College Computer Suggestions

In preparation for going to college, I’ve obviously had to work on several different things. Most of these I’ve been able to handle, but there is always the question of what the heck computer to get, and what to get with it.

At this point, I’m considering a laptop, but recently a desktop has begun to appeal to me more and more. Whichever I get, I know I’ll use a normal keyboard and mouse, simply because I’m more comfortable that way. I’d love input on either side of that debate, it would really help this endeavor.

Power is a bit difficult for me to decide. Although I’m not a huge gamer, I would like some degree of ability to stay current, mainly so I don’t have to buy a new one. And I do play some games and fool around with CPU intensive things like fractals and image editing, so I don’t exactly want to be stingy with power. Note that my major will likely be in either Genetics or Law (I have no clue which at this point), so power isn’t necessary for my classes, just off-time.

Another issue is which operating system to use. I really don’t like Apple computers (not saying they’re better or worse, just stating a preference. I’m not looking for a war here), so that leaves some species of Windows or Linux. My leaning at this point has been towards Windows 2000, simply because I really have no desire to deal with XP’s registration procedures, and never having run Linux (and being a sucker for compatibility). Suggestions here would be welcome as well!

Graphics/sound are somewhat mystifying. I don’t see myself using any 3D rendering, or complicated photographic editing, nor do I see myself playing some game with vast system requirements. Despite this, I don’t want to skimp here exactly, so suggestions would be much appreciated in this category.

Any brands people would like to suggest would be very nice as well! I am fairly confident that if I had to, I could put one together from the raw parts, but I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea.

Any other suggestions would be appreciated! Thanks in advance!

One of the DELL P4 packages for around 850 - 1,000 is probably your best bet. Not too bulky but plenty of power.

I’m a Mac user, so I’m not going to be able to recommend brands or specific configurations given that you prefer the PC, but generically I’d recommend that you shell out for the cream of the laptop crop, whatever that might be in PC terms, and then accessorize the hell out of it so that you have all the equipment you would have if you’d gone desktop when you’re parked and docked, but still have the mobility thing going for you (which you’re really going to need in college).

Think in terms of:

a) CardBus “breakout box” device that gives you 2-4 external PCI slots. One of them you’ll fill with a dual-monitor video card so you can run a pair of 19 inch Trinitron or flatscreen equivalents in addition to your laptop’s TFT screen. That leaves you three more for other cool stuff like audio-video digitizer, USB / Firewire combo, and UltraSCSI.

b) Between the UltraSCSI and the Firewire, you can hook up an awe-inspiring array of digital cameras, external hard drives, MP3 players, removable media drives, and so on, and USB has your printers and home automation setup and graphics tablets and mice and so forth. You can always slap an adapter to go to parallel-port for your legacy equipment as well.

c) Right in the laptop itself, you want a DVD-R / CD-RW combo drive so you can burn your own CDs and DVDs as well as play back movies and audio CDs and access data from CDs and DVD-ROMs including your own archives and whatnot.

d) Check for upgradeability of the CPU. One fast processor is good for today but I would imagine the dawn of the dual-processor laptop is not far in coming, and if yourprocessor is on some kind of daughercard or is in a ZIF socket or something, that makes it more likely that you’ll be able to keep it current over the course of the next few years. And check with your PC-using friends. You want an under-the-hood architecture that lets you get the full advantage of the speedy chips you’re paying for. A fast CPU isn’t much good if it scales back its processor cycles to handle heat problems and the design tends towards heat problems more often than a better design of a competitor.

e) IBM makes really good notebook hard drives. I will personally vouch for the TravelStar 60, but by the time you make your purchase they may size-bump their offerings. If you want to partition and set up a dual or triple-boot system with (for example) XP Pro, Linux, and ME for games, you want a big enough hard drive to leave you feeling uncramped for space after partitioning.

f) Start with 512 MB unless you get a good deal on a gig, but make sure you can add more RAM later. An architecture that will let you quadruple your RAM over time gives you room to grow.

g) Three words: hot swappable batteries. Whether via dual battery bays or a short-term built-in fallback battery that keeps your laptop energized long enough to swap, but some way to rotate them on-the-fly.

h) You have to like the feel of the built-in keyboard and mouse-equivalent, and the look of the built-in TFT screen. You will be places where your wonderful full-size keyboard and scrolly-wheel mouse and graphics tablet and beautiful twin 2048 x 1536 trins or flatscreens do not come with you – quick dashes to a 3-day conference, weekend with the girlfriend at the beach house – and the whole purpose of a laptop is that you can take it with you.

