How to Pick Out a Laptop

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“I need to buy my college student a laptop for the upcoming fall semester. What should I buy?”

A friend of the family asked me that the other day, and the question is a bit more complicated to answer today than it might have been in years past.

For one thing, you have the Apple products to take into consideration. Also consider how people despise Windows Vista, and whether Windows 7 will be legitimately better than Windows XP. But aside from choosing which platform and operating system to choose, you also should consider whether a netbook would be a better choice than a full sized laptop.

So let’s break some of these things down.

As for Windows 7, most of the hardware vendors will provide an upgrade path from Windows Vista.

Sure, you’ll have to pay for it, but just about any hardware out today will be fine with the new operating system. In other words, you won’t need to buy an entirely new laptop or upgrade the RAM just to load Windows 7. But the larger question is whether it will be really any better than Vista.

A good friend of mine has been running a pre-release version of Windows 7 on his laptop for a while and swears it is better. However, I have also seen it, and there are things I wasn’t so fond of, such as the naming convention for all the folders in My Documents. Microsoft made – in my opinion – a mess of the naming scheme. Moreover, a survey was just published indicating only about 60% of IT departments have any plans on the table to deploy Windows 7 (it’s coming out in October this year).

So the answer to this is really convoluted. For most people Windows XP is still a perfectly functional operating system – beloved, even. Vista is kinda sucky, and “7” is not getting rave reviews yet, even if you can get a cheap upgrade.

As for the form factor question, I think netbooks are incredibly convenient. Your college student can throw it in a backpack and run off to class and take notes on the darned thing. How cool is that? The battery life will leave you wanting, and the cramped keyboards are a few of the issues you’ll need to keep in mind, though. And you’ll also probably need to fork out a few extra bucks for an external DVD drive (they will almost certainly be required to install some software for some class with a “progressive” professor who expects them to keep up with the times – sheesh!).

But the benefit of a smaller screen is that they’ll be less likely to watch movies on it or play video games on it. They’ll be forced to go to a friend’s dorm room and play on the big screen TV. You can almost hear the complaints now: “How cumbersome my social life is, dad.” *sigh*

So, the benefits of a netbook are pretty compelling, if you look at it in just the right light. Another compelling factor: most netbooks still ship with Windows XP. Bear in mind though that Windows 7 will change that, as “7” was designed to run well on netbooks. So hurry, while supplies last…

Finally, as for the Apple Mac question, we should take a moment to consider what a Mac really is. A Mac is an expensive, user-friendly UNIX computer. Without equivocation, a Mac computer is a well designed, stable creature. But that comes at a price. Furthermore, some websites are programmed with certain features that do not work on a Mac, and some programs simply won’t be compatible with the Mac OS. Period.

There are hoards of Mac loyalists whose blood pressure just shot up when I mentioned that, and I understand their protestations.

You can buy Microsoft Office for Mac (but the equivalent of Outlook, called Entourage, is crap), or you can set the Macbook up as a dual boot to load Windows if you really must (but you have to purchase a license for the Microsoft OS), or you can use a virtual machine (a program to run Windows as if it were an application loaded inside the Mac OS).

Those are all fine options for people who are interested in fooling around with technology, or don’t have expectations in terms of productivity. But if you really want a machine that is going to do everything you need for a college degree program, you cannot – I repeat: cannot – guarantee that with a Mac. I love Apple to death and wouldn’t trade my iPhone for free Starbucks for a year. But I do not think productivity should be thrown under the bus for style and trend.

So keep those things in mind when you go to buy your college student a new laptop…

Netbooks offer a great price point and you can still buy them with good ol’ Windows XP. But there’s a good likelihood that they’ll be interested in buying a new laptop within the next few years… or upgrading to “7”…Oh, and as for Linux, don’t even think about it unless your student already has considerable experience with Linux.

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