Back-to-school gadgets, 101

Fortune's tech expert Peter Lewis walks you through the higher math of choosing crucial tech gear for the college-bound.

By Peter Lewis, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The textbooks say that summer does not officially end until the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22 or Sept. 23 (depending on the time zone you're occupying at the time), but for millions of young people it's over the moment the first class bell rings for the fall semester.

And that means it's time to shop for back-to-school computers and other gear. And that, in turn, means it's time for CNNMoney.com's back-to-school tech shopping guide.

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See the 16 top picks.

Both the personal computer and the Internet have been around longer than most college students today have been alive, but that doesn't mean buying a PC has gotten any easier. In fact, there are more choices and more technologies to puzzle over than ever before, complicated by the recent arrival of Intel-based Apple (Charts) Macintoshes, new microprocessors from Intel (Charts) and AMD (Charts), and arrival early next year of multiple new versions of Microsoft Windows Vista.

We'll devote most of our attention to computers, particularly laptop computers, because the Internet-connected PC is the most powerful and versatile educational (and entertainment) tool ever invented.

It may still be possible to head off to college without a PC, using public-access computers in dorms, libraries and Internet cafes, but the student will be at a significant disadvantage. And although prices for desktop and laptop computers have declined sharply in recent years, shopping wisely for a PC is more important than ever.

Of course, a well-rounded education should go beyond mere PCs. So, we're also including recommendations for other campus gear to make the 2006-2007 school year as productive, and fun, as possible.

First, though, check with the school to find out if it recommends certain types or brands of computers. For starters, many schools get price breaks from computer makers and pass them along to students who buy their computers from a school store. (It's still a good idea to shop around on the Web, however, because even lower prices may be available.)

But another reason to follow school recommendations is to take advantage of local technical support systems. You may not mind waiting on the phone to talk to someone in India about your computer problem, but it's generally advantageous to have someone down the hall or across campus who specializes in fixing problems common to your system.

Some schools support only Windows-based computers, while others favor Macintoshes, and still others offer support for both. And some schools require specific software bundles or network configurations. You can save time, money and headaches by starting your PC search at the school's admissions office.

Also, check with your home insurance company to make sure Junior's computer is covered while away at college. Accidents do happen.

Computer advice

Desktop or laptop? Windows or Mac? How much do you have to spend? What are the recommended specifications? Sometimes it seems like you need a graduate degree from the University of Pluto - oops, it's been de-accredited - to figure out which computer to buy.

A laptop computer with wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) capabilities is the most valuable and versatile tool for college students. Laptops typically cost more than comparably powered desktop computers and have shorter effective life spans, because they are harder to upgrade, and because students often beat the heck out of them, stuffing them in backpacks, toting them all over campus, and knocking them off tables.

But many students find that the advantage of portability far outweighs the liabilities. Who wants to be stuck in the dorm all the time?

That said, a desktop machine makes sense for students who are pursuing computationally intensive courses, like science or engineering, filmmaking, art and photography, or music bootlegging.

If you get a desktop system, consider an "all in one" design like Apple's iMac or Sony's Sony Vaio VGC-LS1. Space is typically at a premium for dorm rooms. Alternatively, plan on buying a flat-panel monitor to go with the computer console. Many companies offer small-chassis desktop computers, which take up a minimum of desk space, but I would recommend a tower design that can sit on the floor, off the desk entirely. Tower designs are easier to upgrade, and harder to steal.

Mac or Windows? My preference is Apple's Macintosh, because the Macintosh operating system software is more refined than Windows and less susceptible to viruses, worms and other nasty malware. Also, all newer Macs are built around Intel microprocessors and can, with a little tweaking, run both Windows and Macintosh software, giving them great flexibility.

It's a myth that Macs cost a lot more than comparable Windows-based computers; when they are configured the same, the Mac is often the better value, and that is likely to be especially true when Windows Vista, the next generation of Windows operating system, makes its debut sometime in the spring semester.

PC Magazine's annual customer satisfaction poll of thousands of PC users found that Apple had the highest rating among desktop customers, followed by Sony. HP/Compaq and IBM/Lenovo brought up the rear.

And that takes us to the next step, the laptop.

Laptop

Einstein summed up the universe as E=MC2. In the mobile computing universe, H (happiness) = low weight + long battery life.

Don't worry too much about recent news of Dell and Apple laptops overheating and bursting into flame; the problems were isolated and both companies moved quickly to change battery suppliers for new models. Besides, an exploding laptop is a good excuse for turning in your homework late.

