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It’s hard to imagine the days that writing a research paper or doing project research required going to the campus library to use the computer and find books. Between school obligations and keeping in touch with family and friends through email and video chat, computers are an integral part of college life.

Choosing the right computer to fit a student’s needs, learning and studying techniques and technological comfort level is important for academic success.

“Instructors vary in their use of online activities, so start by checking the school website to see what they recommend,” says Aoife Dempsey, vice president of Digital Product Management at McGraw Hill Higher Education. “Often they will give you detailed specifications about what is required to cover your course work for a new or used desktop or laptop.”

Computers, software and accessories can be pricey and students need to establish a budget before heading to the stores. Checking a school’s website can also reveal any discounts students get with certain companies.

“You also have to be realistic if you want to get something that will last you through your college career so you might want to put more of your budget into the computer--check to see if your school has some printers available that you can connect to wirelessly instead of buying yourself a printer,” says Donna Tapellini, senior electronics editor at Consumer Reports

With a plethora of options available, here’s what computer experts recommend students factor into their hunt for the perfect computer.

Usability

Students should consider their preferences and how they will be using their computer on a daily basis when comparing different models.

“If students have very specific needs, or have a particular use [games, video editing] it would be important to look at the specifics for processing, video, etc,” says Dempsey.

Some students may feel more comfortable using a desktop for their everyday tech needs and Tapellini explains that newer desktops are more likely to have touch screen capabilities than laptops.

“If that’s something you’re into and you’re not looking to bring a computer to class, a full size desktop could be a good choice,” she says. “[New] desktops are also coming with smaller bases, not as small as a laptop, but it’s a space saver in that all of the components are built into the base of the computer.”

Portability

Due to the highly-mobile nature of college life, and the lack of space in dorm rooms, most students forgo desktops for laptops, says Best Buy Geek Squad agent Derek Meister. 

“You can find laptops across the price and feature range that will meet the same capabilities of a desktop and with the laptop, the student can take it to class with them and use it at the library,” he says.

For students intending to take their laptop to class who will also be schlepping around heavy textbooks, Tapellini suggests a laptop with a 13 to 15-inch screen.

“If you want something that’s not going to take up a lot of space in your dorm room [but] you want something with a bigger screen, think about a 17-inch laptop,” she says.

Another option for maximum portability is a tablet device, but students should keep in mind the limitations that many current tablet hardware and operating systems have for the day to day productivity tasks a student might need, warns Meister.

“For most students, a tablet will be a secondary device, serving as portable entertainment, email and web browsing, and gaming machine.”

Tapellini explains that for students who want to go the tablet route to type out documents and emails, there are wireless keyboards that are compatible with some models.

Invest in Extras

Students should budget for accessories and software to protect and best utilize their technology investments.

“An external USB hard drive is a great way to carry lots of data with you, as well as back your documents up, but also consider an online service such as Dropbox, Sugarsync or iCloud to make sure your data is safe even if your laptop is lost to theft, fire, flood or accidently being sat on during a dorm party,” Meister says.

The experts also recommend running an up to date anti-virus program, especially with a large volume of student computers on unprotected networks.

When purchasing computers, accessories, and software, incoming freshmen and existing students should leverage their student status, says Dempsey.

“If you want a particular piece of hardware [say a new Macbook Air], then the student discount will make it much more reasonable and stores and schools can offer very good discounts on software, so make sure to do a quick search before purchasing major applications.”