Two years ago I covered laptop shopping here in the Computer Corner. Obviously, laptops have changed quite a bit both in performance and price since then so we will revisit the subject.
This is the time of year parents are trying to find the right laptop for their new college students. Often the parents, lacking in knowledge of the latest technology, have to rely on the advice of others. So here's a little more.
There are four big things to look at when shopping for laptops. I will give you a quick overview of each here.
1) Processor: If you are looking to save money and do not require the fastest performance, you can choose an AMD Sempron or Intel Celeron processor. For better performance go with the AMD Turion X2 (Dual Core) or the Intel Core 2 Duo. Preferably one that runs at 2GHz or faster.
2) Memory: For the budget minded, you can get 512MB of memory, but most laptops available now run Windows Vista rather than Windows XP. Vista will run with 512MB, but will perform much better with 1GB or even 2GB of memory. More than 2GB is likely a waste unless you are doing some big video editing, serious gaming, etc.
3) Hard Drive: The smallest hard drive you will find in a new laptop today is 80GB. Used for school work alone, most students could get through graduate school without consuming an entire 80GB. That's even plenty of room for their favorite music. However, if you want some extra room for massive amounts of music, photos and movies you may want to go with a 160GB or larger.
4) Screen: A larger screen like 17" makes working on the laptop more comfortable, but it increases the cost of the laptop and makes it heavier. Screens larger than 17" are available, but really increase the cost considerably. Typically a 15.4" screen is the most economical, but if you go \smaller like 14.1" or even 12", the laptops start getting more expensive again though they can be considerably lighter. When you are lugging a laptop from class to class, light is nice.
Based on my experience with laptop repairs, I think the best quality brands are Acer, Dell, Compaq and Asus (not in any particular order).
I hope this helps you at least understand the things that are available. Feel free to contact me if you have questions. You can also read my Laptop Shopping article from July 2006 at http://preactiveit.com/computercorner