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PC Shopping Tips for Back-to-School Deals

Now that Office has gone to the cloud with subscription fees, Microsoft has another deal for students: Four years of Office 365 University for $80. That is available only to college-level students and staff.

Microsoft also launched its own crowdfunding campaign for students. Called "Chip In," students pick a new PC and enlist friends and family to donate. Microsoft adds a 10% discount on the machine plus a four-year subscription to Office 365 University.

If you are in the market for a new computer -- whether you're a student or not -- here's our advice:

At minimum, get a laptop with 4 Gigabytes of RAM, 500 GB hard drive, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and USB 2.0. A $299 Hewlett-Packard advertised in Best Buy (BBY) offers all those specs with an Advanced Micro Device (AMD) processor, plus a handful of accessories like a case, wireless mouse and 8 GB flash drive.

Other ways to stick to a budget are to opt for last generation's technology or alternative brands and smaller sizes. Smaller screen will shave off some dollars. AMD processors tend to be cheaper than Intel's. Or pick Google's (GOOG) Chrome OS instead of Windows or Mac operating systems. An 11.6-inch Acer laptop with Google Chrome was $229 at Staples (SPLS).

And don't discount Intel because it's the leader (it got there for a reason). Here's a tip on knowing what Intel processor you need: Most people will pick the Intel Core chip, but other options include Atom, as seen in netbooks and tablets, and the Pentium, which has become the value line.

The alphanumeric figure following Intel's Core branded line -- i3, i5 or i7 -- represents good, better and best when it comes to performance. Next, the first digit in the following four numbers indicates the generation of the chip (3 for third generation and 4 for the newer fourth generation). Other letters represent various features: M for mobile low power, Q for quad-core, K for unlocked and S for lower-powered desktop chips best suited for small PCs the size of a pencil box.

If you can afford more, think about upgrading to the newer technologies to prepare for the future. Wi-Fi's latest version is AC (or 802.11ac), which offers faster speeds and is geared toward home entertainment. USB 3.0 offers the fastest transfers for PCs. An HDMI port easily connects audio and video from laptop to a larger monitor or TV with just one cable.
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