What You Need to Know Before Buying a Back-To-School Computer

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Getting back to school can be an exciting time for parents and students alike, but the challenges of a new school year can place new demands on your PC hardware. Back-to-school computer upgrades can be a great way to set up you or your favorite student for all the work they have ahead of them, and fortunately, modern PCs and laptops are more capable, intuitive, and affordable, than ever before.

The only part that can be a little difficult is picking which one. Amongst all the back-to-school laptop sales and college computer bundles, the sheer range of choice and options can be overwhelming. But never fear, we’ll walk you through exactly the kind of PC or laptop you need so that all the work gets done on time, and you can still have a little fun on the side with it.

What Kind of Computer Do I Need for Back to School?

This is a question that is best answered by the kind of work you want to do on the computer, and where you want to do it. If this back to school computer is designed for homework or will be shared among family members in a fixed setting, then a desktop PC is your best bet, potentially granting greater performance, a bigger screen, and a wider range of input options for the student(s) who use it.

Do bear in mind, however, that if you do buy a desktop, you’ll also need to buy a keyboard, mouse, and a monitor, too.

Alternatively, if this is a computer that needs to be portable, is more of a personal device, or you’d rather buy everything it needs to work in one go, then laptops can be a better choice. College students especially can make great use of portable computers, as they are easy to transport between classes for notes. Some may not be as powerful as desktop PCs, but they are far more versatile.

Some schools have unique requirements as well, ranging from specific components to exact machines. So be sure to check your school’s requirements first to ensure your new computer is compliant!

Programs, Apps, and Minimum Requirements

 The next important consideration when picking a back-to-school computer is what kind of programs you’ll need to run on it. That’s the biggest factor in how fast or powerful your laptop or PC needs to be.

 This is mostly dependent on the type of work you or your student will be doing. The school may have a prospectus or even a list of specifications for how capable the PC needs to be in order to handle the applications or programs they’ll be using throughout the year (be sure to check with your school lists before you start shopping!). Although it’s possible that certain programs may not run on different ecosystems – some apps are only available on Macs, and vice versa on Windows -- that’s mostly unlikely. Even in such extreme cases, there are likely similar programs on alternative platforms.

If the computer will mostly be used for web browsing, research, and writing essays, then it needn’t be particularly fast. As long as it can meet the basic specifications for Microsoft Office or an alternative suite of applications, like iWork, or Libre Office, it’ll be fine. That means almost any eighth-generation or newer processor from Intel, like a Pentium Silver or Gold, or a Core i3, or any AMD Ryzen CPU. You’ll also want at least 8GB of RAM, and 64GB of (preferably SSD) storage.

If you're looking to pick up an Apple Mac or MacBook, Apple’s own ARM-powered M1 chips are fantastic and wildly outshine older Apple models. However, if you're looking for an Apple device that will still deliver on performance but won't break the bank, keep your eyes peeled for officially refurbished Mac computers.

If you’re shopping on a tight budget, or want to use Google’s suite of online applications, you might also consider a Chromebook. They run on a version of Google’s Chrome browser and are quite efficient, considering their low price tag. The hardware doesn’t even need to match the specs of most affordable Windows laptops, as Chrome OS doesn’t put anywhere near the same demands on the system – just make sure it’s got at least 4GB of RAM. Be aware though, that you won’t have access to the same suite of apps as Windows or macOS PCs and laptops.

For more intensive programs like Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, or Blender, you’ll need something more capable. The best computer for school work with those kinds of demands needs a more powerful processor with more cores, more memory, and more storage space.

For the CPU, that means an Intel 10th or 11th generation Core i5 or better, or an AMD Ryzen 5 3300X or newer. Pair that with 16GB of memory, and at least a 128GB SSD storage (though bigger is always better when it comes to storage) for the main drive. If you expect to work with lots of videos, photos, or music files, it’s also a good idea to make sure whatever back-to-school computer or laptop you pick comes with a larger storage drive, or includes a secondary SSD or hard drive with at least 1TB of space.

If the computer needs to perform 3D rendering or handle video special effects, you may want to consider a graphics card too, as GPUs integrated into most processors aren’t particularly powerful. Any Nvidia graphics card from the GTX 1000, GTX 1600, RTX 2000, or RTX 3000 generation should suffice for most tasks. Alternatively, any AMD graphics card from the 500, 5000, or 6000 series will be more than capable.

After School Fun

 All work and no play makes me a dull boy, and that’s the same for most students too. Fortunately, any laptop that’s good for work is good for play too. But just as different school tasks place different demands on a PC or laptop, different leisure activities do too.

 For unwinding with a bit of Netflix at the end of a hard day’s study, a decent back-to-school computer needs only have a modest processor and 8GB of RAM. If you can run a web browser without it grinding to a halt, you can watch streaming video, which makes just about any new back-to-school laptop or PC capable of being a great after-hours movie machine.

 The best laptop or computer for college or high-school students looking to play some games, on the other hand, needs something more powerful. Most Intel Core 9th, 10th, or 11th generation processors and AMD Ryzen APUs can handle low-end Esports games without too much difficulty, but for gaming at 1080p or better with the detail settings set to high, you’ll need a dedicated graphics card, easily findable in gaming laptops and desktops

 Back to school PCs that game just as well as the more bespoke gaming systems will need at least a GTX 1650 Ti, but preferably something like an RTX 3060, or RX 6600 XT (or better).

Big Batteries, Small Chassis

 The last factor to consider for any back-to-school computer is size. For laptops, you’ll want them light and portable for carrying around; anything over four pounds is going to feel heavy after a long day. While battery life should be as extensive as you can afford; preferably at least 12 hours if you aren’t playing games on it. Some can stretch as long as 20 hours.

 For desktop PCs, size isn’t quite such a factor, but make sure you can fit whatever back-to-school PC you buy in the dorm room. Don’t forget you’ll need a monitor too, so factor in enough space for that and your mouse and keyboard.

Deciding on a Back-To-School Computer

There's a lot that goes into shopping for a back-to-school computer, but it all boils down to your needs. So before you start shopping, you should know the answer to these questions:

  • Is there a specific computer required by my school? If so, what one?
  • What apps do I need to be able to run?
  • Do I need my computer to be portable?
  • What battery life do I need?
  • How big of a computer do I need?
  • Do I want to be able to game on this laptop?

Once you have the answer to these questions (or, if you need help answering these questions), stop by your local Micro Center and we'll be happy to help you pick out your perfect back-to-school computer!

More from the Micro Center Community:

Looking for more information about computer buying? We’ve got Community sections for Laptops and Desktops as well as articles on The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Gaming Laptop, and How to Choose Parts for your Custom Computer Build. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, don’t hesitate to post a new discussion and the Community will be happy to help!

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