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Byline: David Bloom Daily News Staff Writer

Before you ever walk into a store to buy a computer for your college student, you have to answer several basic questions.

Do these first, and you'll save a lot of headaches and regrets later - and maybe even some money, too.

To start with, find out what the college recommends. Many schools have a minimum configuration, and even certain manufacturers they may suggest, based on compatibility with campus systems.

Contacting the school is particularly important if your child is going to be connecting an Ethernet card to the school's high-speed data network, say from his or her dorm room.

You can save a lot of troubleshooting grief later (like on the night before a big paper is due) by ensuring the school's networking administrators are familiar with the kind of card you buy.

Figure out what you can afford to spend. It doesn't have to be a lot of money: More-than-adequate machines and a printer can be bought for comfortably less than $1,500.

You should think about what your child will be studying, and how that affects your child's computer needs. For instance, a would-be artist will need a better graphics-oriented machine - with far more memory and maybe a removable storage peripheral like Iomega's Zip drive - than will a history or business student.

With a freshman in any area of study, however, you may want to start with a cheap, simple machine that has room for lots of upgrades as technology improves and needs increase.

Such a machine will allow your student to write papers, use the Internet and campus networks easily and do simple analysis with spreadsheets and database programs. When the student moves into more demanding classwork in a couple of years, you can upgrade the machine accordingly, with a more powerful processor, more memory, or other improvements.

If you can, buy the computer through the school's bookstore or on-campus computer store. Machines and particularly software are often deeply discounted for those with school IDs, while deals are minimal in the retail sale of low-end hardware. But the bookstores can save you hundreds of dollars in software, which is often deeply discounted.

Maybe a Mac?

You'll also need to decide whether you want to buy a Windows-based PC or an Apple Macintosh.

Macs are far easier to set up and use, an important consideration particularly if your baby is far from home and customer support. Also, many students have worked on Macintoshes throughout school and know those machines well, which is a real plus.

Apple's just-released iMacs are particularly attractive all-in-one machines with great power for about $1,300. The cool-looking, luggable machines aren't meant to be carried around campus but come with built-in networking capability and are perfect for a wired dorm room.

On the downside, Macintoshes remain somewhat more expensive than roughly comparable name-brand PCs. Brave consumers can still get the best deals if they buy a no-name PC, especially if they build their own or have someone knowledgeable put it together for them.

But even some of the best-known PC companies are now offering adequate machines that cost less than $1,000. Their products provide most of the basics any starting student would need and come with the security of a prominent brand name's warranty.

PCs also have far more software available, particularly in areas such as games (though your student would never be interested in simply playing on his or her computer, right?).

Macintosh developers have written around 17,000 programs, including all the basics a student needs to write papers, analyze business and math problems and access the Internet. But there are tens of thousands of other programs that run only on PCs. Macintoshes require an emulator program to run those same programs, and they do it slowly.

You'll also have to decide whether you want a laptop or desktop machine.

Laptops are great to carry to the library and on road trips, providing wonderful flexibility that's particularly appealing to footloose students who like to study far from their home base.

But laptops have a bad habit of getting stolen, cost much more for the same level of power, and are more limited in their upgradability, a consideration for a machine your student will probably use through most of his or her college career.

If your student prefers to hole up in his or her dorm room for hours at a time to study, a desktop machine might be the better option. As a philosopher once said, to each his own.
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 26, 1998

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