Thoughts about Computers for Students

Netbooks and LaptopEarlier today, I had a friend ask for my opinion about getting some sort of computing device for their son/daughter to take to college. Since this is a question I get asked A LOT, I thought that I would get something down here for a more permanent reference. In sincerity, it really is up to the family on what they would like to purchase.

The overall guidance that I can provide is: what does the student and family wish to accomplish with this laptop/netbook. Is it going to simply be email / word processing / powerpoint etc? or is the intent to be able to accomplish more like video editing, recreational gaming, and specific applications for any accommodations like text enhancers, etc.  Shoot for the platform that will accommodate the most challenging thing (i.e. gaming will tax a computer much more than word processing).

One thing I would strongly advise is to increase to the largest capacity battery as possible. While this will add some weight to the machine, being able to get through and entire day (or as close as possible) is much more effective than say a 17" screen. Personally, if I was looking at something for my child, I would look to something light yet capable. They might try to sway me differently with more power for gaming, or something else, but really… why are you buying the computer? To get them through the rigor of college, not a lan party for Friday night fragfest…

Here are a couple more thoughts I have:

  • I would increase the RAM memory to it possible maximum (typically 2GB or 4GB) as this make the system faster.
  • I would have it running Windows 7. It is very good, allows for the use of all windows-based software, and runs extremely well on netbooks.
  • Depending on cost I would attempt to opt for a Solid State Drive (SSD) and not a hard drive even though the drive size would be a big tradeoff. You can typically find SSD's in a size of 8GB, 16GB, 32GB, 64 GB, and maybe more 128GB or 256GB but the last 2 will be VERY EXPENSIVE and not worth the cost.

    • That said, for the same price or cheaper there will be 120GB and 160GB (or more) machines with hard drives in them as opposed to a solid state drive. While some will look at the tradeoff as disk size, I look at it as weight and power consumption. A traditional hard drive takes a lot of power to spin the disks inside. An SSD has no moving parts to breakdown or use energy when the PC is not actually writing to the disk. Therefore, its battery use is WAY lower. Hence more time without having to plug in. Last thought on drive size – While 8GB or 16GB may be very low, you can always attach a very cheap external hard drive when necessary to provide that additional storage or use an internet based storage (Microsoft's SkyDrive web based storage is FREE and allows for 25GB of storage that can be accessed anywhere there is an internet connection.
  • Size. Screen size = weight and lower battery life.

    • Depending on the challenges of the student (if any) a 10" Netbook with a screen resolution of 1024X600 (or more) should be adequate. Students with visual challenges should really opt for at least a 15" screen (more weight and lower battery time, but visual enhancement really requires the additional screen space to be effective.

Many of the folks who ask about this subject, often begin to debate the merits of one manufacturer over another.  Frankly, Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba… really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.  Also, while I would recommend getting your hands on one to test or play with at a store as each will have small quirks different keyboard sizes, different perks like webcams, biometric scanners, popup keyboard lights or an illiminated keyboard, etc., buying via the web is a better choice than buying retail typically. Why I say this is the standard retail markups will apply, AND typically they will point you back to the manufacturer as opposed to providing any type of service once you get it out the door anyway…

For those of you who are data oriented, PC Magazine recently posted a survey on Laptop Reliability. The second thing I would have you consider is the levels of customer service provided by said PC company… Remember you get what you pay for… if you consider a $300 netbook as "disposable" (I do) consider hard that PC manufacturers may feel the same way and provide service accordingly… Here is a link to a NYTimes article on PC manufacturers customer service ratings… It is not hard to see why Apple tops those standings. (For one Apple is NOT racing PC companies to the bottom on cost…)

If you are looking for more information or have suggestions on updates for this post, please comment here to share your thoughts.  Also, I am making a huge assumption with this post… Most likely in error, but one that I am comfortable with as MOST parents buying systems for college kids are really looking at cost vs. benefit… (and shooting for the lowerst cost… hey, most of us are trying to pay for some of the college expenses too…) That said, If you are looking truly at cost v. benefit, and longterm viability do NOT leave Apple out of your considerations. They WILL be the most expensive, but you might just get the most bang for your buck overall… but that is a different post…

Apple iPadFinally, on January 27th, 2010 a new option entered this frey… the iPad.  Prior to that date, everything I posted above, would have been the best way to go about considering a student device… the iPad may be a game changer for outbound college students and for high school students as well. I can;t really comment more until I get my hands on one, but I really think that the PC/Laptop landscape is positioned for huge changes… I'll post more on this in late-March and then again in April when the iPad goes retail.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts about Computers for Students

  1. Gary,
    Thanks for the comment, every once in a while it is nice to hear that I am not simply writing for myself. If you can wait a month, hold off to at least see what the iPad is like and if it might fit your needs depending on the goals your family has for a new machine. Love to hear what you land with.

  2. Now a days laptop or desktop is necessary for studies It is really a very nice and cool for us I am very excited to seen this one It is very nice information for us I am very excited to see this one it is so nice.

  3. Ernesto, I agree. We have moved beyond the simple acquisition of information in education to adaption, creation, and leveraging of discovered information into something new. Laptops, netbooks, iPads, slate devices are a natural and required necessity in continuing to drive this forward. I am caring less and less what folks know… what can they do with it… that is becoming the key…
    Thanks for furthering the discussion,

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