Bargain P Cs For The College Bound

Suitable machines ought to cost no more than $1,500, and you may get away for less

It's the time of year when recent high school graduates are anxiously looking forward to college, while their parents get ready for tearful good-byes--and writing large checks. While the cost of higher education continues to soar, there's a tiny bit of good news: The cost of equipping your college-bound child with a computer is at an all-time low.

For most students, a personal computer is essential. While colleges provide computer clusters for student use, they can't offer the convenience of a personal machine. And with dorm rooms at many schools providing direct access to campus networks and the Internet, PCs have become a primary communications tool for course work and socializing.

CHAT TIME. Still, the computing needs of most students are relatively modest, with E-mail, chat, and word processing the dominant uses. While a state-of-the-art machine still costs more than $2,000, there's not much reason to spend more than $1,500, and it's possible to get away for less.

The slowest desktop computers on the market today use 233 MHz MMX Pentiums or their equivalent from Advanced Micro Devices or Cyrix. When backed by at least 32 megabytes of memory, these are plenty fast for typical student uses.

One area where it makes some sense to splurge is in hard disks. Students tend to be electronic pack rats, and the video and audio clips that they collect off the Internet can fill up a disk fast. I'd go with at least a four-gigabyte drive, which is now the standard on all but the cheapest desktops.

Modems are standard equipment on nearly all PCs. If dorm rooms are wired for network access, the modem will probably go unused. But make sure any modem you do get complies with the new v.90 international standard for 56K communications. An adapter card is required to plug into a campus network, but it's a good idea to wait and get one from the campus computer store, which will make sure that it's the right card and provide help in installing it.

I normally advise buyers to get the biggest and best monitor they can afford, but that has to be modified for students. Dorm rooms can be tiny, and a 19-inch monitor might leave your student with nowhere to sleep. Even a 17-inch may be tight. Think about space before buying a monitor.

One advantage of the Compaq Presario 2254 (table), beyond its attractive price, is its tidy desktop design. Although expansion space is limited, it does have a free slot for a network card. A machine like this is best for the student who isn't a computer aficionado but needs a PC as a tool.

A step up from the Presario, the Gateway G6-300, is an example of a mainstream computer of a sort available, at a similar price, from every manufacturer. The 300-MHz Pentium II is plenty fast for most student needs and avoids the hefty premium you would pay for the 350- and 400-MHz models.

LOCK IT UP. Although you still pay a premium over desktop prices for equal performance in a laptop, there's a case to be made for notebooks. Not only are they the ultimate space-savers but the ability to take them anywhere on campus can be a big advantage. The Toshiba Satellite 2505CDS offers a lot of value and should serve any student well. If you do choose a laptop, get a Kensington cable lock to secure it. Theft is a problem in all dorms, and laptops are especially tempting targets.

A fair number of students have grown up with Macintoshes and would like to go on using them in college. But at the moment, it's hard to figure out just what advice to give. The cheapest current Mac model costs a hefty $1,699 without a monitor. A limited number of older models from Apple and Umax are available, but they may require expensive processor upgrades to run future Mac software. The $1,299 all-in-one iMac, due in mid-August, could be an ideal solution, but heavy advance sales are likely to keep it in short supply until late in the year. The best interim solution, where possible, just may be to take an existing home computer.

Between now and graduation, the Class of '02 will run up bills, in many cases, pushing $150,000. It's at least a small comfort that computers' share of the bite is small--and getting smaller.

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