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As one of the folks who set the annual standards for our students, I can tell you that most decent computers today can be configured to meet the school's recommendations. You need to start there to get the specs that they think will be needed to run the software that you'll use at school.
After that, the important things for me are vendor support and travel weight -- both have already been talked about in other responses, but repetition is good in this case.
If the computer does not have a decent warranty, you'll be in trouble when something goes wrong. Something will eventually go wrong -- you're going to be dragging this thing all over campus and it will likely get banged around more than it should. You need quick turn-around for repairs.
Since you will be dragging this around with you and you will also have other things in your bag, weight is worth serious consideration. I've have 10 notebooks over the years. Their weights were: 7.5 lbs, 8.5, 9.0, 6.3, 6.3, 5.5, 5.5, 5.3, 5.3, 4.9. I went through the "I need more things in the box" phase in the beginning and then accepted that I didn't really need everything all of the time. Try to get a light computer -- your back, shoulder, and other parts of your body will appreciate it.
My last three notebooks have been from the IBM ThinkPad T-series. They are expensive, but have good support, great keyboards, and solid cases. (My previous notebook, the HP OmniBook, ended up being called the OmniBreak because five components needed to be replaced in eight months!) I am typing this on a T41 -- fabulous keyboard.
If you want to go a bit funky (and risky) and be sure that you're the only one on your block with a particular model, the Panasonic Y2 is very cool. (I can't speak to the support issues, though, so be careful). It has a 14.1" screen and a built-in optical drive and weighs only 3.3 lbs. You can find it at http://www.panasonic.com/computer/toughbook/learn_more_tby2.asp -- use http://www.PriceGrabber.com to find someone who sells it.
If your school is "into" technology, they'll have a pretty robust wireless network. (We've had the whole place -- inside and out -- done since fall 2000.) If you can, get a notebook with 802.11 a, b, and g. (All three standards.) We've already started replacing our 802.11b with a/b/g access points for greater speed and signal density. If you can't get all three standards, ask the school's networking folks what they recommend.)
Finally, the Dells that our students bought in September 2003 have crappy wireless capabilities. The issue isn't with which standards or chipsets they support, but with the design and placement of their antennas. Apple, IBM, and others build the antenna (sometimes dual antennas) into th lid so that they are high and in a good position to pick up radio signals. The Dells wrapped the antenna around the keyboard. Not only is it low, but it's covered by your hands as you work. I'm hoping that this year's models are better, but do not know.
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