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Among the most important investments you can make to ensure your academic success is to make sure you have the right computer for your needs, and in the ever shrinking dorm room environment, having something small, efficient, and durable is increasingly important, so we decided to look at some machines that college students might want to strongly consider if they want to purchase a machine that will last their whole degree.
At a base level, you’ll want to make sure you have the right productivity software that allows you to do research and do papers, and this software ranges from Microsoft Office and Open Office to a fast Internet browser like Firefox or Google Chrome, along with any specialized needs you might have for your major as the software they will want you to use may not work on certain computers with certain operating systems.
If you’re majoring in design or science, you might need a more powerful system in order to run the software required for your course work. In particular, running the latest edition of software ranging from MATLAB for mathematics and science to Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) program Auto Desk for industrial designers, architects and engineers to Adobe’s PhotoShop and Illustrator for graphic designs and artists. These programs all require a higher level of computing power and memory than the default, off the shelf computer, to run smoothly.
You will always want to check with your University department for any special hardware requirements related to your coursework.
An additional aspect to consider is the choice between Windows and Mac operating systems (and Linux, just to be fair to those that are fans). While traditionally the two had been separated by programs that ran on only one system or another – traditionally, Apple ran Adobe design software more efficiently, while Microsoft Windows handled data and business applications, such as Office, better – but this has changed in recent years.
Today, most programs are available in both Windows (XP or Vista) and Mac OS X (Leopard) versions. Further, if you are running a Mac, you can simultaneously run Windows either through a reboot to another operating system (via Boot Camp software) or run a virtual system program such as VMWare that allows you to run both operating systems simultaneously.
The most prominent programs, from Office to Adobe Creative Suite are available on both platforms, so the decision is more a matter of tastes than function. Microsoft’s recent release of an update for Vista has vastly improved the stability and compatibility of the operating system, although OS X still offers many new features that you’ll want to consider when making your final decision.
Another factor to consider are possible discounts available through your school, most commonly through the campus book store. Apple generally offers students discounts on both hardware and software purchases, while Microsoft offers software discounts and various hardware makers may offer PCs at a discount, such as Gateway.
Since the number of new computer releases has exploded in recent years, we’ve compiled five of the best machines on the market to help you make a decision. We review three laptops and two desktops, covering both Apple and PC systems to give you a broad comparison of what’s on the market:
If you’re seeking increased mobility that allows you to easily take your computer to class, to the library and even back home during school breaks, you’ll want to strongly consider going with a notebook. While you’ll pay more than you would for a standard desktop, the portability will give you an entirely new degree of flexibility in your schedule and allows you to take your work with you no matter where you are.
Apple recently released an entirely new set of MacBooks, lowering the entry level price to $999 for the base model. While Mac laptops are still more expensive than comparable Windows-based systems, there are several advantages in selecting a Mac. The new Macbook features a singular aluminum casing, which makes the Mac lighter, weighing in just over four pounds for easy portability.
You also get a high resolution LED display and integrated NVIDIA graphics card that help power graphics programs. A new multi-touch track pad makes navigation easier, with some elements borrowed from the iPhone. For students seeking a solid, portable computer, the MacBook is a good option but it does lack the computing power of other systems, especially when compared to desktops.
Overall, the new MacBook is a good choice for underclassman and students who like Macs but don’t need the additional computing power for their dollar.
For students who need a bit more power, the MacBook Pro also received an update. The Pro models are more expensive – starting at $1999 (although it may be lower with a student discount), and has a larger screen (15.4″ versus 13″), more advanced integrated graphics (NVIDIA 9600), and a higher resolution display (1920×1200), but it weighs a pound more than the standard MacBook.
Still, the MacBook Pro has the power to run the most advanced graphics programs, and can allow you to run new programs such as Creative Suite 4 much more smoothly than the lower end MacBooks.
If you’re looking for an ultra portable solution, the MacBook Air weighs just three pounds and is thin enough to fit in an envelope at the starting price of $1799. Designed to run with web based storage, the MacBook Air lacks an optical drive and has less computations power than the standard MacBook although it is quite sturdy with a steady state hard drive and an ultra thin profile. While the Air is more suited to frequent business travelers or those who can rely upon cloud computing for all of their storage needs, it can provide a good solution for students who need a lighter weight solution with improved portability.
All Macs come with a solid Apple Care warranty, which gives you some peace of mind that the company will help you solve any hardware problems for the first year of your purchase – upgrades are available and recommended, especially if you’re not hardware savvy.
Lenovo purchased IBM’s laptop and desktop computer line back in 2004 and has continued to upgrade the series, while providing dependable, high performance notebooks. Lenovo produces a wide variety of ThinkPads, ranging from entry level to performance machines. If you’re looking for a more entry level machine to fit your budget, we recommend that you look at the ThinkPad 61 series. The 61 series comes in either a wide screen T61 model, which has more power or the X61 models which are lighter and more portable, include a tablet model that allows you to take hand written notes on screen during class.
Looking at the ThinkPad X300 which is a highly portable notebook that weighs just under three and a half pounds and offers an impressive array of features you can expect a strong competitor to the MacBook Air.
With a Core 2 duo processor and solid state hard-drive, along with a range of upgrade options, the X300 has the power you need with the portability you want. Although it’s light, the X300 has all of the features you’ll need from multiple USB ports to a DVD-RW burner to a Wifi and Ethernet port, along with Bluetooth, Verizon 3G and Wi-Max compatibility.
You can choose either Windows XP, for a limited time, or Windows Vista, depending on your preference and configuration. While the X300 is a bit more expensive than entry level notebooks, it packs enough power to last several years and even into the transition into the workforce.
Students looking for a more traditional, desktop machine will generally benefit from lower prices for a lot more power than you can get in a laptop. Desktop prices have come down even as computing power has grown over the years. For crammed dorm rooms though, there are a new series of desktop computers that are integrated within the monitors, saving room and stopping you from having to deal with an unsightly tower. While these machines cost more, they are very functional, and worth taking a look at if you can budget it.
Dell XPS One
Featuring an integrated monitor and desktop in a single machine, the XPS One takes up less space while containing enough processing power to handle nearly any program. The XPS One contains a 20″ Dell High Definition widescreen monitor, along with a Core Duo processor, Windows Vista, a 320 GB ATI Hard drive, along with an ATI Radeon graphics card and a DVD-RW or Blu-ray optical drive.
Whether you are looking to run business applications or enjoy some gaming between classes, the XPS One desktop is a great choice for your dorm or apartment. You’ll get a more powerful set of features with a large HD monitor, all for the same price as a much more basic notebook.
Just like the XPS One, the iMac is an integrated all-in-one system which offers an impressive set of features at a lower cost basis than comparable Apple MacBooks. In a sleek design with an integrated display ranging from 20″ to a 24″ high resolution monitor, the iMac packs a Core Duo 2 processor up to 3 GHz along with ATI Radeon or NVIDIA graphics cards.
In addition to featuring the latest Leopard OS X operating system, the iMac also has a built-in iSight web cam along with the iLife software pack, which makes it ideal for artists and those in creative majors. Another interesting side feature is the wireless “Mighty Mouse” which utilizes Bluetooth for improved performance and seamless navigation.
For students seeking more power on a budget, desktops provide more bang for your buck. Take into account all of the factors when making your computing buying decision, including your anticipated graduation date, along with the software you need for coursework.
If you need a more simplistic overview of buying your first computer, then check out our Computer Hardware Guide.