Pc Picks For The Freshman Class

Like millions of other parents, I'm getting ready to send a high school graduate to college. The long selection process is over, the housing requests have been submitted, and the first checks are in the mail. One big decision remains: What sort of computer should Jonathan get?

Increasingly, colleges expect students to come armed with computers or to buy one from the campus bookstore soon after arrival. Even when computer purchase isn't a formal requirement, it's far more convenient for students to have their own units than to trek to the library or computer center to use one. Fortunately, you should be able to meet your student's needs without adding too much to the financial strain.

NOSE AROUND. You have two basic choices to make. First, should you go with a Macintosh or Windows? Then, should you opt for a laptop or desktop unit? Before deciding, ask the school some questions. Most likely, the school will say that either Macs or PCs are fine. But a campus visit often reveals a predilection, more often than not, for Macs. And going with the dominant system means more access to software, better support, and easier printing. The best way to determine a school's preference is to see what's on campus, especially in the "computer clusters" for student use in libraries and elsewhere.

Also check how students communicate with the campus computer network. If it's by a dial-up connection, it matters less what type of computer you buy. But more and more schools are running their networks directly into dorm rooms. This arrangement is a compelling argument for a Mac. All Apple machines come ready to plug into the Ethernet networks used on nearly all campuses, while setting up a Windows unit for network duty remains a black art.

The laptop-desktop decision is quite different. Laptops have two great advantages. They're portable, so your student can take it to the library, lecture hall, or just to work in the shade of a tree. And laptops take up less space in cramped dorm rooms. But a laptop costs at least $1,000 more than a desktop with similar performance. And college laptops have a tendency to develop legs, so make certain that it's insured.

If you choose the Mac, your choices are limited to Apple's offerings. Unless your student is a potential power user, the best desktop choice is probably one of the compact, multimedia-capable, Performa models. Prices start at about $1,200 for units with 8 megabytes of RAM memory, a practical minimum. Portables start at about $2,200 for a monochrome PowerBook 520, or $2,900 for one with color.

RANGE ROVING. If your student wants a computer mainly to handle E-mail and write papers without complicated drawings or equations, just about any 486 Windows machine on the market--prices start at about $1,000--will do. Just make sure to get at least 8 megabytes of RAM and a 350-megabyte or bigger hard drive. Heavier users will want a fast 486 or a Pentium, which will push the price into the $2,000 range. Usable laptops start around $1,500; cheaper portables generally are underpowered monochrome units with tiny hard disks and too little memory. Even the cheapest machine will likely come with a useful bundle of software, and an all-in-one "works" program may well meet most or all of a student's needs.

If you buy a Mac, a school may well offer the best deal because of Apple's student discounts. For a Windows machine, you may do better at a superstore or with a mail-order company.

And what will Jon take to college? Since he'll be studying computer science, he needs more than a minimal system. And because both he and his college are partial to Macs, Jon will be buying a Power Mac--most likely a midrange 7100--through the school.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.