NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2006
Back to School Computing
By Ira Wilsker,
APCUG Director; Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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It is that time of year again. Many of us are busy supplying our offspring with the inevitable trappings of “back to school”. In addition to the traditional clothing and school supplies, computers and related accessories are now an inevitable component for many of us to supply our kids.

It is now literally universal that college students have a computer, and many campuses require some breed of computer availability in addition to the ubiquitous textbooks. As our latest generations are generally computer literate, and grew up with electronics technology, it is almost inconceivable that high school students will prosper and succeed without some availability of computing power, and middle school and elementary students are now widely using computers in the classroom or in the home as educational supplements.

If a new computer is in the cards, then a worthwhile discussion would be to determine if a traditional desktop computer, in either PC or MAC flavors, would be the most advantageous for the student (and parent), or if we should spring the extra bucks for a laptop (notebook) computer. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and cost and other issues may become critical factors.

For the last two decades, the desktop computer has been predominate. There are several reasons why desktops have become so popular, primarily cost, built-in features, generally more powerful processors, larger screens (monitors), faster processors, and several other benefits. The idea of having a stationary installation, such as offered by a desktop computer, implies a degree of stability and security. Desktops provide the ability to have a familiar and comfortable place where we can create, compute, and learn. Lighting, sounds (noise), comfortable chairs (another necessity), and other consistent factors make the desktop computer a good choice. What has been in the past considered a strength of desktop computing is now seen by many as a disadvantage, and that is a lack of portability.

Recent sales figures from many sources indicate that the new sales of laptop (notebook) computers have surpassed those of the traditional desktop computers. Anecdotally, the two most recent computer purchases in my family have been laptop computers, and the next upcoming purchase of a third one is likely in the near future. In college classrooms and libraries, notebook computers have replaced the spiral notebook for many students. As many colleges offer in-class networking, either wired or wireless, the notebook computer is a valuable adjunct to the learning process, and is approaching a necessity for many students. This characteristic is not just in the college classroom, but is now becoming common in the high school and middle school classrooms. The one big advantage of a laptop computer is portability. In general, they are more expensive and less well equipped than a comparable desktop, and are far more fragile. Integral or aftermarket wireless capability, once considered a luxury, is now virtually a necessity on a student laptop computer. A laptop only has to be dropped or slide off of a desk once to terminate the investment. Laptops also need to be constantly protected against theft. While the theft of a $100 textbook is endemic on many campuses, imagine the attractiveness to thieves of a $1000 computer, often every bit as easy to pick up and transport away from the crime scene as the far less valuable textbook. Personal responsibility is an absolute necessity for any student who will be given a laptop computer. If a notebook computer is selected, do not neglect a high quality protective case for it. I have seen $1200 computers stored in poor quality $20 cases that are an invitation to disaster, due to the lack of physical protection from the inevitable bumps and thumps that will occur as the computer is carried and transported. Cases can be soft side, such as the readily available nylon and leather cases and backpacks designed for notebook computers, or rigid cases. Rigid cases have traditionally been crafted in aluminum, which often provides substantial protection from damage, but now hard rigid plastic cases, such as the new Otterbox laptop cases are now appearing in the market place. A rigid case is generally less convenient than a soft case, but also offers better protection. The choice is yours.

For many students some external method of transporting or copying data is a necessity. With the demise of the classical floppy disk, and the now universal inclusion of multiple USB ports on almost all new computers, at least one flash drive (sometimes also called a “thumb drive”) is essential. In many college classrooms and libraries, a flash drive around the neck or on a keychain is no longer a status symbol, but a pragmatic tool frequently utilized. With a flash drive, data and other material (such as music and videos) can be easily moved between computers. A flash drive has become a necessity in many classrooms, especially computer labs and library media centers, in order to save information, and utilize that information on another computer, either at home, or in the dorm room. The general rule on flash drives is the larger the capacity, the better. Flash drives have plunged in price recently, as capacities have increased. Flash drives are very widely available from electronics, office supply, and discount stores.

Whether a desktop or notebook computer is selected, safe computing practices are still a requirement. Antivirus software, antispyware software, and a firewall are necessities, especially with the open and wild environment of a campus. The user must be aware that very frequent updates are a necessity in order to protect the files on the computer, and to protect the user from identity theft and other cyber risks. Many new computers come with a short term trial version of one or more security suites; the purchase of a good security suite along with its proper installation, configuration, and frequent updating will do much to protect against virtual risks.

To use a Franklinesque expression, we should not be penny wise and pound foolish. With all we have already spent raising our kids, we should not neglect what has arguably become the most powerful learning tool available, a good computer.

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