Remember when the typical back-to-school supply list -- even at the college level -- consisted primarily of pens, notebooks and a backpack?

Back then, a big-ticket extra might have been a calculator capable of computing sine, cosine and tangent.


These days, many college students wouldn't think of heading off to campus without a laptop computer.
CollegeConfidential.com, a Web site that seeks to "demystify" the college-admissions process, recently hosted an online forum on the topic.

"I could not imagine walking around college without the ability to bring my laptop to the library or type notes during class," one participant wrote, reflecting the group's consensus. "Desktop computers are great for offices, but laptops are vital to college students that are always on the go."

Once you've decided to take the plunge, what do you do?

Many consumers appreciate the convenience of buying a laptop online.

Years ago, Dell and Gateway created a market niche by building desktop computers to meet each buyer's individual needs. Now, configuring a computer to order is common for laptops, too.

On-screen menus detail the various options and let you see how changes will affect the overall price. You might opt for a less-expensive processor, for example, so you can have wireless capability or enhanced graphics.

"Configure-to-order will often give you choices you won't get if you buy an off-the-shelf model," Consumer Reports said. "And it means less chance of overlooking important details."

Even so, as long as your computing needs aren't out of the ordinary, you should be able to find a suitable laptop through an area retailer.

"Most retail configurations are quite robust, except for graphics," Consumer Reports said.

And your timing is right: With stores competing for back-to-school dollars, you should land a good deal. Discounts and rebates abound.

Whether you buy an off-the-shelf laptop or customize online, prices will depend on features.

"With the kids today, the speed that they need is a lot more than what most people would probably want, because they'll want to do a lot of things at once," said Zack Mullins, a sales associate at Staples.

"They'll want to browse the Internet while they type their paper, listen to music and talk to friends on instant-messaging programs."

It's a good idea to get as much memory as you can afford -- ideally, a minimum of 2 gigabytes of random access memory (RAM) and at least 250 gigabytes of hard-drive storage.

Besides speed and memory, be sure to consider size and portability.

You can find laptops less than an inch think and as light as 2.5 pounds. To get something that small, however, you'll probably pay a premium and make sacrifices in performance, screen size and features.

Experts say most college students would do well with a slightly larger, easier-on-the-eyes laptop, such as a 4- to 6-pound model with a 14- or 15.4-inch screen