The real price slashing comes after the kids have gone back to school. Get the absolute basics now, then wait a few weeks as you discover what your kids truly need. By then, the big chains will have unadvertised bargain bins filled with school supplies.
If you're in the market for a laptop, you have some big decisions and big deals to consider.
Mac: Apple is offering incentives for college students going back to school. Take $50 off a $999 Macbook if you can prove it's for a college student (student ID/ acceptance letter); you also get a free printer and a free iPod Touch (or iPod of lesser value). The same deal exists for Macbook Pro, but you get $100 off. The offer ends Sept. 8, 2009.
Full Laptop Systems (not Netbooks): PC laptops are selling in the $500 to $800 range for an average, middle-of the-road model. A full functioning laptop will have a big screen (15/17 inches), a full and roomy keyboard, a 2 GHZ processor (or better), 3 gigs of RAM (memory), a CD/DVD burner, and a built in Web cam. If it has a 9-cell battery it can run 3-4 hours, but the big battery will make for a heavier system. These 7-10 pound systems are meant to primarily live on a desk and travel in the backpack only when needed.
Full laptop systems have enough processing power to edit video or manage some gaming (Netbooks don't do well with these processor-intensive tasks). Laptops have decent-sized hard drives and lots of USB and peripheral ports. Wal-Mart, Circuit City and Best Buy are good places to look for deals; check their circulars and online advertisements often.
Software: If you are buying a computer for a student, get the operating system pre-installed (Windows), but don't buy any extra software with the system. You can get incredibly discounted versions of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop or video editing software at your college bookstore or at educational software sites like journeyed.com if you have a valid student ID number.
Netbooks: Netbooks are meant for web surfing and portability. These small computers often weight less than 5 pounds, but they have cramped keyboards and small screens (11 inches or less). Their battery life is impressive -- a Netbook with a 6-cell battery can run for 6+ hours. Most Netbooks do not have a CD/DVD player or burner. Netbooks are also typically less expensive than full laptops; for example the Acer Aspire One is $299 at Amazon.com. If you plan to do a lot of photo or video editing, these computers are not a good fit. If you are an offensive lineman and your hands are like ham hocks, try the keyboard before you buy.
I advise getting an all-in-one printer (printer/scanner/copier). They can cost as little as $65 (HP F4480 is $64 after rebate) and the added scanning and copying is a real boon. If you can afford it, get a printer that will hook up to a wireless network so you don't have to plug in to print.
You can get a dirt-cheap printer in the $35 range that only prints, but this may be a case where you need to spend to save. The cost of printing per page on these incredibly cheap printers is often higher than the cost per page of more expensive models. The replacement ink-jet cartridges will cost more in the long run than if you'd bought a higher quality printer.