Laptop or desktop+netbook for back to school?

It's almost August, folks. We all know what that means, right?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

It's almost August, folks. We all know what that means, right? If you don't already have a computer for school, you need to get one, PDQ. For some of you in K-12, your school might have a 1:1 program and you'll take a laptop home with you every night. Yay for you. In K-8, you can probably live without a computer at home or certainly make do with the family computer. For 9-12 and post-secondary, though, things start getting a bit stickier.

College is a no-brainer, at least on the surface. You need a computer. You don't need a ZDNet blogger to tell you that one. However, I maintain that the average high school and college student's needs would be best suited by two computers. For high schoolers, one computer can certainly be that family computer in the den/living room/study/whatever. The second is an inexpensive netbook.

Don't get me wrong: I know that this is neither affordable nor realistic for everybody. In many cases, the best people can do is access a school computer before or after school.

However, the scenario and usage model I envision can make economic sense for a large cross-section of students, both secondary and post-secondary. In fact, this model can save money in many cases and help students and families meet their computing needs cost-effectively. How many of us can recommend netbooks to parents without reservation when they ask for recommendations? On the other hand, how many of us would recommend even a mid-range laptop for a 10th-grader?

In a household where we are down to 2 computers at the moment due to loans (a colleague is testing my Classmate), viruses (Windows XP on a P4 tends to slow a bit under the weight of AV and a few undetected trojans), and hardware failures (2 dead motherboards in 2 weeks on 2 laptops that saw heavy use), I understand the importance of kids being able to access computers easily and independently. Fortunately, it's summer break, so only my oldest actually needs his computer for summer work. By September, though, when 3 are in high school, something will need to give.

I'm certainly not sending $600 laptops in backpacks. Even Walmart's $300 laptop will probably not endure too much abuse. A $200 netbook with a small solid state hard drive, on the other hand, will take quite a beating between classes, on the bus, etc. The family computer, on the other hand, that I'm building now to replace that sad P4, will have a large hard drive to which the kids can back up their small SSDs and will be able to handle more intensive tasks like video editing that the kids occasionally need to complete.

Interestingly, though, I don't see any reason why this model should change for most college students. Obviously, the film major could probably benefit from a high-end MacBook Pro that can move between locations for on-site editing and collaboration with other students. For many, though, a portable computing device simply needs to be a way to take notes, communicate, access the Web, and create basic documentation. Like their younger counterparts, college students tend to be fairly mean to their portable equipment as well, meaning the cheaper the better.

Math major? No problem. Use the desktop in your dorm for serious number crunching and get a cheap tablet like a convertible Classmate for taking notes in class. English major? Type your book on an ergonomic keyboard and sync the contents with your netbook so that you can write anytime, anywhere. Political science major? Your netbook is your link to news, current events, and a growing social network while that desktop runs a website, organizes documents, and serves as the hub for the PAC you're creating in your Junior year.

The beauty of this is that you can purchase the desktop hardware that meets your needs and stick with cheap, commodity netbooks for portable computing. Just need an easy typing computer with with a decent-sized hard drive and a nice monitor? $400 and a trip to Dell.com will probably take care of you. Need to do CAD and 3D modeling for your engineering courses? Then spend the money on the appropriate graphics cards and dual monitors. In both cases, a laptop, whether cheap or high-end, would not serve your needs as well as the desktop.

I have another year until my oldest heads off to college, but most likely, he'll be doing so with a netbook under one arm and me carrying a desktop into his dorm room, trailing behind. It will save me money and replacement costs on the laptop he would beat up if it was his constant companion and only computer during his first couple years of college.

What do you think? Am I off-base/unrealistic? Or have cheap netbooks made this sort of usage model possible?

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