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First step is to determine the goal for the laptop. This depends on what kind of major you intend to pursue. An engineering major may imply a beefed up laptop to be able to crunch through any scientific programs. An arts major, especially dealing with computer graphics, may imply a high end graphics card and high resolution screen. If your major involves mostly reading and writing, you may get away with a cheap laptop, which basically does word processing and web browsing for you.
Other consideration is how long you envision to use this particular laptop. Ideally you want the laptop to run through the four years in college. But another approach is to assume that your laptop will be obsolete by the time you reach your senior year - and you will hopefully have a much better understanding of your upcoming career by then to buy another laptop more suited at that time. In any case, to get the best value, you want your laptop to last at least two to three years of your first college years.
Size of the laptop is probably the first specification to think about. If you plan to take your laptop to every class in your backpack, you are probably looking at a 12" or a 13" notebook. The small notebook will not only be easy to lug from dorm to classes to library, it will also easier to fit on small desks in some classrooms. However, you may have some specific needs which may force you to look into a bigger laptop. E.g. if your subjects require high resolution bigger screen.
Since you are buying laptop for its mobility, and you will likely take it from place to place on the campus, you want your laptop to be sturdy. Buying a bona fide rugged laptop is recommended, however may not be possible because they tend to be expensive. You should do research the particular model you are considering to make sure that it has good track-record when it comes to being robust.
Wifi is ubiquitous on modern campuses - indeed this is one of the reasons why laptops are getting so popular. Most laptops come with built-in wifi cards these days. Check with your school's IT department as to what Wi-Fi standard is commonly being used on your campus. If 802.11n is being deployed, get a laptop with 802.11n card. Otherwise, a laptop with 802.11g is sufficient (verify that this can be upgraded in future, if needed). Since you may be working outdoors on your laptop, you may want to avoid laptops with glossy screens.
As mentioned earlier, you want your laptop to last at least first two to three years of your college. So, buying an extended warranty is well worth it. Extended warranties offered by Apple and Lenovo are considered particularly good.
You will need to pay particular attention to security issues related to your college laptop. These security issues are both hardware and software related. Unfortunately theft of laptops in colleges is a common occurrence. Most laptops in the market come with Universal Security Slot (USS), which takes a cable lock from vendors like Kensington, Belkin and Targus. It is a good idea to buy a laptop cable lock and keep the laptop locked when using it in your dorm room. Since campuses tend to have relatively open networks, they are breeding grounds for viruses and other threats. You should install recommended security software of your campus before connecting (or as the first step) the laptop on your campus network.
What operating system(s) should your college laptop have? Of course, the default choice here is Windows. Macs (running OS X) are increasing their footprint in many campuses. Macs tend to be more expensive as compared to equivalent windows system, but Apple does offer good educational discounts. A Linux laptop is another great choice especially if you are getting into a technical major. Your school policies may require a particular operating system.
Another consideration is buying a laptop for college vs. buying a netbook for college. A Netbook is very light-weight, has a small screen (7" to 10" diagonal), and has a relatively small keyboard. Examples include ASUS Eee PC, MSI Wind PC, and Dell Inspiron Mini. LinuxCertified sells a Linux netbook based on Lenovo. The pros of buying a netbook are low-cost, light weight, and good battery life. The biggest drawback is that netbook keyboards are not the most friendly keyboards. So, this may hamper your ability to keep up your note taking, while your professor burns through quantum physics. Since most college students already have powerful phones with at least basic communication capabilities, my recommendation would be go with a full featured laptop, instead of a netbook.
Laptop prices have been falling dramatically in last few years. Still affordability of a college laptop is a key concern for students (and their parents). Fortunately, you can benefit from several programs around college notebooks. Student loan programs (especially for students going to colleges with mandatory laptop policy) are being modified to take into account the funds needed to purchase a college laptop. Your college may have cut a deal with a vendor to provide laptops specially priced for your campus. One advantage of buying a laptop which is common among your fellow college students is that it will likely be easy get replacement parts and accessories for that laptop on the campus. You can buy almost any software at a deep student discount. Finally, you can checkout our own page on laptop deals which is updated daily with hottest offers from multiple vendors.
Before making your final decision, definitely checkout your school's IT web site for any other specific policies and requirements they may have.
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