The Teens Guide to Back to School: What You Need To Know For Picking Your Next Computer

teens back to school computer

We know, we know– it feels like summer is only just beginning why are we starting to think about the next school year? Unfortunately as we all know all good things like summer must eventually come to an end and we have to return back to our regular ways of life and school– which we all know comes back way too quickly. As the back-to-school sales really begin over the next few weeks we want to help make sure you go back fully prepared, well, gadgets wise at least.

One of the toughest things today in back-to-school shopping is finding a new computer/tablet/phone that isn’t just cheap or good, but right for you and what you want and need it to do. We want to try to make this easier for you, and over the course of the rest of the summer we plan to have a whole bunch of posts and guides on good deals we see, some of our recommendations for a new computer, tablet or phone etc. In short, we’re here to help.

So with all that in mind we’re gonna kick off this back-to-school “series” with some tips on what you should look for when your out shopping for a new laptop for school and what are the basic specs that any 2011 computer you buy should have.

The Basics

We’ll explain all of this in more detail below, but for those of you just looking for a short quick list, here are our basic, minimum specs that any new computer that you buy today should have:

  • Dual core 2nd-gen Intel i3 or i5 processor or AMD Vision E-350
  • 4 GB of RAM
  • 320 GB hard drive
  • 5 hours of battery
  • Windows 7 Home Premium

There are a ton of computers available with these specs below $500, and as long as you have these specs your new computer should be good to go for the next few years.

The Details

Now let’s get into a bit more detail. When it comes to picking a new computer today, the choices are near endless. Walk into your local Best Buy, Staples, Walmart etc. and you’re immediately surrounded by walls filled with computers and salespeople, well, looking to do what they can to make a sale.  If you don’t know what to look for you could very easily wind up with a computer that either is too slow, not the right size, over priced, or just not what you wanted or needed.

We want to try and help you avoid that, so here are some more details to help you understand what those basic specs mean and why you need to have them in your next computer.

The OS

windows 7 home premium

Pretty much a no brainer when it comes to new PCs– Windows 7 is one of the best versions of Windows that Microsoft has ever made, and today you’re gonna find it on any new PC you buy. We love Windows 7, it’s  fast, easy and well, it works. There are however, many different versions of Windows 7, but when you’re out shopping for that new PC, you’re gonna wanna get Windows 7 Home Premium. It’s the most common version of Windows 7 and should be more than enough for anything you’re gonna want to do with your new PC (for our full Windows 7 review, see here).

Of course we love Macs too, and while they are more expensive than your typical Windows PC, their great all-aluminum designs and software are what makes them an equally excellent choice for a new computer (particularly with the new OS X Lion, which is included on all new Macs today).

And for those wondering about the next generation of Windows due next year called Windows 8, while it will be designed for better use with touchscreens and tablets, Microsoft has said that it will also run perfectly fine on today’s traditional keyboard/mouse PCs you find in stores. Basically, you don’t need to worry about your new laptop being completely out-of-date next year.

The Processor

  intel second gen core processors

Unless you plan on doing a lot of intense graphic, video, or audio creating/editing/producing or a lot of intense gaming (hey, it could be your future job too), you should generally be fine with a processor like a second-generation Intel Core i3 or i5 (though if you are doing a lot of the above we recommend the much faster, though more expensive, i7 processor as you’re gonna need the extra power).

A lot of people have asked us about the differences are between the i3 and i5 and if it’s worth the price difference to go with an i5 (the i5 version is generally the more expensive of the two when comparing two similar computers). Most of the time we’ll tell them that it is. As we all know, computers are expensive and when it comes time to buying one, the intended goal is to have it work well for the next few years. That being said, the i5 in our opinion is better suited for those next few years with its higher speeds and Turbo Boost technology. In simple terms what Turbo Boost does is make the most of your computers performance and battery life by automatically speeding up and lowering the processors depending on what you’re doing (for example, turning off one of the processors while bumping up the speed of the other when coping something into iTunes to make it go faster or turning both on when your editing a video or gaming so you get the best speed and power). You could find great new PCs with these processors at prices well below $1000 mark.

amd vision logo

Another processor to consider is the AMD Vision APU which is AMD’s competitor to the Intel Core series that offers similar power and battery life.


When it comes to RAM on today’s computers, we recommend at least 4 GB, and if you can and are buying for the long haul, go with 6 GB.

You see, RAM really is the main key to ensuring your PC runs fast and smooth. Too little of it and even with the best of processors you’ll still be waiting what feels like an hour to switch from Facebook back to your notes. I’ve seen Windows 7 on netbooks with 512 MB of RAM (pretty much nothing by today’s laptop standards) and it’s run great, but I have also been using it on PC’s with 4+ GB of RAM and there is a huge difference– particularly when it comes to speed and multitasking.

