It's that time of year. Your offspring has graduated from high school and is preparing for a four-year, bank-account-draining experience known affectionately as college. And, if the costs of tuition, room and board, books and a new wardrobe aren't enough, you also have to be sure your budding Einstein is equipped with the right technological gadgets to survive the experience.
Choosing the correct personal computer, notebook or PDA for college can be a daunting task, so I've prepared a survival guide that will hopefully lead you down the correct path - and may even save you some money.
The biggest concern should be obsolescence. Make sure that the computer you purchase will be able to run software students will be using four years down the road. Many schools recommend a minimum Pentium III ( they prefer Pentium 4) desktop computer - or a Macintosh G3 - with 256 megabytes of RAM (random access memory), a minimum of 30-gigabyte hard drive, a writeable CD-ROM drive and an on-site warranty that will cover hardware problems for at least three years. They also require that every computer be equipped with a 10/100 Ethernet card and a 25-foot Ethernet cable, so students can log on to the school's network to access materials required for each course. These computers should also be running the Windows XP Professional or Mac OSX operating system so they can easily be configured for the school's network.
Requirements can vary for each field of study, so check with the college or university to see what they demand. An English or Liberal Arts major can get away with having a decent computer with decent word processing software, but someone majoring in math or the sciences may need a super-fast, number-crunching juggernaut.
Notebook computers are great, but can also be a big security risk. Requirements for these are basically the same as for PCs, but you should add either a security cable or a thumb-print reader that will prevent thieves from accessing your data in the event it is stolen. There are also security locks that can be attached to notebooks to prevent unauthorized access.
Many colleges and universities will try to steer you toward purchasing computers through their "tech centers" or other computer-related department on campus, telling you they can get you a top-of-the-line machine at a big discount. They'll also warn you about the problems that could be encountered if a student arrives with an "old, outdated" computer from home.
Here's another warning: Check your options before you spend your hard-earned bucks. Many of these great deals could turn out to be expensive nightmares. Check out prices of similarly-equipped machines at your neighborhood computer store or see what kind of deal you can get via the Internet before signing on the dotted line. Many of the major computer manufacturers offer additional discounts or incentives to customers that purchase computers directly from their web sites.
Personal digital assistants - a decent Palm or handheld PC - are good for storing appointments, reminders and addresses and can be a great asset to students. But that's all they're good for! Don't be swayed by PDAs that offer Internet access (other than email), word processing capability (other than a good document reader) and other features that are more common to PCs. These are not replacements for computers and many of these additional features are useless, at best.
Some colleges have begun giving PDAs to entering freshmen as part of their orientation packets, so it may be a good idea to see if this is the case before purchasing one.
There's also a new gadget on the horizon that may eliminate the need for a notebook or PDA.
Logitech has announced that they are developing a digital pen that, when combined with specially-coated paper, can be used to take notes in the classroom and then transmit them to a notebook or PC. A lot of the details are still under wraps, but if everything goes as planned, these new digital wonders should be available by the end of September.
Although my recommendations should meet the needs for students attending most institutions of higher learning, it would be wise to check out what your offspring's college of choice recommends. You may be able to get away with a less expensive machine.
(Mike Berman can be contacted at mberman(at)jocgeek.com)
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