Columnist Marc Saltzman guides parents on how to shop wisely for back to school computers in this weeks Surf Report.

Good news for students (and parents) facing the inevitable computer upgrade: there’s never been a better time to buy one.

Not only are there more options than ever before – in size and shape, brand, and specifications (“specs”) – but there are attractive back-to-school deals to take advantage of. But choosing the right device to match your needs and budget can be an overwhelming task.

The following should help you decide what’s best for the student in your home, divided into various ages.

Kindergarten to 6th grade

While not as popular as laptops, a stationary desktop computer might still be best for younger students. Not only do they cost less, on average, but they could be kept in a high-trafficked location in the home, such as a kitchen or family room, so mom and dad can keep an eye on where kids are going online.

Because they’re not designed for on-the-go use, desktops are also less prone to damage; they sit in one place and can’t be banged up or dropped as easily as laptops. The larger (and perhaps curved) keyboards and external mice are also more “ergonomic” than a laptop keyboard and trackpad, and better for smaller hands.

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There are two main kinds of desktop PCs: a tower that connects to a monitor, and an “all-in-one” computer, where the guts of the machine are built in behind the monitor instead of a separate tower.

The advantage to the former is you can easily upgrade components, over time, such as adding a bigger monitor, more storage or memory, or a better graphics card (something computer gamers often like to do). All-in-one machines, however, take up less space and have no cables exposed — but aren’t as easy to upgrade.

Middle school, high school

Tweens and teens spend more time out of the home, and so portability is more important than for younger grades.

As such, laptops are perhaps more suitable for this age group. Decide on what screen size makes the most sense, with 14- or 15-inches as a popular “sweet spot” between a display that’s too small (harder to multitask) and something too big (and thus heavier, and with poorer battery life, generally speaking).

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