Choosing a computer for college

August 16, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

When my friends and I headed off to college three decades ago, we had only one technical decision to make -- manual typewriter or electric?

Today, computers are standard equipment on campus, a situation that elicits more than its share of angst from my generation -- parents who find themselves footing the bill for a complex and expensive gadget they don't understand and which didn't even exist when they were in school.

Kids, tell your parents to relax. Most students use their computers for three basic activities -- word processing, Web browsing and electronic mail (with games and digital music thrown in for fun). Almost any new, reasonably equipped computer can handle the meat-and-potatoes jobs. But with judicious shopping and a little research, you can make sure you have a computer that matches your academic needs and lifestyle.

One of the first decisions you'll have to make is whether to buy a Windows-based PC or an Apple Macintosh. While Apple has only a fraction of the general personal computer market, it has always been a major player on college campuses. I won't get into the PC vs. Mac debate here (it's really a religious war), but it's a good idea to check into the campus computer "culture" before you make a decision.

Unless you're techno-savvy, you'll probably depend on the college's computer services center or on other students for help with networking, printing and other problems that might crop up. Check the college's Web site for computer recommendations, and ask other students what they use.

If you find support for both types of computers on campus, it doesn't matter which you buy.

But if PCs outnumber Macs 10-to-1 or vice versa, it's foolish to go against the flow without a good reason.

And there might be one -- for example, graphic arts majors will use Macs no matter what the prevailing campus culture, and business administration students will probably use PCs.

If you have a good idea what your major will be, check with that department to see whether it has a preference.

Unless it's vitally important that you use a PC to take notes in the classroom, laboratory or library, I recommend a desktop computer rather than a laptop. Desktop machines are much cheaper, easier to fix and less likely to break in the first place. They also aren't as easy to steal.

A compromise: buy a reasonably priced desktop machine and one of the new, featherweight Windows CE portables for note-taking and data entry.

The HP Jornada 820 -- one of the best of this breed -- is available online for as little as $700 and comes with a "light" version of Microsoft Office. When you add up the dollars, you'll spend no more than you would for a decent, full-featured laptop computer.

One constraint on a desktop system might be space -- there's not much of it in college dorm rooms. In fact, the desks at my son's college look like they were designed for sixth-graders. It's a good idea to check ahead of time before you commit yourself to a full-size tower unit with a 17-inch monitor.

If space is at a premium and your budget is tight, consider a single-piece computer such as an iMac or the new, Windows-based eOne from eMachines, both of which have built-in Ethernet adapters for campus networks. The iMac runs about $1,300 (including the floppy drive that Apple left out), while the eOne is available for about $900. They aren't as expandable as standard PCs, but they'll get the job done.

Should you receive an unexpected inheritance or win a small prize in the lottery, slim hybrids such as the NEC Z1 or Gateway Profile use pedestal-mounted liquid crystal display screens to pack a lot of computing power into very little space. But expect to pay $2,000 to $2,500.

If you're shopping for a standard PC, it's a good idea to avoid the bottom level of the bargain basement. At the low end, look for a computer with an Intel Celeron or AMD K6-2 processor running at 400 MHz or better, with at least 64 megabytes of memory and a hard disk with at least 6 megabytes of storage. That will handle the standard chores. Expect to pay $1,000 to $1,400 for a system with a 15-inch monitor.

Gamers and computer science or engineering majors will be happier with more horsepower -- look for a machine with an Intel Pentium III processor running at 450 MHz (you'll pay an unnecessary premium for higher speed), at least 96 megabytes of RAM and a 3D graphics adapter with at least 8 megabytes of video memory. Expect to pay $1,500 to $2,000.

Mac devotees might love the cute design of the iMac, but power users should consider one of Apple's heftier Power Mac G3 machines, which start at about $1,500 with a 15-inch monitor.

Before you buy a computer locally and lug it to school, check to see whether your campus computer center sells PCs to students. Many have arrangements with Dell, Apple, Gateway and other manufacturers.

While you won't necessarily save much money -- if any -- you'll get a solid machine that your help desk can support. Usually, it will also be delivered to your dorm room and hooked up to the campus network. This alone might be worth making the deal.

Finally, make sure you have Microsoft Word installed on your PC. Cheaper machines might come with Microsoft Works or Apple's ClarisWorks (all-in-one suites that combine a word processor spreadsheets and other programs). These are fine for home use, but Microsoft Word is the medium of intellectual exchange on most campuses -- and its files can be shared easily among Windows and Mac users.

Have a great year!

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