Many universities require that students arrive on campus with a personal computer of some kind, and some universities are very specific about what types are acceptable.
Be sure to check the school’s requirements before your student heads off this fall. Some schools have a general student requirement, but departments within a college may have their own list of acceptable devices.
When any computer won’t do
At Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, for example, students are required to have a tablet PC, a rule that was established in 2006, long before the launch of the iPad. Students have a short list of five Windows 7-based tablets to choose from.
It’s not just number-crunching majors that demand specialized devices.
At the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., best known for its art and design schools, design majors are required to have a MacBook Pro, while architecture students may choose between a Dell Precision and an HP EliteBook.
Check your school’s website to find its computer requirements. If you are entering a specific division such as engineering or art, check for major-specific requirements.
If you are receiving financial aid, your eligibility may be increased based on computer requirements at your school. At Virginia Tech, students are eligible for as much as $2,500 in additional aid to purchase the right computer for their fields.
How good is campus Wi-Fi?
While you’re looking up computer requirements, also check the Wi-Fi network on campus. If possible, ask students who have attended your school if there have been outages during larger lectures or other campus events.
As Internet-connected devices exceed the limits of campus Wi-Fi access points, connections are interrupted or lost. At the University of Alabama, access points are designed for 30 users. In larger lecture halls, users have climbed to 200.
“We have reached the technical limit of current Wi-Fi technology,” according to the University’s Office of Information Technology.
When Wi-Fi is unavailable, students can shift to a 3G or 4G connection available through a wireless carrier. Consider buying an emergency backup USB network device, such as Virgin Mobile’s MiFi, the only hotspot card that doesn’t require a contract. The credit-card-sized device costs $149 and you can pay as little as $10 for 10 days of service with a maximum of 100 MB worth of data.
Alternately, some smartphones can be used to create a mobile hotspot that a laptop or other device can access. If you’re shopping for a new back-to-school phone, keep this in mind. If Wi-Fi goes down, you’ll still get a connection.
Compare before you buy
Many schools have partnered with computer companies to offer discounts on approved devices for students. However, it’s a good idea to do some comparison shopping before you buy.
For instance, referring to its Discount Laptop program, Pratt links to Apple’s education page to buy a 13-inch MacBook Profor $1,582 with Apple Care. Apple’s main page lists the same computer for $1,499 without the insurance that costs an additional $249. If you buy Apple Care, you’ll get a 9.5 percent discount; but if you don’t, you’d be better off buying direct from Apple.
You might consider purchasing a refurbished model. Apple sells a refurbished model of its 13-inch MacBook Pro for $1,269, a savings of $230. Visit the manufacturer’s site for refurbished computers.