Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

Summary: Cross-posted on the Microsoft Office Blog, this parent's-eye view of hardware requirements for recent graduates should be a primer for families sending their kids off to school, hardware in hand this September.

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This article is cross-posted from the Microsoft Office Blog. Thanks to the Microsoft folks for indulging my hardware geekiness!

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions...

My mother-in-law was appalled when she heard what we spent on my oldest son’s laptop. “But I bought his cousin one for $300 and it works just fine!” she exclaimed over the $2500 price tag on his new MacBook Pro. Of course, a Mac was required for his major and the high-end model was going to come in mighty handy when he was producing videos as a film/communications student.

I tell this story, though, because sometimes all a student really needs is that $300 special. As computer hardware seems to be about the only thing getting cheaper in this economy, even $500 can buy a decent laptop if you’re a bargain hunter. And yet, there my son sits, happily banging away on his painfully expensive computer.

To complicate things further, students now have their choice of tablets, smartphones, netbooks, laptops in all shapes and sizes, and even desktops. Among all of these choices, there are countless decisions to be made. How much RAM should a computer have? How many processor cores does it need? And what the heck is a processor core anyway? Storage space? Screen size? Webcams? The options can be overwhelming.

While there are plenty of third-graders who could use a computer quite handily for school work, we’ll stick with high school and college students to make our job a bit easier here. Pretty universally, hand-me-downs and those $300 birthday-gifts-from-grandma will meet the needs of younger kids without any difficulty.

That said, a lot of questions still remain for our older students. Perhaps the most commonly asked is, “Can my son/daughter just use a netbook/tablet?” The answer is a resounding “Well, maybe…sort of…well, it depends.”  In general, though, netbooks and tablets should be considered supplemental devices for students, suitable for use in the classroom or on the go, but probably not to replace a full-featured laptop or desktop.  A decent desktop and a nice little netbook or tablet won’t be terribly expensive and may, for some students, meet their needs better than a single laptop.

So now that we’ve figured out what they shouldn’t have, it’s probably time to get down to the nuts and bolts of what they should have. The first step will be to check with your son’s or daughter’s school. Colleges in particular will often have specific requirements, often with individual requirements at the department level. However, if no such requirements exist, here are some baseline hardware recommendations that apply to all operating systems and both laptops and desktops:

Screen size

  • This is a matter of personal preference, but anything much smaller than 13” can make reading and multitasking a challenge.
  • It’s worth a trip to a big box store to see what 13” really looks like or to see just how heavy that tempting 17” laptop with a BluRay player really is.

RAM

  • Random Access Memory (RAM) is what allows multiple files and applications to be open at once.
  • 2GB is the absolute minimum.
  • 4GB is generally cheap, increasingly standard, and very usable as students begin using multiple applications or have many browser windows open.
  • 8GB is never a bad idea for students interested in graphics, design, video, and other intensive applications.

Storage/Hard Drive size

  • The hard drive is where documents, photos, music, and other files live. They can either be standard hard drives (most will be, the exact nature of a “standard hard drive” doesn’t much matter here) or Solid State Drives (SSDs). The latter have advantages of speed and durability but are so expensive that they generally aren’t recommended at this point.
  • 500GB is fairly standard (and will suit most students’ needs), although more is, of course, better. Standard hard drives actually have spinning magnetic platters inside them, too, so the faster they spin (measured in RPM) the better. 5400RPM is very common, but 7200RPM is a better choice if available.

Processor

  • The processor is the brain of the computer. While faster used to always be better, both of the major processor manufacturers (Intel and AMD) have moved towards more “cores” being better.  I’ll spare you the geeky details but in general:
  • 2 cores are the minimum
  • 2GHz per core is the minimum
  • Students interested in content creation or who are real power users of their computers should have 4 cores

Graphics

  • There are 2 basic choices in terms of graphics: integrated or discrete/dedicated.
  • An integrated graphics card is built right into the computer’s internals and works perfectly for web surfing, creating documents, etc.
  • A discrete card is still internal to the computer, but has its own processor and RAM, making it much better suited for games, engineering, design, and audio/visual work.

    • There are countless options from the cheap to the insane.
    • In general, look for 1GB of dedicated video RAM.

Webcams

  • Get an integrated webcam
  • Students will use them for Skype, recording podcasts, and virtual classroom applications
  • They’re cheap and come standard on most laptops
  • You don’t need anything fancy; for most applications, any webcam will do

So there you have it. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about back to school hardware for you students but were afraid to ask. Happy shopping! If you are still trying to figure out what computer might be the best option for your kid, use the PC Scout. It’s an interactive app available on windows.com that helps you find a perfect match.

Topics: Collaboration, Microsoft, Software

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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17 comments
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  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

    "Webcams ... Students will use them for Skype, recording podcasts, and virtual classroom applications"

    Yeah right... they'll use them for one thing and one thing only, and it ain't part of that list.
    PB_z
  • Or, an ASUS X101 Netbook running MeeGo ($200 US)?

