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Buying a Computer for School


Here's a quick rule: You probably don't need to spend as much on a computer as you thought.

Of course, the launch into the new world of college makes you feel like you need a new, wonderful computer, and if you (or your rich uncle) want to spend a fortune, be my guest. But you don't have to. (Current financial hardships might make a $1000 computer very difficult for some families.) For English class (and for most classes except perhaps those where you make computer animations or art), you will be making text files. Those are quite small and don't demand much from the equipment, so if you could type and store a paper on your high school computer, it will work for college. (I'll have some advice later on getting your high school computer ready for college.)

What to avoid

  • Big, heavy, expensive gaming computers. I assume we will be back on campus sooner or later, and you will want something you can reasonably slip into a backpack and carry to the library. Besides, you won't have that much time for games—your college schedule is a lot more demanding than your high school schedule. Another point: I hate to say it, but theft is sometimes a problem on campus. If you have a $2500 Alienware, it's more attractive to the dishonest than a $500 plain laptop.
  • New just because it's new. I'm typing this on a six year old Mac Mini, which is my at-home desktop machine. My traveling machine is a five year old MacBook. My computing needs are probably more demanding than yours, and I'll keep using these until something burns out. Modern computers last a surprisingly long time.
  • Tablets. When the iPad first came out, every freshman had one, but they soon discovered that typing a four-page paper on a glass screen is very slow and annoying. The tablets probably have enough computing power to do the work, but the keyboard is the issue, so if a tablet is your only choice, see if you can find a Bluetooth keyboard to go with it. (I have an old Barnes & Noble Nook with a Bluetooth keyboard. That would actually work for typing most of our papers.)
  • Smartphones. OK—Nearly everyone on earth has a smartphone, and in all of my classes there are at least two students who cannot rip themselves away from theirs for more than 45 seconds (These are the students who usually get the poorest grades.) but you just don't need one. If your paper-typing strategy is to do them on the phone, you do need something better.
  • Expensive word-processing software. If you have an Apple, you can get Apple Pages free. We all have access to Google Docs. Microsoft offers MS Word free for all students. (There's a link on the campus IT page.) MS Word is probably your best choice because you will upload papers to a campus website. When I return them with marginal comments, MS Word will allow you to see what I wrote.

What to buy

  • Apple or Windows? I'm a great Apple fan (have been since the 1980s), but the choice is really up to you. Both work just fine for college. Both will run MS Word. Our cheerful IT people in Patterson Hall understand both.
  • Chromebook? I have to admit ignorance here. The price is very appealing, and Google Docs will work for all the papers we write, but I have never actually used a Chromebook to have an opinion. Two problems I see: The first is that (so far as I know, but I may be wrong) they need an Internet connection to work at all, so if the Internet goes down, you must simply stop working, and second, the Google Docs spelling/grammar checker leaves a lot to be desired. Still, prices in the $200 range make these very attractive.
  • Extended warranty. I've used both AppleCare and the plan sold by BestBuy, and I'm a believer. Laptop computers suffer a lot: getting dropped, getting things spilled on them, overheating when you use them in bed. Buy the warranty.
  • Antivirus. This is a maybe. Apples don't seem to need antivirus, but if I was using a Windows machine on campus, I'd want a program. Buy a real one from someone like Norton, and only have one on your computer. (If you have two, they fight.)

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