Computers for College

Breaking down the options for your student

Flashback: When I went to college in the eighties to study mathematics and computer science, I started to use a computer, but it was an IBM mainframe. To calculate some homework I had to sit at a card puncher terminal to create a small program that ran overnight, just to find out next morning that I had a “syntax error in line 12” or so. GIGO strikes again! (If you’re over 40, you might know that this means “garbage in, garbage out”). But I was just using a computer to learn how to write code and program. Then the IBM Personal Computer came out! I started using it to entertain myself with some basic games, but also to create documents for college and my master’s thesis. I did work a bit with a Compaq portable computer. My wife called this computer a “Schleptop;” no one really wanted to lug around a 34 pound PC! The Internet did not really exist yet.

Flash forward: Nowadays, living without computer technology is almost inconceivable. Technology is especially necessary for a college student.

Today, a student at any kind of college will need a smart phone with internet access, a decent laptop, and a small printer. In this article I would like to offer some thoughts on what to consider when getting a computer for a college student.

The first thing you should do is to get the computer recommendations from the college departments in which your student will be studying. They should be able to provide this information during the college application and registration phases. When my oldest daughter Silvia started college at UVA 10 years ago, we went to the school and were offered a laptop with a 4 year extended warranty package. The overall cost seemed rather steep, however, so we managed with just buying a laptop from Microcenter with the normal warranty. Somehow, it lasted through to graduation, but afterwards it suffered a lot from the wear and tear.

Most college students are really rough on their laptops, mostly because they carry them around in their backpacks everywhere. I recommend a tougher laptop, or at least one in a good, sturdy carrying case that fits in a backpack. Laptop screens can break easily, too. Fixing a broken laptop screen can cost hundreds of dollars. So beside getting an extended warranty for normal problems, you might think about an extra warranty for accidents, like when the laptop is dropped. If money and style are not an issue, check out the Panasonic Toughbooks and Dell’s Rugged Latitude System. These are meant to survive even the worst conditions, weather, and abuse. You’d be surprised what some students can do to their computers. I’ve seen everything over years!

On the subject of dropping the laptop, it’s time to address the subject of backups. As I tell my clients all the time, “There’s no such thing as too many backups.” This can be crucial for a student, who cannot risk losing assignments and papers. Make sure there is at least a backup on a flash drive, an external hard drive, or on the cloud, in case your hard drive contents become unreadable. Many colleges offer a gmail type of account including cloud service which you can use to backup files.

The first thing I would recommend is to try to find out if the campus has a Windows-based or MacOS-based preference. If you decide to go with the Mac OS based laptop, you will probably go with an Macbook of some sort. These systems have become incredibly fast and light. And their website claims up to 10 hours of battery life – wow! Macbooks come in screen sizes of 13-15 inches; it’s not a big screen, but you can connect it to a bigger LCD screen in your dorm for homework if necessary. And keep in mind that Macs are less likely to become infected with viruses. A decent Macbook will probably cost you between $1300 and $3000 plus/minus educational discounts and/or some extra warranties.

You can get a decent Windows-based system for much less, from $800-$1500, and Windows-based laptops come with screens in sizes up to 17.3 inches and some even offer 21 inches. But consider the smaller screens; younger eyes don’t seem to mind them, and the smaller size makes the overall laptop lighter and easier to carry around.

New Windows-based laptops pop up on the market almost weekly. If you are going with a PC, I would recommend:

  • An i5 or i7 CPU based system (7th or 8th generation should suffice)
  • Windows 10 Home or Student (I don’t think there is really a need for the “pro” version)
  • RAM (built-in memory) should be 8-16 GB
  • A 512GB to 1TB hard drive should have more than enough capacity.

My other top recommendation, which may be already built into your laptop, is to get a 256GB-512GB solid state hard drive. These hard drives replace the main stream mechanical hard drives and make your laptop run noticeably faster. They create less heat and, since they have no moving parts, they are more likely to survive a bad drop.

The laptop should also have the following built-in features:

  • Built-in WIFI 802.11n or even better, 802.11ac
  • Multiple USB ports, preferably USB 3.0 and higher
  • A webcam
  • Bluetooth capability (nice but not a must)
  • Connectors such as HDMI and Displayport for an external screen, if needed
  • A built-in ethernet port would be nice to connect to a network via an Ethernet cable. But luckily, once you have USB or Thunderbolt ports on the laptop, you can get adapters that convert to pretty much any external features.

If you will need a lot of graphics power with photo and/or video editing (such as Adobe Photoshop and Premiere), or for gaming, you might want to consider buy a so-called gaming laptop. These are usually built to be very fast, have an extra video card built-in, and include extra RAM to speed up the graphics (like an nvidia GTX 1050 graphics card).

Also, many Windows-based laptops offer things like a touchscreen, or laptops that can be folded to look like a tablet. For some programs, these gimmicks might be useful. There are a few companies that offer systems which allow you to detach the screen from the keyboard, making it a tablet. Microsoft Surface is one of these. It’s pretty powerful but priced more like a Macbook. The iPad has come a long way. You can get one as large as 12.9 inches, and it is much lighter than the Surface. An iPad or another tablet might be a useful add-on to your normal laptop, but I doubt they can support the interfaces and programs necessary for four years at college, so it would be in addition to a laptop, not in place of.

At this point, I should mention the Chromebook tablet alternative. It is cheap, light, and a great way to access the internet, check mail, and even to type up some documents. If you work mostly in the Cloud, surf a lot, and have reliable WIFI everywhere, it might take care of basic needs. But it is very limited in scope.

Once you’ve chosen the right computer for you, you need to invest in software. Nowadays you have to have a good antivirus program and Microsoft office products. Some colleges will install or provide a free or very inexpensive version. Microsoft offers an Office University Version for about $79.99, which is good for two computers for four years. Be aware that a lot of software is available at a discounted price for students, however, and you might need to provide an “.edu” email address and maybe another proof of enrollment. To get student discounts for hardware, check the manufacturer’s and college’s websites for details.

I hope this wasn’t all “too techy” for you. If so, it’s best to partner up with someone to help you shop for the right laptop or find a trustworthy sales person at the store. In this article I could only touch on the basics; for more details feel free to contact me at Klaus@dokklaus.com

Klaus Fuechsel
About Klaus Fuechsel 8 Articles
Klaus Fuechsel owns the local award-winning computer repair store Dok Klaus. He and his team deal with all kinds of computer issues; data preservation is one of their top priorities. You may contact Dok Klaus via phone 540-428-2376 or visit his website.

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