Buying a laptop for your student (or yourself)? You need these tips

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Ken Colburn, The Data Doctor By Catherine Holland Ken Colburn, The Data Doctor By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- If you're in the market for a laptop -- either for your child or yourself -- there are a few things you need to know before you go shopping.

If you're shopping for your kids, you want to be sure you're not getting them something they don't need.

The first step is to talk to your child's school and teachers to find out what programs and apps the kids are going to be using.

'If, for instance, they're running everything off of Google Documents, that's actually on the Internet so you don't need anything more than a simple Internet-connected device," explained tech expert Ken Colburn of Data Doctors. "Even an old laptop from a friend who's not using it any more will suffice."

On the other hand, if they're going to be using the Microsoft Office programs like Word and PowerPoint, you'll need a computer that can handle running them.

"In those cases, no matter how much they cry, tell them, 'Sorry, the iPad is not going to work,'" he said.

"It's my personal opinion that unless your child is in high school or going to college, they really don't need a mobile device -- of any nature," he continued. "They can use a desktop either at the school or at home and be able to get all their work done."

Accord to Colburn, a netbook will probably be plenty for most high-school students, but college students need a full-blown laptop.

Time to shop

"The biggest mistake most people make when it comes to buying a laptop is buying on price," Colburn said.

Manufacturers know price is important to consumers and often cut corners -- potentially important corners -- to make a specific price point to attract potential buyers. You've heard the saying, "You get what you pay for." It's true.

"Rule No. 1, if it's the lowest price item, you should probably walk past it," Colburn said.

The next thing to consider is the battery. More is better.

"You want to look at the number of cells," Colburn said. "Six or more cells is what you want."

Fewer than that and you'll only get about two hours of laptop use per charge.

Tip No. 3 is to look at the processor. Colburn prefers Intel. While AMD makes a good processor, he said, it can be an indication that the manufacture is cutting corners.

The fourth thing on the list is RAM.

"RAM is considered the best bang for the buck for improving the speed of a computer," Colburn explained.

He suggests you double the RAM if you can.

While many people sing the praises of refurbished equipment, Colburn is not one of them.

"No matter how good the deal looks, if you see refurbished equipment, my suggestion -- run away," he said. "To me, refurbished means pre-broken. Don't buy somebody else's problems."

Colburn's sixth tip is to handle the device. Make sure it's not too heavy. Make sure the keyboard and mouse feel good to you and work the way you want them to.

"You want to make sure you understand what you're buying before you it," he said.

Your tip list summarized

  1. Don't buy on price
  2. Battery (six cells or more)
  3. Processor (stick with Intel)
  4. RAM (more is better, double if you can)
  5. Refurbushed equipment (steer clear)
  6. Handle the device

Protecting your investment

Laptops mobile devices are not small purchases so you're going to want to protect them as best you can.

Colburn suggest you install a free program called Prey. It's designed to help you track your laptop, phone or tablet should it be lost or stolen.

Once you mark a device as missing, Prey allows you to remotely track your device and even lock it down so it cannot be used. In addition, Prey can show a message on the screen or even sound an audio alarm. It also allows you to remotely wipe out your personal information if you need to.