Heading Back to School? Don’t Forget to Take an Apple.

[Granby Drummer Masthead]

Copyright ©1998 Rob Levandowski, all rights reserved.

In today’s world, a personal computer is a necessity for the college student. A few years ago, using a public computer lab was a reasonable option. Now, it’s a liability.

The computer isn’t just a word-processing tool anymore. As the Internet has exploded, the personal computer has become a vital research and communications tool. More and more colleges are requiring a personal computer, and are providing in-room high speed Internet connections.

So, you’re going to want to go shopping for a college computer. Here’s my advice to prospective parental purchasers:

Shop around. This might seem obvious. However, as recently as six years ago, it was common for the campus computer store to have unbeatable prices. Back then, shopping around was usually counterproductive. With today’s price pressures in the computer industry, those educational discounts have all but disappeared. Mail-order prices are usually as low as, or lower than, school store prices.

However, you shouldn’t order a computer sight unseen. Check out models and features at a local computer store, and compare their prices with mail order. You may be able to get a better deal than what’s on the price tag. Alternatively, you may find that buying from a local store has perqs like technical assistance that may be worth a little more money.

Get the right features. Most computer ads will entice you with all sorts of whiz-bang features. There are many features you don’t need, and some that are must-haves.

What you do need: a speedy processor, at least 32Mb of RAM, a 4Gb or larger hard drive, Ethernet, sound input and output, a fax-modem, a mouse, and a 15″ or larger monitor.

Don’t forget the printer. Many schools have public printers, but they’re often in inconvenient locations, or not well maintained. When you’re pulling an allnighter to write that term paper, there’s no substitute for your own printer—or at least one shared by you and your roommate.

Most people opt for an inkjet printer. They’re inexpensive, and new models have quality that’s close to a laser printer. Plus, they usually have color output, and many can print near-photographic quality images on special glossy paper. The downside is that the ink will run if the paper gets wet, you need to use heavier 24 lb. bond paper or inkjet paper for best results, and you can run through pricey ink cartridges quickly. If you plan to do lots of photography or color graphics, a high-quality inkjet is your best bet.

Laser printers are more expensive, but still have sharper black-and-white graphics. Students who intend to do graphic design and layout in black and white may want to make the extra investment. Laser printouts are more durable, too. Another side benefit of laser printers is that the printing process generates plenty of heat; in a cold dorm room, they can double as a small space heater.

What about “under $1000” computers? Most of these computers aren’t a good bargain. They’re often built with older, slower technology, and don’t include features that you’ll want. By the time you add on the extras, including software and a good monitor, the price advantage disappears.

What about a laptop? Laptops can be truly liberating, because you can take them anyware. Unfortunately, they’re also very easy to damage or steal. Many laptops can be ruined by a three-foot drop onto a tile floor. Their small size also makes them ideal targets for thieves. Some professors may not like the sound of keys clicking during class, and most laptops have a fairly short battery life.

Also, very few laptops have the same features as desktop models, and laptops are usually much more expensive.

Given all of this, I would recommend that students stay away from laptops, unless they’re really sure it’s worth the risks.

Instead, you may want to consider a “personal digital assistant,” such as 3Com‘s PalmPilot series. These devices are essentially electronic notepads, and are pocket-sized. They’re not a replacement for a personal computer, but work alongside your computer. Most have some kind of handwriting recognition, and features like a calculator and address book. Some have voice-recording or Internet capabilities.

So what’s a good computer? You should, of course, ask the college if it has any recommendations. However, it looks like this year’s favorite is going to be Apple Computer‘s new iMac. For $1,299, you get a loaded computer, including a state-of-the art 233MHz PowerPC G3 processor (which benchmarks faster than a 300MHz Pentium II). It comes with 32Mb of RAM and a 4Gb hard drive. It has a built-in high-quality 15″ monitor and accelerated 3D ATI Rage graphics, Ethernet, 56Kbps modem, and 24x CD-ROM. It comes ready to go with all the software most students really need: ClarisWorks, an integrated word processor, spreadsheet, database, and graphics program; Quicken Deluxe 98, a personal finance program; a full selection of Internet software; and some other games and utilities. All of this comes in a stunning translucent “Bondi blue” case. It’s even Y2K compliant, safe to use until the year 29,940.

The iMac doesn’t have a floppy drive, but that’s unlikely to be a problem. Most colleges now have Ethernet networks, which can be used to transfer files from computer to computer, or to submit assignments. Virtually all software comes on CD-ROM. There will be an accessory floppy available, but few students will really need it.

Like all current Macintosh computers, the iMac can run Windows software using an inexpensive program calledSoftWindows. That probably won’t be necessary, as almost any kind of program you’d need is available for Mac, includingMicrosoft’s Office programs. Macs with floppy drives can read PC floppy disks and files. The iMac supports the new USB expansion slots, and can use USB accessories intended for PCs. Most college networks support Apple and Internet protocols spoken by Macs, but if you find yourself in a PC-centric place, an inexpensive program called “DAVE” lets you access Windows networks, printers, and file servers.

The iMac’s best feature, however, is Apple’s legendary ease of use and reliability. Years ago, one of my best college buddies-and a staunch Windows fan-confided in me: “I like to play around with my computer, and I really enjoy learning what makes it tick. But when it’s 4 a.m. and I have a paper due the next day, I go to a computer lab and use a Mac, because I know it will just work, without any playing around.”

If you’ve decided on a laptop, the Apple PowerBook G3 a good choice for the same reasons. The top of the line model will set you back more than $5,000, but includes a 292MHz G3 processor that outclasses any Intel-based laptop, and most Intel-based desktop computers. (By press time, Apple may introduce faster PowerBooks yet.) It’s also more durable than most Intel laptops, although that durability makes it a bit heavier. With two batteries installed, it can be used for about seven hours at a time. It can also accept an optional DVD drive, which will let you watch movies on DVD format discs.

Why Mac, and not Windows? Although Windows PCs seem less expensive, they usually come with fewer features. Also, Windows PCs are prone to configuration problems, and often require expert assistance. Equivalent Macs may have a slightly higher initial price tag, but usually include necessary options that would cost more on PCs, and Macs don’t have the configuration problems. With the power of the G3 processor, Macs can run PC software at respectable speeds, while PCs generally can’t run Mac software.

Also, many colleges still recommend Macs for new buyers. The iMac is the recommended computer for incoming freshmen atDartmouth, Stanford, and Wooster College, and is on the recommended list at Yale.

Apple has had problems in the past, but its fortunes have turned around in a big way, due to the PowerBook G3, the iMac, and other recent innovations. Their stock has more than doubled in the past year. Microsoft, on the other hand, is besieged by the Department of Justice, and has suffered repeated setbacks and delays in the introduction of their next-generation “Windows NT 5” software, which industry analysts believe may not be available until after the year 2000.

In any case, keep your options open and try a few computers for yourself. The best computer is the one that works best for you.

This article was originally published in the September 1998 issue of The Granby Drummer.

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