PC Shopping Tips for Back-to-School Deals

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Back-to-school sales are well under way. And stuff is cheap -- six glue sticks for 99 cents!

Another good deal this time of year is a computer. While the holiday season is considered the best time to get a deal on a computer, back-to-school is a close second, according to Steve Baker, an analyst for NPD Group.

New portable all-in-one computers that look like giant tablets (20-inch diagonal screen) just came out from Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ). Apple ( AAPL) updated its MacBook Air last month. And Gateway just announced its back-to-school lineup with desktops starting at $298 and laptops at $380.

There are lots of new models, shapes, prices and features -- touchscreens are on some of the pricier models to help use the latest operating system from Microsoft ( MSFT). You can buy a basic laptop for $200, or splurge on a loaded one for a few grand.

Beyond the deals, students need a computer for school. According to a survey of students by market researcher Lab 42, 82% plan to head to college with a new computer.

But it may be tricky to find the latest and greatest on store shelves. Rare among the recent Sunday ads were laptops with fourth-generation chips from Intel Corp. ( INTC), which unveiled the new chip in June.

"It's a combination of things," Baker said. "There's still plenty of generation-three stuff out there and they're certainly being reduced in price. Fourth-gen is still expensive. All the product that is going to use Haswell (the name of the fourth-gen chip) hasn't been released yet. There isn't a huge amount of product out there yet."

And that's good news if you're on a budget. As computer makers launch new models, they're clearing out the old. Retailers tend to toss in free software and accessories to entice shoppers -- from a free year of Internet security to a complete student version of Microsoft Office.

Microsoft has long offered student discounts. A few years ago, it offered students the entire Microsoft Office Suite for $60, or 90% off the retail price and half the price of its student version of Office.

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.

Most of all, though, think about its usage.

Will it be carried for extended periods? Thin and light laptops are around two pounds, but will cost extra. Lugging a five-pound computer can be heavy, but if it's in a wheeled backpack, it's just like another book.

Expecting it to be tossed around? Get an SSD storage drive, which has no moving parts, making it less prone to breakage (plus it speeds up the computer).

Need versatility? Several laptops now offer touchscreen to emulate iPads and tablets. Many brands offer convertible laptops where the keyboard flips under the screen or detaches, and so it is a tablet. Of course, those will cost you too, but prices have come way down. A touchscreen Acer laptop at Staples is on sale this week for $400.

If you need a longer battery life, keep an eye out for a computer with Intel's new fourth-generation chip. The processor offered "the greatest battery life increase in Intel history," according to the company. Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air, which has the new Intel chip, can play iTunes movies for 10 hours on one charge.

And look for newer features, like sleep and charge ports, which charge batteries of connected mobile phones or small gadgets even if laptop is powered off.

Baker said that sales of tablets like the iPad aren't a huge draw during August. They're viewed more as entertainment computers or something for the family. Not schoolwork.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own.

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