Introduction

College students have long played an integral role in the development and adoption of new technology. Students, along with businesspeople, comprised the bulk of the portable electric typewriter market in the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1970s, two students—Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer—met while living in the same hall at Harvard, and went on to play critical roles in the development of the personal computer in the 1980s and 1990s. Universities were among the first institutions to support the growth of the internet, and for a time provided high-speed internet access to more people than did corporations. In the late 1990s, a Northeastern University student named Shawn Fanning and his uncle developed Napster, one of the first popular peer-to-peer file sharing programs. Again at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg and fellow computer science majors developed Facebook, which was initially only available to college students, but now is the second most-trafficked website, after Google. Google itself was born through the collaboration of two Stanford University graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Icons of file sharing, social media, and internet search: all hatched on college campuses

Today’s college students are universally expected to be computer-literate. Every college campus in America has computing centers with anywhere from a handful to hundreds of networked systems available for student use. Most campuses provide extensive wireless internet access to students. Technophile professors like my own graduate adviser at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Hawks, often communicate with students via blogs, Twitter, and even Facebook. Many assignments are expected to be submitted electronically, and professors increasingly incorporate novel forms of coursework and evaluation like videos uploaded to YouTube and Wikis produced by students. That is, it is impossible for today’s college student to be successful without extensive utilization of computing technology. Of course, millions of Americans who take online distance learning courses are entirely dependent upon access to a personal computer and the internet.

What kind of technology does a college student need to buy?

To be blunt, the answer is not much. Most colleges and universities provide more than sufficient access to technology, such that some students never buy a personal computer, let alone a printer, scanner, or other gadgets. I wouldn’t recommend this—it’s inconvenient and restricts your schedule. School-provided hardware is also sometimes aggravatingly outdated, and campus networks do not always work. But college is already incredibly expensive, and it’s hard to reduce your technology budget to less than zero dollars. You have to be very familiar with your school’s technology resources before attempting to get your degree without your own PC. This is a less-than-ideal solution, and spending some money on personal technology can make a student’s life much, much easier.

College is not just about learning Latin declensions, radioisotope decay chains, and great works of fiction. It’s also about learning how to live more or less independently. Our lives are steeped in technology, and college students are just like anyone else with a job—there is no one correct technology solution. The most basic computing solution for a college student entails one personal computer, be it a desktop or a laptop.

A desktop or a laptop?

In the context of college, desktops and laptops both have their advantages and disadvantages. Desktops almost always are more powerful for their cost, are easier to modify as needs change as well as repair, and are harder to steal or lose. Desktops also take up more space, and aren’t portable. A laptop's most notable advantage is portability—you can take it anywhere to get work done. They also occupy less volume, a major consideration for cramped dorm rooms. But they’re also a prime target for theft on campuses, and are more expensive considering their specifications.

Since the rise of netbooks and the ever-decreasing cost of desktops, I’ve come to think that asking whether to use a desktop or a laptop is asking the wrong question. Netbooks are frequently less than $300, with some as inexpensive as $200 (or even less on sale or clearance). A basic desktop can be built or bought for $500 or less, monitor included. Rather than deciding to buy a laptop or desktop, I think it’s wiser to ask yourself what your computing needs are. Most college students need to be able to browse the web and use office applications to type papers and make presentations. These tasks do not require the latest and greatest (and therefore most expensive) tech. If you do not need more than basic computing capabilities, I’ve found that having a less expensive netbook or budget laptop and a standard office computer is a far better solution than having one powerful laptop or potent desktop.

Another important consideration is how long you expect your computer(s) to last. It is perfectly reasonable to expect today’s budget gear to be able to passably browse the web and type papers for the next four years. It is not reasonable to expect today’s budget gear to be able to play 2015’s games and run Adobe Creative Suite 6 or 7 very well. It is difficult to predict what you’ll need for the next four years, but speaking with older students in your program and your professors can give you a good idea of what you’ll be doing as a senior. For those looking to buy a new PC—laptop or desktop—the next few pages cover DIY and off-the-shelf (retail) desktop computers and monitors as well as netbooks and laptops.

DIY Desktops
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  • andymcca - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    I just bought a Llano machine for $400 after a $50 rebate. It's an HP G6-1b60us, and while historically I've not been an HP fan, I'm impressed. Granted, its based on an A4-3300M (lower end Llano), but the few games I've tried so far (WoW, Starcraft 2) play great with a mix of "ultra" and medium settings. It might be worth mentioning that there are some Llano machines well under $700.

