Back-to-School Computer Shopping

Monday, August 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Children are expensive, but never more so than when entering college freshmen leave the nest in August. That's when parents must re-create a substantial portion of that nest, including a computer, in a dorm room.

Declaring the One True Computer will draw as much fire as announcing the One True Candidate, and kids are apt to ask for a system that could run World War III in a browser window.

Here are some guidelines that can help you match a student's wishes to a parent's wallet:

—Memory, as in RAM. Get as much as possible: It's cheap, about $1 per megabyte. At the minimum, get 128 megabytes. Memory is to computer performance as spinach is to Popeye's performance.

—Video memory. Again, more is better; 8 megabytes minimum.

—Monitors. When it's 3 a.m. and a paper is due at 9 a.m., a 15-inch (13.8-inch viewable area) monitor approaches the vanishing point. Choose, at minimum, a 17-inch monitor, but 19 inches is better and 21 inches best. When comparing monitors, consider a decimal called dot-pitch — 0.28, for example. Smaller is better.

If the dorm room is the standard shoebox size, an option to consider is a TV-tuner card that lets the monitor double as a TV set.

—System speed. Intel recently introduced a chip that runs faster than 1 gigahertz, that is, more than 1 billion cycles per second. For almost any ordinary application, the response is ``So?'' A system's overall performance involves much more than processor speed, so for most users, about 500 megahertz will do any job.

—Hard drives. Once considered spacious at 40 megabytes, they now come in gigabytes. Get at least 8 gigabytes — more is better. And while some (including Apple, with its iMac) deem floppy disk drives obsolete, they are still useful. It's hard to buy a PC without one, but if you must have an iMac, spring for the optional disk drive.

—Modem. With either PC or iMac, you'll get a 56-kbps modem, whether you want one or not.

—Sound. Good sound capability and semi-decent speakers are also hard to avoid.

—CD-ROM drive. This choice can be tricky if you don't pay more attention to the minimum speed than to the theoretical maximum. Also, you have to choose among a conventional CD-ROM drive, one that both reads and writes CD-ROMs, and a DVD drive that will also play videos. For most, a plain old CD-ROM drive will do.

—PC vs. Mac. With iMacs now in the same $800-$1,500 price range as comparable PCs, get whichever strikes your fancy. The iMacs come equipped for Ethernet networking, a plus in many dorms that are wired for the school's Internet and for an Internet gateway. And while the CompuBug columnist has been a PC fan from the start, his wife swears by (and occasionally swears at) an iMac going on 18 mostly trouble-free months of service.

A final tip, the result of 10 years of hauling computers to dorm rooms: Impress upon the student the importance of dusting more often than once a semester, at least around the computer (which also should not be used as a substitute laundry hamper). Heat buildup caused by the insulating effects of dust balls and dirty socks will cook a computer's components.