"Almost nobody is going to buy a desktop for college," said Samir Bhavnani, an analyst with Current Analysis West. "This year there's a lot more to choose from than in years past: Apple's more broadly distributed than before, Acer's on the shelves almost everywhere now, and people can go get a Lenovo ThinkPad today on the retail shelf."
But besides portability, students seek style. The run-of-the-mill black box that just gets the job done isn't nearly as compelling as a sleek, shiny notebook with lots of bells and whistles, like Bluetooth connectivity, integrated Webcams, and fast boot times. And lightness and mobility are key, of course. But it's not just PCs students want--it's extras like smart phones, digital cameras, all-in-one printers, and of course, a hip case in which to lug their new notebook around.
Although growth rates have slowed, sales of notebooks in the traditional "back to school" period of mid-July through mid-August were up 24 percent compared with last year, according to data collected by the NPD Group. The average selling price was down 10 percent, NPD said. Desktops, predictably, declined 23 percent in units sold.
Nine of Amazon.com's 10 best-selling PCs this month are notebooks, with the list dominated by Toshiba and Apple. Toshiba's 15-inch Satellite notebook was the top seller in August, followed by Apple's MacBook, HP's Pavilion TX1220, Sony's Vaio, the MacBook Pro and Toshiba's 13-inch Satellite.
Of course, this list accounts for the early-bird shoppers, but not the price-sensitive buyers who are waiting out the summer for the best back-to-school deals--a trend that retail industry observers have started to see crop up this time of year and.
But the deals this season aren't necessarily as jaw-dropping as in years past. Due to price stabilization in the market and factors like a new operating system from Microsoft this year, the value that consumers will be getting is better this year, according to Bhavnani.
"We've seen a bunch of $599 systems with 2GB of memory...(which) is basically unheard of," he said.
Traditionally notebooks haven't been a sensible choice if a customer was looking for the computing power of a desktop. But that's changing too. Laptops are packing more punch these days and are smaller and lighter, which makes it easy to tote them between lecture halls, the library and the quad.
"We've been seeing big interest in anything you can carry around and not get a shoulder ache," said John Zittrauer, an employee in one of Best Buy's New York City stores.
Students' preferences for notebook size are generally broken down by area of study: art or media majors want wide screens, and business students need number keypads on the side, Zittruaer said. The store where he works is located close to several colleges, including New York University and the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Have to have a smart phone
Though not every student will be showing up for the fall semester flashing an iPhone, smart phones are definitely on the "have to have" list.
"I've seen more people my age looking for BlackBerrys," said Best Buy's Zittrauer, 25. It's a departure from the BlackBerry or Treo user stereotype, which has long been the buttoned-up, briefcase-toting business type, not college kids clad in flip-flops, jeans and hoodies.
Flash drives are a popular way to shlep class notes, essays, videos and music around--particularly since .
Besides the usual peripherals like printers, mice and power supplies, going back to school now means not necessarily having to be far away. Webcams are popular with parents for video-conferencing with their far-flung children, but integrated Webcams are even more popular since they're often better at facilitating self-made video uploads to YouTube, said Bhavnani. Toshiba is also including Skype on some of its laptops.
Though media-oriented features are clearly popular with students, the one that hasn't quite taken off yet is the inclusion of HD DVD or Blu-ray drives.
"That's largely a price point-driven thing," Bhavnani said. "That's probably next year."