College students have long played an integral role in the development and adoption of new technology. Students, along with businesspeople, comprised the bulk of the portable electric typewriter market in the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1970s, two students—Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer—met while living in the same hall at Harvard, and went on to play critical roles in the development of the personal computer in the 1980s and 1990s. Universities were among the first institutions to support the growth of the internet, and for a time provided high-speed internet access to more people than did corporations. In the late 1990s, a Northeastern University student named Shawn Fanning and his uncle developed Napster, one of the first popular peer-to-peer file sharing programs. Again at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg and fellow computer science majors developed Facebook, which was initially only available to college students, but now is the second most-trafficked website, after Google. Google itself was born through the collaboration of two Stanford University graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Icons of file sharing, social media, and internet search: all hatched on college campuses

Today’s college students are universally expected to be computer-literate. Every college campus in America has computing centers with anywhere from a handful to hundreds of networked systems available for student use. Most campuses provide extensive wireless internet access to students. Technophile professors like my own graduate adviser at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Hawks, often communicate with students via blogs, Twitter, and even Facebook. Many assignments are expected to be submitted electronically, and professors increasingly incorporate novel forms of coursework and evaluation like videos uploaded to YouTube and Wikis produced by students. That is, it is impossible for today’s college student to be successful without extensive utilization of computing technology. Of course, millions of Americans who take online distance learning courses are entirely dependent upon access to a personal computer and the internet.

What kind of technology does a college student need to buy?

To be blunt, the answer is not much. Most colleges and universities provide more than sufficient access to technology, such that some students never buy a personal computer, let alone a printer, scanner, or other gadgets. I wouldn’t recommend this—it’s inconvenient and restricts your schedule. School-provided hardware is also sometimes aggravatingly outdated, and campus networks do not always work. But college is already incredibly expensive, and it’s hard to reduce your technology budget to less than zero dollars. You have to be very familiar with your school’s technology resources before attempting to get your degree without your own PC. This is a less-than-ideal solution, and spending some money on personal technology can make a student’s life much, much easier.

College is not just about learning Latin declensions, radioisotope decay chains, and great works of fiction. It’s also about learning how to live more or less independently. Our lives are steeped in technology, and college students are just like anyone else with a job—there is no one correct technology solution. The most basic computing solution for a college student entails one personal computer, be it a desktop or a laptop.

A desktop or a laptop?

In the context of college, desktops and laptops both have their advantages and disadvantages. Desktops almost always are more powerful for their cost, are easier to modify as needs change as well as repair, and are harder to steal or lose. Desktops also take up more space, and aren’t portable. A laptop's most notable advantage is portability—you can take it anywhere to get work done. They also occupy less volume, a major consideration for cramped dorm rooms. But they’re also a prime target for theft on campuses, and are more expensive considering their specifications.

Since the rise of netbooks and the ever-decreasing cost of desktops, I’ve come to think that asking whether to use a desktop or a laptop is asking the wrong question. Netbooks are frequently less than $300, with some as inexpensive as $200 (or even less on sale or clearance). A basic desktop can be built or bought for $500 or less, monitor included. Rather than deciding to buy a laptop or desktop, I think it’s wiser to ask yourself what your computing needs are. Most college students need to be able to browse the web and use office applications to type papers and make presentations. These tasks do not require the latest and greatest (and therefore most expensive) tech. If you do not need more than basic computing capabilities, I’ve found that having a less expensive netbook or budget laptop and a standard office computer is a far better solution than having one powerful laptop or potent desktop.

Another important consideration is how long you expect your computer(s) to last. It is perfectly reasonable to expect today’s budget gear to be able to passably browse the web and type papers for the next four years. It is not reasonable to expect today’s budget gear to be able to play 2015’s games and run Adobe Creative Suite 6 or 7 very well. It is difficult to predict what you’ll need for the next four years, but speaking with older students in your program and your professors can give you a good idea of what you’ll be doing as a senior. For those looking to buy a new PC—laptop or desktop—the next few pages cover DIY and off-the-shelf (retail) desktop computers and monitors as well as netbooks and laptops.

DIY Desktops
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  • overseer - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    What I saw was the ASUS F1A75-I Deluxe, however I didn't confirm the stock with the etailer.

    ASRock has an A75 ITX board around the corner as well. I believe those will be available at major channels in a week or two.

    But 65W Llano SKUs... might be due out in Sep. (along with Bulldozer?) Umm this whole year has been about waiting AMD new arrivals.
  • frozentundra123456 - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    Great article by the way.

    I have a question regarding the AMD E-350 APU. The first machine I saw this in was the HP dm1v, and I thought it was great. Thin, light, good battery life, and both better CPU performance and graphics than any atom.

    However, I am seeing a lot of 15.6 inch laptops in local retail stores with the E-350.
    Does anyone have any experience with this platform? It seems like an ideal fit for a netbook, but underpowered for a full size laptop.

    And I also question the abiity of the Llano laptops to play all the games he mentioned at decent settings even at a 1366 x 768 resolution.

    Granted, they are way better than intels integrated graphics, but can you really get a decent gaming experience with the titles listed without a discrete card?? (Decent to me would mean over 30 FPS at medium settings at native resolution.)
  • andymcca - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    I've only had it for a day, but I just got a low-end Llano laptop (A4-3300M, the cheapest one they have at the moment), and I'm already impressed with it.

    I realized after playing with my settings that I was on battery power (for an hour, and still ~70% battery after gaming!), so performance may have been scaled down. Even so, I was getting 25-30FPS average in WoW and SC2 on medium. I was not in huge battles or anything, though.

