Forget textbooks. When it comes to back-to-school shopping, your most important purchase to consider will be which laptop to pick for your college-bound child.
Naturally, you'll want to choose a model that will last them all four years. But does splurging on a high-end laptop ensure they'll have a system that will see them through graduation, or can a budget option provide the same guarantee? Below we explore the various factors to consider when walking the delicate balance between budget-friendly deals and lasting value.
High-End vs. Budget Mainstream: Does a Higher Price Mean It'll Last Longer?
When it comes to laptops, today's powerhouse is tomorrow's paperweight. But not all systems age equally. Or do they? Take for instance the top-of-the-line ASUS G73SW-XT1 ($1,199.99 with $9.75 s&h). It includes a Core i7-2630QM 2GHz quad-core Sandy Bridge processor, 17.3" LCD, 8GB RAM, 500GB 7200 rpm hard drive, Blu-ray player / DVD burner, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460M 1.5GB video card, and one USB 3.0 port. The 8GB of RAM and high-end CPU ensure this laptop will still run at a respectable rate come 2015, but chances are it will not run all apps as smoothly as it will today.
By comparison, a budget mainstream laptop such as the ASUS K53TA-BBR6 (pictured above) packs the newly-launched AMD A6-3400M 1.4GHz quad-core processor, 15.6" LCD, 4GB RAM, 500GB 5400 rpm hard drive, and AMD Radeon HD 6650 1GB graphics card for less than half the price of the above-mentioned high-end system ($449.99 + $14.99 s&h). This laptop might struggle a bit more than the Core i7 model come 2015, but it'll probably still be kicking. And, because the ASUS K53TA-BBR6 costs significantly less than the Core i7 model, you could theoretically replace it by the end of sophomore year and still spend less money than if you had initially purchased the first system.
Therefore in this scenario, you're better off purchasing the bargain mid-range laptop and upgrading it for a fresh system in two years (should its performance become intolerable).
Apple vs. Windows: How Would Systems from 4 Years Ago Fair Today?
Four years ago, a laptop with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor was considered top-of-the-line, and the most affordable deal for such a laptop in August of 2007 came in at $569; that deal bought you a Dell Vostro 1500 15.4" notebook (pictured) with a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 1GB of RAM, 120GB hard drive, dual layer DVD burner, GeForce 8400M GS 128MB video card, 802.11g wireless, and Windows Vista Home Basic.
Technically, that laptop could still run today, but considering that Windows 7 requires at least 1GB of RAM, chances are it wouldn't be a pleasurable experience.
On the other hand, four years ago Apple users paid significantly more for a system that was slightly underpowered when compared to the Vostro. For instance, August 2007's best Apple laptop deal bought you a MacBook Core 2 Duo 1.83GHz 13.3" notebook (pictured below) with 512MB of RAM, 60GB hard drive, and DVD combo drive. On paper, it was not nearly as impressive as its Windows counterpart.
Theoretically, the MacBook could still operate today, but there's no chance you'd be running current-day apps since the 512MB of RAM aren't even enough to run Snow Leopard. As a result, if you take the Apple route today, you'll definitely want to avoid the entry-level models, or at the very least, tweak them with a few upgrades such as more RAM. (For instance, if you purchase the new MacBook Air, upgrade the RAM to 4GB, especially since these systems are not user upgradeable.)
Resell Value: What System Will Fetch the Most Money After College?
For years, Apple has been criticized for selling underpowered laptops at premium prices. (Ironically, Apple's current MacBook Air offers a better value than its PC ultraportable counterparts.) But what are the two above-mentioned laptops worth today?
Assuming you kept the previously-mentioned Vostro laptop in mint condition, a reseller site like Gazelle would offer you $98 for that system today. By comparison, Gazelle would offer you $126 for the above-mentioned MacBook.
So although Apple laptops cost more than their Windows counterparts, they will fetch more money overall as a used system — which is something to consider if your student will want to unload an old laptop come graduation.
So with the commencement of classes just around the corner, what kind of laptop should you be looking to purchase? Our advice is to stick with the mainstream systems and avoid the temptation to go ultra high-end. Few programs for a student will require the extra horsepower, and should you need to upgrade two years from now, you'd still be spending less money than you would if you bought high-end today.