But in recent years, college students have had another crucial choice to make: what type of computer to buy. While colleges do offer computer labs with free (though limited) access, many students with the financial means opt for the advantages of owning their own computer. It's an essential tool in today's college life, as a computer allows Internet-based research from your dorm room and all-nighters at a coffee shop. Plus, your computer will let you stay in touch with family and friends possibly states away, as well as download tunes and burn CDs, whether the music is for your own listening pleasure, to impress friends or ignite a party.
While a wide range of computers differ greatly in terms of capacity and operation (and, of course, price), two basic questions must be considered in determining which type of computer best suits you: PC or Mac? Laptop or desktop?
"I opted for a PC laptop," says Tara Gass, a media arts major at Tulane University who's worked as an editorial assistant (with plenty of graphic design responsibilities) for a local women's magazine. "I went for a laptop because of the convenience factor; I can work with it wherever I go. I chose a PC because of cost, as they are cheaper than Macs. Macs have the most personality, and working in design you're going to be using a Mac, but they're also a lot more expensive. If I could afford a new G5 (a Mac desktop often preferred by designers), I would buy that, but cost is the big factor."
However, Gass notes that the cost of a computer doesn't necessarily determine its worth. After shopping around and researching computer choices, she recently purchased for her employer an eMachine, a PC. "An eMachine is absolutely perfect," Gass says. "It's the cheapest brand out there right now. It's fast, and has a decent amount of memory, which you can use to download MP3s, use PhotoShop and more. Assuming a college student is worried about finances first, this is a great computer."
Gass' own computer experiences at Tulane began when she arrived with a desktop PC -- a computer she now refers to as a "dinosaur" -- and plenty of trips to the college's library and computer labs for access before she purchased her PC laptop last year.
"Colleges typically have decent access to computers for students," Gass says. "But there are times, especially during exams or midterms, when everyone is competing to use a computer. It's difficult to wait 30 minutes, an hour, for a computer when you have a pressing term paper."
Gass also cites the fact that many students do their work on weekends or late into the night, times when the campus computers are not available. "Computer labs that close at 11 p.m. are not conducive to pulling an all-nighter," she says.
As owner of Rent A Nerd, a local computer repair and upgrade business established in 1997, Darrin Piotrowski has seen more than his share of college students with computer questions. He advises that the computer decision largely depends on the student's needs. He recommends a laptop because it is portable and works well with the burgeoning wireless Internet business found in local coffee shops and college libraries. But a laptop, he cautions, "isn't going to perform as well as a comparable desktop, because they have a slower hard drive. And the graphics card, if you're playing games -- which a lot of college students do -- isn't going to be as good."
"I would stick with a PC," Piotrowski adds. "Unless you're going into a creative field, you're going to always use a PC, and it's easier to get parts and software for them. With standard software now built in for burning music, the Internet, the big issue is going to be storage size. Other than that, it's up to what the student needs."
Gass believes college students will most likely be concerned about the price first, and then whether the computer will work for their needs. "Most people are just looking to execute really basic stuff with their computer," she says. "Ninety percent get computers just to use it for the Internet, for music, for word processing -- very basic operations. Even lower-grade computers now have built-in photo applications for your digital camera."
Gass also warns of the pitfall inherent to buying any type of technology. "Technology changes and improves so quickly," she says, "that if you buy an expensive computer, in a few years it's going to be obsolete anyway. So a cheaper computer can be the way to go."