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Advice on computers for college

Computer hardware costs have fallen dramatically in recent years. Many freshmen now go to college with desktop computers that are more powerful than entire college science departments had 20 years ago. Although these systems are powerful and affordable, there are things you should know before spending money on items that you do not need or that you can get free or at low cost.

If you do not already own a computer you are likely to find good suggestions on your college's website. What follows is a brief description of some considerations:

Mac vs PC: The majority of personal computers on campuses, like the majority in the general population, are PCs running Windows. The Apple Macintosh has very enthusiastic advocates and there is a widely held belief that Macs are easier to use. If you have been using one or the other computer system and feel especially comfortable with it, you will probably want to stay with if unless the school gives you a compelling reason to switch. Another consideration is that Macs tend to be more expensive than PCs and the accessories and software are more limited and likewise can be more expensive.

Desktop vs laptop: Laptops are convenient. Not only do they take up less space on a desk, but they can be taken to the library, laboratories and other places. The drawback to portability is that laptops are easily stolen or lost. That has become less of an issue as prices have fallen and as laptops have become so common at colleges. However, if lost/stolen, the loss of the school work that you have stored on a laptop could be more catastrophic than the financial loss of a stolen computer. That makes it imperative that you backup your data if you have a laptop. An external USB hard drive is an essential accessory for backing up all computers but is especially wise for laptop users.

Laptops are typically more expensive than desktops. This is especially true when comparing costs for a given amount of computing power. Laptops may be more difficult and expensive to upgrade than desktops and they may be more fussy about the compatibility of both hardware and software.

If you live on campus you will likely find that your dorm room has a connection to the campus network. If this is the case you will probably need a network interface. These may be built in to the computer or can be added as an interface "card."

Printers: You will undoubtedly have access to computer labs on campus that you can use for printing assignments. This can save you the cost of a printer. However, you may find it a great convenience to have your own printer. Ink-jet printers are amazingly inexpensive and most can print in color. Laser printers have come down in price recently but are still generally more expensive than ink-jets and the less expensive models do not print in color. The advantage of laser printers is that they can be more dependable, the cost per printed page is less and the output generally looks a little more crisp. In addition, laser printed work can suffer a raindrop to two without having a big smear of ink.

Often colleges have arrangements for special pricing on computers and accessories although you may be able to find similar prices at standard retail outlets. Check before you buy. At stores like Staples, Office Max, Office Depot and various department stores and computer specialty stores you can find desktop computers suitable for writing and web browsing for $400-600 including monitor. Another $100-200 spent on a printer will probably be quite useful. A Mac will cost more like $800-1500. Laptops will run from $600 to $2000 with Apple laptops again tending to be at the higher end of the cost range.


Brand name software on a budget:
The cost of computer hardware may be coming down, but the cost of the software is remaining high and becoming a larger fraction of the overall computing budget. The amount and sophistication of the software that comes bundled with your new computer will vary. Some computers will have only the operating system, others will have some rudimentary applications for word processing and spreadsheets and others may come with professional quality "suites" of office software. For some advanced classes you may want to purchase special purpose mathematical or scientific computing applications.

Important: Educational Discounts are the rule! If you decide to buy a computer before you go off to college, check with the college before paying extra for bundled software. This is because there can be huge educational discounts on many software packages if purchased through the school or its bookstore. For example, Microsoft Office which can cost $400-500 at retail depending on the version might be less than half that with academic pricing. WordPerfect Office Suite is over $300 at retail but may be under $60 with academic pricing.


Great software for free:
Free Software:

Another source of great software is so-called "free software" or "open source software," often abbreviated "FOSS." FOSS software should not be confused with other so-called "freeware" which often comes with advertising or nagging windows that pop up to ask for a registration fee. Free sofware is said to be "free" as in "freedom" or "free speech" not necessarily zero cost. Nevertheless, a great deal of high quality FOSS software is indeed free of charge to download or available at nominal charge on a CD. Much of this software is extraordinarily powerful and some of it is remarkably compatible with name brand commercial software.

Tux
Linux:
Perhaps the best known example of free/open source software is the operating system "GNU/Linux," generally called simply "Linux." Linux is a UNIX-like operating system and this makes it particularly at home in networks like those that are typical at colleges and universities. Using free application software under Linux it is quite possible to have a powerful system for browsing the Internet, reading and sending email, writing college papers, creating and modifying photographs and other images, playing music and so on--all without paying a thing for the software.

