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What’s The Best Computer For A New College Student In 2008?

Posted Oct 18 2008 12:11pm

By CK Wilde for 3GenFamily Blog.

Congratulations, graduates and parents!

You have successfully navigated the sometimes stormy waters of K through 12 schooling to reach that long hoped for goal — High School Graduation Day. And, you have been accepted to a fine college. Now, you need to start buying those key personal tools that a Freshman will need for success in college.

At the top of every new college student’s list is a sleek, new desktop computer or laptop. After a cell phone (and perhaps a beloved mp3 player), the computer is one of a college student’s most coveted pieces of gear.

Which Kind To Buy - Desktop or Laptop?

Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” computer. For some students, a laptop is a necessity. For others, the desktop is better.

Answering these questions can help you make a decision:

1) What do the college and current students say about computers?

Every college wants their students to succeed. Every campus has some public use computers. Those that have too few public use computers to accommodate every student at peak times will recommend that you bring a computer to campus.

If you didn’t ask when you were touring the campus, email your college to ask how students use computers on campus. Do most students bring a laptop? Does the campus offer wireless connections throughout or just in certain areas? Do students collaborate online regularly as part of classes? Do most of the classrooms accommodate laptops with sufficient desk space, electrical outlets and wired or wireless connections?

If most course materials are online, email is the primary mode of communication and everyone works together using wikis rather than whiteboards or paper notebooks, a laptop is the way to go.

If computer use is mostly for online research, or the student needs lots of computing power for graphics design, video gaming, computer programming or high level science and math, a desktop will offer the best value and be easier to expand as needed.

2) How does the student study right now?

Writing notes by hand in a spiral notebook is not the same as keying notes in a word processor on a laptop. Educators agree that many students perform better when they write drafts and edit essays by hand. It allows for total focus on the subject without interruption of email, social networking, blogs or videos.

Where does the student prefer to study — in the dorm room or somewhere else on campus? It is difficult to lug around a desktop to a quiet spot at the library or even just to the lounge when your roommate has invited all of his friends to watch South Park in your room.

Our college freshman discovered this past year that he really preferred to take notes by hand in a paper notebook. Most of the desks in his classrooms were too small to fit his big, shiny, new laptop. It was awkward trying to take notes while the laptop teetered on the edge of the desk.

Being an avid video gamer, our son chose one of the highest performing laptops that HP offered on its website. Shiny, black with a wide, high resolution screen, it was perfect for video games but heavy to carry as he walked around campus with his extra large backpack.

After running to class through a downpour on a typical New England autumn day, our son shockingly discovered that his expensive laptop backpack wasn’t totally waterproof! Even though the computer did not get directly splashed, moisture seeped into the laptop slowly changing irregular patches of pixels on the screen from bright white to leaden gray.

This is one of the major downsides of carrying a laptop–they are more easily damaged in day to day activities. Ruggedized laptops exist but are out of the reach budget-wise of most college students.

Fortunately, our son had purchased the extended warranty so he was able to get the laptop repaired by the manufacturer. His extended warranty saved the day. If you have the option to purchase an extended warranty with repairs for “accidents” by all means get it.

While the computer was at the factory, our college freshman discovered that there were plenty of computers on campus to get his work done. But, he was forced to leave his room every time he needed to use the computer.

Not so much fun during the winter.

The Computer He Would Have Chosen

Knowing what he knows now, our son would have purchased a blazing fast desktop rather than a high performance laptop. And, he would continue to take notes in class with a paper notebook — easy to do on those small student desks.

He has seen a few of the new ullra-small computers, like the Asus Eee PC, traveling with their owners around campus. This seems like the ideal note taking laptop for the always connected student whose budget will allow buying both a desktop and a laptop.

Mac or PC or Linux?

Despite Apple’s cute commercials featuring John Hodgeman (The Daily Show) singing the blues with a lovable hound dog yowling in the background, the PC running Microsoft’s operating system is not disappearing from the face of the earth. Which to choose is a matter of familiarity (which have you used before) and price. Macs often cost more than equivalent PCs. For example, an HP Pavillion dv6700t costs around $1200 while a comparably equipped Apple MacBook Pro 15 inch is $2050.

Macs get viruses (albeit fewer of them) just like PCs so whichever you choose you need to protect your computer from them. Even Linux computers come with anti-virus software because it is the realistic and prudent thing to do. You can help keep your PC trouble free with Windows Live OneCare.

Macs have always been “cool”, but PCs are catching up on style. Linux computers are rapidly emerging from experimental to mainstream.

The tiny Asus Eee PC has been selling like hotcakes since it was introduced last year. Last week, our high school freshman bought one with money he had saved up. He got the Eee PC 900 running Linux. It came with a complete desktop suite just like you would expect on a Mac or PC for a price that’s as small as the Eee PC itself.

Out of the box, it was ready for basic work. The screen was a reasonable size for Internet browsing or writing an English essay. My high schooler’s slender fingers have no trouble with the small keyboard. He tells me that someone who is Linux savvy can find almost every kind of software for a Linux computer online but it takes a bit of experience to get a really satisfactory result. So a Linux computer may not be the perfect choice for someone who is shy about technology.

Before you venture on the Internet or to the electronics store, spend some time figuring out how and where the new college student will study and what the technology culture is like at the school. You will get a better idea of what kind of computer you need before you get to specific models.

For more help on choosing a particular desktop or laptop, CNET has comprehensive reviews to help choose a particular machine.

© 2008 CK Wilde. All Rights Reserved. Please feel free to link to this post but you must have prior written permission to reproduce this post either whole or in part. Please use the comments to request permission.

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