College students have long played an integral role in the development and adoption of new technology. Students, along with businesspeople, comprised the bulk of the portable electric typewriter market in the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1970s, two students—Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer—met while living in the same hall at Harvard, and went on to play critical roles in the development of the personal computer in the 1980s and 1990s. Universities were among the first institutions to support the growth of the internet, and for a time provided high-speed internet access to more people than did corporations. In the late 1990s, a Northeastern University student named Shawn Fanning and his uncle developed Napster, one of the first popular peer-to-peer file sharing programs. Again at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg and fellow computer science majors developed Facebook, which was initially only available to college students, but now is the second most-trafficked website, after Google. Google itself was born through the collaboration of two Stanford University graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Icons of file sharing, social media, and internet search: all hatched on college campuses

Today’s college students are universally expected to be computer-literate. Every college campus in America has computing centers with anywhere from a handful to hundreds of networked systems available for student use. Most campuses provide extensive wireless internet access to students. Technophile professors like my own graduate adviser at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Hawks, often communicate with students via blogs, Twitter, and even Facebook. Many assignments are expected to be submitted electronically, and professors increasingly incorporate novel forms of coursework and evaluation like videos uploaded to YouTube and Wikis produced by students. That is, it is impossible for today’s college student to be successful without extensive utilization of computing technology. Of course, millions of Americans who take online distance learning courses are entirely dependent upon access to a personal computer and the internet.

What kind of technology does a college student need to buy?

To be blunt, the answer is not much. Most colleges and universities provide more than sufficient access to technology, such that some students never buy a personal computer, let alone a printer, scanner, or other gadgets. I wouldn’t recommend this—it’s inconvenient and restricts your schedule. School-provided hardware is also sometimes aggravatingly outdated, and campus networks do not always work. But college is already incredibly expensive, and it’s hard to reduce your technology budget to less than zero dollars. You have to be very familiar with your school’s technology resources before attempting to get your degree without your own PC. This is a less-than-ideal solution, and spending some money on personal technology can make a student’s life much, much easier.

College is not just about learning Latin declensions, radioisotope decay chains, and great works of fiction. It’s also about learning how to live more or less independently. Our lives are steeped in technology, and college students are just like anyone else with a job—there is no one correct technology solution. The most basic computing solution for a college student entails one personal computer, be it a desktop or a laptop.

A desktop or a laptop?

In the context of college, desktops and laptops both have their advantages and disadvantages. Desktops almost always are more powerful for their cost, are easier to modify as needs change as well as repair, and are harder to steal or lose. Desktops also take up more space, and aren’t portable. A laptop's most notable advantage is portability—you can take it anywhere to get work done. They also occupy less volume, a major consideration for cramped dorm rooms. But they’re also a prime target for theft on campuses, and are more expensive considering their specifications.

Since the rise of netbooks and the ever-decreasing cost of desktops, I’ve come to think that asking whether to use a desktop or a laptop is asking the wrong question. Netbooks are frequently less than $300, with some as inexpensive as $200 (or even less on sale or clearance). A basic desktop can be built or bought for $500 or less, monitor included. Rather than deciding to buy a laptop or desktop, I think it’s wiser to ask yourself what your computing needs are. Most college students need to be able to browse the web and use office applications to type papers and make presentations. These tasks do not require the latest and greatest (and therefore most expensive) tech. If you do not need more than basic computing capabilities, I’ve found that having a less expensive netbook or budget laptop and a standard office computer is a far better solution than having one powerful laptop or potent desktop.

Another important consideration is how long you expect your computer(s) to last. It is perfectly reasonable to expect today’s budget gear to be able to passably browse the web and type papers for the next four years. It is not reasonable to expect today’s budget gear to be able to play 2015’s games and run Adobe Creative Suite 6 or 7 very well. It is difficult to predict what you’ll need for the next four years, but speaking with older students in your program and your professors can give you a good idea of what you’ll be doing as a senior. For those looking to buy a new PC—laptop or desktop—the next few pages cover DIY and off-the-shelf (retail) desktop computers and monitors as well as netbooks and laptops.

