All About Computers For College

When it’s time to start packing for school, thoughts usually turn to the question of a computer for school. This can be a confusing area for the neophyte – which brand to buy, where to buy it, what specifications or features are important, etc. Many families would like to use this opportunity to upgrade their home computer and send their old one to school, but wonder if the old clunker will work.

Fortunately, College Confidential has answers and can help families chart a course through the computer jungle. Here’s where to start:

Does the Student Need His or Her Own Computer?

While most schools make “computer clusters” available in dormitories, classroom buildings, libraries, and other locations, in our opinion a student should have his or her own computer. When it’s necessary to work until 4 AM finishing a paper, the computer cluster that is in another building may not be convenient. (Mom, do you want your kid wandering the campus at 3 AM looking for a free computer?) During peak usage times, computer clusters may be crowded, causing delays and sometimes even inability to complete assignments. A computer purchased freshman year will probably last all four years and will be a minimal expense compared to the rest of the cost of the college education.

Check the College’s Literature or Web Site

The first thing to do is familiarize yourself with the school’s computer policy. Very few schools either furnish a computer or require that a specific model be purchased, but if your school is one of these it’s important to know in advance. Typically, these schools will make this very clear in their pre-orientation materials.

It is far more common for colleges to provide a general set of minimum requirements for student-owned computers. Most commonly, these are recommendations rather than strict requirements; usually, they aren’t particularly demanding and leave quite a bit of latitude for a range of brands, processor speeds, etc. Be aware, too, that people will show up with every imaginable kind of computer. Sticking to the guidelines, though, may make getting help from the school’s computer help desk easier.

Network Cards. Many computers today have a built-in network interface card (NIC). Some computers, particularly older models and non-branded “clones,” don’t have a built-in network connection and need to have a NIC installed; the computer specs may describe a “10/100” network interface, meaning it can connect at either 10 MBps or the faster 100MBps if the network supports the higher speed. This is one area where it is wise to pay close attention to the school’s recommendations. When the student arrives at college, the first thing he or she will do after setting up the computer is attempt to connect to the school’s network. This is usually very simple, but sometimes troubleshooting is needed. If the NIC installed in the computer is a model recommended by the school, their technical staff will be able to provide the “driver” software and troubleshoot the problem. If the NIC is a cheap, no-name brand, driver software may not be readily available and the college’s help desk may have more difficulty troubleshooting the problem. 3Com is a well-known brand supported by most schools and recommended by many network professionals.

Summary. Once you have the specs from the school, you know what your student will need and whether you will have to purchase a new computer for the trip to school.

Before You Start Shopping for a College Computer: Other Preliminary Questions

What kind of network connection is available? If the student will be staying in the dorm, this information should be readily available from the school’s web site or Housing Office. Today, it is fairly common for all dorm rooms to be wired, with one network connection for each student. Ethernet connections with RJ-45 connectors (these look like a regular telephone jack, only a bit wider) are also more or less standard. Nevertheless, be sure to confirm what exactly is available.

Off-campus housing has far more variability. Many apartment complexes have high-speed internet connections standard. Others provide access through cable modems or DSL connections. Some may still restrict residents to dial-up phone connections. A full discussion of internet connections is beyond the scope of this article, but be sure to find out what connections are available and what will be needed to connect to your computer.

Note that although most computers sold today include a modem that can access regular phone lines, this device won’t be needed if a high speed network connection is available in the student’s room.

What About Wireless? Some campuses today are installing wireless networks that let students move around the library, their dorm, or even outside, and still remain connected to the network. Most commonly these wireless networks are intended to support mobile users of laptop computers, but a few schools are using wireless to avoid costly and disruptive wiring of older buildings. Current wireless networks tend to be somewhat slower than conventional wired networks, but can still provide excellent performance. If your college is encouraging or requiring the ability to connect to a wireless network, we recommend either buying the EXACT wireless interface they recommend, or actually purchasing it on campus. Even though standards for wireless networks have been established, real-world interoperability doesn’t seem to be perfected.