What Kind of PC Should You Get as a Graduation Gift?

Buying the Right Computer as a Graduation Gift

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Computers are tightly integrated into the world of education today. Students still have to type up papers but now more than ever things such as e-mail, collaborative applications and multimedia presentations are being used to help enrich the learning experience. Add to this the need for technology and computer experience in the workforce and a computer in the learning environment becomes even more crucial. Hopefully this guide will help those looking at purchasing a computer as a graduation gift for a student.

How Much to Spend?

Spending for a student's computer is a difficult task. High school is four years long and college students are averaging four and a half to five years to complete an undergraduate degree. While many computers now have the performance to actually work for that long, many mobile computers generally will break before four years. This makes the option of buying a more affordable system much more appealing as you can potentially replace a low cost laptop after several years and still end up spending less than on a high end system. Of course, a budget system may not work for some students depending upon what they are studying. Some tasks require more performance than a budget computer can provide.

I highly recommend that those looking to give a gift to a graduate take a look at my How Fast of a PC Do You Really Need? article. It looks at common tasks that many people use and then gives a better estimate as to what class of PC you should look at and a rough idea of how much to speed. For instance, those that are just going to be using their PC for research on the web, writing papers, and keeping in contact with friends, teachers and family can likely get by on a budget system plus some peripherals.

Desktop vs. Laptop

Desktop computer systems typically are less expensive than laptops but the gap is much smaller now than in the past. So does a desktop make a better computer system? Not necessarily. Desktops are completely acceptable for students entering high school. There less need for the student to have a computer on campus, so portability is not as big of an issue. Of course, having a laptop in high school can still be useful because it allows the student to take the work with them if they go somewhere other than home to study. College students need high mobility though. The ability to bring a laptop on campus to do work at a library or coffee shop between classes or to bring it along to study sessions and lectures for notes is invaluable.


Every computer system purchased today should have the capability of network access. Wired network access isn't as critical as it used to be but it is helpful to have an Ethernet connector on the computer. This will allow the computer system to be used through an Internet provider through services such as DSL or cable. Many college dorms now have Ethernet ports in the rooms, so having an available wired port is also useful.

Wireless networking is also a must purchase for any portable computer system. It should have an 802.11b/g/n compatible wireless controller built into the system. Higher speed 802.11ac is preferred but not necessarily required. This allows a college student to access the Internet through campus or local wireless networks at stores to add to their mobile computing ability.

There are some laptops on the market that also have built in 3G/4G wireless modems that can be used to connect outside of traditional Wi-Fi or wired networks. I don't advise this for educational computers as it is necessary to purchase a wireless data contract in order to use them. These contracts can be quite expensive and college already is a huge expense.


If you are looking at buying a laptop computer for a graduation gift, there are additional things to keep in mind. A computer is portable if it is lightweight and compact but not so much that it sacrifices on features. Having to carry around a 7-pound computer in addition to books and notes can be a big burden. Because of this, it is best to look at portable computers that are either in the thin and light or ultraportable categories. For the price, the thin and light notebooks are the best values and sacrifice fewer features. Ultraportables will be easier to carry around and still offer good performance and battery life which is pretty critical for those who have to be on campus all day. Ultrabook class laptops are also a good choice as they tend to be lighter and have longer running times but they do sacrifice some features and a bit of performance.

Chromebooks are a type of low cost laptop that is also an option. Rather than using Windows, these computers use a special operating system from Google that is designed with connectivity in mind. The advantage that many of these systems have beyond price is that they are very portable, have better battery life and are designed around cloud computing which means you have access to your data from just about any location with network access. The downside is that they are restricted to Google's software which means that if the student requires specific programs such as Microsoft Office, then it won't work for them.

Battery life is also a big concern for portable computers for a student. If they intend on using the computer heavily for lecture notes or research, they will likely need a long battery life. Plugs are most likely available in a library or coffee shop but most of the time there won't be time to charge up a battery sufficiently. Because of this, any laptops that do not have long running times should have the ability to either swap out the battery with a spare or be able to use an external booster battery.

Tablets Plus Another PC or a Convertible Laptop

Another option that is possible for students today is to have two systems. Previously, netbooks were an option for students but they have since been superceded by the tablets which are more compact and allow for direct handwritten notes. These combined with a more powerful desktop computer that resides at home or in a dorm allows them to also work on more advanced multimedia applications if they require it. A mix of a budget desktop plus a tablet can even end up costing less than a mainstream desktop or a thin and light laptop. Tablets also have the ability to double as an e-reader which allows them to be used for electronic textbooks which can offer many advantages over traditional textbooks.

Another option for those that might want a tablet is a hybrid laptop. Often called 2-in-1 systems now thanks to Intel's marketing they can also be referred to as convertibles. These are primarily laptop computers that have the ability to convert between a traditional laptop mode and a tablet. Some are designed primarily as tablets and then have keyboard docks that can connect into them to make them function as a laptop. The one piece of warning that I have about these is that they generally function well in one mode or the other and not well in the other. So often having a dedicated tablet and a laptop works better.

Don't Forget the Printer

While many schools are now moving to a paperless format for submitting homework via email or web sites, there are still many situations that require students to print out reports. There are basically two styles of printers on the market: inkjet or laser. Inkjet printers are generally very affordable at first but the cost of ink can quickly raise the price. They do have the advantage of producing better color and photo images though. Laser printers are generally what I recommend because of their very low printing costs and speed at printing. Color laser printers have also come down significantly in price. Multifunction versions of the printers can be useful as well since they can be used for copying or scanning of books for research papers.

Wait Until School Starts

One thing I like to suggest to those thinking of a graduation computer for a college bound graduate is to also wait to buy a PC. Purchasing a computer before the college school year begins can be detrimental in several ways. First, computer prices typically drop significantly in the back to school buying time frame of mid-July through September. This means you may end up spending more for a PC that won't be used for three months. Most manufacturers also like to introduce new or updated computers during this time frame. Secondly, most schools and manufacturers have various discounts for college students. These savings cand be significant for college but you have to be a confirmed student with a student ID number before you can receive these discounts. It may be possible to get the discount ahead of time through other documentation but this will depend on the sellers requirements. Finally, the college may have recommendations for computers and software for their program which may limit the selection of computers that the student would need and thus making it better to buy once they are at college.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully this guide gave a few key points to keep in mind when looking at a computer system as a graduation gift. Unfortunately most computer systems do not come with all the extra items needed for a student. An important item to also keep in mind is an ink jet or laser printer so they can print out papers. Another item for laptop systems is a carry case to allow the student to carry it around with them. For students, a laptop backpack is probably the best choice for carrying a laptop plus school books.