The Ultimate Guide: Buying a Computer for School

Tips for finding the right type of PC for a student

Teacher and Student at a Computer in classroom

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Computers play a large role in the education of students today. Word processing helped bring computers into education but they do so much more today just than writing up papers. Students use computers to do research, communicate with teachers and colleagues, and create multimedia presentations to name just a few things.

This makes purchasing a computer for the home or college student much more important, but how do you know what type of computer to buy? We've got your answers right here.

Before Buying a Student's Computer

Before shopping for a computer, check with the school regarding any recommendations, requirements or restrictions there may be on student computers. Often, colleges will have recommended minimum computer specifications that can be helpful in narrowing down your search. Similarly, they may have a list of necessary applications that require specific hardware. All of this information will be very helpful during the shopping process.

Desktops vs. Laptops

The first decision that must be made regarding a student computer is whether to buy a desktop or buy a laptop system. Each have distinct advantages over the other. For most individuals in colleges, laptops will likely be more preferable while high school students can get by with desktop computer systems. The benefit of a laptop lies in its flexibility to go wherever the student goes.

Desktops have several key advantages over their portable counterparts. The biggest advantage of a desktop system is the price. A complete desktop system can cost as much as half as a comparable laptop or tablet but the gap is much smaller than it was in the past. 

The other key advantages to desktop computer systems are their features and lifespan. Most desktop computer systems have more powerful components giving them a longer functional lifespan than a laptop computer. A mid- to high-end system will likely survive a full four to five years of college, but a budget system might need replacement halfway through. That is an important thing to consider when looking at the costs of the systems.

Desktop Advantages:

  • Typically less expensive
  • More powerful systems
  • Often can be upgraded to extend life and function
  • Less likely to be stolen or lost

Laptop computers, however, have distinct advantages over desktop computers. The biggest factor, of course, is portability. Students will have the option of bringing their computers with them to class for note-taking, to the library when they study or research, and even during holiday breaks when they may need to do class work. With the increasing number of wireless networks on campuses and coffee shops, this helps extend the usable range of the computer. Of course, their small size can also be a benefit to those students living in cramped dorm rooms.

Laptop Advantages:

  • Computer can be taken practically anywhere
  • Increased communication with wireless networks
  • Require less space

What About Tablets or Chromebooks?

Tablets are extremely compact systems that give most of your basic computer tasks in a form that is no larger than a standard spiral bound notebook. They generally have very long battery life and can be used for written notes as well as a virtual keyboard or compact Bluetooth keyboard. The downside is that many of them do not use standard PC software programs and applications which means multiple applications that may be hard to transfer between devices.

Those interested in this should really compare what tablets offer versus laptops to see which would be better suited towards them. One nice aspect of tablets though is the ability to use them for textbooks thanks to applications like Amazon's Kindle and textbook rentals which may make them a bit more beneficial. Of course, tablets can still be quite expensive. They are best suited as a supplement to a standard desktop or laptop.

Chromebooks are a specialized laptop that is designed for online use. They are built around the Chrome OS operating system from Google and generally are very inexpensive (starting around $200) and offer the ability to have cloud-based storage making data backup quick and easy along with potential to access it from just about anywhere.

The drawback here is that the systems have fewer features than many traditional laptops and do not use the same applications that you would find in a Windows or Mac OS X based computer system. As a result, I do not really recommend them as an educational computer for college students. They may work sufficiently for high school students especially if there is a secondary desktop or laptop they can access when needed.

Convertibles and 2-In-1 PCs

Like the idea of having a tablet but still want the functionality of a laptop? Consumers have two options that are very similar for this type of functionality. The first is a hybrid laptop. It looks and functions very similar to a traditional laptop. The difference is that the display can be flipped around such that it can be used like a tablet. These generally offer the same performance as a traditional laptop and are great if you intend to do a lot of typing. The downside is that they are generally as large as a laptop so don't offer the increased portability of a tablet.

The other option is the 2-in-1 PC. These differ from convertibles because they are really a tablet system first that has a dock or keyboard that can be added to them to function like a laptop. They often are more portable because the system is essentially a tablet. While they offer the portability, they generally sacrifice performance to be smaller and the manufacturer's also tend to target the lower end of the price range as well.

