What’s Hot, What’s Not and What’d be REAL fun to have…Even if you aren’t a technophile, this blog post will help you determine what’s good to have, what’s not good to have and how much it’s going to break the bank. There are some essential electronics all students need to own or think about owning: computer, printer, cell phone, calculator, digital camera, USB key/flash drive/jump drive, sweet stereo system, gaming system and DVD player. Ok so the last three aren’t essentials. But they’d be fun to have anyway. But I’ll focus on the first few –
The first question here is to go for a desktop system or a laptop system. The most obvious difference is price, though one can certainly buy a low-end laptop for the same price as a pretty great desktop system. Which one is for you? I’m extremely mobile and hate sitting at home (not to mention find it extremely hard to study at home) so I chose a laptop. I also have a desktop system but tinkering with desktops has been a hobby for a long time and my desktop has a very different function in my life (converting LPs to MP3). When I was in undergrad, I had a desktop for the first 3 years and it was awesome (I souped up a cheap desktop system with really random parts) then I got a laptop when the desktop died (I forgot about a new fan and power supply…ooops).
If you’re like me and always on the go, a laptop is a great idea but may not always be the best idea. If you’re on the go doing work and you like the idea of sitting in class doing notes on your laptop or really will use it in the library, go for it. But for some of us with less money to be flexible with like that or that aren’t mobile, you can work that desktop system to your advantage.
Desktops usually have much more power and are cheaper than laptops, not to mention are harder to steal than a laptop. Desktops are more customizable AFTER you buy, as opposed to a laptop that is harder to customize and more expensive to add to or switch components after you’ve bought it. I like both of my systems. My laptop is actually a desktop replacement system (super power, heavy as mess and so much fun to play DOOM and SimCity on). My desktop is actually a bit more powerful than that and cost me $1000 less. Go figure.
Customizable vs Non-Customizable – What does it all mean???? If you’re like most people, computer specifications (or specs) don’t make any sense. Just look for these things that are essentials for a student computer:
- CDRW/DVD drive – Allows you to “burn” CDs, listen to CDs and watch DVDs. Many systems now have CDRW/DVDRW drives which let you “burn” DVDs and CDs and listen/watch both
- At least 2 USB 2.0 ports – you plug things like iPods, external hard drives, laptop coolers and digital cameras into USB ports to power them through your computer and/or transfer materials. Most accessories now, including some keyboards and the computer mouse are USB powered instead of the traditional PS/2 connection – it’s faster.
- A good sound card and speakers (gotta listen to something right?) – Most computers have decent sound, but if it’s a desktop, they don’t always come with speakers. Invest in a $10 pair or more expensive ones and go for it. Be nice to your roommate though – own a pair of headphones.
- An Ethernet card (dorms require for net access) & Ethernet cord (usually a CAT-5 cable is necessary and you can get these in any length…I have a 25 ft cord)
- Wireless capability (if laptop)
- Antivirus and firewall software -Some computers come with trials but they cost a ton after a few weeks. There are free ones out there that are excellent like Avast and Comodo, check out download.com and read reviews. If you want a paid version, the big dogs are Norton and McAfee, but I haven’t found anything they do better than some freebies.
- At least 512 MB RAM – I prefer 1 GB or more because I game and do a lot of multitasking, but if you are just gonna type and surf 512 is more than enough. RAM is the amount of temporary memory that allows you to do all the tasks on the computer that you do every day. It’s much different than a hard drive type memory which is permanent.
- 60 GB hard drive. This is pretty standard now, but it’s the amount of space that you have to save things. Have a lot of digital pictures or music? Might want to find more. In a desktop this can be easily changed out to a larger one if needed or use an external hard drive to get more space that’s portable.
- An office suite Microsoft Office might be cheap or free at school, check on it. Open Office is a freebie that works almost the same. Works and Lotus are good, but they don’t convert easily from or to Microsoft Office compatible files so beware. Open Office is the best alternative at the moment.
- Screen size for monitor – If it’s a laptop, the larger the screen size, the heavier the laptop (but the better to watch movies on…I have a 15.4 Widescreen). Some people have 12 inch or smaller screens. Go to a store and figure out which one is the right size for you. For desktops, please go larger than the standard 15?, even if it’s 17?. Again, the bigger the better it is for certain things, but for general tasks 15? is fine. If it’s a desktop, also look into an LCD monitor, which is very small and lightweight compared to flatscreen or CRT monitors (dinosaurs). Easy for moving.
