College Computers: Things Not To Leave At Home

One of the most frustrating things in setting up a college computer is to discover that one key piece is missing and the computer can’t be started up, or even tested out. This usually occurs after an hour of carrying boxes up multiple flights of steps, rooting through cartons to find all the computer components, meeting a roommate and her family, etc.

Based on experience, here are a few of the most commonly forgotten items:

Network Patch Cable. In another article, we talked about network interface cards and college dorm network connections. Usually, these two things must be connected by a “patch cable,” which is a cable that looks rather like a telephone extension cord only a bit thicker and with wider connectors on each end. (Be sure to find out exactly what kind of network connection will be in the dorm room. An Ethernet connection requiring RJ-45 connectors is the most common. This is a standard patch cord.)

One thing that is often difficult to plan for is the length of the patch cable you will need. Unless you have seen the dormitory room, you won’t know if the network outlet is near you, near your roommate, or someplace else. We suggest bringing a fairly long patch cable – perhaps 25 feet long. A longer cord will let you run the cable around the perimeter of the room or over the doorway instead of trying to find the shortest distance, which will inevitably be across the middle of the room where people will trip on it. It’s not generally a good idea to make lots of loops in your network cable, so if you can, bring a short one too, perhaps 6 – 10 feet, in case you happen to be the lucky one whose network connection is close to where the computer will be located. Of course, if you will use a wireless network connection, no patch cable is necessary.

Dorm Room Network Cables…Our Suggestion: 7 foot cable if your computer is next to the outlet, 14 foot if you are on the same side of the dorm room, 25 foot if you are on the other side or don’t know. Cat5e cables can transfer data at higher speeds than standard Cat5, and cost only slightly more.

Avoid “handmade” patch cables if possible. Not only is the risk of a non-working cable higher, often hand-terminated cables may provide a marginal connection and result in slower connection speeds. While the college computer store or book store may carry patch cords, it’s usually better to not count on the store being open when you need it and having the right item in stock.

Surge Protector/Expansion Strip and Extension Cord. One rule of thumb in college dorm living is that the outlets will be in the wrong place. It’s a good idea to bring a heavy-duty surge suppressor/expansion strip with at least six outlets to plug your computer and peripherals into. Depending on what you are bringing, check the configuration of the strip. Sometimes, printers or scanners come with bulky transformers that may block additional outlets. In these cases, the orientation of the outlets in the strip may determine whether the transformer blocks multiple outlets.

A heavy duty (three prong) extension cord – perhaps 10 or 15 feet – might come in handy if the outlet you need is in the wrong place. Surge suppressors usually come with shorter cords – 4 to 6 feet is typical, which won’t be long enough by itself if the outlet is poorly located.

Other Cables & Connectors. If you are moving a computer from home, be sure to pack all cables that were connected to the computer. It’s easy to unplug a cable from the computer and endup leaving it at home. Power cords are particularly easy to forget.

If you are buying a new computer, you should have all of the cables you need in the component boxes. The exceptions are the network patch cord mentioned above and the printer cable. Some printers come with cables, some don’t – if yours doesn’t, be sure to buy the appropriate kind and bring it with you.

Virus Protection. Colleges are huge networks with lots of file sharing going on. In addition, college students thrive on e-mail. Though less common, there is still additional file swapping going on that uses floppies or home-made CD-ROMs. All of these circumstances make infection by viruses or malevolent “trojan horse” programs all too easy.

We suggest installing and testing a good virus protection program prior to departure. If you are buying a new computer, you may read that it comes with virus protection already installed. In many cases, though, this only includes three months of virus updates, which means that partway through the first semester, the software will start asking for a credit card to update itself. If you buy virus software with at least a year of updates, you won’t have to worry about unexpected demands for “protection money.” Read the fine print on the new computer to determine the length of protection offered. Note that having up-to-date software and virus signatures is an essential part of being protectd. A word processor that is a year out of date is fine, but a virus checker that is a year out of date is essentially worthless.

Personal Firewall. Once a computer is on a network, it is exposed to a host of risks – hackers, trojan horse software, even “spyware” – innocuous-looking software that secretly transmits information about your computer or Internet-usage back to a central location. We recommend a personal firewall, like Black Ice Defender or ZoneAlarm Pro.