The technology options for college students continue to grow with netbooks and tablet PCs as potential alternatives to the traditional laptop or desktop computer. Which device is best suited to your student’s needs depends on a number of variables including the course of study, the software programs that are necessary, required mobility, your budget and the complexity of the tasks to be performed just to name a few.
As a parent of two former college students myself, here are my thoughts.
The quickest way to understand your student’s needs is to evaluate what software programs will be required as part of their course studies. For instance, if they are going to need to prepare spreadsheets, produce long papers, edit images, work with video or create graphics packages or presentations, the best bet is a traditional laptop or desktop computer.
If their courses don’t require any specific software programs other than basic word processing, they could likely get by with a netbook computer, which is like the ‘Smart Car’ of the computer world. They aren’t terribly fast and won’t be much of a gaming device, but they generally have adequate storage, great battery life and are considered the best bang for the buck for basic college tasks.
They are also terrific for taking notes while in class.
Even if it works for the first year or two of college though, you can expect that it won’t be enough computing power as their workload increases. Netbooks also have smaller screens and lack CD/DVD drives, so everything that gets installed must be on the Internet or a flash drive unless you buy an external optical drive (but then you are getting closer to the price of a traditional laptop).
Some universities have moved everything to ‘the cloud’ which makes a netbook much more functional, so be sure to check with the school to see what they are supporting and suggesting.
iPads are great in short doses for basic needs like e-mail, web surfing or basic word processing. But if your student needs to do anything sophisticated with a spreadsheet or graphics, an iPad can get pretty inefficient.
As a second machine they may have a use but they're really not work horses for students. It’s possible that your student could get by with just an iPad (with a Bluetooth keyboard) but by the time you get everything you need to make the iPad functional, you could easily have purchased a traditional computer.
If you decide on a traditional laptop, then the inevitable Mac vs. Windows questions comes up.
Your student's specific software needs may require one over the other, but in most cases, you will be able to use either. You may also want to think a bit into the future and your student’s career. Corporate or financial careers are more likely to be based in Windows environments, whereas the creative careers will depend ob Mac systems.
Macs are generally more expensive (starting at $999) but they are still less prone to Internet-based attacks (although this is slowly changing) and tend to have fewer nagging compatibility issues because of the closed nature of the operating system.
Windows-based systems will be less expensive to start (starting at $400), but they are the biggest targets on the Internet, so make sure you include a solid security software package. We don’t like free anti-virus programs for college students because they tend to engage in a lot of risky online behavior.
The question of laptop vs. desktop will depend upon your student’s habits and need for mobility. Do they take notes on their computer while in class or at the library? Do they tend to work better with a traditional keyboard and mouse? Would a large, 20-inch or greater monitor be better for your student? Does your student need more processing power, storage and RAM for less cost?
We prefer Intel processors over AMD and tend to increase the RAM for better performance. We suggest a minimum of 4GB these days.
If it needs to double as an entertainment device, step up in screen size and processor speed from the entry level models and there is no such thing as too much hard drive space with a college student.
If these questions make it hard to decide what will be best for your student, please take the time to ask a real computer professional to help. Also, before you make your purchase, be sure to check with your student's college for deals the college may have set up with various computer manufacturers. The college student help desk may also only support certain manufacturers. You certainly want your student to be able to get help while at school.
Most importantly, demand that your student use an online backup service—$60 to $100 per year is inexpensive insurance to be sure that term paper or art project doesn't get lost to a hard drive crash. Teach them how to use Dropbox, too.
Finally, since theft of laptops and mobile devices is common in a college setting, we highly recommend that you review our column on ways to track, lockdown or remotely erase your mobile devices: http://goo.gl/sx56f