School Supplies: No. 2 Pencils, Notebooks, Laptop

As more and more classrooms go online and Google is used to research class projects and PowerPoint presentations become de rigueur, laptops have become an essential element of the collegiate experience.

But as many students -- and their parents -- prepare to head to school in the fall, they're unsure of what to look for, how much they should spend and whether laptops are even needed at all.

Longtime tech journalist and Yahoo Tech columnist Chris Null weighs in.

Why a Laptop?

"With very few exceptions, I recommend a laptop" over a desktop, Null told "With work being done in the classroom, it makes so much more sense to have one computer. It just takes up a lot less space. If you're in a dorm room, and space is at a real crunch, you don't want to have the cables and the need for a desk that you can't use for anything else."

According to Null, the only reason to buy a desktop computer is if you're on a tight budget. Desktop computers are a lot cheaper than laptops, while a new top-of-the-line notebook will probably cost at least $1,500. According to Null, buyers on a budget can find real deals in online classifieds or on Craigslist.

"The value and the mobility [of a laptop] probably make it pay for itself," Null said. "Many colleges require laptops. Most students don't have a choice."

Pay attention to whether your school requires a Mac or a PC, and if special discounts are offered. Discounts can be as much as 20 percent.

Students should also consider which companies have service centers on campus.

"Dell might have a service center right there," he said. "It's great to be able to walk right into the service center without having to ship it back to the vendor. That's a lifetime in a semester at school."

What to Look for

When shopping for laptops, here's a few key things to look for, according to Null: general performance, hard drive size, battery life and weight. For students who want a machine that will last all four years of college, Null recommends buying a machine that's top-of-the-line now. This is especially important to students who enjoy playing video games.

"Computers [need] to be able to handle graphics needs," Null said. Students will want "something that can handle the upcoming generations of video games. ... Many laptops aren't there."

Null also recommends buying a laptop with the biggest hard drive available.

"It's a lot more difficult to do upgrades on a laptop. Outfit it as a high-end as you can, especially the hard drive," Null said. A larger hard drive will make future software and operating system upgrades easier.

The size of the hard drive is usually proportionally related to the screen size and the weight of the machine; the larger the hard drive, the larger the screen, and a computer with a big screen weighs more.

"Get the largest screen you're comfortable carrying around," Null said.

Most people can get by with 15.4-inch screen laptop, he suggested, though serious gamers may want a 17-inch screen.

Battery life is also an important attribute to take into account when buying a laptop, especially for students.

"A student is going to be working away from a power outlet a lot," for example, in class or cafes, Null said. "There's a lot of competition for those outlets."

Students with laptops that don't have long battery life should invest in extra batteries.

What About Younger Students?

According to Null, when it comes to so-called kids' laptops, don't believe the hype. For kids, take a look for a used desktop computer, preferably the cheapest you can find.

"Whether they need it or not, it's going to be broken," he said. "Kids are just so rough it doesn't make sense to buy new equipment. Scour Craigslist."

Want to know Null's picks for the best laptops for students? Click here.