Soon, members of the college class of 2004 will be heading off to start their freshman year. Nearly all will bring computers, and whether the bill is paid by the student or--more typically--the parents, this is about the only case where they will find something associated with college that is getting cheaper.
Since the slowest processors sold today are more than adequate for nearly any use, you don't have to pay a lot of money for that computer. But you do have two fundamental decisions to make: laptop vs. desktop and Windows vs. Macintosh. Linux is an alternative only for the dedicated techie.
Laptops are attractive for a variety of reasons. You can take them to the library or to class, though taking notes on a computer is not universally accepted. Laptops fit better in cramped dorm rooms. But they remain more expensive than desktops and are easily stolen.
Choosing Mac or Windows is simply a question of personal preference. But Apple Computer has a lot going for itself as a campus choice. All Macs can be plugged into a network--a campus necessity--with the addition of a simple cable. They are also ready to work on a wireless network with the addition of a $99 AirPort card. Many schools offer wireless networking in some buildings, and some are equipping their entire campuses, indoors and out.
Your basic Apple desktop choice is an iMac, starting at $799. This is an all-in-one design with a 15-inch monitor. The base model features a 350-megahertz G3 processor and 64 MB of memory, both adequate. The standard 7-GB hard drive is fine for most uses but a bit small for the dedicated digital music collector. In laptops, the iBook, starting at $1,599, is a sort of portable iMac with similar features.
The Windows world offers a lot more choices. In desktops, shop by features and price rather than by make, since the difference among major brands is not great. You would be hard-pressed to find a processor slower than a 500-Mhz Celeron or its equivalent from Advanced Micro Devices, and this is plenty fast. Don't fall for the argument that more power is needed for heavy-duty number crunching. Schools provide labs with engineering workstations--and even those are as likely to be used to play Quake as to solve equations.
I suggest you put your money into features that will be useful. Most important is an Ethernet port for the campus network. The Compaq Presario 5000 series, starting at $799, is one of the few budget lines with standard Ethernet, although a dealer should be able to add it easily to other systems. Ethernet is available on any Dell or Gateway computer for around $50. Also useful are 128 MB of memory (64 MB is typical), a bigger disk drive for all that MP3 music, and an upgraded sound system, especially if the computer is being used in lieu of a stereo.
Avoid monitors more than 17 inches unless you know that there will be space for it. If you want to splurge, a flat-panel display is a great space-saving alternative. A 15-inch display costs around $1,000.
In laptops, built-in Ethernet is especially nice since the alternative, a PC card, is a clunky solution. Relatively few inexpensive consumer notebooks offer Ethernet, but two of the more appealing products do: the IBM ThinkPad iSeries 1300, starting at $1,299, and the stylish Compaq Presario 1400 series, starting at $1,499. For laptops without built-in Ethernet, I recommend the use of a Xircom RealPort card ($125 and up), which eliminates the need for awkward and easily lost accessory cables. You can save money going with a DSTN or HPA display rather than the pricier TFT, but be sure to try it first.
One thing not to buy for a student computer is a lot of software. Most campus bookstores offer deeply discounted "academic editions" of programs that are identical to commercial versions but are restricted by license to student use.
As a parent with six years of expensive experience paying college tuition, I know you take savings where you can find them. In an era of $20,000-plus tuition and $100 textbooks, it's nice to know that some things are a pretty good buy.