If there's a recent grad in your house, or you're one of the many buyers who think they can get a better deal at midyear than during the holidays, chances are good that you're looking for a computer. And your chances of finding a good one for a reasonable price are good indeed. In fact, you'd have to work pretty hard to find a bad one.
For that we can thank Moore's Law - which should more accurately be called Moore's Bubble. Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, predicted decades ago that the number of transistors that engineers could cram onto a wafer of silicon would double every 18 months for the foreseeable future.
It's a bit like the housing bubble. Only instead of creating uncontrolled inflation in the market, followed by the inevitable bust, Moore's Bubble has created a market for ever more powerful computers at lower prices, not to mention a generation of cheap, pocket-sized gadgets. Most computer scientists say the bubble will continue to grow for some years to come - by which time, an even more astonishing technology bubble will replace it.
That being enough theory for this otherwise practical column, let's talk about the best computer choice for your student - or for you.
Thanks to Mr. Moore, that computer is likely to be a laptop machine today, rather than a desktop. And if you don't like an idea of a laptop because the screen and keyboard are too small, here's my advice - buy a laptop, hook up a keyboard, monitor and mouse, and use it as a desktop machine.
If you're a student, the advantages of a laptop are obvious. Being relatively young and strong, you probably don't think twice about toting one around campus to take notes in class or study in the library. And it can easily travel home with you on vacation.
If you're an adult, a laptop provides almost as much processing bang for the buck as a desktop machine, and the flexibility of using it anywhere in your home, or taking it on vacation, is worth the extra cost.
There are two exceptions to this rule. If you or your student is a serious game player - I'm talking about high-end action titles - you'll pay considerably more for the cutting-edge processing power you'll need in a laptop computer than in a desktop. That laptop will also run hot enough to burn a hole in your lap.
To a lesser extent, serious, high-definition video editing needs a lot of horsepower and hard drive storage - you can do it on a laptop if you're willing to pay for the privilege.
But on the whole, when the average price of a computer is now in the $600 to $700 range, a 20 to 30 percent premium for portability doesn't mean as much as it did when PCs were selling for $1,500 to $2,000.
That said, there are four general classes of laptops on the market today - and picking the one that's right for you is more important than a particular brand or specifications.
At the highest, and least portable end, are desktop replacement machines - they can do everything a desktop computer can do. And at 8 to 10 pounds, they weigh almost as much, or so it seems whenever I lug one through an airport. They start at less than $1,000, although you can easily spend two to three times that much.
Most of these computers have 17-inch, widescreen liquid crystal displays, which makes them a good bet for students who have limited space and want an entertainment center that will play DVDs or even bring in TV broadcasts with an optional tuner.
At the low end, these machines may have older versions of Intel or AMD processors that use a lot more power than newer machines. So their battery life is likely to be a few hours at best. Think of these giants as desktop computers that are relatively easy to move, instead of as computing-to-go.
The sweet spot for most laptop customers is still the all purpose machine. Most weigh 5 to 7 pounds and have brilliant 15.4- inch displays. So pervasive has the playing of DVDs become that it's getting harder to find one with a screen in the classic 4-to-3 aspect ratio - the market has gone widescreen even at this size.
An all purpose laptop is big enough for relatively comfortable computing - the screen is readable and the keyboard will be close to full size. For a student (or adult) who wants entertainment as well as utility, look for a model that has headphone and microphone jacks on the front, along with physical buttons, slides or wheels for controlling music and DVD playback when the machine is closed up.
Likewise, this year's option-turned-must-have-accessory is a built-in Webcam. Students love these for posting videos on YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, as well as for making videophone calls or chatting with their friends. If you buy one for your kid and want to see his or her gorgeous face now and then, you'll need a Webcam, too. These are relatively inexpensive gadgets (less than $100) and well worth the time it takes to set up if your children or grandchildren are Webcam-equipped, too.
For real travelers (or laptop-toting students) who value portability and battery life over everything else, consider the road warrior. These are machines that weigh as little as three pounds and have screens in the 12- to-14-inch range. Their keyboards may be slightly less than full-sized, which can be a real pain if you or your student does a lot of writing. So try one this size before you buy.
This category is where less really begins to cost more. Equipped for college use, these laptops start at $1,300 or so - but they're beautiful little machines. I like them a lot more than I used to - and your student will love one, too.
The new category this year is what I call the ultra-light. Some of these, like the Asus EEE PC, have been hot items with gadget geeks, but their 7-inch screens and tiny keyboards make them useless for anything more than Web browsing.
For the rest of us, a new generation of low-power chips from Intel, Via and other manufacturers will result in more machines like the Hewlett-Packard 2133, which sports a 9-inch screen, a nearly full-size keyboard, and enough processing power to handle most chores. Equipped for real work by non-geeks, these machines sell for as little as $800. Definitely worth a look when portability is paramount.
Next week: Shopping for PCs, one component at a time.