In a few months I'll update my annual Christmas laptops article for 2010. This is the time (actually, I'm a little late) to consider laptops for that college freshman in your family.
My advice is simple - buy big and buy well. The trick is to buy a computer that will be handling things very well at the halfway point.
The idea here is to buy one computer for a four-year stint at school. Just about any decent laptop, cared for properly, should easily last that long. You will spend between $1,000 and $1,500 for such a device and that is a lot for anyone. Compared to four years of tuition, it's a minor factor.
Some schools have specific requirements for the computer and you should check those carefully before buying. Some schools are Apple-centric and, if that's where your kid is headed, try to buy through the school to get their discount. Otherwise, you'll pay more for the MacBook Pro than you would for a comparable Windows laptop.
Here are my recommendations.
|Operating System||Windows 7 Professional Edition, 64-bit|
|Processsor||Intel Core i5, 2.4GHz or higher, dual-core with Intel HyperThreading|
|Memory (RAM)||4GB or more|
|Graphics||Discrete (dedicated), 256MB VRAM minimum|
|Hard Disk||500GB 7200rpm|
|Optical Drive||DVD-Writer (ignore Blu-ray)|
|USB 2.0 Ports||At least 2, preferably 4|
|eSATA Port||Increasingly useful and a very fast connection for external hard drives.|
|Display||Portability (smaller) vs. Utility (larger)|
|Webcam||Yes! And make them use it!|
|Bluetooth||Optional but handy (cell phones)|
|Mouse||External mouse (wired or wireless) highly recommended|
|Key Software||Microsoft Office Home & Student Edition (Word, Excel, Powerpoint)|
|Alternate Software||OpenOffice.org (free, and pretty good)|
A few of these bear explanation.
Windows 7 Professional - The Pro version of Windows includes the Windows XP compatibility feature. That and a few other things make Pro desirable over Home.
Mouse - The mouse remains the best pointing device, period. It is essential if any type of graphical work is anticipated.
No Blu-ray - Unless your kid has a vast collection of movies on Blu-ray, don't waste your money. An external USB hard drive is a much better investment and should be considered for backup.
Display - I tend to lean toward the utility of a larger display, but that makes toting the thing around harder. A compromise is a smaller, lighter laptop plus a display that can stay in the dorm room.
That's about it. Good luck!