DIY Desktops
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  • rageguy34 - Thursday, August 4, 2011 - link

    I'm surprised that you would even mention USB keys given how easy they are to lose or an external hard drive seeing as how they can also get lost or have a mechanical failure. Every student should use dropbox or another alternative if not only for cloud storage but for the version history on document saves as well
  • brshoemak - Thursday, August 4, 2011 - link

    Losing a USB key is not the fault of the hardware. External drives, like anything else can fail. I agree that Dropbox (or like services) should be a part of a student storage plan but other methods of data redundancy are fine. Keep in mind there are times where you need to go to campus computer labs to print certain specialized documents or need color laser prints, most students aren't rocking color lasers in their dorm rooms. Those lab PC's are locked down so you have no way to install Dropbox to get your files - a flash drive is required in those instances, so they can't be totally discounted.
  • zshift - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    Dropbox has a web interface. I haven't used a flash drive since I created my Dropbox account, and it provides multiple points of backup if you use it on multiple computers. For a student, the spacing limitations shouldn't be too much trouble, especially since referrals net the user extra space. Last I checked, docs, presentations, spreadsheets, and even a few songs or pics here and there don't fill up my Dropbox. I have 2 years worth of material on there, accessible from anywhere I can get an internet connection. Plus, I've lost every flash drive I've ever owned.
  • Zoomer - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    A flash drive is so much faster than mucking around with some web interface, particularly when the paper is due in -10 minutes.
  • nickb64 - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    I bought a 16GB USB Key last year because my school blocked the dropbox domain, and I got it on sale on Amazon for $20, which I felt was a pretty good deal, since it was only a dollar more than the 8GB model by the same company.

    I can access Amazon Cloud Storage from school, but it's a pain in the ass to keep it and Dropbox with the same files in case I need them. Having something in Dropbox is useless if I have to use it in a lab where I don't have access to the Dropbox site.

    I just bought a 4-pack of 4GB USB keys because my old 2GB one was too small for my sister's needs, and I can keep various utilities on another in case I need to use them to help someone I know with a computer issue. Also, they were really cheap.
  • nafhan - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    Different students are going to have different storage needs. Dropbox will be fine for Word Docs (and has other advantages, as you mentioned), but someone working with large media files will need at least a thumb drive or a mechanical hard drive to get enough space.
  • Procurion - Monday, August 8, 2011 - link

    Cloud....meh....I call it pie-in-the-sky. I choose to remain in control of my programs and my privacy, not relenquish it to an unknown group of for profit individuals. Anyone remember Wikileaks???? Nothing on the intenet is "safe".
  • Nataku - Friday, August 5, 2011 - link

    no offense, but cloud storage just isn't be all end all solution

    there are plenty of reasons, but to name just a few
    - >1GB file download or USB transfer? USB is a hell a lot more faster

    - firewall blockage + paranoid IT security will own you when u thought u could download ur powerpoint for the presentation happening in 5 min

    - no internet connection --> hey my school kept printing stations off the net so u have to use USB drives

    - entering ur username/password on a pub PC that may have keylogger and ur dropbox account having personal stuff, (self video of triple x stuff.. j/k lol)
  • StormyParis - Thursday, August 4, 2011 - link

    As a student, I worked at the Computer Lab. That was back in 5"1/4 floppies day, but the broad 50% of people coming in about lost/corrupted/destroyed data or equipment has stayed about the same.

    So please kids, do backups. And remember, backups are
    - offline, so a virus (or a pissed ex) that wipes your stuff can't get to your backups.
    - offsite, so the thief that empties your dorm room nor the idiot that drowns it can get to it
    - several, because of murphy's law: your backup will go bad the day your laptop gets stolen.
    - tested, because quite often you think you're backuping stuff only to realize that your app does not pout its docs in the user directory.

    Also, buy cheap stuff. I know youngsters always need ego-boosters, and branded overskill tech stuff is a nice personnality crutch. Keep in ming though, that it's a waste of money, it's likelier to get stolen, it makes it worse when it's stolen / damaged... and, really, you should try being what you do, not what you own.
  • techhhhhhy - Thursday, August 4, 2011 - link

    I'm sorry, but this was clearly written by someone who doesn't go to college and doesn't know what's right for a campus.

    There is no way, 0 chance that you can use a desktop on a college campus / dorm. Does it work? Yes but it is absolutely retarded idea.

    I could have made this article in 1 page. Get a 15" or less laptop, 13" is ideal. Portability is key in college. If you can afford it get a Macbook because this is what 75% of your classmates will have.

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