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New rules for buying back-to-school laptops

From the Cheapskate: It's that time of year! But before you make the traditional choice, see if perhaps your student wouldn't benefit from an "alternative" PC.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
5 min read

CNET's Cheapskate scours the Web for great deals on PCs, phones, gadgets and much more. Questions about the Cheapskate blog? Find the answers on our FAQ page.

Hey, has anyone seen summer? It was here a minute ago. Alas, for most kids, a new school year is just around the corner. (That sound you hear is the obligatory collective, "Noooooo!")

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A Chromebook could prove the perfect PC for school. Acer

With that new school year may come the need for a new laptop, and time- and cash-strapped parents are often left confused and scrambling. How much do you really need to spend on a school-minded PC? And how can you make sure you're getting a system that will go the distance? (Hopefully just four years, if you're packing a kid off to college.)

Fear not: Even with hundreds of options, picking the right laptop (or perhaps...tablet?) is easy if you follow a few simple guidelines.

1. Consider the curriculum

When it comes to computing, different students have different needs. Some require little more than word processing, Web browsing and email, in which case an inexpensive system should be sufficient.

Indeed, I think a lot of elementary-age students are best served by a Chromebook. And as regular Cheapskate readers know, you can find deals in the $200 range -- or sometimes considerably less.

The beauty of Chromebooks is they run smoothly on very modest hardware, while at the same time avoiding all the typical Windows hassles (viruses, Blue Screens of Death, performance degradation and so on). As long as the school is cool with it (some do require Windows), I highly recommend this option.

Of course, if the kid's course-load is going to include graphics-intensive stuff -- 3D models, CAD drawings, video editing -- you'll want to make sure the laptop has a higher-end processor (like an Intel Core i5 or i7), a speedy solid-state drive and a discrete graphics card. Expect a price tag of at least $700.

I should also note that if you're looking for a MacBook, plan on spending a minimum of $800. But Apple often offers student discounts that can help ease the pain.

2. Size up the system

Screen size is also an important consideration, as it dictates the overall size (and often weight) of the laptop.

Anything larger than 15.6 inches won't fit easily (or at all) into a backpack. But if it's smaller than, say, 13.3 inches, it might prove too cramped for comfort. Whatever size you land on, be sure to check the weight of the machine. Anything over 5 pounds might prove uncomfortable to schlep around campus all day.

3. Go thin or go home

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Don't overlook the tablet-plus-keyboard option. Logitech

If the kid is concerned with style, consider an ultrabook. These systems tend to offer above-average power and battery life in thin, lightweight, sexy chassis. They're also very fast, especially at booting. But prices start at around $700 and can easily stretch into four figures.

That said, I recently purchased an Asus ZenBook UX305 (which can be found for about $650 right now) and it's mostly been a gem. Fast processor, big SSD, all-day battery, very thin and light -- my only complaints are the non-backlit keyboard and idiotic placement of the power button.

Another great option: a tablet and keyboard. A refurbished iPad Air, for example, would run you $339, and there are any number of great keyboards available for $30-50. The screen is on the small side, but phone-addicted kids probably won't mind.

4. Forget Microsoft Office -- unless it's free

Most students will need a basic suite of productivity tools -- word processor, spreadsheet manager, presentation builder -- to handle the basics of school work. The good news is that Microsoft Office can be had for free in three different ways. Firstly, it comes as a year-long trial version with many new laptops (such as the HP Stream). Secondly, it's free to students 13 and older -- and teachers -- in school districts that are already Office subscribers (full details here). And thirdly, Office.com (and Office apps for Android and iOS) offer free versions of the major Office applications with basic features enabled -- they may well be enough for writing basic term papers and the like.

However, unless the school specifically requires Microsoft's suite, students can easily get by with the likes of Google Docs. (In fact, my son's middle school uses it exclusively.)

Alternately, for a more "traditional" productivity software experience, consider a free Office alternative. I'm partial to WPS Office (formerly Kingsoft), which closely resembles Microsoft's suite and offers nearly all the same features. You can also get most of what you need from the likes of LibreOffice and OpenOffice.

5. Shop the campus store

Many college campuses have computer stores that claim to offer the best discounts on student laptops. Make sure you do your homework before shopping, however. These shops don't always have the best prices, and their selection may be limited compared to what you can find online or in a big-box store such as Best Buy.

The flipside is that buying from a campus store may entitle your student to local tech support, which could be worthwhile for those times when a paper is due and the printer won't print.


Indeed, for any computer you're considering, check the warranty terms (one year is standard, but you can often extend it) and especially the company's tech-support options. Students tend to keep late hours, so 24/7 phone support is definitely a desirable feature.

Bonus deal: Sure, you've prepped plenty of food and water for the inevitable zombie apocalypse, but I'll bet you've forgotten to stock up on mobile chargers. Because don't you feel like those guys on "The Walking Dead" would be a little more chill if they could just jam to some tunes once in a while? Anyway, Hisgadget is offering the Intocircuit Power Castle 11,200mAh dual-USB mobile charger (silver) for $12.99. That's after applying coupon code EWABW9UB at checkout. Shipping is free for Amazon Prime subscribers. This is the lowest price to date on this popular power bank, which has earned an impressive 4.6-star average from over 1,800 buyers.

Bonus deal No. 2: Sorry, Otterbox: The best phone cases are not the ones that can survive a missile strike -- they're the ones emblazoned with a picture of your kids, spouse, dog or other loved one. Ending today, Groupon has a PrinterPix custom case for iPhone 5/5S, 6 or 6 Plus for just $5. (Actually, the 6 Plus version is $7, and add a few bucks if you want a screen protector as well.) Regular price: $39.99. I believe shipping may cost extra but annoyingly it's not mentioned anywhere on the promo page.

Editors note (9:05 a.m. PT): This story has been updated to clarify additional methods to access Microsoft Office for free.