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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  • frozentundra123456 - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    That sounds like a quite good idea. Can you just hook up a USB keyboard to a laptop and use it seamlessly, or do you have to somehow tell the laptop which keyboard is active??

    If you did this, you would save the cost of buying a laptop and separate desktop, but if you are very space limited, I am not sure that a laptop, external keyboard, and external monitor wouldnt take up as much space as a desktop. And you can set a desktop on the floor, while I am not sure you would want to do that with a laptop.

    But I am not trying to put down your idea. It is a very valid and original alternative.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    The problem is, a laptop that can compete with a desktop for performance will cost twice as much. You can build a $750 desktop that will outperform $1500 laptops. So, there's flexibility in getting a $750 laptop and $750 desktop in place of a single $1500 "do everything" laptop. It's not that you can't do it all on a laptop, of course, but there are certain things that will always be faster on desktops for less money (e.g. gaming).
  • frozentundra123456 - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link


    What you say is certainly true. However, if you only want to surf the net, do office type apps, and listen to music or watch videos, a 750.00 or even cheaper laptop is probably all the power you need. And I hate to admit it, but for gaming, a lot of college students probably use a console instead of the PC.
  • frozentundra123456 - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    BTW, sorry about the misspelling of your name!
  • JarredWalton - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    No worries, and you're absolutely correct: if you don't care about gaming, honestly, Intel's IGP is perfectly adequate for 99% of users. You can watch videos without issue on any laptop made within the past four years (excluding Atom, of course), doing office work reached the point where a faster CPU didn't matter much back in the early 2000s, and surfing the net will generally be fast enough even on CULV and Brazos processors.

    If you're a parent buying a laptop for your college kid and you don't want them playing games? I'd recommend Brazos or an entry level Sandy Bridge as a good $400~$600 laptop -- or get a Llano laptop if you want gaming to be better.
  • TrackSmart - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    At the very least, the option of a light-weight laptop plus external monitor should be part of this discussion. There are significant advantages to having only a single computer with all your files and programs always available.

    **Potential options if you expand your guide:**

    Thinkpad X220 + External monitor
    Toshiba Portege R835 + External monitor
    13" Macbook Air + External Monitor

    (These all weigh in around 3 lbs and have good performance, build quality, and battery life. I didn't list any of the Acer or consumer-level Sony laptops b/c I don't have confidence that they would last for 4 yrs...)
  • TrackSmart - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    One more thing. Yes, this precludes PC gaming, but that's less of a trade-off in these console-dominated days...
  • johnnywa - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    Of all the laptops I've tried this with, both the usb keyboard and the laptop keyboard would remain active, so both can be used at the same time.

    I agree that this wouldn't save much space over just a regular desktop, but I think some people, like me, only want one computer (one single laptop as opposed to desktop + netbook), and don't want to worry about having to keep files synced across multiple computers using USB drives, Dropbox, etc. Thanks!
  • overseer - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    If only the mini-ITX DIY setup consists of A75 ITX + low power Llano...

    Actually I've seen an ASUS A75 ITX MB the other day, so it just boils down to when AMD launches the 65W A8s and A6s.
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    Hi overseer - Where did you see a Llano ITX board?! I check Newegg, Ewiz, Amazon, etc. every morning and haven't seen one available yet. And I completely agree with your second sentiment - I can't wait for the 65W A-series APUs to be released!

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