Cheap Computers for the College Student

by Jonathan Moeller


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Once upon a time, it was a luxury to have a working typewriter in a dorm room, and a personal computer would have been unthinkable. Nowadays, a computer is less of a luxury for a college student and more of a necessity. Don't believe me? Gone are the days when you could drop off paperwork at the registrar's office, since most universities have taken their course registration online. More and more schools require online applications. Professors often demand that students use electronic formats for assignments, and it goes without saying that a graduate with strong computer skills has a better chance in today's tightening job market. Sure, students can use the computer labs, but they run the risks of limited availability, inconvenient hours, and getting Tazered by an overzealous security guard.

A college student without a personal computer is at a disadvantage, and tuition is expensive enough without adding the cost of a shiny new laptop. Fortunately, there are ways to obtain a quality computer without paying too much money. You need only take careful stock of your individual needs.

First, should you choose a laptop or a desktop computer? Laptops are popular with college students and offer the advantage of easy portability. Unfortunately, that easy portability also means that they are easy to steal. Laptops are more fragile than desktops, and they wear down much faster. A life span of two to three years is average for a heavily used laptop. A desktop computer, obviously, is much less portable. They're also much cheaper; you can get considerably more memory, hard drive space, and processor power in a desktop for less money. If portability is important for you, go with a laptop, but for the truly cost-conscious, a desktop is the better choice.

If you've seen the commercials with John Hodgeman and Justin Lange trading good-natured quips, you're aware of the rivalry between the Macintosh and the PC. But which is better for the student? The Mac is increasingly popular on college campuses. They're also quite pricey. As of this writing, the cheapest available Mac laptop is about $1050, and that's after the educational discount. Macs are often several hundred dollars more expensive than a similar PC. There are fields of study that traditionally require a Macintosh (graphic design, for instance), but for the true dollar-stretcher, the PC is often a better bargain.

Of course, the fastest computer in the world won't do you any good without software, and software is expensive. Before buying any software, you'll want to check with your university's IT department or computer store. College students can often obtain low-cost or free software from their university's IT department or computer store. For instance, campus IT departments will often give free anti-virus software to their students. Microsoft Office is a staple of the academic world, and colleges often have agreements with Microsoft that permit them to sell copies of Office to students at very low cost or even at no cost.

If your college is unable to offer discounted software, you can turn to the world of free and open-source software. There is more free, high-quality open-source software available than ever before. If you can't afford Microsoft Office, you can download OpenOffice.org, which can meet the needs of most college students. If you can't afford Norton Internet Security, there's always AVG Free Edition from Grisoft.

Finally, there's a new trend in laptop computers, namely the low-cost subnotebook like the Asus Eee and the Everex Cloudbook. These are low-cost, low-power machines that offer word-processing, e-mail, and Internet capabilities. Obviously, you won't be able to do high-end graphic design or gaming with these subnotebooks. But for the college student who only intends to write papers, check e-mail, and do research on the Web, these machines are an excellent choice.

You need a computer for college, but there's no reason to drop $2500 on a laptop. With a little research and preparation, you should be able to buy an affordable machine that will last you for your college career.



Take the Next Step:

  • Before purchasing a computer, check with your school's IT Department. They may have information about technology requirements for your degree program. They should be able to provide valuable information about what features to buy and what to avoid.
  • If you must purchase software, compare prices with academic software sites such as JourneyEd.com. Student prices can be significantly less than retail.

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