It's back-to-school time, so getting the right laptop computer is on a lot of people's to-do lists. Here, we concentrate on Windows-based PCs in the $800-to-$1,000 range.

You can spend less than a grand and get great quality laptops; $700 can get you a decent setup. Just about any laptop will do for getting facts off the Internet and compiling an A-plus class report, but most students - whether they're in grade school or graduate school - want more out of their computers. Don't expect to speed through demanding tasks such as editing video or playing big-name video games for less than $1,000.

And here's a dollar-saving tip if you buy computer equipment online: Look for coupons from sites such as and These are Web-only coupons - you can't take them into a store - but they apply at checkout if you buy online from a manufacturer such as Dell or from stores such as and

To get the most for your money, figure out how your student is likely to use the computer. (Note: Avid computer gamers will need to spend more than our $1,000 limit):

The light user

The junior high schooler who likes to play games and chat with other tweens at hangouts such as

The person who listens to Internet radio while regularly checking out his or her MySpace or Facebook pages, constantly sending instant messages to friends and occasionally watching music videos at and at YouTube.

For these users, the laptop's most demanding job will be handling some short videos, so a multitasking workhorse is a good choice. For example, check out the Toshiba Satellite A135 series, which covers the basics and a little bit more. Expect to pay around $800.

The heavy user

The person whose laptop will also be the dorm room TV, stereo, DVD player.

Full-screen video capability and versatility are the focus here, so you'll have to step up a bit in price. Examples include the Hewlett-Packard dv6000 series, which comes with an optional TV tuner to record shows. Expect to pay around $900 for a nicely loaded version. Also, look at the new Dell Inspiron notebooks, which when ordered online come with free upgrades to a 160 gigabyte hard drive and 2 gigabytes of memory, starting at $749.

If you're bewildered by choices - and who isn't? - here is a checklist of upgrades worth the extra money:

nChoose a dual-core processor; your computer will be able to handle more jobs simultaneously without slowing. Not every software package needs dual-core power today, but down the line, it'll come in handy.

nSoftware. Budget $150 for Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007. Many computers come with the word processor Microsoft Works, but it's not as powerful as Microsoft Word, which is included in Office (along with popular programs Excel and PowerPoint).

nExtra memory. Get at least 1 gigabyte of RAM so that your computer has lots of short-term memory to get through tasks faster. It's even better to spring for 2 gigabytes of memory, especially if you're getting a computer that runs Microsoft's Vista operating system. If you can afford only 1 gigabyte of memory right now, keep your options open by choosing a computer with expandable RAM so you can add more memory later. Read the computer's description online or in-store and look for "Memory is expandable to 2 gigabytes" or "Memory is expandable to 2048 megabytes."

nMore hard drive space. An 80 gigabyte hard drive is the smallest you should consider. Bigger is better because space fills up fast with music and video, and you want to leave room for homework. If you plan to push your computer to the limits and edit video, get at least 160 gigabytes of hard drive storage. You'll need space for your projects.

nLight weight. Keep the laptop under 8 pounds. It might not seem like it, but that's plenty of weight to be hauling from one end of campus to the other. This usually means the maximum screen size should be 15.4 inches, measured diagonally. Sure, 17-inch screens are wonderful for watching DVDs or video sites such as Joost, but those monsters wreak havoc on one's back when toting them around. Make sure the display can handle a resolution of at least 1280x720, for true widescreen viewing.

nGet the best graphics card you can afford. Otherwise, that nice display you've spent money on will go to waste. Gamers prefer ATI Radeon and Nvidia cards because software has been tested to work with them, and those companies provide quick software fixes when their cards don't work with newer programs.

nLook for a computer with a PC Express slot, so you can add a fast Wireless N Wi-Fi adapter later. Wireless technology is changing, and most computers' Wi-Fi components will be considered slow in a couple of years. A PC Express slot lets you add the newer Wireless N adapter when you're ready to upgrade your home network down the line. Wireless N technology is faster and covers a wider range than current Wireless G technology. But the rules for how Wireless N will work haven't even been made official yet - and won't be until probably early next year. It may seem like gobbledygook, but just understand this: You don't need it yet - your campus wireless network isn't ready to take advantage of Wireless N. With a PC Express slot, you'll be ready to adapt to changing wireless technology.

nOperating system. Many vendors limit your choice of operating system to Windows Vista. If you get a choice, pick a Windows XP machine over a Windows Vista computer. That seems odd because Windows XP will no longer be available after January 2008; and yes, Microsoft won't answer your Windows XP questions after 2014; and yup, Windows is older than Vista. But here's why it matters: XP demands less of your computer than Vista does, and that's worth more than Vista's bells and whistles. Even Microsoft acknowledges that it will be selling more XP machines this year than it thought.

