How to shop for a back-to-school computer

It’s back-to-school shopping season, so it might be time to shop for a laptop. But with so many different types and ever-updated models, how to know what’s best? Here are some things to think through.

What will laptop be used for?

A student going into graphic design, for example, might use it for different things than a budding engineer or someone who only needs Word. Tercius Bufete, Consumer Report’s associate editor for electronics, notes that a kid into gaming won’t be happy with a budget laptop under $500.

An illustrator might want an Apple computer, still the go-to for creative professionals.

For intensive use, consider a higher-resolution screen, more memory and a larger hard drive, advised Best Buy spokeswoman Bianca Jones. She also tells customers to consider a touch-screen 2-in-1 option, like a Surface Pro 4 with Windows Ink, which can be function as a traditional laptop or as a tablet and can be written on with a digital inking pen.

Also weigh whether the laptop should be a surprise.

“Laptops, like smartphones, are an incredibly personal device,” Bufete said.

Students might be brand-loyal already – or they might only need something basic and budget.

“You’ll never know unless you ask,” he said.

Where will the user log in?

How often the laptop keeper will be throwing it in a book bag and lugging it to class is key. Jones said that screen size, storage devices and whether it has CD/DVD or Blu-ray drive can affect size and weight.

Streamlined laptops that weigh less than 3 pounds, for example, are good for those who just need to be able to do basic email and internet surfing.

For people who might need to work from different places on campus from time to time, aim for 4 to 5 pounds, but what she calls “workhorses” check in at 6 pounds or more with more powerful processing and larger screens.

These might be a type of advance that a college student doesn’t need just yet.

And another option? Don’t discount the desktop.

“Desktops are experiencing a renaissance,” Bufete said, suggesting a machine like the Microsoft Surface Studio.

What specs matter?

The processor, for one.

“This is both the brain and the muscles of the laptop,” Jones said.

The faster it is, the more it can handle. The more RAM, the more data you can access and manipulate at the same time. And consider battery life because college students might not always think to recharge before class.

What’s the price?

Many options exist other than buying the priciest version. Consumer saving expert Andrea Woroch suggests refurbished laptops, for example. Newegg has a site dedicated to lower-price options, and Apple also offers refurbished MacBooks and iPads.

You can also offset the cost by trading in an old device at places like Target and Amazon.

Make sure to compare prices – it sounds obvious, but many retailers will price match. So if you find a great deal somewhere else, pull it up on your phone in the other store.

Woroch suggests price-comparison tools like Pricegrabber. And Jones notes that Best Buy has discounts for college students, accessible with an .edu email address through its College Student Deals.