All very good points, and I do not disagree that a laptop has its merits. They are easier to steal however, and you might be pretty sick if your $1000+ investment gets swiped while you are in the bathroom.

Thanks to everyone who’s replied so far! I forgot to mention in my earlier posting, what time would likely be the best to purchase this computer? As late as possible, for maximum value? (Assume I start in September) Early August, to troubleshoot and install everything else that I may need? Even earlier, to take advantages of some price things that may not be around later on? Thanks again!

(BTW, I appreciate the pros/cons of a laptop. Figuring out how to keep it from getting stolen is obviously quite the coundrum at this point.)

Well, first of all, as soon as you buy a PC it is out of date. It’s just the way things are right now due to Moore’s Law. Mac’s are more backward compatable but, at this point, it isn’t a big issue.

As far as the desktop-laptop issue goes, buy a desktop. Desktops are cheaper and more powerful. You can also pick up a used laptop that will do simple things like Word really cheap.

As far as the OS question goes, and I hate to say it, go with MS. Linux-Unix-*BSD is great if you are going for a CS major. If you just want it to work, with the occasional crash, go with MS. Otherwise you will have to learn more *nix stuff than you actually need to know.


As a college student, I have to say that so far, in three years, I have never wished for a laptop. The portability thing might be nice, but we have so many computer labs around that finding a computer to use has never been an issue. Plus, like other people have already said, laptops are much, much more expensive than an equivalent desktop.
If you do want a laptop though, the theft issue isn’t too bad. If you back up your important files and have decent insurance, it’ll cover the cost of your laptop. Last year, a kid two doors down from me got his laptop stolen. He had his documents saved on University space so that wasn’t a problem, and within the week he received a newer, more powerful laptop as a replacement.
As for OS, go for the Windows. I think you’ll probably be stuck with XP if you’re getting a new computer, but it’s really not that bad. Unlike the other versions, I have yet to crash XP. And if history is any indicator, most companies will jump on the XP bandwagon and tailor their stuff for XP.
I’d also recommend not worrying about top of the line. Since you’re not doing anything intense on your computer, if it’s good enough for now, it’ll be good enough in four years.
The Dells posted above seemed pretty good. One thing though… Make sure you get a CD burner. They’re invaluable for making CDs (only as backups of ones you own, of course), and for burning DIVX movies you download off the internet (again, only as backups for the ones you already own…)

I think you’ll eventually want both, if you want to play games. Laptops don’t have the latest 3-D graphics, and a lot of games say they laptops are not supported at all. (Not sure how true that is) If I were going to college again, I’d get a decent desktop and a simple little laptop. Or a big PDA - do they still make WindowsCE machines with full-sized keyboards? Those would be great for taking notes and writing papers in libraries. I have an old HP Jornada 820 which would have been great for college - full sized keyboard, color 640x480 display, 10-hour battery life, 2.5 lbs. Slow as hell, but good enough to use as a notepad. I still use it when I’m asked to take notes at long meetings.

Or I guess you could buy a game console and a good laptop.

As for theft, just make sure your computer is insured and your data backed up. Also, most laptops have little anti-theft slots to which you can attach cable locks. Such cable locks can easily be defeated with wire cutters, but it would be useful when you just need to leave it unattended for a few minutes at a library.

You might want to contact the campus store and see if they have an academic discount. If so, it’ll be worth it to wait till you get there.

I live on campus and went the notebook route after giving up the desktop

Several advantages —

When campus housing gets noisy - you can pack up and head for the library to write that paper.

Ditto, if you’re easily distrated or find it too easy to turn on the television, etc., instead of working

More likely to get stolen - so yes you need to be more attentive - but you can get insurance for it (and your other valuables) on campus

You will get very tired of lugging that desktop home each fall/spring/break, etc. :frowning:

Space is very limited in most campus housing, and most it was never designed to accomodate students’ electronics, so space is at a premium and a deskop will take up your entire desk and then some when you include the accessories, etc.

As for power, I purchased a very powerful laptop and paid dearly for it :stuck_out_tongue: That’s one thing I would do differently, unless you’re a big time gamer, etc. You’re likely to have high speed internet on campus so I could have gotten by on half the machine that I purchased.
If I think of anything else, I will post it.

It depends.

Will you be staying on-campus or off-campus? If you will be staying on-campus, how modern are those dorm rooms?