What to Stay Away From: A computer with Windows VISTA…most programs (besides Microsoft) have yet to be made compatible so until then it’s a waste of money. There are some major loopholes in the system as well. Check with the dealer to see if they offer XP Pro or XP Media Center – even if it costs a little more, it’s worth it. If you know what you’re doing, check out Linux Ubuntu – it’s a pretty sweet OS and the features are what VISTA stole…and broke. Stay away from that “deal of the month” that is in your budget, but has none of the specs you want or need.
Where to Buy: Reputable computer dealers (Best Buy, Circuit City, Frys, MicroCenter, Tiger Direct, etc) or if you’re an experienced computer buyer and eBay user try eBay for laptops. I’ve bought 3 laptops on there for under $400 with all the specs that are above and they are great. Do realize there are scammers on eBay and people who are selling knowingly broken merchandise so if you don’t eBay much, stay away.
When you go to a big store, they have pretty set prices – realize that larger retailers are out to make the big buck, so look around for their marked down systems or systems on sale. It’s back to school time so everyone has something. I love online shopping and there you can find much bigger deals than in store sometimes, especially from Frys or MicroCenter. Look for student deals and discounts.
How to Buy: Wisely. Give yourself a budget limit but be reasonable. Always shop within your budget and don’t buy a system that is less than what you want, it will need replacement faster. Buy a system that will last for a few years. Computer specifications required by schools change almost every year, so buy something that is higher end because it will fit the standard longer and will last you through computing changes in your own life (yes, even the most avid gamer in us must get up one day and go to work that 9-5).
My favorites on the market – I have way to many actual “drool Machines” to list, so I’ll give you places to look instead.
- IF YOU HAVE MONEY TO BLOW – Alienware. Doesn’t matter about the specs or which model you choose. It’s Alienware.
- IF YOU”RE THE AVERAGE JOE – Dell has some pretty good deals under 600 bucks for desktops. Macs (a must for graphic/web designers) always has something in range.
- DANG, WHERE’S MY NEXT MEAL COMIN FROM? – You’ll want to find that last season markdown, or get that geek from Intro to Computing to build you one on the low low. Dell has a few 200-300 dollar systems. Some stores like Best Buy have their own brand computers and you can get these for cheaper than big names like Compaq. Also check into extra loans your school may give just for computing (you apply, they give you funds, you give receipt and remainder).
- IF YOU HAVE MONEY TO BLOW – Alienware. Same explanation as above.
- IF YOU’RE THE AVERAGE JOE – Think 400-1500 range. Try looking at online dealers and check out stuff from Compaq/HP, Dell, Sony and Acer among others. If you can find a pre-made system with all the specs and it’s cheaper than the custom (Dell, Gateway, etc) go for it. Do know that Gateway Desktops and Laptops (and EMachines, Gateway’s baby) all require that you use Gateway approved [read Gateway made] parts if you are doing upgrades. Mac is definitely in this range unless you want the most souped up monster.
- DANG, WHERE’S MY NEXT MEAL COMIN FROM? – Check MicroCenter and Frys, the home of low cheap new laptops. All stores will have markdowns on last seasons, especially Walmart or Target. eBay may be your best bet if you don’t mind used, because sometimes the specs will be way higher and the system won’t be totally beat down yet, but closer to your price range. Also check into extra loans your school may give just for computing (you apply, they give you funds, you give receipt and remainder).
Do you want the all-in-one, the laser or simple and basic? Most of us are good with the simple and basic printer that you can grab at Walmart for $20 bucks. If you have a printing deal through school (included in tuition) or really cheap print cards at school, stick with it. It generally comes out less than even the $20 printer.
Costs – You have cost of printer, ink refills (sometimes very expensive, especially for color) and paper. If you print a ton (greater than 1000 sheets a month), think of getting a laser printer. The initial investment is big, but the benefits outweigh it. If you print about a ream of paper a month (500 sheets), the regular inkjet should work fine and about $15 a month for a new cartridge and $5 for paper will be average. If you don’t print that much, that $20 of supplies will last about 2-3 months.
