1. What’s your budget?

How much can you really afford to spend on a computer? Be honest with yourself, and make sure you keep your technology spending in proportion to your overall budget. There’s always going to be a computer that’s even better that costs more, so don’t get drawn into the sales technique of upselling. Set a realistic maximum you can afford to spend, and then shop within that price range. However, expect what you pay for – while you can get a new laptop for $399, you may well find it nearly-unusable next year, whereas a more expensive one might easily last you several years, and still have resale value.

2. What will you actually use it for?

This point is essential, and is part of the reason it can be useful to wait a while before jumping into a purchase. Are you just looking for something to handle your email, social networking, internet browsing, and word processing? If so, don’t get drawn into buying something that is overkill for your use – ultrabook PCs/MacBook Air or tablets with an external keyboard may be ample for your needs.

Talk to colleagues or friends to see what they use for similar work, and if possible, try out their computer to see what will fit you best. There is no right answer for what computer to buy, only what is right for what you will be doing with it.

3. When and where will you use it?

A related point is when and where you plan to use your computer. Increasingly many people take their laptop almost everywhere with them – using it to type notes in lectures or meetings, at the library, in cafes and so on. Others still choose to keep their laptop mainly as a home computer, and rely on good old pen and paper in most other situations. For the latter, consider a desktop – you’ll always get more powerful internals for cheaper on a desktop over a laptop.

Think about where you’ll be using it, and how often you’ll be toting it around. If the latter is frequent, look for something that won’t give you back pain by the end of the day. Anything over 4 lbs is probably not what you’ll be looking for if you’re carrying it daily, especially if you have to carry the power adaptor with you.

Take a look at the battery life – many newer computers, and most tablets sport all-day battery-life, allowing you to forgo the extra weight and bulk of the power adaptor. Bear in mind however, that if you plan on doing more intensive computer tasks, such as video editing, graphic design, or gaming, the power-consumption will increase considerably, and you’ll probably need your power adaptor anyway.

4. Laptop or tablet?

The answer to this question depends entirely on your needs. Tablets, such as Apple’s iPad, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, or Microsoft’s Surface, have evolved to where in many cases, they are fully functional computing devices, and are capable of operating independently of a computer. They are lighter and more portable than most laptops, and typically have longer battery lives. Many textbooks and academic journals are comfortably readable on tablets, and can be easily annotated with virtual highlighting and notes within the “margins”. While they don’t have built-in keyboards, all tablets can be easily paired with external keyboards or keyboard cases to provide standard tactile typing.

However, tablets are also limited. While fully-functional Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (and their equivalents) can be run on most tablets, products such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, SPSS, or AutoCAD are limited to laptop or desktop computers.

To further complicate the matter, a tablet is not necessarily a laptop/desktop replacement, but many users are content with using both – a Windows or Mac computer for more complex work, and a tablet for content consumption (reading, web browsing, social networking, media watching) and portability.

5. What computer lab facilities can you access?

If it turns out there’s a big gap between your budget and the technology you need for your course or work, don’t panic! Find out what computer lab facilities your school, library, or community has available. If you need special software or hardware for your work or school, most departments provide facilities for your use.

6. What academic computer discounts are available?

Finally, for most purchases you make during your time at any higher-education institution, you’ll find there are education discounts available both for students, teachers, and staff members. Shop around, do your research, and ask questions. Even if you don’t see any education computer discounts advertised in the shop or on the website, it may be worth asking just in case.