How much are you willing to pay?

Without any further information I recommend a desktop over a notebook, simply because a desktop will be far more powerful than a notebook for the same cost. Desktops are also easier to upgrade and you aren’t locked into one vendor.

On OS it depends on what you want/need to do. Remember that Windows is just as a pain in the arse if you need to maintain the box.

Hmm… Maybe I would like that if say, I didn’t have to eat or find shelter but when I actually need money to SPEND on other things, this is clearly an impractical solution.

a) Most lappies have a Video Out. Why you would want 4 moniters going at a time in COLLEGE is beyond me.

b) Get a USB hub or a Vaio if your a MultiMedia yuppie

c) DVD/CDRW’s are slow and expensive compared to desktop models, only get one if you absolutely MUST have to burn stuff.

d) by the time the processor is slowing down, the rest of the system is pretty much obsolete itself.

e) IBM do make good (notebook) drives but do you really need triple booting?

f) 256 is more than adequate for most users and 512 is enough for all bu the most serious power user. Plus, current architectures only allow for 1 GB of RAM.

g) I agree 2 batterys are very useful if your mobile (I take my lappie to lectures so a 7hr battery is a godsend but, for the most part, people are never more than 3hrs away from a chargepoint.

h) Hmm… Im not sure collge students go on 3 day conferences or have beach houses.

Again, your advice is targeting a different market, what he wants is something that will give him the best computing experience for the least $$$

One thing I forgot. Regardless whether you go laptop or desktop, it might be worth it to contact your school before you buy to see if they have computer purchasing programs. These can vary from school to school, but the savings can sometimes be considerable even more so for big ticket software where the prices can be very sweet if not totally free for college students :slight_smile:

Good Luck

I’m often asked advice on this when students plan to come to the college where I work. I tell them this:

  1. PC vs. Mac. First of all, check to see what system is used on campus. If the college is Mac-based, then get a Mac; if they are PC-based, get a PC. (Some campuses are all-Mac, for instance, while others accomodate both, but lean to one or another.) If you don’t like the college’s choice and want your own, remember that what you gain in familiarity, you lose in lack of compatibility. The wrong platform will create grief when you try to do any networking. For this reason, avoid Linux unless you don’t mind trying to figure out everything yourself and not having complete network functionality; most campuses assume Windows or Mac for their students and do nothing to accomodate Linux.

  2. Laptop vs. Desktop. Desktop. Desktops are cheaper, give more bang for the buck, and are harder to steal if you leave you room unlocked. And you’re less likely to drop them on the floor and have to replace them. Some colleges do require laptops on the assumption that they can be used to take notes, but computers are not the best way to take notes.

  3. Power. As with any computer purchase, get the most powerful system you can afford. And it’s a good idea to wait until leaving for school.

  4. Essential software that they don’t tell you about. You need an antivirus program and need to keep it updated; colleges are viruses’ favorite breeding ground. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a firewall like ZoneAlarm, as well as using AdAware, since the problem with downloads these days isn’t viruses, but scumware.

My uncle (who works for Intel, BTW) offered to buy me a computer after I graduated from high school. I got to choose between a desktop or a laptop, and I went with the laptop. It was great, for several reasons. Such as: [ul] [li]I lived at home my freshman year. I had to do group work with some students in my chemistry class (who both lived in the dorms), and I was able to pack up my computer and take to to their place to work on it. []when I did move into the dorms, it took up way less space. Dorm desks aren’t very big, and all my friends with desktops had to resort to unusual arrangements so they could have their computer on their desk and still have room to write and stuff []moving in and out of dorms and apartments is so much easier if you don’t have a heavy monitor and CPU case to lug around. I’ve moved 5 times in the past year (I realize this is a bit extreme), and I’ve always been glad that my computer’s so slim) [/ul][/li]
All the good stuff said, let me give you a couple caveats–at almost 4 years old, my laptop is showing it’s age (266 MHz Pentium II, 64 MB RAM, 4 GB hard drive), especially when I discovered mp3’s my sophomore year. I’m an engineering student, but my school has fabulous engineering-students only computer labs (where I work during the school year), so I do most of my academic work there. My laptop is mainly for email, surfing (especially the SDMB), listening to mp3’s, games, and random report-typing. I still have a year left (hopefully, my uncle will duplicate his offer after I graduate from college. If so, then I’ll get a badass desktop system), and am trying to upgrade it as much as I think is worth it (I’ve bought external zip and CD-RW drives, which help alleviate the small HD). If money’s not an option, get the biggest and best system you can, because as many people have already said, it’s going to be out-of-date soon, anyway. Be sure to get ethernet adapters, etc., for connecting to the dorm’s network. And if you do get a laptop, get a wireless card, too. Wireless networks are becoming increasing common on college campuses. And get hot-swappable batteries, too!

