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What to Look for When Buying a Computer for College

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While most schools make computer facilities available in dorms, classroom buildings, and libraries, it’s extremely helpful to have your own computer in college. When you are typing a paper at 4 am, a computer lab in another location may not be convenient. A computer purchased freshman year will probably last all four years you’ll be in college.

Before deciding on a computer, familiarize yourself with your school’s computer policies. Very few schools require that a specific model be purchased, but most have a general set of requirements you’ll want to make sure you know. Commonly, these are simply recommendations and aren’t particularly demanding. Sticking to the guidelines may make getting help from the school’s help desk easier.

One of your first considerations will be whether to buy a laptop or a desktop. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Which is better will depend on the needs and preferences of the user.



  • Best value: generally has more speed, memory, and storage for a lower price.
  • Difficult to steal.
  • Lower probability of failure (comparable quality machine vs. notebook)
  • Relatively easy to expand or modify as needs change.
  • Less costly expansion products


  • Is awkward to move back and forth to school
  • Takes up valuable space in a cramped dorm room
  • Can’t be carried to library or classes.
  • Difficult to ship if repair/replacement is needed.



  • Easy to transport
  • Takes up little space
  • Can be carried to class or library for note-taking, studying, etc.
  • Easy access to college wireless services in many locations on campus (with proper equipment and campus wireless network)
  • Can be brought home during weekend or holiday visits
  • Can easily be shipped to manufacturer or taken to dealer for service


  • More easily stolen
  • More easily dropped or broken
  • Somewhat prone to failure compared to stationary desktop computers of comparable quality
  • More expensive for comparable speed and capacity
  • Limited expansion and add-on capabilities

Now that you’ve decided between a laptop and desktop, you’ll need to decide what operating system you want to use. You will need to choose between a Mac and PC. The term “PC” is typically used to describe DOS-based computer systems that run most personal computers. A Mac has its own system. Some colleges or departments recommend one or the other. If yours doesn’t, it’s entirely up to you. PCs are most common.

Choosing the features of your computer is most important. Some things to pay attention to are:

Processor: Faster is always better (especially if you have a fondness for games and videos) The minimum recommended is 800 MHz, although some colleges set the standard higher.

RAM (random access memory): The general recommendation is 512 megabytes for most students. Engineering and graphic design students will need more. Get as much memory as you can afford.

Hard drive: More is better. Look for at least 80 gigabytes.

Monitor: Bigger is usually better, although a big screen can weigh down a laptop. Get at least a 15-inch monitor.

Operating software: Windows XP Professional appears to be the system of choice for PC users, while Macintosh OS X is preferred for Apple users.

Other recommended features: Modem, CD-ROM or DVD drive (read/write is best), graphics card, sound card and speakers, and wireless network card.

An ink-jet printer is highly recommended. For laptops, a locking security cable is a great idea. A padded case or backpack adds additional protection for laptops. Remember to bring any cables or power cords you may need. Check the specs of your school’s network so you will know what type of network cable to bring. It’s a good idea to bring one with you – this is a commonly overlooked item and may not be readily available if your college is located in a small community. In college dorm living, the outlets will probably be in an inconvenient place. It’s a good idea to bring a heavy-duty surge suppressor/expansion strip with at least six outlets to plug your computer and peripherals into.

Colleges are huge networks with lots of file sharing going on and e-mail being sent. Because of this, virus protection is essential. Install and test a virus protection program before coming to college. Contact computing services at your school to see what virus protection they require. Some schools provide their own software at no charge.

Once a computer is part of a network, it is exposed to numerous risks – hackers, spyware, etc. A personal firewall is highly recommended to safeguard your privacy. Again, check with your school for their requirements and/or recommendations.

Many hardware and software manufactures give discounts to college students. You may find discounts from 5% to 15% on new computers. Check with your campus bookstore for more information. Educational discounts on software are available, too. Software discounts to students are very significant, sometimes resulting in a savings of 66% or more. Before buying any retail software, look for an educational version of the same product. You may be able to save a bunch of money.

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