By Stephen H. Wildstrom Fall may still seem far away, but as every parent of a June high-school graduate knows, now is the time that Johnnie and Janie are in the market for a new computer to take to college in a month or two. I've written on this subject before, but here's an updated version to help college-bound freshmen in their search for the right computer.
Windows vs. Mac. This is a matter of preference. I use both regularly, and I'm not going to argue that one is inherently better than the other. Linux is also viable alternative on campus, but if you're sophisticated enough to set up and run a Linux box, you don't need my advice.
Laptop vs. Desktop. I think students should strongly consider laptops. Although you'll pay less for equal computing power in a desktop, convenience is worth something, and the space you save is precious in a cramped dorm room. In laptops, bigger is generally cheaper, and if mobility isn't terribly important, consider one of the desktop-replacement laptops that offer 15-inch or larger displays. Many of the new, big laptops offer widescreen displays that are ideal for watching movies or working with more than one document at a time.
Desktops survive at the top and bottom of the line. If you're on a very tight budget, you can get a serviceable desktop for $400. At the very high end, desktops still outperform the hottest laptops, a consideration for dedicated gamers. And you can put in bigger hard drives, and more of them, if you're an avid collector of music and other digital-entertainment content.
One cautionary note: Theft, unfortunately, is endemic in college housing, and laptops make tempting targets. If you go with a laptop, get a Kensington lock -- and use it.
Specifications. Unless you have some particularly intense need, any processor being sold today will be more than adequate. Don't spend a lot of money for power you don't need. The easiest and cheapest way to increase performance is by adding memory: Don't settle for less than 256 megabytes for either Windows or Mac. Get the biggest hard drive you can, at least 80 gigabytes in a desktop, 30 gigs in a laptop.
A CD writer is a good choice, and a DVD recorder is worth considering (either DVD-RW or DVD+RW -- it makes little difference). But you can probably get by without a floppy drive unless you have old disks that you need to read.
Displays. Tiny laptops are cute, but that small display will get old fast. Try to get one with at least a 14-inch screen, or plan on using an external monitor. Unless budget constraints are absolutely critical, a flat-panel display is a better choice for a desktop display than a CRT. You can get a 15-inch LCD with 1,024x768-pixel resolution for less than $300 and a 1,280x1,024-pixel 17-inch for under $500.
While old-fashioned CRT monitors with equivalent viewable display size and quality remain somewhat cheaper, LCDs take up far less space and throw off much less heat. And lugging a 19-inch CRT up three flights of stairs to a dorm room is an experience you'll never want to repeat.
Networks. A port for a wired Ethernet connection is pretty much standard on all computers today. Don't even consider a product without one. But wireless Ethernet (or Wi-Fi) is becoming just as important, as campuses install widespread wireless networks. Built-in Wi-Fi is much more convenient and often gives performance superior to add-in cards, so it's well worth making sure that your laptop is wireless-ready. (Some low-end Apple (AAPL) models require adding an AirPort card. This is equivalent to built-in Wi-Fi and will work fine.)
Don't be confused by the profusion of "flavors" of wireless Ethernet being offered. Nearly any campus network you encounter will run on the oldest, 802.11b standard. The new and faster 802.11g is completely compatible with 802.11b. The newer, faster, 802.11a doesn't have built-in compatibility, but all the notebooks I have seen with 802.11a have dual radios that also support 802.11b -- and work automatically to select the fastest network available.
Dial-up modems are standard on most computers. If you're lucky, you'll rarely, if ever, use it.
Operating Systems. Not much choice here. All new Macs ship with OS X loaded. All Windows computers now ship with either Windows XP Home or Windows XP Professional. Not much differentiates the two versions of Win XP. Pro offers more capable networking, but you'll have to decide if it's worth the extra $100 or so. If the school requires students to log in to a Windows network, however, you will need XP Pro. If you already have XP Home installed, don't despair. You should be able to get the upgrade through the school at a considerable discount and it's an easy upgrade.
Software. It's simple: Don't buy any that you don't absolutely need right now. The publishers of big, expensive packages -- Microsoft (MSFT), Adobe (ADBE), Autocad, Wolfram Research, Waterloo Maple, Macromedia -- offer "academic editions" at a fraction of the retail price. These are generally identical to the retail packages but are restricted to student use by license and are available only at campus bookstores to students with a school ID. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online