I recently took my daughter, a high school senior, on a tour of colleges. One of the most common questions from other families: "What type of computer should we get?" At every stop, the answer was the same: "It doesn't matter." The schools typically support both PCs and Macs, and there are compelling arguments for both notebook and desktop boxes.
In fact, most college admissions officers and student tour guides said students don't need their own computers because there are public machines at the library, in the computing center and elsewhere on campus.
Still, most students either bring computers or buy them when they get to school. They want the convenience of having their own machines to work from their dorms or apartments. Besides, college students understand that computers aren't just for doing schoolwork. Properly equipped, they also can be the student's communications and entertainment center.
Every college we visited provides high-speed campus network connectivity in dorm rooms. That means that students can get on the campus network to exchange files with other students and their professors and access campus printers. It also means they're connected to the Internet at speeds far faster than a dial-up modem. With that Internet connection comes the ability to download music and video from such services as Morpheus, iMesh, Aimster and Napster, if it ever gets back online.
Although some PCs have built-in speakers, for the best sound, you'll want external amplified speakers. You can pay hundreds of dollars for high-end speakers. But for a small dorm room, you get pretty good sound with sets that cost less than $100. Boston Acoustics, for example, offers the $69.95 BA635, a three-piece compact set with two desktop speakers and a sub-woofer that sits on the floor.
For most home users, I don't recommend a DVD drive. But for a student machine, it makes a lot of sense because you can use it to watch movies in a crowded dorm room. It also makes sense if you get a laptop. The batteries probably won't get you through a movie on a plane, but you can watch movies in the dorm, in a coffee shop, at an airport lounge or--I suppose--even in class.
Students might even consider getting TV tuners for their PCs. ATI makes a series of All in Wonder video cards that include a tuner along with video in and out jacks and also offers a $99 TV Wonder tuner that plugs into the Universal Serial Bus port of a desktop or laptop. Of course, $99 is a lot to pay for a tuner. You can buy a 13-inch TV for that price. Unlike that TV, though, the tuner card takes up almost no desk space.
From my conversations with college students, it seems that the choice between laptop and desktop is a matter of personal preference. The advantage of a laptop is that you can use it to take notes in class or do work on the go.
Public computers at the library make the laptop less necessary, and aside from being more expensive, they're more likely to be stolen, lost or accidentally broken.
If you get a laptop, make sure it has a built-in Ethernet port and also be sure to invest $20 or so in a cable lock so you can secure the laptop in your dorm or even to the table at the library.
Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie-Mellon University are among the few colleges with wireless networks. If your school offers such a network, find out what you need to use it. In most cases you'll need an 802.11b wireless networking card, which costs about $100.
If you have any questions about what to bring to school, call the admissions office, campus computing office or campus bookstore. Most large campuses sell PCs and peripherals at the campus bookstore or computer store, and they sometimes offer educational discounts. Those discounts, however, aren't always any better than what you can find on your own, but it's worth checking.
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.