It's time to shop for college PCs

July 10, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

If you have a freshman headed to college in September -- or your college student is griping about the hand-me-down clunker you packed her off to campus with two years ago -- this is a good time to think about a new PC for the fall.

While college students use their computers much the same way their parents do --for word processing, e-mail and Web browsing -- they typically spend more time at the keyboard than mom and dad do. Also, life in college dorms is, shall we say, a bit "different" from life at home. This means a computer that's fine for your basement may not be the right choice for your student.

Your goal, of course, is a computer that will last through four years of college without putting a big dent in a bank account that has already been bashed by tuition and room and board charges. On the other hand, because college kids spend so much time in front of their PCs, it's worth spending a few bucks more than the absolute minimum to provide them with a computing environment that's pleasant and ergonomically safe.

One of the first questions freshman parents ask is whether to buy a laptop or desktop computer.

Laptops have an obvious allure. They don't take up much space; they're easy to tote home on vacations, and they're great for students who study in the library and want a PC on hand to take notes.

On the down side, laptops are more expensive than desktop PCs -- at least 50 percent more for comparable horsepower. Unless you're willing to spend $2,000 or more, you'll be buying into the lowest end of the computing spectrum. Even then, laptop screens are smaller and harder to read over long periods than standard monitors. Laptops are also far more fragile than standard PCs, too easy to step on, and much easier to steal.

For these reasons, I generally recommend a desktop PC unless there's a compelling reason to go portable -- such as a business program that requires students to take a laptop to class.

If you do buy a laptop, get one with an active matrix display (also known as a TFT screen). These are brighter and sharper than cheaper screens and well worth the premium. Also make sure your machine has at least 64 megabytes of internal memory. Cheaper laptops typically come with 32 megabytes of RAM, which isn't enough.

The next big question is whether to buy a Windows PC or Mac. Frankly, this is a religious issue, not a technical one.

Under most circumstances, either one will do the job. While Macs account for only 10 percent to 15 percent of the total market, they're somewhat more popular on college campuses than in the real world. As a result, most colleges today are computer "agnostic." This means their tech support departments will deal with both kinds of machines, and most schools have computer labs with PCs and Macs.

That said, it's a good idea to check with the school -- or your student's department -- to see if there's a preference. If your son or daughter is studying graphic design, a Mac is the obvious choice. For business administration or computer science, a PC may be required. Other things being equal, you'll get more bang for the buck (and a much greater variety of compatible hardware and software) with a Windows machine.

Should you go with a Mac, be sure to buy an external floppy drive or SuperDisk so your student can back up important files. Apple eliminated removable media from its iMacs to shave a few bucks off the price, a criminal omission. You don't want your kid's term papers or projects disappearing in a hard disk crash.

For general desktop computing, I recommend a Windows machine with a lower end Pentium III or Athlon processor (600 to 700 MHz), 128 megabytes of memory and at least 10 gigabytes of hard disk space. The latter is important because college kids store a lot of music on their PCs. Almost all PCs in this range come with adequate video and sound, as well as a CD-ROM and modem.

If your student is a game player, you might want to splurge on a 3-D video card with at least 16 megabytes of onboard memory. If you'd rather he spend his time studying, forget the fancy graphics. PCs are replacing boom boxes as the standard entertainment center in many dorms, so a decent set of speakers with a subwoofer is a welcome addition.

A more important issue is the monitor, and this is where you should scout the territory ahead of time. While I recommend a 17-inch screen, many dorm rooms aren't much bigger than prison cells, with desks designed for hobbits. If space is cramped, your student may be better off with a 15-inch monitor.

You'll also need a network adapter if your student's dorm is wired. Many college tech support departments will install a network card for a small fee, but there's often a waiting list, and it may be a few weeks before they can get around to your son or daughter.

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