Back to school means new computers


Published: Monday, August 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 31, 2005 at 10:06 p.m.

A new school year is just about to begin, and for many students and families it's a good time to buy new computers and related equipment for use in the coming academic season. Here are some ideas about what students and families should look for.

Laptop PCs:

The cost of decent laptop computers has fallen again over the past year, and bargain hunters should be well served by the current crop of budget notebooks.

Even the lowest cost laptops now generally have at least a 40GB hard drive, wireless and Ethernet network connections, and combination DVD/CD-RW drives.

These laptops often cost well under a $1,000 after rebates. The biggest differences are in the amount of RAM, brightness of the display screen, and size of the hard drive provided. Be sure to add memory if needed to bring these systems up to at least 512MB of system RAM.

However, all of these laptops will surf the Web, handle e-mail and instant messaging, play back DVDs and CDs and record CDs, and handle office-type programs. Some of the biggest laptop improvements over the past year are in the area of weight, with a 20-30 percent average reduction, meaning many laptops now barely tip the scales much past five pounds.

Desktop PCs:

The biggest reasons to own a desktop PC are lower cost, larger hard drives, bigger displays, and the ability to better handle gaming programs. Some users also just can't bear to use a laptop keyboard which is much more compact.

Desktop PCs come with the larger and faster hard drives needed for high-end gaming programs, and can be outfitted with add-on graphics cards that do justice to complex arcade-style programs. Some of these cards can cost as much and an entire PC.

There are two types of desktops worth considering. The first is a bargain PC with decent, if not exotic features that can be had with a monitor and a printer for $500-$600 after rebates. These systems will serve adequately for most office and Internet functions.

The second type of desktop is one designed for gaming. I'd recommend at least a 3.0 Ghz Pentium IV or AMD Athlon 64-bit CPU at the heart of these systems, with a high-end graphics card from ATI or NVIDIA with a minimum of 256MB of onboard video memory and a hard drive of 160GB or larger. The cost of these systems can readily exceed $1,000, but you'll still be getting a tremendous bang for your computer buck.

Microsoft Office 2003 Student & Teacher Edition:

The latest version of Office is a relative bargain at $130-$150 average retail. The Student & Teacher Edition contains the same four basic programs as Office Standard, including Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint, at half the cost. Most advantageous about this special version is the fact it can be legally installed and licensed on up to three PC's, meaning an average cost per system of around $50.

High-Speed Web Access:

Faster Internet access opens a world of research, interaction and gaming opportunities for students and teachers. Combined with a home network, high-speed Web access can be the single biggest help in making family computer time the most efficient possible.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant whose column appears on Mondays in WorkLife. He can be reached at webgator@bellsouth.net or via www.tvccs.com. His columns also are available at www.gainesvillesun.com.

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