Hippo Manchester
August 4, 2005

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Back-to-school basics

Or, when little Johnny goes to college and wants a PC

By Jack ďjaQĒ Andrews 

If you or your child/young adult/oh-my-GAWD-I-am-SO-a-grownup-why-canít-you-respect-me is going back to school this fall, you might be considering a new computer. 

Many colleges actually require students to own a laptop, and offer a model or two at reduced cost.  Everyoneís computing needs are different, though, so whatís perfect for Zach might not be ideal for Screech.

Youíre also probably trying to keep your bank account from hemorrhaging too severely. In that vein, Hippo proudly presents a guide to shopping for a back-to-school PC.

Desktop or laptop?

Looking solely at price, youíre probably tempted to get a desktop.  Thereís no doubt that you get more computing power for your dollar with a desktop, but the difference is not as great as you might expect, especially when you factor in the price of a good monitor.

Laptops perform just as well as desktops for all but the most complex programs, and they offer the compelling advantage of portability.  You donít want your child deprived of a place to finish his term paper just because his roommate hung a sock on the doorknob, do you?

Laptops also tend to be engineered a bit more solidly.  Instead of throwing together standard components that may have hidden compatibility issues into a desktop, manufacturers must take more care in assembling a custom laptop model.

Finally, if youíre at all an eco-nerd, youíll appreciate that laptops use far less power than desktops.

Processor

That megahertz thing has gotten a whole lot more complicated recently, with Intel admitting that more megahertz doesnít necessarily offer better performance.  Different models of processor vary widely, so comparing speeds is most useful only when youíre looking at two processors in the same family ó i.e., a 1.4GHz Pentium-M versus a 1.8GHz Pentium-M.  Faster is obviously better, but for writing papers it truly doesnít matter much.  Video, photo or music editing will see better performance with faster processing, as will math and technical applications.

Memory (RAM)

256MB is a bare, bare minimum; 512MB is more realistic.  A student is a multitasker, and needs to have several programs running at once.  Too little memory will slow the computer to a crawl.

Hard drive

Writing papers doesnít eat up too much hard drive space.  Downloading illegal music and movies does.  As does porn.

Not that college students do any of that.

In any case, most laptops these days come with a 40GB hard drive or larger.  Again, thatís plenty for paper-writing; multimedia editing will require more space.

Networking

Make sure you match your computerís networking capabilities to your studentís campus network.  If itís wireless, match the protocol to the one in the PCís specs (usually 802.11b or 802.11g).  If itís wired, get a computer with an Ethernet port.

USB drive

PCs donít usually come with one of these, but do your student a favor and get one. Itís todayís equivalent of a floppy disk, and can hold a backup of all papers due tomorrow, so if something should happen to the computer, the papers can still be finished and printed.  Theyíre also quite swanky and will make your kid very popular.  You want your kid to have friends, right?