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May 20, 2006

Buying Computers for College

Since I field the same questions over and over, I figure I'd start posting answers on the blog from time to time. Let's begin with one that's sure to crop up repeatedly as seniors around the country graduate.

I just graduated from high school and I'm heading off to college next fall. What kind of computer do I need? Desktop or laptop? I've heard I can get student discounts; How?

Desktop or Notebook
This answer's easy: get a notebook. If you're living in the dorms, you'll thank me when you have the extra space and lack of another heat-belching device. If you're living at home, you'll thank me when you can take it to class. And no matter where you're living, a notebook will come in damn handy when you're in the library at midnight finishing up a paper and can actually do it right in the library.

There is a trade-off, of course; notebooks are more expensive than desktops.

And because you're moving them around constantly, there is a higher chance for damage (though they're also built from more rugged components). My golden rule is to always recommend people buy the extended warranty.

And a big secret for the starving student set: Most manufacturers will let you buy the extended warranty until the original warranty expires. So save your pennies until the warranty's about to expire and then extend it.

Student Discounts
There are two varieties of student discount in the marketplace: Dell's, and everyone else's.

As I general rule, I recommend never to buy from Dell Education, for the simple reason that they're almost always more expensive than the home and small business prices for the same product. It also means you have to go through the hassle of the student verification process. In the end, you're essentially paying Dell for inconveniencing yourself. Don't bother.

For most manufacturers, you will have to buy from them directly (online or phone), through your campus computer store, or from an authorized education reseller to get a student discount on hardware or software. A notable exception is Microsoft Office, which is available in just about every store on the planet in a "Student and Teacher Edition" for considerably less. But... don't buy Office until you get to school.

If you're purchasing a Mac, any Apple Store can offer you the discount on hardware. You will need a valid student ID. Apple Retail cannot, however, offer the student discounts on software. For that, you'll need to use the Apple Online Store or visit your campus computer store.

A Word on Repairs
Having your computer break down sucks. Especially if you didn't spring for Dell's more expensive warranty, and have to mail it in for service.

But fear not, there are two things many people aren't aware of:
1. Many campuses have on-site repair depots authorized by the manufacturers to do warranty work. Find out if yours has one before mailing it in.
2. If you're near an Apple Retail Store and using a Mac, often you can have your system serviced in-store if you ask. The turnaround time won't be instant unless you've got a ProCare card, but it's still faster than depot repairs (since it doesn't have to be couriered anywhere).

Moreover, though, be prepared for your computer to barf. Buy a thumbdrive or an external hard drive and keep important things like copies of your in-progress papers on it. You'll thank me when you can finish that term paper in a computer lab instead of crying yourself to sleep and then begging the professor for an extension.

Buy Before or Wait 'til I'm There?
Without a doubt, wait until you get to college to buy any new software or hardware.

Almost all university campuses these days have their own computer store, where everything is sold at a discount to students, staff, and faculty. By waiting until you get to your school, you can comparison shop the campus store and whatever other avenues you have. Campus stores also often run blowout sales on the last generation's merchandise when new products come out -- and since they're not open to the general public, it's much easier to save a few bucks by buying older product.

Coming back to Microsoft Office, though, most universities have some sort of program set up with Microsoft where you can acquire Office either incredibly cheap (anywhere from $5 on up) or, for some schools, entirely for free. If you don't need to buy the Student and Teacher Edition at a retail store, don't. It's also worth noting that many campus bookstores still carry the boxed editions of Office (for what reason, I don't know), so you may have to ask a salesperson if they offer a discounted version for students.

Posted by Colin at May 20, 2006 12:14 PM

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