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Back to school computers on any budget

Don’t forget that the right computer is an investment and needs to make it through four years of wear and tear.  In other words, go cheap on the extra long twin sheets, not on the PC.

I know the summer is coming to an end when our office interns start heading back to school.

Our intern Lauren, a student at the University of Illinois, suggested that I write a piece comparing laptops and desktops.  Apparently it’s a tough choice for incoming freshmen at colleges.

There were no laptops, or at least affordable ones, when I was in college.  Today there are lots of options in all price ranges.  I know what I know, but when it comes to product comparisons I go to the experts: CNET, Engadget, PC Magazine, and the tech bloggers.

I found lots of lists of “The Best,” but very few of “The Cheapest,” and let’s face it -- most of us are not looking to become web designers.  We just need to type our term papers and e-mail our friends, maybe download a song or two.

So, with that in mind, I have cobbled together a few suggestions based on price and popularity.  Don’t forget that the right computer is an investment and needs to make it through four years of wear and tear.  In other words, go cheap on the extra long twin sheets, not on the PC.

Back to Lauren’s question, there is no comparison between laptops and desktops.  If you can afford it at all, buy the laptop.  You can take it to the library, to class, to a bar -- seriously, I did that in grad school.  Desktops are fine if you want to stay in your room for four years.

First, Gateway’s NX-560 notebook is a good deal starting at $899.  Professional computer geeks might be less enthusiastic, but it has windows XP, it’s great for gaming, and it will get you through college without breaking the bank.

The Sony Vaio made it onto nearly every reviewers list as one of the best, but it costs about $1800.  The Vaio is really lightweight so you can schlep it around campus.  It also includes a webcam and a microphone, which means you could be an instant You Tube star.

(Parents, that may be the reason to not buy the Vaio.)

One reviewer called the Dell XPS the best laptop ever made.  It was a top pick by the editors of CNET, and it’s considered one of the best out there for gamers.  But it’s expensive at $2300, and quite frankly more computer than the average person will ever need.  If you have a budding Bill Gates on your hands, though, isn’t it a small investment to make on a dot com fortune?

For those of us without trust funds who just can’t spend the money on a laptop, there are great deals on desktops right now.

People seem super psyched about Apple lately.  I can’t imagine ever buying a Mac when I was in college because it would likely not be compatible with any of the public terminals on campus, or anybody else’s computer should you need to use your roommate’s printer, etc.

But that has all changed and you can run Windows on Macs now, so maybe.  I am still not so sure.  People tell me the iMac is great, and starting at $1299, it isn’t tragic, especially since Apples are very easy to use and have lots of multimedia extras.

A lesser known maker to the non-tech world is Cyberpower, Inc.  They have a model called the “Back to School 2006” that is every bit as cheesy as it sounds, but at $599 you kind of stop laughing.  Especially since it comes with a standard three year warranty.

Finally, critics like to pile on Dell, but for the money they cannot be beat and everyone who is honest will tell you that.  Dell has PCs that start under $300.  I recommend you spend a bit more than that and get the Dell Dimension for $499.  Right now they’re even offering a free upgrade to a flat panel monitor, so you’ll be super cool.

Or at least the coolest kid who never leaves his room.