Originally created 05/06/02

Laptop vs. desktop for college students

I receive about 300 e-mails a day; about 200 of them are questions. I try to answer as many as I can personally and the most general in this column but because of the volume of mail and the complexity of the question involved, I may not be able to help. It's not because I don't want to; it's because sheer volume prevents every question from being answered.

Q. My daughter is off to Notre Dame this fall as a freshman. They suggest bringing a computer to the dorm. Do you think a laptop or desktop PC is more practical?

A. Depends on the student, actually. Someone heavily into computer graphic design, Web site design or online gaming (grin) will want a desktop. Business students and journalists often want a laptop. Two years ago my answer always would have been "desktop" but prices on laptops are falling like stones and quality and speed are improving. I think personally these days I'd lean toward a decent laptop (with Ethernet capability, of course, and a cavernous hard drive.)

One thing to buy if you go the laptop route is a security cable (about $35.) Getting your kid to use it is one thing but this simple device can stop casual dorm room thievery.

You'll also want a printer; start cheap and move up to a laser printer as the student heads to the final years and has to print large reports. One other option is to wimp out on the printer and use an office supply service (like Kinko's, etc.) to print out large reports. You can e-mail them a large report or take a disk (or your laptop) to the store and let them print and staple your report.

Q. I keep reading about firewalls and anti-virus software. I just plain don't understand why I need both and what a firewall is. Can you help?

A. I can try. When you connect your PC to the Internet, either by dialing in or via a "broadband connection" (cable modem, etc.) you essentially are connecting your computer to a worldwide computer network. This is a good thing; it allows you to receive data, Web pages and e-mails from around the world. However, many computers are connected and left "open" to snoopers. A "firewall" is a piece of hardware or software that lets your data out and in but helps stop snoopers from getting in to your computer. Consider them a deadbolt lock on your front door...they will stop most people but not a skilled professional. Everyone with a broadband connection needs a firewall; common ones are Norton Internet Security, Black Ice and Zone Alarm. If you dial in to the Internet you are less at risk. Anti-virus software is different; it helps stops computer viruses from attacking your PC. These days most viruses are transmitted via e-mail and you'll never know you are infected for the most part. You need to buy anti-virus software, install it and then once a week or so you "update" the software to keep up with the latest discovered viruses. Most updates are free for at least a year. If you let your anti-virus software get old by not updating, you are vulnerable to the latest viruses. Common brands are Norton Anti-Virus (included with Norton Internet Security, Norton SystemWorks or Norton Utilities) and McAfee.

Q. Someone told me that to protect myself from viruses I ought to buy an Apple PC because viruses don't run on Macs. Is this true?

A. No. What is true is that fewer viruses are out in the wild that affect the Mac Operating System. That really is a measure of market share. Most virus writers are doing it for the publicity, the joy of seeing their "work" spread and for bragging rights. Because the Windows operating system runs about 88 percent of the world's PCs, virus writers get more bang for their effort by targeting the most prevalent systems. There are Mac viruses out there; there are just fewer Macs to infect.

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