What to look for in a laptop

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The Independent Online

Your laptop will probably be the most important purchase you make at university or college; 20 years ago it was which books you bought that mattered most. Of course, books are still pretty crucial, but the research capabilities of the internet have changed everything. It can also be more practical to have a laptop at university, as it will take up far less space in your room than a computer: screen, hard drive and all. So, you need to pick your new best friend carefully - you're both in this together. Here's a shortlist of the features you must have.

Wi-fi

Internet access is going to be important so make sure you have wi-fi built in. Most laptops do, but not all, so check. If you buy one without you can, of course, connect to the internet through a cable, but laptops are built to be portable and the joys of surfing the net in the bathroom, on the balcony or even in the park are not to be underestimated. You'll need to plug in the laptop to print a document, unless it has Bluetooth and there's a Bluetooth-enabled printer available. The latest printers have wi-fi too, which is handy. If your college library or hall of residence has a wi-fi network, you're sorted.

Memory

It's important to have enough RAM and hard disk space: in a laptop it's not as easy to upgrade your hard drive as in a desktop PC. Make sure you've got at least 1GB (gigabyte) of RAM or Windows Vista may crawl. A hard drive of 80GB or more is decent; less than 60GB could quickly fill up.

DVD writer

A rewritable DVD drive is essential: it's vital to back up all your data in case a hard disk catastrophe - or a theft - occurs. If either does, you'll always lose something important; remember, your hard drive will probably have all your digital photos on it as well as research papers. You can at least keep this to a minimum by copying all your documents and photos on to DVD frequently. It's good to back up your music too, but this takes up an awful lot of space, so you might want to consider investing in an external hard drive for that purpose.

Vista

Lucky you: while people who've had their laptop for a year or more will have to stump up money to upgrade to Windows Vista, you're going to get it free. Nearly all new PCs come with it automatically, so you've really picked the best time to buy. If you buy a Mac, please note: a new version of operating system OSX is due out soon, so you that's a cost you won't be able to avoid. Sorry about that.

Games

Finally, of course, you might want to play games, but do they have to be on your PC? Gaming is very power-hungry and needs a top-of-the-range graphics card. These push up the cost of a laptop faster than anything else. If you're serious about it you'd be better off with a dedicated games console so you can buy a laptop that is just for word processing, e-mail and internet, all of which can be managed with a relatively modest set-up.

BEST BUYS

Dell Inspiron 6400, £399

Dell builds its computers to each customer's specification. So, you can add to the 1GB of RAM, the 80GB hard drive or beef up the processor on this 15.4-inch screen laptop. It's not the lightest option available, but it's keenly priced and is powerful enough for most tasks, Not geared to gaming, mind.

www.dell.co.uk

Mesh M670 S2, £379

The Mesh computer has recently dropped in price from £499, when it was already decent value. The 15-inch screen has a shiny reflective coating which makes watching DVDs excellent, and its 1GB or RAM means it doesn't struggle to make Vista work. There's a 80GB hard drive and a four-in-one memory card reader for easy transfer of images from your digital camera.

www.meshcomputers.com

MacBook, from £699

More expensive than the Windows PCs this, but you are getting a chic and stylish computer. If you're new to computing, the Mac's operating system is more intuitive and easier to learn than Windows, not to mention more elegant. Having said that, Macs can run Windows too. A built-in iSight webcam in the lid is among the many cute quirks.

www.apple.com/uk

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