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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  • steven75 - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    "and can actually be used for productive work."

    Translation: All those doctors and Fortune 500 companies using iPads are just using them for playing games.
  • Evil_Sheep - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    Great back-to-school gear guide, nice to see a focus on students for a change (you know, the ones on a budget eating out of the chef boyardee tin)....unlike the usual chaff we get from other publications where they toss out a list of overpriced frivolous toys and call it a day.

    The only question is, where are the smartphones? Every student either has one or wants one. This surely has to come before printer recommendations...who still needs those? The Age of Paper is history (the few times a semester you still need to print stuff, you go to the library.)

    Also, more 13" (as opposed to 15") laptop recommendations would've been welcome as Apple has really set the bar here...most are coming to see 13" is the perfect compromise between portability and useability.
  • buzznut - Saturday, August 6, 2011 - link

    Curious to note the absence of A8 budget desktop. Seems like a natural for dorm room work/entertainment.
  • Gigantopithecus - Saturday, August 6, 2011 - link

    $140 for the A8-3850 + $75 for the least expensive FM1 board = $215. The X3 CPU & board I recommend here sum to $130. That $85 difference is enough to cover a 6770 after rebate, when it's on sale. I do not think the Llano desktop APUs are priced low enough to dethrone AM3 CPUs as value kings for those interested in gaming.
  • Chron79 - Saturday, August 6, 2011 - link

    To me the best $700 laptop on the mass market right now is">HP's new A8 offering. Crossfire A8 GPU for gaming goodness, plus a Blu-ray drive, 6gigs RAM, 2 3.0 USBs and 5ish hours of use in a 6lb package. I would hazard a guess and say this is the best value for laptops period atm short of the occasional XPS deal + coupon code. If you want top gaming capability you'll be spending at least $500 more for 1080p screen and top tier DGPUs, but for your normal mobile gamer this A8 packs plenty of punch.
  • Chron79 - Saturday, August 6, 2011 - link

    code links disabled I guess - here is the direct:
  • Shadowmaster625 - Monday, August 8, 2011 - link

    Why is college is a black hole of debt? With articles like these it isnt any wonder. All a college student needs is a dm1 with a 64gig SSD and a portable hard drive tucked under their desk. No way would I carry a notebook with all my important documents and notes around with me everywhere if it had a spinning platter hard drive.

    As for tablets, I spent some time playing with a bunch of different kinds, and the problem with all of them is they are just too damn slow. It is orders of magnitude below what I find acceptable in a pc. An 800MHz AMD duron is faster than these pieces of crap. What gives? What am I missing? How are these things $500? Try bringing up a google map and actually scrolling around... ha! Forget it I'd rather pull my teeth out with pliers.

    As you stand there tapping the hell out of the screen wondering why the link wont open, all the sudden poof the link instantly opens and I end up clicking right thru to the link on the next page then i have to wait another 30 seconds for that one to open...
  • SSquirrel - Monday, August 8, 2011 - link

    I'm really surprised more mention of Apple's Mini, iMac and laptops lines weren't included. Yes they may be more expensive, but considering that 70% of all incoming freshmen are packing Apple gear, it might have been good to include them. Or even just have a separate Mac page for the review.

    I actually just bought the Mini w/the discrete video and it's been great since picking it up Friday. It's pretty snappy, runs WoW great and the ONLY time I hear it working is when the drive spins up from sleep.
  • anishannayya - Monday, August 8, 2011 - link

    I can't believe that you guys forgot the X220 or the X220 tablet by Lenovo.

    The x220 is essentially a smaller and lighter 420T.

    And lets not forgot Windows tablets. I own the X201T, and it is an excellent note-taking tool. One can do wonders with OneNote and a tablet.

    Most professors use .PPT. Rather than printing them out (too add drawings and the like), you can import them, and write/draw directly on them.

    Those who are math-based majors also have the ability of digitizing their notes.

    Of course, all this allows you to be neat, organized, and have everything digital. You only have to carry around one device, especially if you purchase digital editions of your books (or scan them).

    Lastly, the best part is that since the X220T is a convertible tablet PC, you can always flip the screen around and get typing (since most can type faster than they can write).

    And for the gamers, add in a DIY ViDock, and you have something capable enough to handle modern games at decent settings. It'll have to do until real external solutions become possible.
  • Belard - Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - link

    The Fractal Core 1000 is a pretty generic looking ugly case, might as well get a real Antec 3000. But the lower height is handy.

    The HP and compaq cases do look better.

    I wouldn't recommend these pre-built systems.

    Lenovo desktops have almost NO crap-ware pre-installed. They are clean inside and out and cost the same as an HP pretty much. They have bottom end $350 desktops with a decent X2 AMD for $430 and i5 Core systems at $550.

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