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Shopping for a college PC? Keep space, comfort in mind

MY WIFE AND I recently spent a happy weekend at a college reunion. (I won't say what number, but my classmates and I started during the Johnson administration - Lyndon, and not Andrew, as my kids would have you believe.)

We also had the decidedly spartan pleasure of staying a couple of nights in a college dorm room - which was appropriate because this is the time of year when I get calls and e-mail from moms and dads who want to send their offspring to college with a new computer.

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One thing that became immediately obvious - far more so than when we dropped our boys off at college - is that dorm rooms aren't very good places for PCs. Sure, they're wired into campus networks and the Internet - but they're tiny, and so are the desks and chairs. Undoubtedly, the fittings were adequate in the days when studying meant sitting down with a few volumes and a spiral notebook - but they're unfit for academics in the electronic age.

As a result, there are two considerations in buying a computer for a college dorm room - or any other small space. One, obviously, is the system itself - finding a machine that matches your student's technical needs. The other is finding the best way to fit it into that tiny monk's cell and providing a comfortable ergonomic environment.

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This is particularly important for young people who spend a lot of time at the keyboard - as many college students do when they're not partying. They'll have many years to ruin their posture and eyesight - no need to get a start on it when they're this young.

So this week and next, we'll look at both issues - but nonstudents should take note, too. Kids may prefer a few more accessories in their PCs, but the basics of buying a computer still apply to everyone.

Given the lack of real estate in college dorms, one of the first questions I get is whether to buy a desktop computer or a laptop. A laptop obviously occupies less space - only a square foot or so. And it's convenient to tote around campus - in fact, some schools expect students to buy one, and many students use them to take notes in class.

But laptops aren't as comfortable as desktop machines for typing or viewing over long periods. They're also easier to steal, and much easier to break. Spill a can of Bud Lite on a desktop keyboard and you replace a $30 keyboard. Spill it on a laptop keyboard and you replace a $1,500 PC.

Which brings up another issue: Laptops are 25 percent to 50 percent more expensive than desktop machines with the same features, and it's harder to upgrade or expand them. This isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, but it's definitely something to consider.

I still like a desktop machine, because I'm a big guy and I like a big screen and keyboard. But both my kids started with full-size machines and now use portables.

My older son didn't have a choice: He was required to buy a laptop when he started law school. But he still has his original computer and prefers it for long sessions. His younger brother got a laptop last summer for his junior year abroad, and now, the only way to separate the two is with a crowbar.

The bottom line: You don't have to give up much performance with a laptop, and portables have come down in price to the point where they are no longer luxury items. Their screens and keyboards are far more comfortable, too. So it's largely a matter of taste and personal habits.

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If you're interested in specs for a laptop, check out a column I wrote on the subject a few weeks ago. It's available at www.baltimoresun.com/laptops. If you've decided on a desktop computer, consider how you're going to make it fit. Full-size systems consist of a system unit (the box), a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse, and often a printer and a couple of speakers. College desks are rarely more than 5 feet long and often as little as 24 inches deep.

It's virtually impossible to get all of that stuff on a desktop unless you plan ahead. The biggest space-saver will be a flat-panel monitor. These popular items, which use the same kind of liquid crystal display as a laptop, occupy 6 to 8 inches of front-to-back space - half to a third as much as much as a standard display with a cathode ray tube (CRT).

Although they're more expensive than CRTs, flat panels offer a major ergonomic advantage. There is almost never enough front-to-back room to place a full-sized CRT monitor and a keyboard on a college desk and leave enough distance for healthy, comfortable viewing. A flat-panel eliminates that problem.

Even if you choose a CRT, you can make your student more comfortable with a keyboard drawer that sits on top of the desk, under the monitor. The keyboard tray slides out and gives your student a bit more eye and elbow room.

A desktop computer doesn't necessarily mean a large computer. True, most PCs are at least 5 inches wide to accommodate a CD or DVD drive, but if space is particularly tight, you can find some exceptions.

Dell, for example, makes a line of slim, upright machines designed for narrow niches, while Gateway and Sony offer one-piece models that pack the computer innards into the back of the monitor. You'll pay more for the latter, but they can be very convenient.

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Next time, we'll get down to the nuts and bolts of the perfect (or at least affordable) college PC.


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