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

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.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

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.


  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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.

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