Laptop better for college students

Plugged In

May 31, 2007|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

With their newly minted high school graduates headed off to college this fall, millions of parents face two agonizing prospects. One is coming up with the first tuition check. The other is buying their freshman a computer.

After all these years, you'd think the PC part would be easy. Most of this fall's freshmen were born in 1989 and can't remember life without a computer, just as mom and dad have only vague recollections - if any - of life without TV. But for some reason, buying a computer remains one of life's agonizing experiences.

Don't sweat it. Virtually any computer on the shelf today can handle all the real work a college student is likely to throw at it. The question to ask about a PC is how much fun a student can have with it - and how much you're willing to pay for the privilege.

This year, for the first time, I'm recommending laptop computers for most college students.

For $1,200 or less you can buy a portable with enough horsepower for everything but high-end gaming or professional video editing. And that price tag includes the most important component of every college student's PC - an extended warranty.

A well-equipped laptop still costs $400 to $500 more than a desktop machine with similar capabilities. But the overall price of technology has declined to the point where the portability premium is barely a blip on the total bill for a four-year degree.

That said, today we'll talk about the general principles of laptop shopping. Next week we'll conclude with specific components to look for.

One critical factor in evaluating any Windows-based PC is which version of the Vista operating system it will run. Released in January, Vista comes in two versions designed for home and school use - Basic and Premium.

The Basic version will do everything a student absolutely needs to do: word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, and so forth. But it isn't much fun - it lacks the flashy graphical interface of the Premium edition and isn't suitable for games or hot multimedia entertainment.

To run Vista Premium, you'll need some horsepower.

Size matters

Most manufacturers won't put Vista Premium on a machine that can't handle it, but you should still look for a PC with an Intel dual-core processor or a similar Turion chip from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). You'll also need at least 1 gigabyte of standard memory, and a graphics adapter with 128 megabytes of dedicated video memory.

The next factor is size - and with laptops, it does matter.

A lot depends on how your student plans to use his computer. Some students plunk the PC on their dorm room desk in September and don't move it till they head home on vacation.

Others drag their computers to the library and lab every day, or use them to take notes in class while they chat with friends over campus wireless networks. Still others prefer spiral notebooks and pencils for classroom work and have no urge to keep in touch with their buddies minute-by-minute.

If your student is a computing homebody, a standard laptop with comfortable, 15-inch screen and keyboard is a good choice. Most PCs in this class weigh 6 to 9 pounds, with a battery that lasts two to four hours.

For dedicated couch potatoes who want a luggable entertainment center, monster machines with 17-inch screens that weigh up to 11 pounds are pricey but capable alternatives. With battery life measured in minutes, these are best described as "transportables."

If your student is constantly on the move and wants to minimize weight while maximizing battery life, a slimmed-down road warrior with a 12- to 14-inch screen PC weighs only 4 to 5 pounds, with batteries that last six to eight hours.

Campus culture

The lightest of these save weight by eliminating a DVD/CD player altogether - which means you'll probably wind up buying an external drive for an additional $100 to $150.

Talk these issues over with your student before you buy. Better yet, talk to some students who attend the same college to get a sense of the campus computing culture. And look for advice on the college Web site.

If your student is studying graphics arts, electronic music or another computing-intensive subject, the college or academic department may recommend or even require specific computers (such as Mac for artists).

Colleges frequently offer deals on computers from major manufacturers. Although the prices are unlikely to be rock bottom, these PCs can be good buys, particularly if the college offers factory authorized service.

Just remember that no one can predict today how your student will use the computer months or years from now. So unless you're sure, it's a good idea to avoid extremes of size and weight.

Meanwhile, to paraphrase an old John Updike essay, think of a laptop PC as progress with an escape hatch.

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