How do I … choose a Mac for school?

Back-to-school shopping for a Mac laptop is different from searching for one from a PC manufacturer. The choices and pricing are very different: PCs are made by numerous manufacturers, tend to come in a large array of technical configurations and run a Windows operating system and Windows-compatible software. Mac laptops are made by Apple, come in fewer models and technical combinations and run the OS X operating system and software created for the Mac.

Bare-bones PC laptops start in the $500 range; half the price of the cheapest Mac. But don't choose on price alone.

Macs and PCs are so different under the hood that dollar-for-dollar comparisons are difficult to make.

For instance, the Mac comes with easy-to-use music, photo and video software so you can have fun or get to work right away. Adding similar programs to a basic PC bumps up its price.

Then there's the update factor. Rumors of new Apple products swirl every few months. As a back-to-school shopper, you can't wait and worry about whether thinner, snazzier Mac laptops might be coming. You've got to make a decision and get yourself to class.

Money-saving tip No. 1: If you don't want to miss the newest model, save hundreds by purchasing a refurbished Mac laptop - complete with one-year warranty - that meets your minimum requirements. Visit the Special Deals page at the online Apple store (, or check with an authorized Apple reseller. (You'll find some names to call at; type in your ZIP code and change the box that says "All Locations" to "Service.")

Money-saving tip No. 2: For students only, buy a Mac, and Apple will send you a coupon for a Nano.

Think before you shop

- Does your school or course work have any special technical requirements? Macs and PCs alike can use a campus wireless Internet, but some school programs require specific computers running specialized software. Check with the school's admissions department for the latest information.

- Mac or PC? PCs have more software, including games, already written for them and sold separately, but the newer dual-core Macs can run Windows programs. Keep in mind you'll have to buy the Windows software to make that happen - it won't come pre-installed. Former PC users who switch to Macs often rave about their new machines, once they get familiar with the OS X operating system. The reverse is seldom true.

- Which Mac laptop is the right one? There are two models, the MacBook, starting at $1,099 (expect to pay at least $1,424 for a model with nice specs), and the MacBook Pro, starting at $1,999 ($2,499 will get you a sweeter version). MacBooks are more compact, lighter and have so-called glossy 13-inch displays for image-enhancing contrast. MacBook Pros are faster, have 15- or 17-inch screens and handle video better. You can choose between regular matte displays or glossy displays, which are great for lots of DVD viewing.

As with any computer purchase, stuff it with as much memory as you can - 2 gigabytes is a good start.

Who'll be using the computer?

A light user

The junior high schooler who likes to play games and chat with other tweens at hangouts such as

The person who listens to or other Internet radio stations while regularly checking out his or her MySpace or Facebook pages, constantly sending instant messages to friends and occasionally watching music videos at and at YouTube.

For this user, the MacBook fits the bill. It starts at $1,099, but a model with 2 gigabytes of memory and a 160 gigabyte hard drive bumps the price up to $1,424. It comes with iLife '06, a collection of programs that make the Mac fun and can add spice to class assignments - get the red eye out of photos, make DVDs, create your own music, edit video you shot on campus, and put it all online.

A heavy user

The student who needs a pro-level computer to run powerful software for classes in graphic arts and computer-aided design.

The person whose laptop will also be the dorm room TV, stereo, DVD player.

For most people, the $2,499 15-inch MacBook Pro wins the day here. It works faster and holds more than the $1,999 15-incher, and it weighs less than the $2,799 17-inch version. For students whose grades depend on creating highly detailed layouts and building designs, the 17-incher does have superior resolution. It's also a cheaper option than paying $2,499 for a 15-inch MacBook Pro and spending another $899 to connect it to a 23-inch, high-resolution display for critical design work.

Macs, Windows software

One more question: Does the laptop have to do Windows? New Macs have much more muscle than older models, plus their Intel chips are related to those that power PCs. Therefore, a new Mac laptop can also run Windows programs if you buy and install a Windows operating system. It doesn't come preloaded; budget about $100 for Windows XP Home Edition With Service Pack 2; about $250 for Windows Vista Home Premium Full Version (This version of Vista comes with Windows DVD Maker and Windows Movie Maker HD. You'll have to pay about $125 extra for Windows Office Home and Student 2007, which includes Microsoft Word, the Excel spreadsheet program and the PowerPoint presentation program). Money-saving tip: Both operating systems are cheaper online at stores such as and