This is the time of year when I am bombarded with e-mails from parents wondering what laptops they ought to buy for their kids heading off to college. I try to give general advice, but it is hard to make decisions without knowing a lot of information.
My first rule about buying a laptop is to ask your child. They probably know exactly what they want. The second rule is to buy a ton of RAM. I would like 4 gigs of RAM today if I were buying a laptop today. Dell, for some reason, overcharges for the second 2 GB chip, so I would get one 2 GB chip and add the second one after-market to save $100 or so.
I would also buy a big hard drive. I would toss in a 160 GB hard drive, if possible, with a speed of 5400 RPM or better. (Some ultraportable laptops have slower-speed drives, and that's OK.)
If money is no object, my favorite laptop is an Apple MacBook Pro with lots of RAM and lots of hard-disk space. It is a lovely piece of hardware and also runs Windows XP, if you need it. It is, to borrow a line from Hannah Montana, the best of both worlds. It is a great laptop, but it is pretty pricey when compared with a solid Dell.
If Windows is your thing, I would buy a Dell. I am not a big fan of buying the cheapest anything, but Dell often runs great sales and incredible discount coupons (Google "Dell coupons" before you buy anything from their Web site. You often can find discount codes that are significant.) The XPS line is top of the line for gaming and video and a good choice for students who do a lot of gaming. For typical students, I would look at the Inspiron line.
The next question, of course, is whether to get XP or Vista. Many consumers won't have a choice. Vista comes pre-installed on most consumer-level laptops. If you shop around on Dell's site and select a business-level PC, then you can select a "downgrade" to XP Professional that is pre-installed. Otherwise, you are stuck with Vista. In that case, I would recommend you leave it alone and have your student live with it. They may like it.Finally, there is security. I recommend buying a security cable, which fastens around a table leg and can keep the PC safe in a dorm. Of course, this only keeps the computer safe from crimes of convenience, and it assumes the student actually uses the cable. Get one with a combination lock (not a key), and try to persuade the student in your house to actually use it. Another option is Lojack for Laptops, a service that will help track a stolen laptop. It will "phone home" when the stolen laptop is reconnected to the Internet, even if the PC is reformatted.
James Derk is owner of CyberDads, a computer repair firm, and tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is email@example.com.