By Mike Kroll


It may seem like the middle of summer but the truth is the fall college semester will be upon us all too soon. Sending your son or daughter off to college is a major event in the lives of parent and child alike, filled with a multitude of decisions. One of those decisions almost certainly concerns a computer for your student. While it has become extremely popular in recent years to send college students with a laptop computer, and I am sure that is what your student said she absolutely had to have, let me strongly suggest that you reconsider a desktop computer instead.

I operate a computer shop and have a child going to college this fall. Preston will be studying mechanical engineering and will definitely need a personal computer at school but IÕm certainly not sending him with a laptop. We build custom computers in our shop and as his graduation gift I built a very nice, very powerful desktop computer for my son. This computer has a very fast 64-bit processor, large hard disk, beaucoup memory, snazzy video card, DVD burner and nice LCD screen. It runs both his math and graphics intensive CAD programs swiftly (as well as his games) and would retail for less than half the price of a high-end but less-capable laptop.

No doubt your child has told you that the mobility of a laptop is critical to his college success. He has to be able to carry with him to class and the library or to meet up with the study group. A desktop is chained to the desk but that is also a key advantage. You see the life of a laptop computer at college is perilous. A large proportion of student laptops are lost, stolen, seriously damaged or even destroyed each school year. The very portability of the laptop coupled with the typical immaturity of most college students is a recipe for pocketbook disaster. And needlessly so!

You see laptops are inherently fragile and many of the common things that break are costly to repair or replace. Whether it be spilled liquids on the keyboard (hugely common including some very uncommon liquids), cracked LCD screens, or damaged connectors (another common problem) many incidents can be cost prohibitive to repair. And before you think, Ōhey, my homeowners insurance will cover itĶ consider not only your increasingly common $500 deductible but also the range of perils covered. Do you really think your insurance company will gladly pay out on damage due to carelessness, negligence or lapsed judgment characteristic of college students?

Taking a laptop to class is seldom necessary or really that beneficial and even the lightest laptop gets to be a burden combined with books and other class supplies. Also, laptop computers are incredibly difficult to secure from theft. Say your daughter sets hers down to speak with the professor, whoÕs going to notice when someone else nonchalantly scoops it up and casually walks out of the classroom. After all, donÕt all students and laptop computers look alike? Theft of laptops from libraries is even more common. After she sets up her laptop on a table or in a study carrel your daughter goes in search of the books she needs to complete the assignment. The computer was only out of her sight for a moment or two but that is all it takes, especially on a large campus or in a busy library.

The reality is that most of todayÕs college campuses have lots of public-use computers and printers scattered throughout. If you look at a tuition bill, there probably is a technology fee applied to defray some of these costs. Nearly every college library will have numerous computers available for student use. TodayÕs college campuses are almost universally networked and your son most assuredly was assigned a college e-mail address and perhaps even storage space on the college computer network. He can use one of the campus computers when necessary and e-mail the work to himself or save it to his storage area. Later he can work with this on the desktop computer in his dorm room.

If you want to be even more confident that your son or daughterÕs work on campus computers is easily transportable, get them a USB flash drive. These non-volatile memory units are small and relatively inexpensive but can hold anywhere from 64 megabytes to a gigabyte of memory. For most students a 256-512Mb stick should be more than ample to allow them to save work on any computer with a free USB port to their flash drive and carry the drive in their pocket or on a lanyard around their neck. Convenience at a cost less than many college text books, a USB flash drive is a campus no-brainer. For adults unfamiliar with the technology these are amazing devices. Smaller than those nifty spy cameras you remember from the movies yet capable of holding huge amounts of data. Furthermore, any computer sold within the last few years (Mac OS X or Win2000/WinXP) will recognize these devices instantly without the need for special drivers. Once plugged into the USB port, the computer sees the device as a removable hard disk. ItÕs so easy you will probably want to get one for yourself too.

I am sending my son off to school with his powerful desktop and two USB flash drives and he seems happy with the plan. I guess if I wanted to reduce the power of the computer significantly, I could have purchased a bargain laptop for about the same money but I would have been short-changing him of important functionality. Before you make the decision for yourself, check out the real price of a laptop configured to your studentÕs needs and compare it to how much desktop computer the same money could buy. Then figure the desktop will almost always outlive the laptop and will cost less to repair over that lifespan. You do the math and have a candid talk with your son and daughter about the realities of college life and IÕll bet you can see the wisdom in skipping the laptop for students.

When they finish school and step out into real life (and presumably a job) your college graduate may well decide to purchase a laptop for themselves or, better yet, their employer may do it for them. Either way the prognosis for the lifespan of that deferred laptop is undoubtedly much better — reflecting maturity, judgment and the real-life consequences of irresponsible laptop care. And remember, just like cars, kids tend to take better care of any computer they bought with their own hard-earned cash than one given to them. Your student will experience fewer problems if he or she shares in both the original investment and the cost of maintenance and upgrades.

Good Luck to parent and student alike.


Mike Kroll operates Dr. Mike Computer Therapist, a small computer shop in Galesburg where he daily provides therapy to all sorts of computers. You can reach him by e-mail at <>