Choosing the right PC for college

August 03, 1998|By Mike Himowitz

For millions of students who graduated from high school last month, it's time to get serious about heading off to college in September. That means finding the right computer to take with you.

Although this is often the cause of much hand-wringing, it doesn't have to be. A call to the college computer center and some judicious shopping will produce a well-connected freshman.

First, find out if the college requires a particular computer. A handful of schools have taken the choice out of your hands to ensure that all students are compatible from the first day of classes. For example, Dartmouth College recently decreed that its students will buy the new Apple iMac. Others may require a particular model of laptop.

If that's the case at your school, buy whatever they tell you to buy - even if you know something about computers and think it's a dumb choice. Many college computer centers will sell you the computer at a decent price (along with a service contract). Unless you can find the machine for a lot less money somewhere else, pay up.

While most schools aren't digital dictators, campuses often have their own computer "cultures," meaning that they lean toward Windows PCs or Macs. Call the people at the campus computer center and ask. If they won't commit themselves (some consider it impolitic to take sides in a religious war), ask other students.

This isn't always an easy question to answer. For example, at the same campus, fine arts majors and their teachers will use Macs, while business schools expect their future captains of industry to show up with PCs. If you're pretty sure about your prospective major, call the department's office and inquire.

Why is this conformity so important? Well, it's great to be an individualist. But unless you're the person everybody else calls with problems, the chances are good that you'll need help somewhere down the line. If you're among the 10 percent of students who have Macs on a PC-oriented campus (or vice versa), you may have trouble finding someone to bail you out when something goes wrong.

Another good way to determine the campus culture is to find out what the college is selling. Even if colleges don't require a specific PC, many offer preconfigured machines and service. If the school offers both PCs and Macs (and sells a decent number of both), you can confidently choose either. If not, get the type of machine the school offers.

How good a deal can you expect from a college? It depends on the school. Last year, when my son was leaving for college, I checked out the Dell systems his student computer center offered and found I could get a better model for less money directly from Dell.

On the other hand, if you're not confident about buying a computer on your own and want to make sure you'll be able to get service, buy from the college. You won't miss by more than a few hundred dollars, which doesn't amount to much over four years - especially considering the price of tuition.

With all this taken into consideration, how much computer do you need? Not a lot, really, unless you're studying graphic arts or computer science. Most students spend their computer time writing papers, browsing the Web, sending e-mail and playing games. The only one of these activities that requires real horsepower is the last.

As to specifics, even today's bargain $1,000 computers will do the job (aside from games). But you may want to spend a few dollars more to make sure your PC has a good, sharp monitor, 64 megabytes of memory and at least 4 megabytes of hard disk space. Pressed for a recommendation, I'd say a 266- or 300-MHz Pentium II machine is a good compromise between price and the ability to shoot down 42 Klingons simultaneously over the network in real time.

A serious consideration is space. Many college dorm rooms aren't much bigger than closets. Tiny desks are the rule. So you might want to consider a low-profile desktop machine instead of a minitower - or a laptop instead of either one.

Which brings us to another momentous decision - park your machine or carry it? Desktop computers offer more bang for the buck and are more comfortable to use, but they take up a lot of room. A laptop is compact and portable, which means you can tote it to the library, lab or classroom to take notes. On the other hand, laptops can disappear when you're not watching them, which happens more often than most colleges would like to admit. So take your choice.

Also, consider connectivity. Many schools are wiring dorm rooms into their computer systems, which means you'll need a network adapter card to jack in. The computer center will usually install a network card for you, but during the fall crush, this can take anywhere from a week to a month.

If you're buying a new PC, you may be able to eliminate the wait by having a network card installed when you buy the machine. Once again, call the folks at the school's computer center and buy exactly the kind of adapter they recommend (no substitutions).

Finally, do you need a printer? If the school has wired dorms, chances are good that network printers will be available. Even if they are, consider buying an inexpensive, compact ink jet for your room. Networks go down, and so do network printers. If it's midnight and you have a paper due at 8 a.m., you don't want your grades to go down with the system.

Pub Date: 8/3/98

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