If you have a child starting college this month, one essential purchase you must make is a computer. For most, that will be a notebook or netbook computer. But there are so many choices. How do you pick the right one? In truth, there are many "right" choices. So long as you stay away from the pricing extremes, you should be fine. Some of the lowest-end (sub-$400) notebooks have slower processors, weak graphics, and poor battery life. But spending just $100 more can yield a very nice machine. Spending over $1,000 is unnecessary unless your student is an avid computer gamer.
Of course, software, particularly full versions of MS Office (many new computers come with 60-day trial versions) or Adobe Acrobat, is an extra cost that needs to be budgeted for. Software can add a few hundred dollars to the price of a computer. There will be student discounts available on-line or at the college's computer center or bookstore that can bring the cost of Office to well under $100 or reduce the cost of Adobe products, so don't pay full price.
One of my favorite technology magazines is Laptop. They have come through again this year with a nice buyer's guide to laptops for college-bound students. One of your first choices will be Windows or Mac. Two years ago when my son and daughter started college, my daughter surprised me by requesting a Macbook. We were assured by the staff at the college computer center that there would be no disadvantage to selecting a Mac unless the student was majoring in science or engineering where Windows is preferred. My daughter is a liberal arts major, so there appeared to be no problem opting for a Mac. So we paid about 30% more that we would have for a comparable Windows machine, but she was happy - at least until school started.
As it turned out, several of her courses, including a required intro computer course, had web components that worked only with Internet Explorer, which is a Windows-only web browser. Yes, she could go to the computer lab and work on one of the Windows machines there, but her dorm was on one side of campus and the lab on the other. Fortunately, I had a spare Windows XP Pro license, so I used Mac's dual-boot "Boot Camp" software to create a separate partition on the Macbook's hard drive and install XP. I don't necessarily recommend against letting your college-bound student buy a Mac, but I do recommend getting Windows pre-installed on the Macbook (they can be ordered that way) for those courses that require Windows or Windows-only software. A Macbook with Windows added will drive the cost of the computer up by about 50% over a comparable Windows notebook, but I will say that the Mac hardware appears very solid and reliable (my daughter's Macbook has not created any problems in two years) even if I don't fully understand the allure of the operating system. Apple is again giving away a $200 iPod Touch by mail to students who purchase Macbooks for college, so that is yet another incentive. Plus, it is hard to say no to our kids as they head off into this new challenge.
Another option is two computers. A mid-range desktop with a comfortably large LCD screen for the dorm room or apartment and a netbook to take to class. Surprisingly, this option may not cost more than a single higher-end laptop and may provide greater utility. Using free cloud-based services such as Dropbox or Windows Live Sync, your student can keep all of his or her files current and in sync on both machines.
Whatever you choose, make sure security is addressed. You will want a good antivirus and antimalware application installed on the computer that automatically updates itself. Tracking software to find a lost or stolen computer is also useful, as is an on-line backup service such as Mozy or Carbonite. Having a semester's worth of notes disappear just before finals in not a good thing.
Although many courses allow (or require) electronic submission of completed assignments, some professors still require students to turn-in a paper version of their work. So a printer should also be on the shopping list. Often there will be deals offered by college computer centers bundling a free printer with a notebook computer. My daughter received a Canon Pixma multi-function printer free with her Macbook. So far, other than the cost of replacement ink cartridges, it has worked fine. I am not a fan of inkjet printers because of their high consumables cost. You may want to consider a small laser printer instead. Prices for small lasers can be $150 or less and will produce better text output faster with a lower cost per page. If your student truly needs color output, there are low-end color lasers on the market in the $300 range, or less if you find a particularly good sale. Perhaps an even better choice is a color or monochrome laser multi-function machine that will scan, print, copy, and fax. I've used a Brother multi-function printer in my practice for years without any major problems. A laser multi-function machine will take up a bit more space in the dorm room, but it also adds a great deal of flexibility.
One essential application to install on your student's computer is Skype. Also install it on your computer at home so you can do live video calls to your student as she (and you) adjust to this new geographic separation. Telephone calls are great, but actually seeing you son or daughter at college and knowing they are OK is a great comfort for parents. Good luck with this transition.