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Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the Data Doctors Radio Program, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to evtrib@datadoctors.com.

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Posted: Monday, August 13, 2012 12:45 pm

Q: I’m looking to buy a laptop for school. Can you give me suggestions on the best laptops under $600? — Brian

A: Buying the right laptop for your needs is just as important (if not more) than buying one that fits your stated budget.

What I mean by that is: Buying a laptop at a price before you know what you need it to do can result in a very expensive lesson.

Make sure you start by checking with your school to see what programs you will need to be able to run in order to comply with the curriculum so you can make a more informed decision on what to buy.

Many schools are moving away from locally installed programs such as Microsoft Office as a standard and moving to cloud-based productivity alternatives such as Google Docs.

The more the curriculum lives in ‘the cloud’ the less you will need to spend on the laptop because the most important link in the chain will be the speed of your Internet connection, not the computer itself.

If, on the other hand, your courses require you to install special software for photo or video editing, programming, or computer-aided design, you will likely need more processing power and memory than what you can get for your predefined price range.

This evaluation will also allow anyone considering the ‘iPad as a laptop substitute’ to determine if it’s even viable (I generally recommend against tablets as a primary computing device).

While you’re at it, make sure to see if your school has any special deals only available to students for both the hardware and software before you buy off the shelf.

In most cases, the computer specials aren’t really all that great, but the software discounts can be pretty significant.

Keep in mind that buying the cheapest of anything in the consumer electronics world generally means you are buying a product that had to cut corners in order to meet a price point.

Manufacturers and big-box retailers realize that those who buy solely on price tend to be less sophisticated and they often will exploit that fact.

The most common complaint from owners of a low-cost laptop is that the battery life is too short because the manufacturer put a smaller battery in the unit to lower the cost.

This also allows them to make more money from you because you end up buying the battery that should have come with the unit to begin with.

There are two specs that you want to look at on laptop batteries: the number of cells (I recommend 6 or more) and the mAh rating (the higher the better for both).

I’m also partial to Intel processors (i3, i5, i7) as I’ve experienced more problems with AMD-based computers over my past 20 years in the industry (if they are using a cheaper processor, where else are they cutting costs?)

RAM is considered the best bang for the buck in computing, so a slightly slower processor with more RAM will always result in better performance (I’d suggest a minimum of 4Gb).

The hard drive is the slowest device in the processing chain so getting a faster hard drive will also make everything faster.

Today’s high-end laptops use very fast SSDs (Solid State Drives) that are both expensive and small, so they likely won’t fit your budget, but a hybrid hard drive that combines a small SSD with a traditional magnetic drive might be in your budget.

You can always replace the factory-installed hard drive with a hybrid-drive down the road if it isn’t a factory option.

Finally, the weight of the device (and its accessories) and a solid backpack to protect it while in transit should be things you are thinking about as well.

• Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the Data Doctors Radio Program, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Email him at evtrib@datadoctors.com.

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