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Computer Buying Tips for Students

By Teresa McUsic , Ft. Worth Star-Telegram

This slightly edited article was originally titled "Back-to-school computer buying tips," and appeared in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (Posted on Fri, Jul. 25, 2003). Teresa McUsic's column appears Mondays and Fridays. (817) 460-5514 - and was used with permission. We reprint it here because it answers questions a lot of people have and our own Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing Services, is quoted extensively. You can also find this article on the ACS Website.

July is usually mark-down time as computer companies use aggressive pricing strategies to attract back-to-school buyers.

In July, industry leaders Dell and Hewlett-Packard Co. announced back-to-school promotions, leading the way in a charge that should help shoppers get a bigger bang out of their computers without breaking the bank.

Just ask Philip Baczewski, associate director of academic computing services at the University of North Texas, where in a few weeks, many of the college's 30,000 students will swarm the campus armed with new computers.

"There's no reason for parents to spend $2,000 for their children's computer when a $600 computer will do everything they need to do," Baczewski said.

The principles of shopping for a computer are largely the same whether you want a computer for a dorm room or your home: Identify how you plan to use the computer and buy a machine with the features and power to allow you to do it.

For incoming college freshman, the computer debate often boils down to laptop versus desktop. At least, that was the most frequent computing question asked at freshman-orientation sessions this summer at Texas Christian University, said Walter Wallace, a computer-support counselor at TCU.

There is no single right answer, Wallace said, which may frustrate computer novices. "It all boils down to personal preferences," Wallace said.

Typically, laptops are more expensive than desktops in terms of dollar-for-dollar computing performance. Portability has its price.

A laptop is better for taking notes in class, working in the library and collaborating on team projects. But it's also more easily dropped or stolen. Desktops are usually anchored in a student's living quarters. But most are more powerful than laptops and can handle more tasks and add-on hardware.

With many $500 PC models now equipped with DVD players and with dorm-room space at a premium, the desktop PC can become a media center, storing and playing music and movies, providing Internet access and making class assignments easier to complete.

Laptops are limited, in comparison, because they are not designed to handle a wide array of add-on equipment. "You can't do a media center with a laptop," Wallace said.

Whether buying a machine for home or school, here is what shoppers should keep in mind, according to computer experts:

 Remember the software: Once you buy the hardware, you'll probably want to invest in software. Shop the software section before you buy your machine to make sure you can afford both the machine and the software you want.

 Not all processors are created equal: Don't judge the microprocessor on numbers alone. An Intel Pentium, for example, stores more data for quick use than does an Intel Celeron, meaning that Pentium chips process information faster than Celeron chips rated at similar speeds. Like the Pentium, the AMD Athlon chip is generally considered better than the Celeron.

 Never enough RAM?: RAM is memory used by the computer to store and manage active software files. More RAM helps a computer run smoothly and respond to commands faster. Figure on buying at least 256 megabytes of RAM for a base system. If budget allows, experts say, a good place to splurge is on a system with 512 megabytes of RAM. 

 Sizing the hard drive: The hard drive is the equivalent of a computer's closet: It stores everything not actively being used at the moment. For most users, the 40 gigabytes offered in most basic desktop systems is sufficient. Students heading off to college, however, may benefit from an 80 gigabyte hard drive that will allow them to store more music and videos on their machines.

 Accessing the Web: College students need computers with 10/100 slots, which allow the machines to tap into high-speed Internet services. Students with laptops should invest in a wireless card using the 802.11b standard. Many universities, including UNT, TCU and the University of Texas at Arlington, are expanding systems that allow properly equipped laptops to access the Internet wirelessly in some buildings.

 Integrated versus dedicated video cards: For video games, a machine with the proper video card is important. A dedicated video card essentially has its own computing resources to process video, improving the performance of the video game. An integrated video card essentially borrows processing power from other parts of the computer, which can hurt the performance of the game and the computer overall.

For a more complete discussion of any issue described here, type "buying a PC" into an Internet search site such as http://www.google.com/. That will help you find sites with unbiased PC buying advice and product reviews.

If you're still overwhelmed, remember that most campuses have computer labs that students can use to complete assignments.

While it may not be ideal, students can use on-campus experience to learn what they need in a computer. Each course of study will have its own computing needs, so waiting can make as much sense for some as buying now, said Baczewski, of UNT.

"If you don't know if a computer is a pressing need or not, let the student come to school for a semester and find out what the requirements will be," Baczewski said.