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.
typically more expensive than desktops. This is especially true when
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.
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
$300 at retail but may be under $60 with academic pricing.
software for free:
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
("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 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.
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.
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.