School is right around the corner, and you'll need a solid laptop to get you through those long study hours. Well, that and a lot of coffee. Whether you're a first-time buyer or you're ready to cut your old boat anchor loose, I'm here to help you separate your nice-to-have wants from your essential needs, so you can get the most bang for your back-to-school buck.
What you need
1. Long battery life
No matter how carefully you plan your class schedule, there will be days when you'll be on campus from morning 'til night--and using your laptop nonstop, which can be hazardous to its battery life. Models with Intel's fourth-generation Core processor (aka Haswell) cost a little more, but they're extremely frugal when it comes to power consumption. You can identify these processors by their 4000-series part numbers, such as the Core i3-4010U.
2. Low weight, small profile
Lugging around books and supplies all day can be an endurance marathon that leaves you bruised and sore. A laptop that's slim (to fit in the most crowded bag) and light will ward off fatigue. Tablets with full keyboards and hybrid laptops that combine the best attributes of notebooks and tablets are popular alternatives to conventional laptops.
3. A comfortable keyboard
Whether you're pounding out a term paper, writing instant messages, cruising social networks, or simply procrastinating by surfing the Web, your keyboard will be instrumental to your happiness. It should be big enough that it won't give you hand cramps, backlit so that you can see it in a darkened lecture hall or dorm room, and rugged enough to survive until summer break.
4. A large screen for multitasking
Nothing is tougher than multitasking on a tiny display. Researching and writing a term paper while listening to music and chatting on Facebook can make for a pretty crowded screen. A 14-inch or larger panel will offer a comfortable working environment and allow you to keep an eye on everything that's happening.
5. A warranty or protection plan
Normally, "extended warranties" are money-grabbing schemes that retailers use to get a few more bucks from you--but when you're buying a laptop for school, you might actually get your money's worth from such a plan. Laptops don't take a comfortable, luxurious ride to and from school in a padded briefcase. They get stuffed into backpacks, tossed from car to bench to floor, and handled constantly. But be sure to read any plan carefully so that you know exactly what it covers and what it doesn't.
6. Security software
You can find two types of security software. Programs such as Norton AntiVirus and McAfee Internet Security protect your computer and the information stored on it from viruses, malware, and other unpleasantries you might encounter. Luckily, some of the best options--such as Avast and Microsoft Security Essentials--are free.
Install both types to prevent your semester from coming to a screeching halt.
What you don't need
1. A quad-core processor
Power is great, and having more cores is usually better. But most students don't need superpowerful computers. Additional cores are typically beneficial for computationally heavy tasks, such as transcoding audio and video files, or editing digital photos or videos. If you're just writing papers and surfing the Web, a dual-core processor is all you really need, and it'll be much kinder to your battery.
2. A discrete graphics processor
If you're looking to play hard-core games, invest in a decent desktop or buy a game console in addition to your laptop. A heavy gaming notebook with a power-draining discrete graphics card won't help you make the grade. Your main machine should be a lightweight, power-efficient, thin-and-light laptop.
3. Solid-state drive
These storage devices are quick, quiet, and available on all the sexiest notebooks these days. Since an SSD has no moving parts, you're less likely to lose data from it when (not if) you drop your laptop. But SSDs have two significant drawbacks: low capacity and high cost. Whereas even inexpensive laptops boast 750GB and larger mechanical hard drives, the SSDs in lower-priced notebooks typically deliver just 128GB of storage.
4. A touchscreen
Windows 8 is designed for touch, but a touchscreen is a luxury that a student can easily live without. You can perform any Windows 8 command using a laptop's touchpad and keyboard, so you have no good reason to spend extra money to get a touchscreen. Focus on more-critical components, such as the CPU, memory, and storage capacity. Leave the touchscreen to your phones and tablets.
5. 4G wireless
Staying connected is really important--when it comes to devices such as your phone. Many laptops offer mobile-broadband devices and service plans, but you shouldn't sign a contract for that. Students can get online using free Wi-Fi hotspots just about anywhere on or around campus. If you do find yourself stuck in a Wi-Fi-free wasteland, you can always use your phone to check email or transfer files.