College PCs: Mobility vs. fit

August 02, 1999|By Rasmi Simhan | Rasmi Simhan,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

If you graduated from high school in June and you're getting ready for college in the fall, you may have thought all the big decisions were behind you for a while. But you still have one major choice to make:

Desktop or laptop.

Like searching for the right college, finding the right kind of computer can be nerve-racking. Desktop computers are cheaper and more comfortable to use, but they're pretty much stuck in one place. Laptops are easy to tote, but they're more expensive, fragile and easier to lose. To make the right choice, you have decide how you intend to use the PC and how much you're willing to spend.

"Unless you absolutely need the portability, you'll get a lot more power out of a desktop and it'll last longer," said Zach Rorke, a hardware sales associate at CompUSA.

There's virtually no disagreement on that point. Laptops cost about twice as much as desktops with the same processing power, and cost more to repair. Dell's least expensive Dimension desktop computer, with a 400 MHz Celeron processor, 64 megabytes of memory, a 15-inch monitor and network adapter, sells for about $1,200. Its least expensive laptop, with a slower processor, is about $2,400 similarly equipped.

At the high end, IBM's multimedia Aptiva 585, with 128 MB of memory and a DVD drive, is about $2,300 with a monitor. The company's similarly equipped ThinkPad 770 laptop sells for about $4,500.

Even the least expensive laptops, including Apple's slick new iBook, start at about $1,700.

If something goes wrong with your computer, generic desktop replacement parts are sold at most computer stores, but laptop parts are proprietary and frequently available only from the computer maker.

"If you lose something, you've got to shell out a lot of money and order it from the manufacturer," Rorke said of laptops. "It's a lot more headache."

Size is a selling point for desktop use. A standard mouse is easier to manipulate than a laptop's touchpad or rollerball. A laptop's smaller keyboard may frustrate students who are used to typing quickly on a desktop machine.

Memory Expansion and hard-disk upgrades cost more for laptops. So, one factor in the decision is what kinds of programs you intend to run and how much you plan on cramming onto your hard drive.

"Give me time and I can max out the memory on anything," said Joseph Deinlein, a junior from Kingsville majoring in communications at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "Sound files, games, documents, Photoshop, Pagemaker ..."

For that reason, engineering and design majors should consider desktop machines because of the greater memory space available and their full-size, high-resolution monitors.

Utility isn't everything. Unless you're willing to spend a lot of money, laptops are also a disadvantage if you play multimedia video games. You won't get the graphic and audio impact of a full-sized system when you're blasting the pants off your enemies in Quake or playing music and graphics from the Internet.

Even so, many college students find the laptop fits in better with their lifestyles.

"If I were doing high-tech desktop publishing I'd probably get a desktop, but I'm only writing and checking e-mail," said Faith Snyder of Clark., N.J., an English and journalism major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Jamie Hopkins, a junior at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., says living in a sorority makes studying in the dorm difficult. She often takes her laptop to the library to avoid distractions or to let her roommate sleep. She appreciates the laptop's convenience at meetings and the school coffee shop, and notes that laptops go where desktops can't -- home for spring break and across the world for study abroad.

"Trying to transport a desktop would have been impractical," Hopkins said.

But the laptop's greatest strength -- portability -- is also a major drawback. Carelessness results in many campus thefts. All thieves need is an unlocked door, an unattended machine and a few seconds. On the plus side, students can secure their laptops to their desks with a lock that sells for about $25.

Even for cautious owners, frequent travel can damage a laptop, and the repair bills can be large. Laptops also are subject to hazards that desktop PCs rarely encounter. Consider the laptop owner at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who stepped on her machine and paid $483 to repair the cracked screen.

"I'd say stepping on them is usually fatal," said Marianne Colgrove, Reed's associate director of computer information.

But traveling with a desktop PC isn't carefree. Moving a desktop twice a year shouldn't damage the computer's hardware, but hauling it from home to school and back might. "It was a huge hassle lugging four huge boxes up and down in the car," said David Lee, a senior from Baltimore who bought a laptop after his sophomore year at Yale University.

But others say the computer just joins the seasonal load.

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