Laptops gain on desktops for college


With graduation a recent memory, hordes of college-bound students and their parents are heading out to buy computers. So today we'll deal with the No. 1 question I get from young people -- and the adults who typically foot the bill:

Desktop or laptop?

For years, I recommended desktop machines unless portability was absolutely necessary. That's because laptops were underpowered, uncomfortable to use and far more expensive than desktop machines with similar features.

Not so today. Modern laptops can do almost everything desktop machines can do. In fact, many are designed as desktop replacements. They're heavy on features, and the largest are best described as "luggable," rather than portable.

They sport gorgeous 15- and 17-inch screens, DVD burners, roomy hard drives, stereo speakers, built-in TV tuners and controls that can play CDs without turning on the computer. Their large screens also allow keyboards that are close to full size, eliminating a major drawback of laptops past.

General-purpose laptops weigh 6 to 10 pounds (including the power supply), which is a bit hefty for dashing through airports. But most college students are young and strong. If they have a mind to do so, they can tote their PCs from dorm to classroom to library without collapsing from exhaustion.

Those willing to live with a smaller screen and keyboard -- and without the convenience of a built-in CD or DVD player -- can find excellent "road warrior" machines that weigh 4 pounds or less. But beware -- they're not much fun to stare at or type on for the long hours that students often put in.

In the days when a competent desktop computer cost $2,000 and comparable laptops sold for $3,000, the portability premium was significant. But the cost of all computing has dropped precipitiously. With decent desktops priced at $500 to $600 and perfectly acceptable laptops on sale for $900 or less, today's laptop might still cost 50 percent to 80 percent more.

But the dollar difference isn't a deal breaker.

True, you can spend two grand or more on a machine that's ultra-portable (pen-based convertibles with swivel keyboards are very slick for note-taking). You can spend even more on a 14-pound monster with heavy-duty components for gaming or digital video production.

But few college students need either. For less than $1,000 you can find a laptop that will handle the basics of word processing, Web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging and entertainment (digital music and DVDs). For another $500, you can buy a model with a faster processor, more memory, wider screen, a built-in TV tuner and other goodies.

That said, laptops do have some disadvantages, including hidden costs that add $300 to $500 to the advertised price.

First, remember that laptops are easy to steal, easy to step on, and easy to drop. Any of these occurrences can ruin your student's day. Small computers are also expensive to repair.

If you choose one, buy an extended warranty, preferably for three years (something I don't recommend with a desktop machine). Also, make sure the warranty has an accidental damage rider. A regular extended warranty covers only factory defects; it won't cover damage caused by bumps, bruises or a flagon of Budweiser dumped on the keyboard.

When you get through pricing all of this, your bill will be several hundred dollars higher than list price. It is one of the hidden costs of portability -- unless you decide to take a chance that the computer will make it unscathed through four years of college life. People who try that once usually buy a warranty the second time.

Regardless of the warranty, the best insurance for uninterrupted use of your laptop is an extra battery and a spare power supply -- figure a hundred bucks each.

If you have only one battery, it will always run out at the worst possible time -- or expire for good three years down the road on the day of a computer-based exam. Then you'll earn that it's a discontinued model. So buy an extra one now.

A spare power supply (the brick-like transformer that plugs into the wall outlet) comes in handy if the original malfunctions. Keep it at home -- it will inevitably earn its keep when your student comes home for vacation and remembers that he left the original power brick in his dorm room. And if his power supply breaks on campus, you can overnight the spare.

Trust me, all of these things actually happen. In fact, most of them happened to us at one time or another as my sons computed their way through eight collective years of college, three of law school, and one year (so far) of teaching eighth-graders.

So now that you've added up the extras, you may be thinking that a desktop machine isn't such a bad idea after all. And you're right. When I say laptops are almost as good as desktop computers, I mean almost.

One issue is the screen. A 15- or 17-inch laptop display isn't as easy to read as a 19-inch desktop monitor -- which can also double as a comfortable dorm room TV if the computer is equipped with a tuner.

And laptop keyboards, as improved as they are, leave much to be desired -- there is no numeric keypad for number crunchers, and the function keys are always too small and in strange places.

Desktop computers are cheaper to begin with -- and the gap grows as you add features. If you don't buy a fancy desktop PC at the outset, you can always open the case later to add a second hard drive, a better video adapter, a TV tuner or other goodies. True, you can add most of these devices to a laptop, but external devices cost more, reduce the computer's portability and clutter up your desk.

Desktop computers are also more reliable -- largely because they aren't being bounced around on a regular basis. They come with more ports to plug in cameras, scanners, printers and so forth than laptops. Most also have built-in flash memory card readers that make it easy to transfer digital photos and music to and from the PC.

With a flat-panel monitor, a desktop computer doesn't have to take up much room, either, particularly if you put the system unit (the main box) on the floor under the desk.

The bottom line: Most students I've talked to love their laptops, particularly if they use them for note-taking in class or spend time working online in the library. If that's what your student wants, go right ahead.

But if she is more comfortable with a larger screen and keyboard, a desktop computer is fine, too. Most campuses have plenty of PCs sprinkled around for those who need them on the run -- there's no need to carry one around.

Next week, we'll conclude with a column on how to "spec out" the right PC -- piece by piece.

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