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Back to School Computer Shopping

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 29, 2010 Deadline
August Issue

Back to School Computer Shopping

Back-to-school sales used to mean new jeans, shoes, and school supplies. Now, along with binders and pencils, retailers discount computers as summer ends. Computer manufacturers have joined in with back-to-school promotions, making August and September great months to consider a new computer, especially for college students.

When buying a computer for school, two common mistakes are bargain shopping and brand loyalty.

There are instances when buying the cheapest possible computer makes sense. If the student only needs to type papers for class and perform some basic spreadsheet functions, then almost any computer is up to the tasks. Even the most affordable netbooks, at under $200, can surf the Web and run a good word processor.

Considering the abuse portable computers take in college settings, I’m all for buying an affordable system. I’ve seen students knock computers off the absurdly small hinged “desks” found on lecture hall desks, spill their iced mochas on the keyboards, and worse. I would be amazed if the average school notebook survives the full four to six years of a degree program.

Unfortunately, cheap isn’t always appropriate.

Consider the applications that might be installed on the computer. Science, engineering, and design students are likely to run software that demands more capabilities than any cheap notebooks possess.

For the last four years, I taught a university course that included Web design, audio production, and video editing. Students with inexpensive netbooks and the cheapest notebooks quickly realized their computers were incapable of running multimedia software.

A few years ago, I could suggest using lab spaces to work on class projects. No longer. The university lacks sufficient lab space, a situation likely to get worse this year. There are special purpose labs, with high-end workstations, but these are used for classes during the day. It is simply better for a student to own the “right” computer for his or her needs.

Editing audio or video requires a large hard drive, lots of memory, and a large enough screen to display the “tracks” being edited. I found that a 12-inch screen was too small for editing tasks. Also, media files are huge while editing, even if the final data files are small. I filled both a 100GB and 250GB drive during a semester of multimedia production.

Cheap notebooks often rely on “shared memory” and “integrated video.” Without getting technical, if the system will be editing video it is best to shop for “discreet” video from NVIDIA or ATI. You also need high-end video capabilities for computer-aided design and many scientific applications.

Brand loyalty has limits in college. Computer brands and operating systems can be like religions. However, university courses are designed around specific applications. The debate between Apple and Microsoft loyalists does not matter to university departments: we try to teach what professionals in each discipline use.

It is true that anything a Windows computer can do, a Mac can do. Unfortunately, they don’t always use the same applications to complete the tasks.

For example, the architecture courses at the university use AutoCAD. While there are CAD applications for other operating systems, AutoCAD is the industry standard. Universities try to teach skills that employers want. For now, AutoCAD is only available for computers with Microsoft Windows. I have found the CAD instructors were most comfortable helping students with familiar HP notebooks. While you can run Windows on an Apple computer, minor differences can cause confusion.

I am a long-time Macintosh user, and my department was overwhelmingly Apple-based. This is common in the graphic arts and media production. My courses made use of the Apple iLife and Adobe Creative Suite applications. Apple’s GarageBand, iMovie, and Final Cut Express applications are only available for Apple computers, so students either had to use the lab or own a Mac.

The cheapest Apple notebook is $1000. Honestly, most students don’t need a $1000 computer.

Unless a student anticipates taking a design, science, engineering, or similar course requiring high-end computer applications, I would argue against buying an expensive notebook. According to the U. S. Department of Education, college students spent an average of $900 a year on textbooks in 2008. Spending another $1000 is a challenge for many students.

Finally, I always told my students to avoid the “special financing” offered by the student store. The interest rates are 18 percent or higher. Making the minimum payment means the computer isn’t paid for until after graduation. That’s absurd when most students also have substantial student loans to repay.

Buy the best you can afford during the August and September sales. The back-to-school promotions are great and you can find some bargains. But, don’t mistake a cheap computer for a good deal.

Buying the Right Computer for College

Most colleges have an online list of recommended computers. There is more than one suggestion because each department and program of study has its own software needs.

Check the requirements of the software likely to be used.
Estimate the requirements could double within four years.
Ask academic departments which systems faculty prefer.
Visit the campus bookstore or its online equivalent.

Real-World Example: Digital Media Student

Consider a design student taking courses that use Dreamweaver, InDesign, Illustrator, Premier Pro, and similar applications. The Adobe Create Suite 5 (CS5) box lists the following requirements for these applications:

Windows Vista Ultimate or Windows 7; Apple OS X 10.6.x or better
64-bit Intel Core 2 Duo or better required for media editing
4GB of RAM or more recommended
1280 × 1024 screen recommended (14.1-inches or larger), with qualified graphics card and 256MB of VRAM (video RAM)
7200 RPM hard drive for editing compressed video and audio formats

Adobe CS5 is available for Apple OS X and Windows-based systems. The computer required will cost far more than an affordable netbook or low-end notebook. When I checked the university bookstore in early July, an HP laptop meeting the Adobe requirements was $1425, with a student discount. Remember, that’s a computer meeting the requirements, not exceeding them. An equal Apple MacBook Pro was $1575. That was $150 difference, though Apple included the iLife software used in some classes and a “free” iPod (via rebate).


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