I hear this more and more from high school parents. It wasn't that long ago that college kids were lucky to get a laptop for a high school graduation gift. The number of freshman and sophomores in high school now toting around laptops, even in a very middle class rural mill town like mine, is surprising. Not that it's a bad thing at all: student laptops, despite security and malware concerns, reduce the load on our computer labs, prepare students for the business world where mobile computing has become the norm, and can really increase productivity in class and at home. I'd be lost if I couldn't have my entire-life-on-a-laptop with me at home and at school, even if it is a 9-pound luggable; high school students are learning this same advantage very quickly.
However, the advice I give parents on what to buy for their kids (or to kids directly, who are increasingly able to purchase their own as prices drop) tends to be very different for underclassmen than it is for seniors or recent graduates.Most importantly, parents need to be realistic about the lifespan of these machines. They aren't going to make it to college. It just isn't going to happen, no matter how much they spend. A few parents have asked if they should buy really expensive laptops for their 9th- or 10th-graders, with the hope that they can use them into college. While this might apply to a senior in high school, the answer is a resounding "No!" for a few reasons.
First and foremost, kids are mean to their computers. I'm mean enough to my laptop, as its scuffs, scrapes, and scratches can attest. However, 99.9% of high school kids are simply not responsible enough to get more than a couple of years out of the hardware. They get jammed in backpacks, dropped off desks, and have school lunches spilled on them. School lunches are toxic enough to humans - Imagine what they do to a keyboard.
Perhaps even more importantly, though (and this is what most parents have a tough time swallowing), a reasonable lifecycle, even with the gentlest of users, is three years. Not only does software advance to a point where hardware struggles to support it, but hardware components just aren't designed to last that long. Parents need to understand that they will probably need to replace this laptop within 4 years at the most anyway, regardless of how much they spend.
Finally, for most high school kids, yesterday's mobile technology is more than enough. Sure, a decked-out Alienware M9750 would be great for them to play games, but a $500 laptop from Walmart, TigerDirect, or direct from just about any vendor will run OpenOffice and iTunes just fine. TigerDirect in particular often offers refurbished laptops with Core 2 Duo or Athol X2 Turion processors in the under-$500 range that would be great starter laptops for most high school kids.
I do give parents a few basic points to look for. I suggest that they avoid Celeron and Sempron processors (the budget offerings from Intel and AMD, respectively). The few dollars saved over Core, Turion, or Athlon processors just isn't worth the performance compromise, even at this level. I also recommend integrated WiFi (802.11b/g) and at least 1GB of RAM. The full gigabyte compensates for lower-end processors quite well. I'm quick to point out that if they look at Dell, laptops running Ubuntu can be had at a discount over equivalent Windows machines and they can avoid the budget Windows OS that tends to come with less expensive machines. Windows Vista Home Basic is fine, but certainly lacks some features included with most Linux distros (or better versions of Vista/XP).
Finally, I tell parents not to bother springing for Microsoft Office. This can take a $499 laptop and increase its price by at least 20%. OpenOffice is a bargain-hunter's friend and I make sure that teachers can support it if they receive files electronically from students.