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Buying a Back-to-School Laptop

Looking to buy a new laptop for the new school year? Our list of priorities will help you find just the right one.

Right as the new school year comes up, it dawns on you: Your laptop is hopelessly outdated. Maybe you're accustomed to using the family computer at home, and will need one of your own as you head off to college. Or perhaps you're a high school student who just can't take another year of sharing your computer with relatives. Whether you're a parent purchasing for your child or a student spending your own limited funds, you should look for a few key things when buying a laptop for academic life. With our list of what to consider and what to avoid, the dizzying array of choices just might seem less overwhelming.

What You Need

1. Long Battery Life

If you're a college student, you'll be carrying this thing around all day, taking notes in class and finishing up assignments at the last minute. A 4-hour battery won't cut it.

2. Low Weight

Your bag will be heavy enough with all those books in it. Although an extra pound or two doen't seem to make a big difference at first, it adds up quickly. Look for something under 4 pounds--your shoulders will thank you.

3. Good Keyboard

You'll do a lot of typing on this machine. It isn't just about writing papers, either: Online chat, Facebook, Twitter...95 percent of what you'll be using this laptop for involves more typing than anything else. Find a laptop on which you can type quickly, comfortably, and accurately.

4. High-Definition, Low-Light Webcam

For video chat, duh! It's fun with your friends--and if you're off at college, your parents will appreciate the ability to see your smiling, hung-over face every now and again. Nearly every laptop has a built-in webcam, but not all are created equal. Look for a high-def webcam that works well in low light.

5. Warranty or Protection Plan

We don't often recommend extended coverage plans for technology, but students are notoriously rough on laptops. Notebooks get tossed into bags and dropped, accidentally kicked by clueless roommates, spilled on by clumsy classmates, you name it. Choosing a durable laptop is a good start, but make sure that you aren't without your second-most-critical piece of technology (next to your phone) the day before a big assignment is due.

6. Security Software

Laptops are stolen all the time at schools, even from students who are really careful. Look into software that will help you recover a missing laptop and keep your private information safe, such as GadgetTrack, Hidden, or LoJack. You definitely want to run a good antivirus program, such as Avast or Microsoft Security Essentials, as well.

What You Don't Need

1. Quad-Core Processor

There's nothing wrong with a quad-core processor; for most of what a student uses a laptop for, however, two cores is plenty. A dual-core CPU typically uses less power and costs less, while providing plenty of performance for writing, researching, goofing off online, and editing photos.

2. Powerful Discrete Graphics

A good graphics chip is useful for a lot of things, from better video quality to faster web browsing. A powerful discrete graphics chip is practically mandatory for playing modern top-shelf 3D games, too. Unfortunately, they come with a bunch of drawbacks: They generate heat, they eat through your battery, they make the system bigger and heavier, and of course they cost more. Stick with a high-quality integrated graphics offering (such as AMD's) or a modest discrete graphics chip.

3. Solid-State Drive

SSDs are a lot faster than traditional hard drives, and arguably more durable. They also offer a lot less capacity and can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of a laptop. We love SSDs, but the typical college or high school student doesn't need one. A student needs the capacity to hold lots of music, videos, and photos in a laptop that's affordable enough not to bankrupt you if it has to be replaced.

4. Touchscreen

Touch is all the rage these days, and it's even popping up on a few laptops. But laptop software optimized for touch isn't commonly available yet. A touchscreen is a costly--and mostly useless--feature on a laptop right now, especially for budget-conscious students. Maybe Windows 8 will change all that next year. For the time being, however, save the touchscreens for your phones or tablets.

5. 4G Wireless

A 3G cellular modem dongle can be a good way to obtain emergency Internet access when you can't get on Wi-Fi, but a student certainly doesn't need WiMax or LTE. Access plans cost enough already without the extra amount for 4G speed. Students taking a break from homework can wait to watch a YouTube clip or Netflix movie until they get back on Wi-Fi.

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