What's cool for school?
Take our placement test, and learn the smart choices for this year's college-bound students: a quartet of midrange portable computers that make the most of Wi-Fi Internet hot spots.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – AS BACK-TO-SCHOOL shopping season approaches, it's multiple-choice quiz time: What do tech-hungry students really need? Sharpen your pencils. (Kids, a pencil is a handheld, analog writing device typically made of wood and graphite, popular in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

The best computer to buy for my college-bound offspring is:

a) Probably a laptop.

b) Probably a desktop.

c) The cheapest one.

d) Something beer-proof.

Correct answer: (a) probably a laptop. It is easier to fit in a cramped dorm room and much easier to carry to the library. The recent proliferation of wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) hot spots also makes a laptop far more versatile than a desktop.

When shopping for a new laptop, which of the following does not belong on a list of important features and specifications?

a) At least 512MB of RAM.

b) At least 40GB of hard drive.

c) DVD/CD-R/RW combo drive.

d) IEEE 802.11 b/g (Wi-Fi).

e) A beer bong.

Correct answer: (e) a beer bong. An aftermarket upgrade, it can always be added by the student later. The rest are all highly recommended.

Windows or Mac?

a) Windows.

b) Mac.

Correct answer: Left-brain students, the kind who major in accounting, business, or engineering, typically gravitate toward Windows, the standard of the corporate world. Right-brain students, who tend to major in English, art history, and philosophy, are likely to wind up working at Starbucks anyway and thus are better suited to Macintoshes. Macs are relatively unaffected by the viruses and other security glitches that plague Windows machines. Also, iPods and Macs were made for each other.

Which laptops do you recommend?

a) Compaq Presario V2000.

b) Dell Inspiron 9300.

c) Lenovo (IBM) ThinkPad T43.

d) Apple iBook.

e) Any of the above.

Correct answer: (e) any of the above.

Now let's move to the essay portion. Because it's the first test of the new school year, I'll make it easy and supply the answers.

In 50 words or less, explain why you like the Compaq Presario V2000.

For $1,020, you get 512MB RAM, a 60GB hard drive, a bright, 14-inch widescreen display, a 1.6-gigahertz Pentium M processor, plus all the other requisites. It plays movies and music without booting up Windows XP. The new AMD Turion version costs a bit less.

How about Dell's Inspiron 9300?

Staying with the 1.6GHz, 512MB, 60GB, combo-drive specs, the new Dell 9300 is bigger, with a high-definition 17-inch widescreen display. At $1,656, it's also more expensive, but it comes with two years of onsite service. It's a desktop-replacement machine that can be locked in a drawer.

Lenovo? What's Lenovo?

It's the Chinese company that bought IBM's PC business as well as rights to the IBM ThinkPad brand. The T43 (1.86GHz Pentium M, 512MB, 60GB combo) costs nearly $2,000, but you get an almost ideal balance of power and mobility. The T43 has a 14-inch display and a fingerprint reader.

And the iBook?

Apple hasn't updated the iBook in nearly nine months--which means only that the Windows competitors have almost caught up to it. Apple may refresh the iBook ($1,266 for the 14-inch model, same specs) in the near future, but college students who buy one now under Apple's Student Union plan get a discount and a free iPod Mini.

Cool. Do you have any other back-to-school tips?

Check out fortune.com for more of my campus technology recommendations.

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