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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  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    After thinking about this and on the advice of Ryan, our GPU guru, I edited the article to recommend nothing more power-hungry than a 6870. That's a more comfortably conservative recommendation, and I think it's better to err on the side of caution.
  • mariush - Saturday, August 6, 2011 - link

    That's indeed better.

    A lot of the pre-built computers still come with very cheap power supplies based on old designs with lots of amps on 3.3v and 5v and not so much on 12v, so those 220 watts could be a bit too much for these power supplies.

    Someone might get mixed up and think that any kind of 400w power supply would be capable of this, which is of course not true.
  • Hrel - Thursday, August 4, 2011 - link

    I would like to add a set I've had some personal experience with that are excellent. Sound is crystal clear, I'm not kidding. NO distortion even at max volume! Satisfying Bass.

    It's got a 1% THD rating, so you can believe me when I say there really is no distortion. The bass isn't quite as good as those klipsch, which I've also used. But it is full and satisfying for 90-99% of uses. Not quite as penetrating as the Klipsch so your neighbors will thank you. Also doesn't get quite as loud as those Klipsch, but more than loud enough for realistic uses. Especially in a dorm/apartment. Has a night time mode that's actually usefull and many settings. And unlike all the other systems you linked it has a full receiver built into it. Full HDMI support and all the hookups you could ever want. That way you can get your game system and pc and laptop all running through it. With a remote so you don't have to get up every time you want to change devices. On top of that it supports 3 more speakers than the ones included so you could have a full 5.1 surround sound set up down the road if you chose to. Maybe after college, or once you get a bigger apartment or house or something. I often find them on newegg for 250 or less. Right now they're 230 on amazon. Really amazing deal for everything you get. Chintzy controller, but at this price all that matters is it works, and it does. If that matters to you get a Logitech universal remote.

    Personally I use this when I want music streaming from my computer but I'm playing a game online over xbox. I don't really care about the explosion sounds of the game, but I need to visuals going to the tv. But I can have the sound coming from the computer without ever getting up or moving any cables. Pretty convenient and very fairly priced for everything you're getting.

    If you're building a dedicated home theatre room you need to spend more; period. But if you don't want to spend more than 250 or so. Or you have limited space or don't want to fuss with cables or just want quality sound and bass without too much hassle or money; that's what these are for. The only other option I think is the Klipsch, which have slightly superior sound but have no receiver, and don't even have optical audio. That last one was a bid deal to me; too much distortion over RCA. I think the Onkyo offering a full receiver with every connection you could ever want, remote, 2 quality speakers with a good sub-woofer and the option to go 5.1 surround sound later more than makes up for the "just slightly" inferior sound. I mean, honestly unless you're completely OCD about sound like I am, you probably won't even notice a difference. Anyway, I think they're a great set of speakers and wanted to spread the word where the word just might be listened to, and appreciated.
  • Chinoman - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    I agree with getting a system which has a low-powered sub for decreased penetration. As a current college student, it seems to me that a lot of kids who move on campus don't realize that their 10" subwoofers can be heard just as well on the other side of the wall.

    Leave the "loud music" to the clubs, don't bring it to the dorms where people next door might be trying to sleep or study.
  • Zoomer - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    I would recommend picking up a cheap but decent receiver from craigslist for $50++ and using that. It just needs to do at least 2 channels (or 5), and there are many receivers out there that are good quality, but doesn't support hdmi switching or what not. It's not really necessary anyway. Save the money for the speakers; you'll find that HDMI switching, crazy fancy features and what not doesn't matter as much as the speakers.
  • Roland00Address - Thursday, August 4, 2011 - link

    They were planning to but they removed it before it was released (May of 09 they removed the 3 app limit, windows 7 starter like the rest of windows 7 was released to oems in July of 09 and to the general public in Oct of 09.)
  • Gigantopithecus - Thursday, August 4, 2011 - link

    Thanks Roland! Edited the article accordingly after confirming with a friend who just got the 1001P. The first thing I do when I buy a new machine (or as happens more often, a friend brings me their new machine) is install one of those heavily discounted W7 Ultimate licenses. Admittedly I have little experience with W7 Starter. ;)
  • Roland00Address - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    If you are a student and you can get W7 Ultimate or W7 Pro for cheap through your campus book store, then you will want to hop onto it.

    W7 Premium, Pro, and Ultimate add back the Windows 7 Media Center functionality.
    W7 Pro and Ultimate add the remote desktop so you can log back on in your Desktop at the Dorm and grab the file you forgot to save, and have it sent back to your netbook.
  • Zoomer - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    Or Pro for free through MSDNAA.
  • johnnywa - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    I find it wrong to assume that you can't get a desktop-like experience out of a laptop, but the article does seem to reinforce this notion. With a laptop, you can still purchase a monitor (or small TV), keyboard, and mouse, and you can end up with essentially a desktop that you can unhook and take around with you when you need to. I tried this solution for the last 2 years (minus monitor, although sometimes I hooked my lappy up to our apartment's 37" TV), and it was a very comfortable setup. Of course this isn't an end-all-be-all solution, but I'd say it's another alternative to desktop + netbook.

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