Choosing a student's PC raises many questions


March 21, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

This week's mail brought a question from a reader whose granddaughter will be graduating from high school in a couple of months.

He wants to buy her a present to take away to college and thinks a computer would be a good idea. But he wants to know what kind -- IBM-compatible or Macintosh? He's also worried about crowded dorm rooms and wants to know which is better, a laptop or desktop model? And he wants to know what kind of printer to buy.

They're all good questions, and with college acceptance time just around the corner, it's not too early to think about the issues. To find the answers, you'll need to do a bit of research -- or have your favorite graduate-to-be do it for you.

First things first. Colleges have been in the forefront of community computing for years, and many now have dorm rooms wired into campus networks that give students and faculty access to college mainframes from their desktop PCs. A handful of schools actually require incoming students to have their own computers.

Electronic mail is now a favorite form of campus communication, and some parents with access to the Internet (or even an account on a commercial on-line service such as Compuserve, Prodigy or America Online) find it cheap and convenient to keep in touch with their offspring electronically. In fact one father recently told me that his son -- who had never written his parents a letter in his life -- now communicates regularly via E-mail. "Am broke -- send money" seems to be a favorite message.

At some schools, students can submit research papers to their teachers electronically over the campus network, or just hand the professor a disk.

Computer-friendly academics believe this kind of interaction reinforces the collegial nature of scholarship by making it easy for professors to make comments on works in progress and for students to make revisions.

Which computer is best for your student often depends on the school's particular computer "culture."

Apple, which has long-standing relationships with educational institutions, made deals with many colleges early on, and the predominant culture at these institutions is Macintosh. If most students and faculty use Macs and the college has a network set up to support them, then a Mac is a wise decision.

Other schools may have IBM cultures, while still others welcome all comers. Even within a college, departments may have their favorites.

For example, English professors may like to exchange Mac documents written in Microsoft Word, while business administration departments may prefer IBM-compatibles running Lotus 1-2-3, long the standard tool of the corporate world.

Since most of a student's work involves research papers and reports, the choice of word processing software is important. In the Mac world, Microsoft Word is dominant, while WordPerfect dominates the IBM-compatible market.

However, the type of computer may not be as important as it once was. Many application programs now come in both Mac and IBM flavors, and their files are compatible across both platforms. Even so, it's important to check beforehand with the admissions department, the academic department your student is considering for a major, or students already at the school.

If the college has no preference, other factors come into play, such as the type of computer the family has at home. If your student is going to bring work home on vacation, it's easier if he or she has the same type of computer at school.

The question of laptop vs. desktop computer is largely one of personal preference and budget.

Desktop machines offer expandability and readability. A sharp 14- or 15-inch color monitor is easier on the eyes than a small

laptop screen, and a full-size keyboard is less likely to produce typist's cramp than the elf-sized keys on many of today's notebook computers. If your student is interested in multimedia -- CD-ROM drives, sound and music -- it's also much easier and cheaper to do it with a desktop machine.

On the other hand, laptops don't occupy much real estate in crowded dorm rooms, and they're easy to tote to class or the library. They also eliminate the problem of incompatible home and school computers.

A laptop generally costs at least 50 percent more than a desktop computer with equivalent horsepower. The disparity is even greater for models with good color screens. Lap tops are also more likely to break and more expensive to repair.

Since many portables also have external monitor connections, a good compromise -- at a premium of $300 to $400 -- is a laptop computer with stand-alone monitor for your student's desk. More money (a lot) will buy a laptop with a so-called "docking station" such as the Macintosh Powerbook Duo. The docking station turns the laptop into the equivalent of a full desktop computer, although this is probably overkill for the average college workload.

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