive) for writing. You also can download the free productivity suite, Open Office, which has a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software compatible with Microsoft Office.
If you're buying a Windows-based PC, the essential piece of software will be anti-virus protection. The newest Windows operating system, Windows 8, has better security than previous versions of the OS, but additional protection is still prudent.
Again, you don't really have to pay for anti-virus software such as those from McAfee or Norton. And a big downside to those programs is they can actually slow down the performance of the machine. Instead, look at free anti-virus protection such as AVG, which is a robust program that doesn't bog the computer down.
Macs are less susceptible to viruses and malware, not because they're necessarily more secure, but because there are a lot fewer viruses and less malware written for that platform. Anti-virus or anti-malware protection for Macs aren't as necessary, if they're necessary at all.
Vince Horiuchi is a reporter with The Salt Lake Tribune.
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