Given that fully-fledged laptops or the new breed of netbooks function as a central hub for communications, information processing and entertainment, a portable PC is a must-have for business school students this autumn.

Apple laptops have always been popular in the education market and are likely to remain so because of their sleek design and solid Mac OS X operating system. The latest version, Snow Leopard, is billed as Apple’s most advanced operating system yet.

At £750 ($1,242), Apple’s cheapest portable, the 13-inch MacBook comes with a 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2Gb memory and a 160Gb hard drive. However, a further £150 can buy Apple’s smallest MacBook Pro which, like other members of its family, comes in a case made of a single piece of aluminium, with a battery designed to last up to seven hours and a high performance Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics processor paired with a 13-inch LED backlit display. I particularly like the buttonless glass trackpad – tapping on it is the equivalent to a click of the mouse.

Apple’s £900 base model has a 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2Gb memory and a 160Gb hard drive as well as another useful addition – a SD (secure digital) card slot. This is ideal for offloading digital camera images or loading music onto a micro SD card for use in a multimedia-enabled smartphone. If you want the ultimate in Mac OS portable performance, £1,850 will buy you the 17-inch MacBook, which comes with a 2.8Ghz processor, 4Gb memory and 500Gb hard drive.

If you prefer to go the Microsoft Windows route, Vista-based machines such as Dell’s Studio 15, for £450, or Hewlett Packard’s Pavilion dv6-1200, which costs £700, are good workhorses.

Others, such as the Sony Vaio series or Acer’s Gemstone Blue laptops, emphasise their multimedia prowess, with some models offering built-in TV tuners and Blu-ray disc players. As with any Windows-based machine, however, you should factor in an upgrade to Windows 7 when it becomes available in late October, although some manufacturers do offer free upgrades.

This year it’s all about the netbook. And while these pint-sized computers were not originally intended to compete directly with traditional laptops, the latest batch has larger screens of 10 inches or more, faster processors and improved graphics capabilities.

These improvements, coupled with price tags as low as £200 or less, have made them popular among students. I like the Asus family of Eee PC netbooks, particularly the ultra-slim Eee PC 1005HA (with more than six hours of battery life) for £230, but have also been impressed by Lenovo’s S12 and the latest offerings from Sony and Toshiba.

As for all-in-one desktop machines, those from Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sony provide extensive multimedia features. And while a printer is not essential, copying costs can quickly add up, so an all-in-one machine that combines a printer, scanner and copier can make sense. Models from HP’s new Officejet 6500 series start at £100, while Canon’s Pixma MX320 costs about the same.

Useful peripherals include a portable scanner such as the £110 Iris Pen Express 6 for textbook note-taking, and the £130 Livescribe Pulse Smartpen, which records an audio stream and links it to what you write on a special dot-patterned notepad, enabling you to listen again to anything that wasn’t clear at the time.

The other must-have piece of technology for students is a 3G handset. Among the most popular are Apple’s latest touchscreen-based iPhone 3GS, BlackBerry’s Curve and HTC’s Google Android-powered Magic.

I also like the new Palm Pre, with the slide-out Qwerty keyboard, Nokia’s N97 and the Windows Mobile-powered Danger Sidekick.

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