My Turn

Computers for College

Joseph Rosensteel - 2001.07.06

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Well, it's almost time for college to start for many of my generation, so I thought I'd post some early tips to consider before we all rush around trying to prepare for our first years of higher education.

Since your reading this article on Low End Mac, I'm going to assume that you want to have a Mac, right? I want one, too, but unfortunately I have to get a PC to use as part of my computer animation course at Ringling School of Art and Design.

Tip 1: DON'T YOU DARE BUY ANYTHING UNTIL AFTER Macworld NY!

I do not advise anyone to purchase anything until after Macworld Expo. Prices on used machines will come down, but even the newest stuff that Apple knocks onto the used market may be too expensive for you if you plan on buying used anyways. If you plan on buying new, then I'm sure you'll see some brand new beauties from Apple. Anyone who bought a computer now would be kicking themselves before the end of July.

Look around very carefully now to see what you like about certain models. If you're buying used, you can even check old reviews and get some knowledge about what you're buying.

Tip 2: What Your College Wants (Hardware)

In theory you could use any computer ever created, but there are other determining factors the college has. Most modern colleges have a campus network of ethernet cables running into the dorms. This means that if you plan on using this network, you will need a computer with ethernet (onboard or on a card). Every single campus network I've ever heard of has recommended 10/100 ethernet with an RJ-45 port (it looks like a big phone plug). They also recommend certain computer settings and software to run on your computer. My cousin's college requires that you purchase a computer that meets specific guidelines. My college doesn't require me to have one if I don't want to, but if I do, there are a few options they tell me to consider. Make sure that you've checked your college's Web site (probably under tech support) or the college catalog.

Tip 3: What Your College Wants (Software)

As part of certain courses you will be required to use specific programs. The reason colleges get so specific is to eliminate any incompatibilities between your computer and everyone else's. Most colleges will not get too restrictive on what brand or version you should have, but some do. If yours does, they would have sent you a list, or will send it soon, on what those applications are.

If your college doesn't have any regulations on software, then I have a small list of software for the "general" student. Throw in anything else you like for your academic studies (like Unreal Tournament):

  • Mac OS 8.6 or higher: You can use 6.0.8, but I really wouldn't recommend it. Check your computer to see what kind of software it can support. If you plan on using OS X, realize that it will be eye candy for now; support isn't really out there in the software area yet (many hardware issues have been resolved though).
  • Microsoft Word (98 or later preferably): I'm sorry to mention Microsoft, but unfortunately it seems to have become the standard for word processing. You can use many other programs for typing up your papers, but if you need to swap files with a friend, you'll need something that can read and write Word files and retain all their formatting (saving things in RTF works well too, but even that slips up).
  • Some kind of email application: Either Outlook Express or Mac OS X's Mail app. There are numerous other applications for mail as well. You'll need to be able to support whatever kinds of servers that your college runs for email but don't worry most do.
  • A web browser: Anything will do nicely. It's entirely up to the individual.
  • iTunes: Every college student needs an MP3 player, especially one with nice swirly colors. :-)

Tip 4: Mobility

Mobile computing is both a blessing and a curse. PowerBooks and iBooks are wonderful pieces of machinery, but they're not as nice as a desktop is. Sure you can take your laptop to Borders and work on your term paper. But you can also get a headache starring at the LCD screen for hours while you BS your thesis.

Mobile computers can also get a bit too mobile - they can get stolen. Remember that your dorm isn't Fort Knox; it's a very public place, and you probably even have a roommate. If you get a PowerBook or an iBook, make absolutely certain you get some kind of locking safety device. Laptops are very easy for people to grab and walk away with. And when they do, you don't just loose your laptop, you loose every single thing you ever worked on. And on top of that, you're now computer-less. (Backup - another reason to buy a CD burner.)

If you get a laptop, get security. It's also a good idea to get a cheap used PowerBook as your mobile word processor and a separate desktop computer you can save things to and actually work on more complicated programs with. I wish all of you intrepid PowerBook and iBook users the best of luck.

Tip 5: Ask Someone to Talk With You About Computers

Low End Mac has many Mac users lined up and ready to take questions about computers on the email lists. If there's anything you're unsure of, ask. I will also help field any questions from my email address (just be sure that you put something in the subject so I can filter out junk mail without deleting your questions).

Share your perspective on the Mac by emailing with "My Turn" as your subject.

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