A more immediate problem is that the smaller and lighter the laptop, the more expensive it is. Yes, you can find cheap laptops, but they often use repurposed desktop parts that shorten the battery life and add to size and weight.

For the kind of portability and features that college students will want, hauling the laptop from dorm or apartment to campus and library, and home on vacations, you're looking at prices starting around $1,500. There are good laptops available for $1,000 or less, and fabulous multimedia powerhouses for $4,000, but moderation is a good idea.

Laptops come in a variety of sizes, typically from 12-inch screens to 17-inch screens, and from three pounds to nearly 10 pounds in weight. Your preferences may vary, but my ideal laptop for campus toting would have a 13-inch or 14-inch screen, weigh five pounds or less, and have a battery life at least long enough to play a full-length DVD movie after class, say, three and a half hours.

Unless your student plans to graduate in three years or less, plan on replacing the laptop at some point. If budget allows, get an extended warranty and make sure there's good telephone or online support. According to PC Magazine's annual survey of customer satisfaction, Apple ranked highest in laptops, followed by IBM/Lenovo and Fujitsu. Averatec and HP/Compaq finished at the bottom.

When it comes to laptops, there's no substitute for hands-on testing. Go to the store to check out the keyboard, the screen and the heft, because, unlike with desktop machines that can be upgraded, what you buy is what you're stuck with. Then, if you find a laptop you like, go online to check prices, and if you find a better deal, ask the store to match it.

And that takes us to the next step, the specs.

Specs

Windows Vista, long overdue and now expected in late January, will require more memory, processing power and graphics capabilities in a PC than earlier versions of Windows, so if you're considering a Windows computer, make sure it is Vista-compatible.

Beware, though: Microsoft has multiple flavors of Vista in the works, divided roughly into two categories: Home and Business, with the Home versions listed as Basic, Premium and Ultimate. Just because a PC says it is "Vista capable" doesn't mean it can run the "Premium" or "Ultimate" versions of Vista, which include advanced features, like superior graphics, that everyone wants. Even the Basic version, however, promises much better security and reliability than current versions of Windows.

Microsoft says Vista Home Premium will run on a PC equipped with the following features:

  • Processor: An Intel 32-bit or AMD Athlon 64-bit processor operating at a minimum speed of one gigahertz
  • Memory: At least one gigabyte (1GB) of RAM
  • Graphics: A Windows Aero Capable graphics card with at least 128 megabytes of graphics memory
  • Storage: A 40-gigabyte hard disk drive with 15GB of free space Optical drive: A DVD-ROM drive

I say, try to double everything Microsoft says. For a desktop machine, get 2GB RAM if you can afford it, and a 250GB hard drive, and an optical drive that can write DVD discs, not just read them. For a laptop, the base should be 1GB RAM and an 80GB hard drive, but make sure the hard drive has a speed of at least 5,400 revolutions per minute. And again, get an optical drive that can write DVD discs, because they make backups much easier.

Processor: Buy the second-fastest processor you can afford. Buying the fastest does not offer a noticeable boost in speed, doesn't prolong the life of the computer significantly, and guarantees you will pay a premium for having a machine that is the fastest one on campus today but merely ho-hum in a year or so.

There is no practical difference between comparable chips made by Intel and AMD. There is a price and performance difference, however, between classes of chips. For desktops, Intel's Pentium D and AMD's Athlon chips are both high-performance processors. Intel Celeron and AMD Sempron chips are designed for budget systems and should not be expected to carry the student through four years of college or high school.

Celeron and Sempron are more than adequate for basic tasks like browsing the Internet, e-mail and word processing, but they'll fall short for intensive tasks like uploading party videos to YouTube or bootlegging massive amounts of MP3 files.

In mobile processors, the best choices are Intel Core (single and Duo, or, if money is no object, the newest Core 2 Duos), and AMD mobile Turion. The Core 2 Duo will eventually become the processor of choice for laptops -- there's even a rumor that Apple may upgrade the MacBooks to Core 2 Duo chips from the current Core Duos. If you plan to shop around the holidays, Core 2 Duo machines are likely to be cheaper than they are today.

And don't forget

Don't throw away computer and peripheral manuals. Check to see if your homeowner insurance policy covers computers and related gear away at college. If not, check out Safeware (www.safeware.com ), one of the largest specialty insurers for computers. Leave plenty of room in your budget for software, printer ink, and other supplies.


See Lewis' picks for collegians. Top of page