Don't Forget The Peripherals (aka Accessories)

When purchasing a computer system for school, there are a number of accessories that one probably needs to buy with the computer.

  • Printer: A printer can be extremely useful during school but is not the requirement that it once was as teachers now accept electronic documents through email rather than printed and handed in. Still, it can be useful for draft work or being able to print out online research. Laser printers make for better values thanks to the long-lasting toners used instead of inks. Admittedly color laser is quite expensive and not as good for images. Multifunction printers can also be useful for scanning and copying research materials as well. Start searching for a good laser printer by resolution and print quality; an artistic student will need to produce far different prints than a math student.
  • Security devices: Living in a college dorm can be quite problematic for those with computers. Roommates may want to borrow a computer to write a paper or even worse, items can be stolen from rooms. Computer security devices such as cable locks are a good idea particularly for those who use laptop computers. This can help prevent the unwanted theft of a computer system.
  • Durable carrier: Students with portable computers will need many more accessories. A good computer bag or backpack will be the most vital accessory. Having to carry a computer around a campus requires a comfortable and durable bag.
  • Mouse: Students may want a compact mouse if they dislike the built-in trackpads.
  • Battery: A secondary or external battery pack can also be useful for those students that need to use their laptop for extremely long periods of time away from a power outlet.
  • Software: Look for software packages that are compatible with the applications used by the school the student is attending. This can save the student a lot of time as they will only have to learn one application instead of several. Many computers have minimal software packages that are sufficient for the most basic of tasks. College students will generally require much more flushed out office suites. Once again, it is advisable for the college students to buy software through the college bookstore. Academic software packages can be as much as 75 percent off the retail prices.

    When to Buy Back-to-School Computers

    Buying a computer system for school really depends on several key factors. Price is going to be the most important factor for most individuals, so watch for sales throughout the year. Some people plan ahead during events like Cyber Monday but many manufacturers run back-to-school sales during summer and fall months.

    Students who are in grade school typically do not require very powerful computers. It is during these years that the children need to be first introduced into the usage of a computer system for things such as research, paper writing, and communication. Even the low-cost budget desktop systems will provide more than enough computing power for these tasks. Since this is the most competitive segment of the desktop market, deals can be found year round. Prices have little room to move so just shop around for what meets your needs any time of the year.

    Students entering or in high school tend to need a bit more computing power. Because of this, the mid-range desktop computers and 14 to 16-inch laptops tend to offer the best market values. This range of computer system fluctuates the most in prices based on technology, time of year and overall market sales. The two best times to purchase systems in this segment would probably be during the back-to-school time frame of July through August when retailers are competing for sales and the post-holidays of January through March when retailers face a lull in computer sales.

    College students probably have the most flexibility in purchasing computer systems. The great advantage of being a college student is the academic discounts offered through college campuses. These discounts can range anywhere from 10 to 30 percent off the normal prices of name brand computer systems.

    As a result, it is best for new college students to try and hold off purchasing a new computer system until they check with the school for any academic discounts that may be offered. It is possible to check on discounts for students at the university without being a student, so go ahead and shop early and buy once they are eligible or if you can find a better deal in the July and August back-to-school sales.

    How Much to Spend

    Education is already extremely expensive and buying a new computer system just adds to the cost. So what is the right amount to spend on a computer system with all of the accessories and applications? The final cost will, of course, depend upon the type, model and brands purchased but here are some rough estimates on costs:

    These are average prices for a system factoring in such items as the system, monitor, printer, accessories, and applications. It may very well be possible to get a complete computer configuration for less than these amounts, but it is also possible to spend much more than this. If you are not quite sure, you might want to check out our article How Fast Does Your PC Really Need To Be? to get an idea of what you can buy that would still meet your student's computing needs.


    The best computer for your student is one that fits their specific needs. Some computers are better suited than others depending upon factors such as grade level, what subjects the student is studying, living arrangements and even the budget. Shopping for that system is also difficult due to the rapid technology changes, price fluctuations, and sales. Now you know where to start!

    For other gifts to help send your student to college, check out the 10 Best Gifts to Buy for College Students in 2017.