Today a lot of programs (like Office, Firefox, Chrome and iTunes) are written in what is known as 64-bit versions, versions that have access to all the RAM on your PC and therefore can run a lot better and faster (older, 32-bit software only had access to about 3 GB of it so even if you had 8 GB of RAM but was running Windows XP, Vista or 7 32-bit, your computer would only notice 3 GB and ignore the other 5. Making all of the money you spent on that extra RAM pretty much worthless). Most computers you will find today in stores like Walmart or Best Buy actually will have 4 GB and Windows 7 64-bit standard and there is a good reason for it– the future of computers is in 64-bit, and you may as well be ready for it today (all MacBook Pros and Airs today are also 64-bit and ship with Core i5 processors and all but the $999 11 inch Air ship with least 4 GB of RAM).

Note: unlike a processor, RAM is generally much easier to replace/upgrade after purchase, so you can always by 4 GB of RAM today and upgrade it later if you need more (except on a Mac where you can’t replace the RAM unless you’re willing to open up your computer and void your warranty. Apple makes the computer and they get to make the rules).

Screen Size

laptop screen comparison

Another huge thing to consider when picking a new computer for school is the limited space on most of our desks. With this in mind we would recommend a laptop between the screen sizes of 13 and 14 inches. These computers are thinner, lighter and generally more portable (and also have better battery life) than your traditional 15-17 inch laptop– offering a good mix of the portability you find with a netbook/tablet, but with the power of a 15-17 inch laptop. And if you’re traveling a lot between classes or find yourself with really small desks, you will definitely be glad you went with this. (Pic via Engadget)

Battery Life


As we all know, most classrooms generally aren’t equipped with enough power jacks to support a bunch of students with laptops and other electric devices that need to be charged, and who really wants to ever fight for one or lug around a surge protector to make sure you get a slot? Thankfully, PC makers know this and most laptops now generally have battery in the 5-7 hour range (Macs for example get about 7-10). When looking for a new computer to take to school this should be your minimum on battery life (and of course, the more you can get here the better).

Try It Out

best buy computer shopping

And now for our biggest point– Try It Out. Just like you don’t by a car online before you test drive it, you also shouldn’t buy a laptop without first checking it out to see if its right for you. Every laptop– whether from Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Apple, Toshiba, etc.– offers their own unique styles and designs (like for example the weight, color, or feel of the trackpad and keyboard), and like a car, this is something that you’re putting a lot of money into and will be really relying on for the next few years. No matter what you read online or see on TV, these are just guides to help you but YOU are going to be the one’s using it.

So do yourself a favor and stop by a Walmart/Staples/Best Buy/Apple Store/whatever and spend 5 minutes checking out the different brands. And you don’t even need to buy a new computer in the store (though if you like what you see and are getting a good deal then by all means you should), but seeing as there are so many options, the only way to make sure you’re making the best choice is to check some of them out yourself.

Wrap Up

So there you have it– some of the basics you should know when choosing your next computer for school. We’ll have more on this, including some of our own picks of new laptops, as well as everything else you’ll need for the upcoming school year over the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, what laptop are you planning to use for school this year? Any tips you have for picking out a new computer? Let us know in the comments.

Have some tips you think can help you’re fellow students and readers for this upcoming year in school? We’d love to hear’em! Send them over to with the Subject line “Back To School” and we’ll see if we can include them in an upcoming post!

Posted on August 1, 2011, in Back to School, Computers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Well this actually answered a lot of questions i have had regarding buying a computer! thanks a lot!

  2. I’m sorry but there is no need to make a 4GB RAM as the “basic minimum”. You can operate perfectly fine off of 3 or even 2GB RAM if all you’re mainly doing is web browsing, school papers, research, etc. Not many people will even know the difference between 3GB or 4GB in terms of performance. It’s also cheaper to get 2 or 3GB and then buy the upgrade to 4-6GB later.

    Also you suggest going to Walmart/Bestbuy for computers? Apologies but I hope you know they are overpriced for what you get and their reps don’t always have the right information. I would definitely head over to or even

    Your note about battery life seems lacking since each user will get a different amount of use from it depending on how it is used, if WiFi is on, screen brightness, etc. You don’t even include what kind of battery they should look for, 6 Cell Lithium Ion Battery is the most popular.

    You don’t mention about included software either. Some places offer to install MS Office Student included or give you a discount if you order with it. Many retailers will tell you that you need to buy the sotware seperately and it costs $X amount. Tell them that there are student versions of this that are cheaper.
    Speaking of cheaper, not one point about netbook vs notebook.

    This isn’t meant to attack to be critical but I just feel you are missing some important points for your readers to make a well educated decision. A laptop is an investment.


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