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The best computer bets for back to school

Laptop or tablet? Mac or PC? The market is full of options that will wow your kids' peers. But odds are, something a lot less expensive will be more than enough for everyday use

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 9, 2012
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If you sell personal computers for a living, the next best thing to Christmas is back-to-school season. It means billions in sales for tech companies like Apple Inc., Dell Inc., and Microsoft Corp., as parents and their kids scoop up new computing hardware and software.

A good deal of that money will go to waste, as people spend needlessly on the next big, expensive thing. Sure, that tablet computer looks cool. But is it what your kid really needs for schoolwork? And yes, a supersleek new laptop with an ultra-powerful chip will awe your favorite student’s friends, but that extra power won’t show up on a report card.

For homework, a laptop is the tool of choice. Good machines running Microsoft Windows cost around $500 to $800, while an entry-level Mac from Apple goes for $1,000. Any such machine offers plenty of power for most students.

Tablet computers are a popular alternative. An April survey of 5,600 US high school students by investment firm Piper Jaffray found that 34 percent already own a tablet computer, with 70 percent of those choosing the iPad.

That may be because so many kids are using iPads in classrooms already. Apple reported that it sold 1 million of them to educational institutions in the three months ended June 30.

In fact, iPads are superb teaching tools. They’re portable, they’ll run all day on one battery charge, and they can be stuffed with apps for every academic subject and age group. But students do a fair amount of writing. And while you can certainly find good external keyboards for tablet computers and decent word-processing apps like Apple’s Pages,the tablet is a second-rate device for serious typing.

Besides, a laptop’s hard drive can stash a lot more data, from homework assignments to a kid’s favorite music albums and movies. Most laptops also give you an optical drive, handy for installing software or watching videos. And college students may need to run full-fledged software programs ranging from Microsoft Office to technical software like the mathematical programming language MATLAB.

That’s probably why college students overwhelmingly opt for laptops. A 2011 survey from the research firm Student Monitor found that of those who had bought some kind of computer in the previous six months, 89 percent had purchased a laptop, but just 6 percent had bought a tablet.

Choosing a laptop is fairly easy because today’s computers are so similar. Even the traditional divide between machines that run Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system and Apple’s Mac computers doesn’t matter so much any more. Much of our work happens on the Internet, where the computer brand makes no difference. Besides, today’s Macs can run Windows software, using a feature called Boot Camp.

Still, before buying anything, contact your school and find out about any special hardware requirements. Elementary and high-school parents should also inquire about the school’s bring-your-own-device policies. Are student laptops or tablets welcome on campus? A Boston school official told me the city lets principals decide on a case-by-case basis, so check with your school.

Once that’s settled, start looking for something with a comfy keyboard, a big hard drive, and a bright screen that looks good at a variety of viewing angles. You may be tempted by the new Ultrabook laptops. They’re deliciously thin and light, making them much easier to lug across campus, but they generally cost $200 to $300 more than their thicker brethren. Suit yourself, but I’d rather keep the cash.

Most laptops, including Macs, use Intel Corp.’s Core processors. The entry-level Core i3 is fine for your average English major, but an engineering or graphic arts student might pick a beefier Core i5 or i7. The same goes for memory; the more demanding the tasks, the more you should buy. Some more expensive laptops offer a special graphics processor chip; don’t bother unless there’s going to be lots of graphics work or video game play. Some laptops run processors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc.rather than Intel. Don’t worry; AMD chips work fine.

Look for sales and discounts. Apple is giving out $100 gift cards to buyers of new Mac laptops and $50 for iPads. Other majors, like Dell and HP, are running their own back-to-school specials online. If you’re strapped for cash, look into buying used or refurbished hardware.

Low-income parents in Boston should check out the Tech Goes Home program in the city’s public school system. Parents who complete 15 hours of computer training with their kids can get a simple netbook computer for just $50, as well as cut-rate broadband Internet service from Comcast Corp. Contact 617-635-2822 for more information.

Not so long ago, access to computers was a luxury for students; it’s a necessity now. But there’s no reason why it can’t be an affordable one.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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