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Introducing GoLocal Tech: Back-to-School Buying Guide for College Students

Thursday, July 26, 2012


In our back-to-school buying guide for college students, we’ll help you find the laptops, printers, and related software that college students will need and maybe even want. Our next column will have recommendations for K-12 students.

Hakkarainen’s First Law of Computer Purchases – You will see the same product for less within a week of your purchase.

Corollary one - Something better will be available for the same price within three months.

Hakkarainen’s Second Law of Computer Purchases – It is hard to buy a bad computer.

With very rare exceptions, systems are fast, reliable, and capacious. The choices are between good, better, and best, not between bad and good. Make the best decision you can with the information available to you at the time and enjoy your purchase.


Unless your student needs a very large monitor or special configurations, a laptop is the most versatile choice.

Before you buy, check with your student’s school to find out about educational discounts for computers. Dell, Apple, and other computer manufacturers offer significant discounts (10 to thirty percent) on selected systems.

• You should have a minimum of 4GB of RAM. More is better.
• If the laptop is running Windows XP, plan to replace it soon. XP is less secure than Windows 7. In addition, Microsoft is reducing support for XP.
• If the system is slow, consider add more memory. You can double the RAM for less than fifty bucks. .

Mac versus Windows

I have both. I use both. I prefer the keyboard on my Lenovo ThinkPad and so use it most of the time. The MacBook Air is sleek, fast, and gorgeous.

Under $500
To find systems at this price, shop the specials at local retailers or online at Amazon, NewEgg, or the manufacturers. These are best for word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing, and general computing.

The systems tend to be heavier, have limited battery life, and may be sluggish with graphics-intensive computing. All the same, they offer good value.

Between $500 and $1000
Most of the student deals are in this range. Here you will see systems are lighter, thinner, and faster. The thinnest ones use solid-state drives that have lower capacity, but are much faster. Performance is better here, but the improvements are mostly in the reduction of thickness and weight.

More than $1000
The Apple systems and higher-end Windows systems are here. Your student can think about editing movies, using design software, and playing video games at appropriate speed.


If your student does not need a color printer, consider a low-cost black-and-white laser printer. Printer ink costs more per pint than human blood. The cost per page on a laser printer can be one-half to three-fourths the cost of an inkjet page.

For student use, you can find what you need in the $100 range. The multifunction units include a scanner, which can be very handy. Consider a printer that offers wireless networking. Most colleges now offer Wi-Fi connections in dorm rooms.

Tablets and smart phones

Tablets such as the iPad or Google Nexus 7 are great alternatives for classroom use. Many colleges have projects geared for iPads in particular. When I attend meetings, I often bring just the iPad.

Apple is rumored to have a new, smaller, less expensive iPad in the pipeline for the fall. Microsoft will also release its Surface tablet in the coming months. Both are interesting and will be worth a look when they are available.


Check with your student’s school to find out about educational discounts for software. JourneyEd provides a large selection of software for students. You can often save two-thirds on the cost of products such as Office, Photoshop, or Visual Studio. Most student discounts require that you place the order through the school or by using an academic email address (an email address ending with .edu). 

Apple is releasing OS X 10.8, aka Mountain Lion, this week for an upgrade price of $20. Microsoft will release Windows 8 in late October. If you buy a system now, you can upgrade for $40 or less. 

I’ll cover Windows 8 and Mountain Lion in later columns. Windows 8 is the biggest change to Windows since Windows 95. 

Security and backups

Make certain that your student’s system has a working firewall/anti-virus product and that you have it scheduled to run regular updates and scans. Microsoft Security Essentials is a good, free security solution for Windows. This Ars Technica article reviews five anti-virus products for the Mac.

Products such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and Apple iCloud allow you to store files safely online as automated backup services. If you need something more, look at Crash Plan and Carbonite.

Do not depend on saving important files to a USB drive. You will not remember.

What would I buy for a college freshman?

For a Windows system, I like the Lenovo ThinkPad series. You can find a good system in the $600-$700 range. It’s not really sexy, but you can get a lot of work done.
For a Mac, the MacBook Air is the system to beat. It’s just under $1000. Your student will thank you.

There are so many printer models and their prices jump around so much that it’s tough to make a recommendation. I have a Brother laser printer (black and white) and an Epson Multifunction inkjet (color). I’ve had HP OfficeJet printers that work well, but their setup software is weird.

Karl Hakkarainen is an IT and social media consultant at Queen Lake Consulting. His grandchildren still ask for his help and advice about computers and related technology.


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