All in all, I’m happy. Oh, my computer’s a Dell Inspiron 3200. I got an extended 3 year warranty, and when things did go wrong (once, when one of my roommates crashed it), customer service treated me pretty well.

My daughter is just finishing up her sophmore year in college. I noticed when we first took her to her new dorm room at the start of her freshman year that about half of her fellow students brought laptops and about half brought desktops. She told me a few weeks ago that virtually all of the desktop owners had since purchased laptops.

(An important item to consider here is that her campus has wireless connectivity, so you can put a wireless internet connector in your laptop and be connected to the college LAN and the internet even when you’re sitting in the middle of the campus quadrangle. Not a lot of campuses are set up this way.)

Thank you! I’m actually saving all this, especially the points in favor of either desktop or laptop. The split seems to be running almost fifty-fifty.

I thought I’d respond to a few things. First off, I’m using a piece of a mutual fund purchased to me to buy this, so the price range is probably $1000, and going up when necessary. I’ll be living on campus, for the person whom wanted to know. The dorm I’ve chosen should be one of the quiet ones, so I do not think distractions will be an issue.

To those whom mentioned it: The campus that I’m going to has larger dorm rooms than most, making space a bit less of an issue. It still is a consideration though, as I might move, want to transport it, etc.
scr4: Games aren’t a very big priority. Only one game in the past few years has come out that really interests me, and it has fairly low system requirements. Most everything else I want to play is pretty old.

Urban Ranger: Could you go into a bit more depth about your operating system comment? From what I’ve read of your previous posts, you seem like quite a Linux supporter (in fact, do you read Slashdot regularly? Your language, opinions, phrases, and the like are similar to what is used these), but would it be practical for a non-computer science major?

To Reality Chuck: I visited the campus a few days ago, and from what I saw, the mix is pretty cleanly split between PCs and Macs. As Linux will probably not be the choice at this point, compatibility shouldn’t be a problem no matter which direction I go in. And I’m already a dedicated follower of Ad-Aware, and Zone Alarm is another obvious step. (Right now, I’m behind a physical firewall, so I don’t use it).

To Easy E: I found your post quite funny, for the sole reason that your situation almost perfectly describes the one I have at home. My computer right now is a desktop, but the specs are near identical (my HD is 6 GB), and MP3s are giving me the same problems.

To WillGolfForFood: Ah, I know how cool Wireless is. If that were an option, there would be no question. The ability to use my computer while sleeping, curled up in front of a fireplace, etc, would be too great. Alas, this school doesn’t possess this capability.

Also, I believe my college does offer deals for the academically inclined, but until now, I kind of wrote those off as insufficient. I’ll give those a second look.

Thanks for all the replies!

Personally, I think desktop is the way to go. They’re much more expandable (add RAM, add another hard drive, swap video cards, swap monitors, etc), more reliable, and cheaper - your money will get you a lot more computing power in a desktop than a laptop. For maximum bang for your buck, I’d highly recommend an AMD XP processor, an ASUS motherboard, and lots of DDR RAM.

If you want something to carry around and take notes on, consider scouring thrift stores or eBay for a TRS-80 Model 100 (

Before you consign me to the loonie bin, consider: they’re incredibly light, they have a nice keyboard, and they run forever on 4 AA batteries. Also, because they can’t run Quake (or even Solitaire) you won’t be distracted or tempted in class or at the library. You can download the text to your PC over a null-modem cable and do whatever formatting you want in the word processor of your choice. If you’re worried about mockery of your trailing edge tech, you can always counter with the little known fact that the Model 100 is the last product that Bill Gates personally did most of the coding for. “Model 100: powered by Chairman Bill”.

Good luck with whatever you choose to buy.

Definitely go with a laptop. They’re more expensive, but with the graphics processor technology these days, there’s not much reason to own a desktop as your only computer. I’m a professional in the computer industry, so I can say with assurance that I know what I’m talking about.

Yes, desktops will give you a bit more speed and graphical (game) performance, but the GeForce4 chip was recently released for laptops. Once again, not quite desktop performance, but the convenience more than makes up for the slight performance loss.