    I imagine the more capable models must kick some medium-setting butt. Most of the reviews seem to indicate this, too.
  • Taft12 - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    However, I am seeing a lot of 15.6 inch laptops in local retail stores with the E-350.
    Does anyone have any experience with this platform

    It's an idiotic platform. Toshiba, HP et al. are only doing it for the sake of putting a $350 price tag on a full-sized laptop. Most laptop shoppers are looking at the price only and don't know or care about any technical specs.
  • Chron79 - Saturday, August 6, 2011 - link

    I recently purchased an E-350 Lenovo from BB for $300. This is basically a test purchase to see if I want/need anything more once the fall semester begins.

    It handles internet video fine up to 720p I would say. 1080p YouTube and Netflix streaming HD content can get choppy at times, but those are both luxuries. I loaded Office 2010 and have put Acrobat through its paces with my summer seminar work and everything seems responsive. Also tried WoW, and would call it passable in low-to-medium settings but nothing to write home about. If you plan to game at all on a laptop the E-350s are not for you anyway.

    What I love is the overall package and battery life. Fingerprint/face recognition, media card reader, hdmi out, 4 gb RAM and anywhere from 6-8 hours of use depending on your video use. Also the base stays super cool - just a tiny bit of warmth in the upper left quadrant the quiet fan handles. If you are a basic college student who does not game or has a desktop for gaming I really don't see where you would need more than this. To me the next logical step up is $600-700 with BR drives and/or the new A6/A8 cpu/gpu functionality. If you can afford these then more power to you, but for those looking to make ends meet this $300 model is a great deal.
  • yourwhiteshadow - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    i made the mistake of buying just a laptop. its not comfortable to do your stuff on a laptop. best bet is to get netbook + desktop. get high productivity in your room, and be able to take notes or do whatever in the class room.

    honestly though, note taking on the laptop is overrated. i don't remember taking that many notes on my laptop as a science major. my $1200 macbook pro was honestly a big waste of money. should have bought a $500 laptop and upgraded my rig, imagine how far $700 would have went when you already have a case, PSU, fan, etc...
  • frozentundra123456 - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    No one mentioned Windows Live Skydrive for cloud storage. You get a really large amount of storage (25 Gb I believe) for free.

    Is there some reason not to use this, such as lack of security or difficulty transferring files??

    I used it to store some photos that I did not care if anyone saw, but I am not sure you can load entire folders at once or if you have to upload one file at a time, which would be impractical.
  • duploxxx - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    It's hard to defend any atom based netbook these days, even the Ontario based APU is way better in the lower end netbook area.

    for the Asus EEE pc 1001P there is a much better solution called 1015B with a c30 apu

    its even cheaper....

    A series LIano are in the range between 500-700$ its artificial OEM prices that keep these solutions expensive, the cost price of the A series liano is less expensive then the new intel i3-i5 series, yet priced higher.
  • mtwardochleb - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    I'm heading up to Cal Poly SLO next month with a gaming desktop and an iPad 2. I used them together for the last few months of high school and quite enjoyed the experience. Being a tech-savvy user I'd like to share some experiences and recommendations.

    Having a fast computer paired with a 24" monitor seems essential to me for productivity since it enables one to comfortably read a web browser while using Word. It's also fantastic when editing video and watching movies in full HD, or browsing the web without having to minimize chat client windows. I use a SSD for my boot drive and a 2TB green HDD RAID1 array for hardware failure-resistant storage. A backup and image of the SSD are run daily and everything is copied to a 2TB external once a week. I consider this to be a very comfortable level of data redundancy and highly recommend it for anyone who has a lot of data.

    The NoteTaker HD app on the iPad is exellent for notes on the go, especially since it lets you annotate PDFs and pictures you take with the iPad cameras. I used this feature to take pictures of handouts in class to consolidate everything in one location. For PDF textbooks I use iBooks and for all other books I find Stanza to work extremely well, especially since it can download books wirelessly off your hard drive when paired with Calibre. There's also a wonderful app called Splashtop HD that gives very good remote desktop functionality over the Internet that's smooth enough for videos or playing Starcraft (albeit clumsily). For EE majors I also found a great app called iCircuit which allows you to design and simulate circuits in real-time.

    As for other peripherals, I can say having a more expensive printer is very nice. I have an iP4300 which has automatic duplexing, a very large black ink tank, and a paper cartridge. The cost for text printing is pretty low and the picture printing is superb. Printing 8x10 pictures and other odd sizes also comes out cheaper than having the work done at a lab, which is nice if you enjoy photography. A wireless mouse and keyboard are a must for reducing clutter. If you're a serious musician or just really appreciate music I highly recommend splurging for the Audio Technica ATH-M40fs studiophones. They can be had for around $80 and provide excellent sound quality with great responsiveness to equalization settings (I prefer a bump in bass since I'm used to my Logitech Z-2300 system). Be aware of the 10ft cord and 1/4" professional TRS plug, both useful features in certain situations and annoying in others.
  • Blaze-Senpai - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    I don't know about you guys, but I don't mind a slightly bigger laptop that can do everything I need it to do decently, although I can understand people not wanting large computers.

    I still think its weird people complain about laptops being too heavy, do people notice that much of a difference between 6 and 7 pounds? Just get a backpack that can hold it.

    ...actually, why aren't bags included? You need a way to carry around all of that stuff, after all :3

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