A helpful list of considerations if you're buying a new computer for college.
Post co-written with Sammy Drummond.
For students across the world, high school life is over and they're about to embark on university life. This is an exciting time, yet lots of planning is needed to ensure that they are properly equipped to get off on the right foot. One of the most necessary and treasured possessions these students will require is a computer. Here are a range of equipment types and important considerations to be aware of.
Before getting started, it’s pretty much a given that you’re going to look for a portable computer. Desktops may provide more power for the price, but the lack of portability and difficulty transporting them make them unrealistic for college students who live at schools and have to travel back and forth from school (on the other hand, if you are a commuter, it may be worth considering a desktop).
First check your school’s requirements and recommendations
Check with your school for their requirements for equipment. If you are going to need specific applications or have to conform to any specific hardware requirements, you need to know this and keep it in mind as you weigh other considerations.
Netbooks are one of the least expensive options for the cash starved student. They are very portable, being small and fairly weightless. One drawback is that they aren't quite as powerful as other laptops so while they’ll work fine for many applications, they sure won’t excel at gaming (although maybe limiting that distraction is a good idea). They also may not meet processing or storage requirements for some technical programs.
To find a variety of netbooks, just head over to Amazon.com and type “netbooks”, or try any other online or local vendor of choice.
Bigger, more powerful, but still on a budget
If a netbook is just too small or limited but the budget is still tight (which it is for most college students these days), consider one of the many lower cost laptops available these days. For anywhere from $400 to $800 you will have a wide variety of portable power available to you.
Key considerations in the power-versus-cost area include:
- Size: The bigger the screen you want, the larger (but not necessarily heavier) and generally the more costly the computer will be. It’s a trade off you have to weigh. The size of the keyboard will generally correspond to the size of the screen. As for the weight of the unit, you can get large screen units that are not very heavy, but those are “ultra-thin” units that tend to be costly.
- Storage capacity: The more space you have the more flexibility you have, and more space is generally not too expensive, so weigh this closely. 1 TB is a good recommendation – plenty of room for growth without buying more than you need.
- Processor: For PCs, an Intel Core i5 or low-end Core i7, or perhaps an AMD FX or A Series, will deliver the speed you need in 90 percent of cases. CPU speeds and the number of ‘cores’ (single, double, or quad) equate to overall power and are a cost versus power consideration.
- RAM: 4 GB is a really a minimum these days, but at the same time, its all most users really need. Note that to be able to really use more than 4 GB of RAM, you will need a 64bit Operating System (newer computers are increasingly shipping with Windows 7 64 bit OS but if you really want, but be sure to check for it – and you may have to sacrifice this to get a less expensive unit).
- Connectivity: Most portable device computers will connect via a wireless adapter. If you get something that is 802.11n compatible, this will let you take advantage of higher speed connections when available. If you can get a hard wired connection in your dorm room, these are always more reliable and faster and it’s nice to be able to take advantage of it, so keep that in mind.
- Webcam: Built in webcams are increasingly commonplace and are great for staying in touch with family and friends, so make sure one is included if you consider it a requirement.
If you can afford, or require, higher end equipment, you will have the options of adding more processing power, larger screens, going ultrathin, going Quadcore, adding “extras” like USBs for extra storage, and so on. There are many choices here and they’re really based on how you plan on using the device.
Mac versus PC
I’m not going there. This is such a personal taste kind of thing. While many people believe that education and Macs go hand-in-hand, so do higher costs. That being said, Macs are a great product (but PCs are fine too).
What about Tablets?
I love my iPad, but it’s not a replacement for PC or a Mac. If budget is limited, get the computer first.
Operating System: If you’re buying a new PC today, it’s pretty much sure to have Windows 7 on it. A Mac will have OS X.
Other applications: This will be driven largely by the Mac versus PC decision and your school’s requirements. If you get a PC, know that student versions of MS Office are often available through college bookstores for as little as $15 or so.
Hopefully these considerations help you narrow down to the best choices for you or the student you are buying for.
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