    I am annoyed at certain retailer, though. We will call it "small center". The sales person was trying to tell me that it might not even launch old games or something. I tried to let him know that integrated no longer means total crap, but I don't think I got through.
    Reply
  • Taft12 - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    Oh, you got through. He was using an upselling tactic that usually works on non-tech-savvy customers. Reply
  • weiran - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    If there are "legions" of Android tablet fans, why aren't they buying them? Reply
  • chedrz - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    I started my time at college with a laptop that was a few years old at the time. It lasted one year before it died. Unfortunately it was pre-Centrino, so it really wasn't very portable. After it bit the dust I switched to a desktop and had no problems typing/working with it. My last year or two I also added a netbook so I did have that portability factor. If you're able to manage file storage well with multiple systems, then I'd highly recommend the desktop/netbook combo route. You don't need a lot of processing power while you're sitting in a lecture hall taking notes/web browsing/scrolling through PowerPoint, and then you have the extra power (if needed) back in your room on your desktop. Reply
  • rageguy34 - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    I purchased a 13" macbook pro for my sister to take to college. I live in Texas and she decided to go to college in Minnesota! The main reason I chose the macbook was for the warranty, with the apple care plan she can take it to any apple store and have it repaired since I won't be anywhere near her for support. This way she doesn't have to deal with calling a 1800 number and shipping/receiving her laptop if anything goes wrong.

    I do a ton of RMAs for work and I wouldn't want my sister to have to go through anything like that.
    Reply
  • f4phantom2500 - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    There's a Gateway laptop (model #NV55S04U) on Best Buy's website with an A6 3400M, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD and a 15.6" screen for $479.99. There's also an HP laptop (model #g4-1117dx) with an A4 3300M, 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD and a 14" screen for $399.99. Both of these look like solid deals (the Gateway moreso, obviously), for budget laptops with a "good enough" CPU and reasonably capable graphics, all things considered. Reply
  • aliasfox - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    I went to school with (what was then) an ultraportable PowerBook G4 - with the exception of the hard drive, I used four seven years (PITA to replace, btw).

    Definitely an advocate of a laptop for most users.
    - Roommate comes back with a girl, you want to be able to scram without having to wonder if you have all your stuff with you
    - Notes in class
    - Writing papers in the library

    These are all things that are much more functional with a full size keyboard and/or somewhat-faster-than-netbook performance.

    Most important factors, in my opinion:

    - Nice keyboard and external mouse. My PowerBook has a phenomenal keyboard that few laptops match. Thinkpads, MacBooks, and some Dell Latitudes have them, but most consumer level machines don't. This matters a lot when you're trying to write a 20 page research paper in about 12 hours.

    - Portability. Not talking about weight, but sheer size - 15" and 17" laptops are just harder to fit into shoulder bags or smaller backpacks, as well as the tiny desks some classrooms have. Also, when you're flying back home for the holidays, that behemoth won't open on the table in coach.

    - A reasonable graphics card. No, you don't need a 6970m, but a Sandy Bridge level GPU minimum for when your friends want you to try something. I can't tell you how often I saw people playing slideshows of WoW, SimCity, or some other "low end game" on their Intel 950 graphics...

    - External HD - like it or not, college kids will "accumulate" lots of media that will fill up an internal HD. Also good for back up.

    - Video outputs - there are TVs in lounges and projectors in classrooms, hooking up your laptop is a good way to watch movies or give presentations. I could output VGA and S-Video, throwing in DVI/HDMI (and the right cables) would cover almost any base.

    An external monitor would be nice too (especially considering that PowerBook had a relatively dim 12" XGA display that showed relatively little of the color gamut), but that (as well as speakers) should wait until you understand how you're comfortable setting your room up.

    Just my opinion.
    Reply
  • indianidle - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    I had expected see a mention about Tablet PCs. Sure they're bigger, heavier and more expensive compared to iPad/Android tablets, but they also faster, more capable and can actually be used for productive work. Looking at future compatibility, Windows 8 will have a good touch interface and you'd be able to run it comfortably on these systems. I also think you should also add SkyDrive (25GB!) to the list of cloud storage options. Reply
  • steven75 - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    "and can actually be used for productive work."

    Translation: All those doctors and Fortune 500 companies using iPads are just using them for playing games.
    Reply
  • Evil_Sheep - Friday, August 05, 2011 - link

    Great back-to-school gear guide, nice to see a focus on students for a change (you know, the ones on a budget eating out of the chef boyardee tin)....unlike the usual chaff we get from other publications where they toss out a list of overpriced frivolous toys and call it a day.

    The only question is, where are the smartphones? Every student either has one or wants one. This surely has to come before printer recommendations...who still needs those? The Age of Paper is history (the few times a semester you still need to print stuff, you go to the library.)

    Also, more 13" (as opposed to 15") laptop recommendations would've been welcome as Apple has really set the bar here...most are coming to see 13" is the perfect compromise between portability and useability.
    Reply

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