Look for a USB printer and if you like to print photos, it’s not necessary to have a separate printer for printing your homework and those pictures – a regular printer should be able to do both, just switch the paper type. Do know certain sellers of printers (Dell namely), have certain mods to the printer models that make you have to buy ink from them (big monopoly because the ink is more expensive from them).
My favorites on the market –
- Very basic – Canon makes some very cheap and portable printers. Available at Walmart for – you guessed it – $20. The cool thing about the Canons is that they print photos VERY WELL and still conserve ink.
- All in one – any of the HP or Lexmark all in ones. Lexmark is usually cheaper, but their ink is to kill for. Can be found for under $100.
Dude. Dude. Duuuuude. Your cell phone will pretty much be your main line in college. Pick a good one and a good plan. No matter who you are with, a new phone generally requires you extend your plan so if you don’t want to do that or pay the outrageous out of pocket costs without signing a new one, check eBay or other places for a new one. I don’t know your style, but I will say invest wisely. Don’t get the free phone just cause it’s free. Think about that – if you can spend $50 and get a better phone now, it’s better than 2 months down the road and pissed cause you have an itty bitty (or humongous phone) with no capabilities besides dialing a call (no caller id, no saving numbers, etc).
Everyone doesn’t need a PDA, so don’t buy that just to be cool. Buy something that has the features you want – ability to save numbers in the phone or on a SIM card, a memory card slot, Bluetooth, flip phone or candy bar design, text capable, SMS capable. If you text a lot, get something with bigger keys to make it easier.
If you don’t already have a phone, talk to friends about their plans and costs etc. Know exactly what you’re getting for your buck. Look for free nights and weekends in your plan and avoid the pre-paid cell thing even if you’re broke because it will only make you more broke and all your friends will hear when they call is a silly recording because you’re out of minutes. If you are in a major city, see if MetroPCS is available. It’s real cheap and you get lots of perks.
Before you go off to school, make sure your current phone works where you are going. Believe it or not, there are still places that don’t have towers for every cell phone company. Where I went to undergrad, only Cingular (now AT&T) and Verizon work. The people who showed up with Sprint were pretty pissed they were paying for analog roaming. You’re in college – at some point you will drop, kick, stomp or lose your phone. Get the insurance. It’s worth it.
Costs – If you are by yourself on a plan, imagine a $60-70 dollar bill each month for pretty decent minute plan and texting plan depending on what company you’re with. MetroPCS is about $45 a month. Some places still do free phones when you sign up, but everyone pretty much does discounted phones if you’re signing a plan. If you plan on texting at all, or find that you start using texting, get a texting plan rather than paying by the text. It’s cheaper. Also, if you choose to use the internet on your phone (to download ringtones, check email, etc), get an internet package or media package.
- Business classes – get the TI 30 IIB – no more trying to figure out anything dealing with finance in your head.
- Standard – if you don’t have one by now, get the TI-83 or TI 83 Plus. They are standard for most classes you’ll take (algebra, geometry, and statistics) and they are useful for everyday stuff. I’ve used mine through high school, undergrad and now grad school. Only reason it’s not the same one is because the first was stolen (yes, this is a hot item so take necessary precautions against theft).
Cost – a business or generic calculator costs under $40. To get a TI-83, try the $80-100 price range – shop around though because everybody sells them now. Where I go to school, the engineering club sells them every fall as a fundraiser. And no matter what, don’t forget that just because a model was released after the TI-83 doesn’t mean it’s what your teacher or books will reference and there is nothing worse than being the guy with the calculator that doesn’t do what he needs.
Man oh man oh man. I love digital cameras. There is evidence on my website that I love them. If you are just taking pictures of friends or at a party or something, a generic low cost camera will work (3-5 mega pixels, low zoom). If you want way better quality and larger photos with the ability to do things like nature shots or active outdoor shots, get a 5-8 mega pixel camera and high OPTICAL zoom (digital zoom usually screws up a picture).
The best way to find the camera you need is to go to a camera store and ask the guys there. It’s their job. And you don’t necessarily have to buy from them; just get them to help you. Of course, if you know about photography and you’re avid, you KNOW that a full function or digital SLR is the way to go. Since this category has way more tech aspects than a computer, I will give you a couple of favorites and tell you to check out CNET and ZDNet.com for reviews of their cameras.
