“You’ll also need to consider software, online security, and backup so they don’t lose those important term papers.”

These days when you send your kids off to college, you're not just arming them with some ground rules and clothing for the semester. You've also got to pack them a laptop. New laptops are typically ready for wireless Internet access and allow students to work from anywhere on or off campus. Some classes even require laptops for note-taking, lab assignments, and tests. As you set out to choose a laptop for your college kids, the options (and expense) can seem endless. Should you purchase a fully loaded PC or Mac? Or does your student only need an inexpensive netbook that will simply connect them to the Internet and allow them to send email and do basic word processing? You'll also need to consider software selection, theft prevention, online security, and backup so they don't lose those important term papers.

Fortunately, there are some basic steps to follow in determining the type of laptop to buy--and how to ensure its, and your child's, safety.

Choose a Laptop

Most college students will get by with a PC laptop that includes software standards like a word-processing program for all those essays or a spreadsheet program for advanced math classes. If your child is studying graphic or Web design, however, she might need design software and a Mac, the platform that still tends to be favored by creative fields. A netbook might be suitable if writing papers and surfing the Web are your child's main needs. Check the campus orientation materials for laptop and software recommendations. And if your child has already declared a major, you might also check with the department's laptop requirements as well.

Not every laptop is created equal, so it's helpful to know the main differences:

  • Memory. How much will your college kids need? Probably enough to store items often found on college laptops, like MP3s or photos of friends. And depending on their major, they may need extra hard drive space for original creations such as large graphic design files, movies, or digital music scores. Consider a laptop with 1GB to 2GB of memory, depending on how they'll use the laptop
  • Size. What's more important: portability or screen size? Most kids will want a lightweight laptop so they can easily lug it along with their books. But some will prefer the larger 15-inch screen that can make the laptop heavier.
  • Extras. Do they need extras like a DVD burner or multimedia features? For example, do they need a burner to make DVDs for assignments? Or do they need multimedia must-haves like a graphics card with extra memory or connectors, such as S-Video? Chances are this feature will come in handy for presentations they may have to give.

Pick a Security Package

College students are among the biggest users of digital music, online gaming, and freeware. Such activities involve a lot of downloading from the Internet, which could open your kids up to security threats. Before they ever get online, make sure their brand-new laptop is loaded with antivirus, antispyware, and bot and phishing protection. Norton Internet SecurityTM and Norton 360TM protect online computers against these major threats and others. For instance, Norton Internet Security will warn your kids of a dangerous download before they install and run it. The program also identifies files that can be trusted and those that cannot.

Talk About Security

To play it safe, urge your kids to protect their laptops by setting a login password they have to enter to gain access to any files. They should also change all their passwords often. Advise them to use passwords that don't include real words or personal information, and that do include numbers and symbols in addition to letters.

The other issue to consider is laptop theft. If they'll be working in public spaces, they should get a laptop lock to secure their laptop to a table or desk before they leave it unattended, even for a few minutes. In general, loaning out their laptop is not a good idea--their friends could download material that's against their college network's policy (like pirated music or software) or could leave it in an unlocked car or dorm, and risk having it stolen.

Create a Backup Plan

Thumb drives are handy, but they can't store a semester's worth of papers and a serious MP3 collection. If your college kid's laptop does happen to be stolen--or experiences an unpredictable hard drive crash--having a backup will make the event less painful. With frequent, automated backups, all their assignments, emails, and personal files will be stored safely. Norton Online BackupTM is an online service that allows you to automatically back up your data to a secure storage site. This way, if your son loses his laptop, he can use a private login to access his data from any online computer.

It's true that picking out a laptop for your college-bound kid isn't as simple as selecting dorm room décor. But with a smart buying strategy that includes security measures, you'll be able to equip your college kid with the tools he or she needs to make it to graduation while protecting your investment along the way.