    Do ya think? (wink)

    fyi

    h-t-t-p-s://plus.google.com/101839830409692150605/posts/RgstvJ9XJwX
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, *~* Your Linux Advocate
  • How about this: They pay for their own machines?

    How about this: They pay for their own machines?

    They get what they can afford.
    CobraA1
  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

    A pen, and a notebook (one that is constituted of multiple sheets of paper) is the basic requirement.

    A computer (of some size, shape, quality, etc) may also be needed, depending on the course, the institution, and the actual needs.
    pjc007
  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

    So he couldn't carry around a $350 netbook and do video editing on a $1150 desktop. Having two computers for less than the price of one makes sense to me. Of course if the school requires using Mac software that could be a problem.

    It is curious that there is so little discussion of the EFFICIENCY of the software. Half as much hardware processing power with 4 times the software efficiency is double the NET PROCESSING POWER.
    psikeyhackr
  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

    A mid to high range laptop will do the trick. Please don't go cheap. Remember, you get what you pay for!

    (I've seen far too many students with cheap, Acer or E-Machines notebooks that are constantly on the fritz.)
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

      @Cylon Centurion Even some nice mid-range computers are suspect. I can't believe how many of my peers (myself included) that grabbed a snazzy HP laptop on the cheap (Well, relatively. 1200 for some pretty good hardware on that thing) and it fizzled on me 2 years later. It wasn't uncommon either, as pretty much all of my friends had mid-to-high cost HP Pavilion's that crashed too.
      Aerowind
    • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

      @Cylon Centurion A very relevant point. But I have seen expensive unreliable equipment too. It is a pity that we don't have some standard for testing and specifying reliability.
      psikeyhackr
    • Good point

      @Cylon Centurion <br><br>Firstly, I would like to personally welcome our Cylon educational overlords and wish them have a great time on Earth. <br><br>Secondly, you touched an interesting point there. We don't need to go overboard but we need to start moving away from that mentality that if it is for education then any piece of spit-glued piece of machinery or software will do. <br><br>It won't, what these badly designed, badly implemented, badly built "made for education" (in fact, "made for the bin but we will try to get a few bucks out of it by rebranding it as educational") are doing is creating a dislike for technology used in educational environments. <br><br>We need some aesthetics and reliability thrown into the equation. Digital education resources are still in their majority too boxy, slow, ugly and grey.
      Luis Morais
  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

    Good article! The only thing I would add/suggest... Not so many cores are necessary for editing if a good GPU is involved with the software compatible with graphics acceleration. Also, $350 doesn't make it over the hump. More likely expect to pay closer to $500, and the bang for the buck goes up exponentially.
    One thing that isn't mentioned, the coolness factor (or was it?)... but, let's face it, even though I'm a bigger fan of MS, sometimes people 'wear' there computer like a badge of honor. I remember wearing Keds, when everyone else had Nike/Puma (LOL)..
    TechNickle
  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

    2,500$, are you kidding ?
    AdnanPirota
  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

    If you must buy a Laptop, Weight and Ruggedness are important - heavier notebooks tend to suffer the consequences of being heaved around or dropped because they are heavy - size it accordingly. In a perfect world, all families could afford a Panasonic Toughbook for each child.

    A Netbook / Desktop combo is truly the most cost effective and functional solution. Be careful to select a netbook with a native screen resolution that will accommodate online learning resources for your school.
    mhagin
  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

    The fact that you spent $2,500 on a computer shows that you are truly an idiot!
    omdguy
  • And every kid is going to say their a 'power user'.

    Truth is for the student NOT doing video the $400 ~ $800 laptop will get them by just fine.

    I'm a post grad with a $800 15.6 inch i5, I keep eyeballing Wife's $400 14 inch AMD Athlon. The AMD does all the web work required, word processes and builds presentations just fine. And the 14" AMD easily fits in a backpack.

    The most intense functions I perform on the laps is NEF to JPG conversion and CAD. While that isn't very intense compared to <i>some</i> users its more than most everyone else.
    rmhesche
  • Hope the MacBook Kid isn't a freshman ....

    Hope the MacBook Kid isn't a freshman because by the time s/he gets to the core classes in two years they'll need or at least want another.

    Computers are sort of like encyclopedias of generations past.

    Use to be an encyclopedia salesman would look through the birth announcements and pursue new parents with the shtick of how they don't want their child left behind.


    About the time the child is to the point they can actually use the encyclopedia the data is a decade old and out of date.

    Buy a high school senior or college freshman a top of the line unit for university now and in 3~6 years when they actually need it the unit probably wont even run the software and they'll be stuck going to the computer lab.
    rmhesche
  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

    Personally I think that a tablet and a great desktop computer is a better combination than a single notebook computer. Sure you hv two devices, but the tablet is great for taking notes in classes and can allow you to write rough drafts of papers while on the go. You can always finish up the project when you are back at your desktop computer. One interesting combination is using an iPad 2 and a Mac Mini. You can easily hook it up to an HDTV and it would be easily portable for trips home.
    jfreedle2@...
  • RE: Hey, Parents! Do you know what your students really need for back to school?

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