- Avid photographer, need the best of the best – Sony Alpha
- Avid photographer, want higher end than simple point and shoot, but not in need of Sony Alpha – Fujifilm S700
- Time to time photographer but want some automatic functions – Fujifilm E550
- Party shooter or something for mom and dad to play with – Canon A550
- IF YOU HAVE MONEY TO BLOW & you know what you’re doing – Sony Alpha – $600+ for the cam and basic lens
- IF YOU HAVE MONEY TO BLOW & you want a point and shoot – Sony Cybershot DSC-H9 – $400-500
- IF YOU”RE THE AVERAGE JOE & you know what you’re doing – Fujifilm S700 – ~$250
- IF YOU’RE THE AVERAGE JOE & you want a point and shoot – Canon A550 ~$130 or Fujifilm E550 ~$100
- DANG, WHERE’S MY NEXT MEAL COMIN FROM? & you know what you’re doing – Fujifilm E550 ~$100
- DANG, WHERE’S MY NEXT MEAL COMIN FROM? & you want a point and shoot – Try the Polaroid digital line or get on Craigslist and try to find a new friend
Necessary accessories are a media card (either XD, SD, mini SD, etc will be necessary; check the specs for the camera to see what’s necessary – I recommend a 1 GB card) and a camera bag. Many cameras use AA batteries, so help the environment and go rechargeable. I spent $20 on a charger and 4 batteries and 2 years later they still are awesome.
USB Key/Flash Drive/Jump Drive
All of these labels are names for the same thing. A student needs one, even if they have a laptop. The number of PowerPoint presentations (college is death by PowerPoint) you’ll be doing, this makes it easy to get your presentation to and from class or to trade files with someone. I like 2GB ones but I also transfer larger files and so some playing. If you are just putting your paper on it, I suggest a 512MB or 1GB. If you want to keep all your work over an entire semester, definitely the 1GB or bigger is a good choice. If you do a lot of work on other people’s systems or play around a lot or don’t have your own computer, get the bigger drive. They can be bought everywhere, though the cheapest prices I’ve seen are on supermediastore.com. I personally own a PQI 2 GB drive and I’m about to get a second. Cheapest drives around.
Sometimes, stores like MicroCenter or Frys will sell their own brand for about 10 bucks. I like the ones with lanyards so I can put them around my neck or that have the part so I can put on my keychain. Harder to lose that way. For a USB drive, the cost is the biggest factor and how much it holds. Name brands don’t really matter much here.
- Just doing papers – 512 MB ~$10
- An entire semester of work (or in reality, a movie) – 1 GB ~$10-12
- Everything on thesis or dissertation plus references (or in reality, a couple of downloaded movies plus the 3 latest CDs from fave artist) – 2 GB ~$20
Wow, this list shows a lot of important tech items, but there can be more. Digital alarm clocks (like the Neverlate 7 Day Alarm clock) are a must, as are digital music players (liven up that time in the computer lab or walking to class). CNET and ZDNet are great places to look for reviews and pricing on these things and more. Shop around for the best prices once you find that item you want.
If it costs you a bundle, invest in protection for it. Get a case for your camera. I’m not an advocate of branded laptop bags (prone to theft), but get a laptop sleeve (I love BooqBags) or non-branded laptop bag for your computer. Keep fresh ink in your printer and don’t rip paper out of it. Don’t buy a $300 camera and take it to a frat party where it will end up in a cup of beer (take the $20 dollar camera instead or invest in waterproof case). Get insurance for your phone. When you’re done with your calculator put it up in a safe place.
Don’t leave laptop or other electronics sitting around in the library while you go to the bathroom unless you’ve got a friend watching them (and that guy you just met is not your friend yet). Put your computer on a surge protector. Get renters insurance and put all your electronics on it. The school won’t pay you if the dorm catches on fire (which depending on how many times somebody has burned ramen in the microwave, will happen during every semester) or if someone walks into your room (you can’t believe how many people leave their rooms unlocked) and takes everything.
Yet despite all these tech items, you’re in college! Get out and have some fun away from all the tech items (that fun can be the frat party down the street or it can be having a LAN party playing the computer release of Halo 3) – meet your neighbors, go read a book or go for a jog…to the 7-11 for some last minute “nutrition”.
Next week I’ll be back, talking about getting involved and staying involved in college, grad school and afterwards. As always, if there are any questions post them here or send me a note. I’ll be glad to help your dice out an answer. Keep the soul!