Linux has a reputation of being difficult to install and maintain. This is changing quickly and several popular versions of Linux have become quite easy to install on any hardware that is relatively standard. Nevertheless, it may be wise to locate a friendly source of Linux help before diving in without a life jacket. Indeed, many high schools are running Linux based computer labs and help may be available nearby. Also check out Don's website and book, "Living with Linux in a Windows World."  The book is full of strategies meant to make the transition from Windows to Linux as smooth and hassle-free as possible.

If you decide to try Linux you will probably find enthusiastic help available on most college campuses. Once installed, Linux has a graphical user interface that resembles the interfaces of Windows or Macs. With OpenOffice for Linux, you can create documents that are compatible with Microsoft Word and Excel. The broadband Internet access that is available to students at most colleges makes updating Linux and its applications quick and easy.

Live CDs 
For those interested in trying Linux out, one of the great innovations are "live CDs," Linux installations that reside entirely on a CD. Booting into a live CD gives you an opportunity to explore and use Linux and a large number of Linux applications without installing it on your hard drive. Once you have a little experience with Linux, a live CD is an ideal "rescue" tool for salvaging data off of a hard drive that has unbootable. The software on most live CDs is compressed and must be uncompressed on the fly before running. Therefore they do not provide quite the snappy feel of a full disk installation. However, it is an ideal way to see what Linux is about and to see how well supported your hardware might be with Linux.

Linux distributions
Windows comes in several versions but all are from Microsoft. In contrast, the open source nature of Linux means that there are many organizations and even individuals who package their own distributions. In choosing a distribution there are several points to consider. For new users it is particularly advantageous to pick a distribution that is well supported both by the organization packaging the software and a user base of people contributing information and tips in forums, email lists and websites. That gives you the highest likelihood that the components of the system have been tweaked to work well together and that there will be help in getting over any hurdles you encounter.

The distributions that seem to have the edge on available support are Fedora (based on Red Hat) and Ubuntu (based on Debian). Also strong are SUSE (from Novell) and Mandriva (which recently changed names from Mandrake). The live CDs from Knoppix are highly regarded and Ubuntu also has a Knoppix based live CD.


OpenDisc is a collection of free software for Windows. There is a CD ".iso" file that can be downloaded burned onto a CD and used to install the individual packages. You can also read about the various software programs and download individual packages to try out. Among the software I have used and particularly recommend are OpenOffice, The GIMP, Filezilla, Mozilla and Firefox. These are solid and very useful programs that are very much equivalent to expensive commercial products. I have also used and enthusiastically recommend Celestia and Audacity which are also on the OpenDisc.

Mozilla firefox
Mozilla and Firefox
are related open source web browsers. They have many advanced features relative to Internet Explorer and are free to download and use. Mozilla includes a very useful email program and a simple webpage editor. Firefox is streamlined for browsing although there are dozens of clever plugins for special functions.

OpenOffice.org
OpenOffice.org ("OOo") is an example of terrific open source software that is available at no cost. It is a sophisticated office suite including powerful word processing and spreadsheet programs that are compatible with Microsoft Word and Excel. It also includes a great, if somewhat complex, drawing application. It can be downloaded for free in versions for Windows, Macintosh and Linux operating systems. Do not let "free" fool you. This is first rate software.

The GIMP
The GIMP is a powerful image manipulation program that is also free to download. It is available in Windows, Mac and Linux versions. It has much of the functionality of the commercial program Adobe Photoshop which costs around $300 to purchase at academic pricing and around $700 for the retail version. I use The GIMP almost daily to edit and enhance digital photos and to make images. The images and logos on this website were all produced using The GIMP. The initial learning curve is a little steep, but there are terrific tutorials on the web and the investment in learning GIMP basics will pay off nicely for anyone who wants to create or edit images.

Celestia
Celestia is a little hard to describe adequately. It is an astronomical program that allows you to view and explore the solar system and the stars in ways you cannot imagine until you try it out. If this does not sound like your kind of thing, try it anyway. Celestia is truly dazzling and gives you a perspective on the earth and the universe that may have a permanent impact. Celestia does some pretty heavy-duty graphics that requires a 3D graphics processor in your computer. If your computer is up to playing 3D computer games try Celestia out.

Audacity
Audacity is an application for recording, converting and editing sound and music files, analogous to word processing or image manipulation. You can cut and paste little selections of sound, add tracks together and a zillion things more. If you are at all interested in recorded music, you will probably find ways to use Audacity.



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Last edited 08/29/2008