August 3, 2008

Which Fits Best on Your Lap?

By Bryan Redemske, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Aug. 3--When my parents shipped me off to college in the fall of 1995, the sum of my possessions fit neatly in the trunk and back seat of my mom's car. It was mostly clothes and shoes, along with a huge pile of CDs and a Sony Discman wired into a boombox.

No computer, no iPod, no mobile phone, no digital camera. And, looking back, no idea how I managed to survive without all of that.

When I headed back to school the following year, I did manage to bring a computer, but it was expensive, gigantic and good for . . . well, very little by today's standards. Other than writing, e-mailing and basic Web surfing, computers weren't needed for much else back then.

For today's college and high school students, computers are both productivity and social tools, as well as hubs for music, movies and photos. Getting by without a computer of your own is possible but far more inconvenient than in years past.

If you've yet to take the computer plunge -- or if you're waiting for the best deal -- remember that you don't have to spend a lot to get what you need. Of course, the more you spend, the more you get. And because of campuswide Wi-Fi access and portability, laptop computers are a smart choice for college and high school.

Creighton University, like many other schools, has a laptop purchasing program for incoming students. Using the school's purchasing power, students can get a discounted computer approved by the campus information technology department.

"This past year we had about 75 percent of the class participate," said Mark Smedinghoff, Creighton's manager of student technology support. "We try to spec them out to last four years. We also warranty them for four years against both defects and accidental damage."

Creighton offers Apple MacBook and Lenovo ThinkPad computers in packages designed for users who crave performance over mobility, or vice versa.

If you don't have a school purchasing plan, or if you're buying for students still at home, here's a quick look at what you get in three price points: Below $750, around $1,000 and $1,500 and up.

Each offers the basic necessities, but the higher-priced ones will do better with graphics-intensive applications like photos, movies and gaming. It's a good idea to budget another $100 or so for a three-in-one printer, which will print, copy and scan photos and documents. And keep in mind the nature of back-to-school sales and new models -- prices won't be to the dollar, but they'll be close.

Below $750

Computers in this price range are more than capable of meeting daily needs, such as word processing, music organization and Internet use. Gaming and video-intensive applications are not recommended at this level.

--Acer Extensa (model ex4420-5963). If you're on a tight budget, you could do a lot worse than the Extensa. It has a 14-inch screen, weighs less than 5 1/2 pounds and can burn DVDs and CDs. Its hard drive isn't huge, but at 160 GB it's good enough. And with decent speed and 2 gigabytes (GB) of RAM, it's a nice machine for the money. Price: $499.99.

--HP Pavilion (model dv6915nr). With a 15.4-inch widescreen display, 3 GB of RAM and 200 GB hard drive, this model also can burn and read DVDs and CDs. Its processor isn't blazingly fast but can handle most standard applications. This model -- like the other non-Apple computers -- comes with Windows Vista preinstalled, and its networking capabilities don't include the newest, fastest wireless standard. Price: $579.99.

--Dell Inspiron (model I1525). The Inspiron series comes in a handful of colors and features a slightly faster processor and system speed than the HP model, along with a bigger hard drive. The screen width and RAM are the same as the HP, along with disc-burning capabilities. The Dell has more USB ports, making it easier to add devices. Price: $599.99.

Around $1,000

Things tend to get a little faster in this price range, mostly because of faster processors and system speeds. These computers will handle photo work with ease but may lag in gaming or productivity work (think Adobe Illustrator).

--Sony VAIO (model VGN-NR498E). The VAIO has specs similar to the laptops in the previous price range but offers better wireless networking functionality and a slightly better screen. It's also thinner than the others, which will appeal to some users. Price: $849.99.

--Toshiba Satellite (model A305-S6858). Adding a printer will put you over $1,000, but it might be worth it. The Satellite sports a large 320 GB hard drive and 4 GB of RAM, along with the 64-bit version of Windows Vista. The upgrade pushes the computer near the high-performance mark. The Satellite is about a third of a pound lighter than the other laptops listed so far. Price: $949.99.

--Apple MacBook (2.1 GHz model). Apple's MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops have been runaway hits on college campuses for the past few years. They're light, thin and typically faster than their similarly priced Windows-based counterparts. Apple laptops also ship without all of the demo software that tends to clog Windows systems. Until Sept. 15, college students purchasing a new Apple computer can get a $100 rebate on a printer and another $299 rebate on an iPod. That means, after the rebates are processed, the printer is free, as is one of three iPod models: the 80 GB Classic, 8 GB Nano or 8 GB Touch. Price (after rebates): $999.99.

$1,500 and up

At this point, your laptop is a high-performance wonder machine, capable of pretty much anything you can throw at it. If you want to add heavy gaming to the mix, you'll pay a little extra for a high-quality video card.

--Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2.4 GHz model). Though its hard drive and RAM memory are topped by some of the lower-priced Windows laptops, the MacBook Pro line deals in speed and size. At 1 inch thick and around 5 1/2 pounds, it's easy to carry all day. Like all Macs, it comes with a built-in iSight camera. A 17-inch screen is also available, though it comes in at $2,800 and features a faster processor. The Apple student discount is in play on this model, too. So while it does cost a bit more, keep in mind the free printer and iPod available. Price: $1,999.99.

--Sony VAIO (model VGN- AR830E). This VAIO features high-definition Blu-Ray movie playback, a 300 GB hard drive, built-in video camera and a 17-inch screen. An HDMI port is also included for using the computer as a playback device on an HD television. Its processor is similar to the MacBook Pro, and it comes loaded with Windows Vista. Weight is a concern, though. The VAIO comes in at a beefy 8.3 pounds -- almost 3 pounds heavier than the MacBook Pro. Price: $1,699.99.

--Sony VAIO (model VGN-AR890U). The high-end laptop market features a large presence from Sony and Apple, mostly because both are seen as "premium" brands. This VAIO model is about as premium as it gets. It includes a 500 GB hard drive, 4 GB of RAM, Blu-Ray reading and burning, TV tuner, 2 megapixel webcam, 17-inch screen and Windows Vista Ultimate. Again, it's another heavy machine at 8.3 pounds but also offers heavy-duty performance. Price: $3,299.99.

--Contact the writer: 444-1387, [email protected]


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