The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : Tips for New College Students

Anyone going off to college these days will need access to a computer. But you don’t necessarily have to buy a new one, especially if you already have a home PC that you can bring along. Another option is to use one of the school’s computers.

Many colleges offer public computer labs where students can use PCs or Macs for little or no cost. These labs are typically located in the center of campus but are sometimes in dorms, libraries or individual academic departments. Many labs also offer access to high-speed laser printers, but there may be a charge per page.

If you might be using a lab computer, ask what is done to protect users from contracting a software virus. The threat of such an infection to individual PC users is often exaggerated, but it can be a real problem when using a shared computer. The campus computer center staff can help you avoid the risk.

If you already have a PC--even an older one--there is a good chance it will be adequate for school needs. Just about any computer is OK for writing papers or plugging in a modem so you can connect to the school’s central network.


Of course, there are advantages to having the latest and greatest. But if you do decide to buy a new machine, be sure to do some research to find out which one is best for your studies. And before buying, check to see if the campus store offers special deals on hardware and software.

Only a few schools require a specific type of computer, but on some campuses there is a preferred type used by most students. Being in sync with what’s popular on campus means it will be easier to get help from fellow students and faculty as well as access to data files and software programs.

The preferred machine varies not only by campus but also by department. Graphic arts departments are likely to encourage Macintosh use and business schools are more inclined to use IBM-compatibles, but there are exceptions, so don’t jump to conclusions. A visit or phone call to your department or the school’s academic computing center is advised before buying a new computer.

Your first decision is whether to go for an IBM-compatible PC or an Apple Macintosh. I used to think that Macs were the most popular machines for undergraduates, but that’s not necessarily true. A recent UCLA survey found that 68% of the students have computers and that about 60% of those are IBM-compatible.


Don Worth, manager of the UCLA microcomputer support office, prefers that students have either Macs or PCs that can run Windows; they’re easier to support and to connect to the campus network. However, many students, he acknowledges, come to campus with old 286 PCs--fine for word processing and other basic tasks.

Richard Brown, director of UCLA’s Health Policy Research Center, gives different advice depending on who’s asking. When it came to his own daughter, a student at University of California, Santa Cruz, he bought a Macintosh “because it is easy to use.” For graduate students and staff working in his program, he recommends a PC with Windows because “it will be easier to exchange files with other computers in the department.”

There was a time when campus bookstores sold machines at far below retail prices, but these days the difference won’t be all that remarkable. If you’re buying an IBM-compatible machine, you’re likely to get as good a deal or better on the open market, but check first.

Macs are a different story. The Stanford University bookstore, for example, offers the Macintosh Quadra 630 with 4 megabytes of RAM and a 250-megabyte hard disk for $1,086. The same machine costs about $1,259 at retail stores. Nevertheless, it still pays to shop around and watch for sales.


Definitely check the campus store before you buy software. Many campuses have negotiated site license arrangements with software firms that allow them to sell programs to students and staff at substantially reduced prices.

Notebook computers are ideal for some students because they can be carried to class for note taking or used at the library, coffee shop or a friend’s dorm room. Be careful, though. But notebooks are also easily lost or stolen.

If you get a notebook, consider one that accommodates an external monitor, keyboard and mouse for use in the dorm room. Leading notebook computer makers include Apple, Dell, IBM, Compaq and Toshiba.

You’ll also need a modem to log on to the campus computer system, unless your dorm happens to be wired for a direct connection. If you get a modem, your best bet is a 14,400-bit-per-second data-fax modem. I’ve seen IBM-compatible, internal 14,400 bps modems for as little as $60. High-speed external modems start at about $100.


If you have access to the Internet, there is a good chance the college or university has an on-line menu (called “gopher”) that you can access from any Internet provider even if you’re away from campus.

In each case, I was able to find information about campus computer resources, including hardware and software that students can buy or borrow. You can also use the Internet to check library catalogues and, in some cases, course listings. Internet gophers are organized geographically, so once you learn to use the system, it’s easy to find your way around.

Speaking of the Internet, electronic mail is a great way for parents and friends to communicate with college students. Many universities offer free Internet accounts to students, which means it will cost them nothing to send or receive mail.