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Cramming a bulky desktop computer and an even bulkier monitor into the minivan used to be part of the off-to-college ritual. But now that seems as 20th century as the Walkman. Today, students typically head off to school with flexible, convenient, space-saving laptops.

To get a sense of what's in the backpacks of the college-bound, I talked to four recent graduates of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., each headed to a different college with a different laptop. The first and most critical choice is Windows vs. Macintosh. While Apple Computer's (AAPL) share of the total market remains in the low single digits, Mac's popularity on campuses is much greater. When Becca Eskin leaves for Stanford University in September, most likely it will be with a 15-in. PowerBook. (Prices start at $1,999.) "I talked to a lot of Stanford students, and a lot of them have Macs," she says. "They get fewer viruses and are more user-friendly."

Mac notebooks come in two varieties: the iBooks, which are aimed mainly at the K-12 crowd, and the 12-, 15- and 17-in. PowerBooks. The stylish PowerBooks, which feature both Wi-Fi wireless networking and Bluetooth short-range wireless, are ideal for students, with the midsize 15-in. model the best all-around choice. As long as you don't depend on some Windows-only software and can handle the fairly steep price, Macs are a great choice for the college-bound.

Those who choose Window notebooks have a much broader range of both features and price to choose from. Wi-Fi wireless networking is standard in nearly all models. And all -- except for a few large notebooks that use desktop processors -- are powered by Intel (INTC) Pentium M or Celeron M mobile processors, or the Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) alternative, the Turion 64. Whatever you may have heard, the type of chip probably won't make much difference to most users. As for peripherals, all the machines include CD/DVD drives that can write disks as standard equipment or are available as an option.

Students tend to avoid subcompact notebooks, which are highly portable but lack storage capability and processing power. Most opt for either the thin, light laptops that are popular in the business world or bigger desktop-replacement models, which offer high-end graphics, huge displays, and desktop-like storage.

Greg Ihrie is going to the University of Maryland with a Dell (DELL) Inspiron 600M (starting at $749), a first cousin to the corporate workhorse Latitude D610. It weighs a bit more than 5 lb. and comes with a 14.1-in. display and a hard drive with up to 80 gigabytes of storage. Ihrie wanted a notebook he could carry easily. A Dell discount through the university sealed the deal. Others worth considering include the Lenovo ThinkPad R52 (from $979) and the Hewlett-Packard Compaq (HPQ) nx6110 (from $799).

SCREENS FOR MOVIES

Raman Gupta will be taking a different kind of thin, light notebook to the University of Pennsylvania. The HP Pavilion dv1000 (from $749) has a 15.4-in. wide-screen display, an increasingly popular design that is ideal for watching movies and also is excellent for spreadsheets. Weight was important to Gupta, but he was willing to accept a bit of extra poundage -- the dv1000 weighs just under 6 1/2 lb. -- in exchange for "more emphasis on multimedia features, because that's what I use my home desktop for." One convenient feature: You can play a DVD or CD without booting up Windows. Like most wide-screen models, it is available with a polished display that increases brightness and contrast. The downside -- such displays are more prone to glare.

Students shopping for wide-screens in this class have many good choices. These include the Dell Inspiron 6000 (from $649), the Toshiba Satellite A70 (from $788), the Sony (SNE) Vaio FS (from $1,000), and the WinBook W (from $1,199).

Siddharth Jain wasn't much worried about size and weight, but he sought a laptop with strong multimedia capability, a big hard drive, and good graphics features for his photographic work. His pick, a Gateway (GTW) 7426 GX, is a relatively high-end notebook starting at around $1,500. One factor in Jain's choice of Gateway: his school, Lehigh University, offers service for it. Like Gupta's HP dv1000, the laptop has a 15.4-in. wide-screen display. If you want something bigger, the Dell Inspiron 9300 (from $1,099), HP Pavilion zd8000 (from $1,099), and Toshiba Satellite P30 (from $1,119) have 17-in.-wide screens.

Anyone buying a laptop for college should follow some general rules. Check with the school for its requirements and recommendations. For example, many suggest Windows XP Pro, typically about $100 more than the Home Edition, because it offers superior networking and security features. Ask whether the school provides extended support for certain brands and what promotions are available. Avoid buying any software before learning what your school offers for download from its network and at deeply discounted prices from the bookstore.

Laptops from different manufacturers are built from the same components and are more alike than different, so features are more important than brand. The prices in this article are the lowest quoted for each product line, but you should be wary of them. Manufacturers often include an underpowered, stripped-down model just to show an attractively low starting price, but these lowball offers are rarely your best choice. And for performance, worry more about memory than processor speed. You want a minimum of 512 MB, and a full gigabyte is better.

Unless you have special requirements that only a desktop can meet, a laptop is the way to go for campus computing. The vast array of models available makes it certain you can satisfy your needs and your budget.

By Steve Wildstrom


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