Saturday, July 11, 2015

Family Tech: Some advice in choosing a PC for a college student - July 10, 2015

In a few weeks, many of our recent high school graduates will be going off to college. How should they select the PC they should take?

I have my own thoughts on this, but asked some current college students what they thought and they said it depends on the student’s major.

Different majors need different software and some software needs dramatically more powerful PCs than others.

Hopefully, there is some guidance on technology in your freshman package or it is covered during orientation. If not, check the technology support pages on the university’s website for its recommendation.

Those support pages are a treasure trove for students. Universities often bulk license software and make it available to students for an extremely low cost or often at no cost. Before you buy any software, check the university or the bookstore’s website.

Bookstores often have low prices for PCs as well, but there is no guarantee that it’s the lowest. Be sure to check them out but don’t ignore your standard sources such as Amazon, Best Buy, Microcenter, etc.

In previous years, I advocated speed and storage as the most important features in a college-bound PC. I have since shifted my emphasis a bit. I’ve been exposed to some super lightweight PCs lately, with longer than usual battery life and realize how well these fit into a college student’s lifestyle.

Students use their PCs not only in their rooms to write papers, but in classes to take notes, in labs to gather data, in the library for research, and just about anywhere they have a free moment to study, do online research or online socializing. Thus portability and battery efficiency are big considerations.

Before, a typical laptop might weigh 4.5 pounds or more and have a battery life of three to five hours at best. Apple’s Macbook Air weighs just 2.3 pounds and has a battery life of about nine hours.

For Windows users, there is the Microsoft Surface. The Surface 3 is a tablet computer that runs Windows and will run the upcoming Windows 10. It runs Office and all the same software a standard Windows PC runs. A keyboard comes separately and makes the Surface 3 basically a laptop.

The Surface battery runs for nine hours. The Surface weighs a mere 1.37 pounds by itself, the keyboard adds 0.58 pounds, bringing the whole thing in under 2 pounds. There’s also a pen available so you can write or draw on it.

There are two versions of the Surface, the Surface using Atom processors and the Surface 3 Pro line using Intel processors. The Macbook Air also uses the Intel processor.

With the Surface 3 Pro and the Macbook Air you begin your selection by choosing the speed of the processor — i3, i5 or i7. An i5 meets most needs, but if your student is going to be running demanding software such as video editing, CAD or scientific modelling software, an i7 might be preferable.

Neither device has spinning conventional hard drives. Instead, they use internal Solid State Drives (SSD). These are sort of large USB drives. Being that all the data is stored on a chip, it makes device startup very fast and has a lot to do with the lower power draw leading to longer battery life.

Your next consideration is the size of your SSD drive. It depends on how much work you’ll want to store on the device. This is less of a concern since most universities now have excellent campus-wide Wi-Fi, so you can subscribe to OneDrive or Google Drive to store files as well.

One thing a Surface 3 Pro user told me she loves is the ability to write on the screen. She can use the pen that comes with the Pro 3 (a separate purchase on the entry model Surface) to take notes and draw. It is less intrusive in a lecture to write notes than to type.

The Surface is setup to store those handwritten notes in OneNote, Microsoft’s online note storage system akin to Evernote. OneNote can even decipher the writing to make it searchable.

The Air and Surface have cameras in them for teleconferences and calls home. They can also take photos of classroom whiteboards to capture the material on them.

Students today are lucky to have light weight, powerful computers with hopefully day-long batteries to help them get through their college day.

The disadvantage to the Surface and Air is they cost more than even mid-range laptops. You can save money if you are willing to haul around more weight and be tethered to an outlet more often.

However, then you may not have the PC at times when one might be productive to have.

Next week: More tech for the new college student.

Links for this column are here.

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