Choosing A Computer for the High School Graduate

by Joan and Nancy on April 24, 2011

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A computer is a necessity for college students these days and it’s a GREAT graduation gift.
Since buying a computer is a major purchase, we want to share the things we’ve learned from our own college students experience that will help you through the decision-making process.

Your first decision – PC or Mac?
Your student has probably already decided whether he/she is “a Mac or a PC” person, but this decision still needs some consideration.  Their major (if they have a clue what they want to do – note our heavy sighs) helps dictate the choice.  For example, engineering students will probably need a PC, graphic design students usually use Macs.  Additionally, some colleges recommend one platform over the other.  Start by checking with the college to see if it has any IT requirements, consider the major, and after that, it’s personal preference.

If cost is a factor, a PC is generally less expensive than a Mac, which starts at $999 for a laptop.  A similar Dell is around $500.  If ease of use is more important, it’s hard to beat a Mac, especially if there’s an Apple store nearby.  The customer support in Apple stores (via the Genius Bar) offers excellent, fast service.

The right computer for the job.
Laptop or desktop? Or netbook?  After you decide on Mac or PC, you need to decide what kind of computer.  Unless you have deep pockets, a computer is a big purchase. We wanted computers that will last for the next four (or five, or six) years of college.

Laptops are the most popular choice.  Students can take them to class to take notes, use them in the library and of course, head to Starbucks to study.  And laptops, especially PCs, are quite affordable.

Desktops are fast becoming obsolete in the college world unless your student needs extreme computing speed (and we don’t mean for video gaming purposes.) If you have a good desktop, by all means send it to college with your student.  But if this is a new purchase, then a laptop, for most kids, makes sense.

Netbooks are another option – smaller, lighter and less expensive than a laptop.  They are, however, pretty much only for word processing and Internet access.  Some people complain about the size of the keyboard.  If your student already has a desktop they plan on taking to college, a netbook might be the perfect companion.

On the technical side, 2GB of memory and 250GB of hard drive space is the “standard” these days for a laptop.  If your student is in graphic design or film however, they’ll need more memory and additional hard drive space. Check the college requirements.

Adding software.
Word processing software will be a must.  Microsoft Word is the most popular. Microsoft Word, plus it’s other ubiquitous products (Excel, PowerPoint, etc.) are generally the programs of choice, but there are other options.  Apple Pages is a program developed specifically for Macs that is very similar to Word.  (However, sometimes footnotes and endnotes sometimes don’t survive the import/export from Word, which could be a deal-breaker for college students.)

A free option is Google Docs which not only offers word processing software, but also a free online place to store files.  The drawback of Google Docs is you must have access to the Internet to have access to your files.

Additionally, if you chose a PC,  anti-virus software is a necessity.  (AVG is a highly recommended free anti-virus program.)

Get the extended warranty.
We believe computers are one of the few products that warrant the purchase of an extended warranty. It’s always a good idea to get an extended warranty for any computer you purchase.  All of our kids have Macs and ALL of them have made use of the extended warranty (Apple Care) which has proved to be worth every penny.

Don’t forget to teach the backup lesson.  (Again.)
Computers can break.  An extended warranty is only good for fixing the computer, not saving the files on the computer.  Online backup services are quick and easy to use and some are even free for under 2GB of storage.   That’s enough to keep all those term papers safe.  (We’ve used both Dropbox and SugarSync with great success.) However if they’re like most college students and have loads of music on their computer then you’ll need to purchase online storage or get an external hard drive to keep all that music properly backed up.

A little known fact is that many universities and colleges offer free backup services for students on their servers. Students are usually provided this information during orientation but with the amount of advice being thrown at them it generally does not register. This is a useful thing for parents to pay attention to at orientation and is one of the things worth nagging your students about during the course of the school year.

Printer or not?
These days virtually all colleges and universities have print stations at various locations on campus, including many dormitories. Some universities allow students a certain number of pages per semester printed for free. This works well for students who are good at planning ahead and whose printing needs are not high.

Students living in apartments may prefer having their own printer. And students who tend to finish their work at 3am and can’t get to a remote print station will definitely want their own printer. Freshmen living in dorms may want to confer with their roommates. It’s really not necessary to have two printers in a small dorm room and they can split the cost of printer ink.

Educational Discounts
Be sure to take advantage of educational discounts. Apple usually has a special student deal (last few years you got an iPod with the purchase of a Mac) that comes out in May. (As a smart, practical college mom, Nancy nabbed the iPod for herself.) Several PC manufacturers also offer education discounts. Students automatically get education discounts if they purchase a computer at their university/college campus bookstore using a student ID.  This doesn’t help you if you’re buying one for high school graduation, but it’s good to know!

In addition there are various student software discounts. For example we purchased the education version of Microsoft Office Suite for Mac (Word, Power Point, Excel, etc.) It allows you to put the software on three computers. That makes expensive software come out to about $35 per computer.  Deal!

Bottom line – a computer is a great graduation gift. They need it for college. And with a little work, you can get  the right computer at the best price.

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Practical College Moms

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