College Laptop or Desktop - An Insider's View

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The first day of college is fast-approaching for this year’s new crop of freshmen and most parents and students are beginning to think about all the stuff they have to buy – clothes, school supplies, egg crates, lamps, bed risers, bedding, posters and a computer. It is that last item which this article attempts to address . . .

After working at my college’s computer center for more than three years (and having gone through the above process myself), I feel fully qualified in saying the following:

“You probably don’t need a laptop.”

Let me repeat that – you probably don’t need a laptop. How dare I say that? Let me qualify it:

Logical Reasoning

  1. Laptops are more expensive than equivalent desktops ALWAYS, and many people are more than price conscious – they’re pinching pennies to afford college in the first place.
  2. One inevitably ends up with less screen acreage – cheap laptops almost always have 1024 x 768 resolutions and, while usable, 1280 x 1024 is much friendlier to multitaskers.
  3. Laptops are more fragile than desktops, so they break more frequently with less reason than desktops – spill a beer/water/soda on a desktop keyboard and you need only replace the keyboard. Spill it on a laptop, and say bye-bye. Also, you’d be sad to know how often laptops fall down and go boom.
  4. Desktops fit under a student’s desk, and the screen and keyboard take up no more room than a laptop footprint, so the “space” argument has little merit.
  5. Desktops are much easier to upgrade and it costs less to perform one.

  6. Desktops are almost always faster at the same basic specs because of 7200 rpm hard drives and dedicated video.

Subjective Reasoning

  1. What I’ve observed is that the vast majority of students assume they’ll need a laptop to take notes in class, go to a friend’s house, etc.. In the end, MOST students do not take their laptops to class with them. Some certainly do, but most laptops end up sitting on a desk the entire year. While all colleges and majors will be different, my experience and that of most people I know has been that laptops don’t go anywhere but home.
  2. Most students who come to the computer center seeking help report that their next purchase will be a desktop, and that if they had it to do over again, they’d have gotten a desktop the first time around. Perhaps not buyer’s remorse, but when most people say this (for various reasons), I tend to assign it some importance.

  3. Cheap laptops have desktop attributes which necessarily make them less portable – they’re heavier, have bigger dimensions, have poor battery life and run much hotter than truly mobile computers. These things will relegate a laptop to the desk. (See my previous article about laptops HERE.

Before you decide laptop or desktop, consider the following:

  1. How do you learn?
    • Do you take copious notes?
    • Do you write really slowly?
    • Will you feel awkward if you’re the only one in class with a laptop (very often the case)?
    • Would you benefit from having the PowerPoint presentation on your laptop while a teacher covers it in class?
    • Are you going to need to go to the library to write papers in order to focus?

    Most people do not know the answers before they get to college, so this is a difficult question to answer, but if you don’t think you’ll need a laptop for taking it to class or the library, then you don’t need a laptop in college – computer labs are EVERYWHERE.

  2. Do you intend to go home very frequently and, if so, do you need access to your own files/data and do you have access to a computer at home? Even if you go home all the time, if you don’t use a computer that much or if you have access to one there, there’s really no point in taking a laptop home with you.

  3. Leaving a laptop on your desk all the time, plugged in, kills the battery faster than walking around with it and draining it as it was designed to be (according to everything I’ve seen). If you’re not going to use it as a mobile solution, you’re effectively killing your battery for when you might actually need it (though you could always take the battery out when you’re not using it).

Regardless of your answers to the above questions, I’ll leave you with this suggestion:

If you already have a computer, consider taking your current computer to college with you. If, after a few months, you decide that you really do need a new computer (laptop) for class or the library, hit up eBay and buy a used laptop which just suits your needs – it need not be a screamer, and the most important thing is simply size, battery life and weight. This solution is certainly the cheapest, and it’s also the most logical. Also a good opportunity to try out an alternative OS (like OS X).

Laptops are far too expensive these days by the time Dell gets done “helping” you to configure one. You can often get a desktop at half the cost and twice the performance.

Also, on a side note, consider that the university will probably provide antivirus software, so don’t go and pay for a one-year subscription to Norton or McAfee . . .

BUYER BEWARE- buying laptops, as with anything, requires the user to exercise caution. If you are not familiar with eBay or you are not familiar with technology, this may not be the best bet. This article assumes that the reader is technically inclined and is familiar with the perils of eBay . . .

Zach Johnson (zachj in the forums)

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