Tips on buying a computer for the college-bound

Personal Computers

June 10, 1996|By PETER H. LEWIS

GOOD LUCK to all those now shopping for a computer for college-bound scholars.

Parents of the Class of 2000 probably made it all the way through college without a personal computer. But as parents have no doubt heard by now, times have changed. For one thing, a computer linked to the Internet is the most powerful research tool available to students today. For another, most jobs involve computers either directly or indirectly, and personal computer skills are a definite advantage. And, electronic mail is a much superior way to write home for money.

After parents have written all those checks for tuition, room, board, books and clothes, they may be surprised to hear from Junior that it will all be for naught unless he also has a new $4,000 IBM or Apple notebook computer. Do not buy it, literally or figuratively. At least, do not buy it yet. Before doing anything else, check with the admissions office to find out if the college recommends any particular type, brand or configuration of computer. Some schools favor Windows-based computers, while others have greater support services for Apple Macintoshes.

Second, ask the school about special discounts for buying a computer through the college or at a campus computer reseller. In many cases, students (and parents) can save hundreds of dollars by purchasing a computer through the school.

One of the bigger decisions is whether to get a desktop computer or a battery-powered portable.

Portable computers are undeniably more useful for college students, at least in theory. It is much more efficient to take notes on a computer in class, in the library or at the coffee shop than to scribble notes by hand and type them in later.

And that brings us to one buying factor that is often overlooked: Some students may not be ready for the responsibility of keeping and caring for a computer.

If the parent has already had a long experience with lost books, calculators and clothing, the idea of sending the child off with a small, expensive portable inevitably raises second thoughts.

Also, computer thefts, especially of portables, are on the rise. Several companies make the equivalent of bicycle locks for portable computers. These inexpensive devices, which can be found at most computer stores, are hardened steel cables that can be clipped or looped through the built-in security hooks found on many portables. The other end of the cable is attached to some theoretically immovable or at least large object, like a desk or chair. Ripping the computer away from the cable destroys the computer's case and effectively marks it as a stolen machine.

A common mistake is to buy the student a fancy carrying case for the portable computer, especially one that has the computer maker's logo on the bag. A handsome carrying case with an Apple or Compaq symbol says "Steal Me Now!" to admiring passers-by. A well-padded backpack is a much better means of conveyance.

It is always a good idea to engrave the student's name, driver's license number or student identification number somewhere in the computer, using the same simple tools that police departments provide for marking television sets, stereo equipment and other items popular with burglars.

Users with some degree of programming skills can even write a simple batch program that, every time the machine is turned on, displays on screen a message like: "This machine belongs to (name, address, phone). Enter password now or device will self-destruct in 10 seconds."

All these precautions make sense for other portable computer users as well, of course.

You do not have to go to college to get smart about portable computer security.

Peter Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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