KELLNER: How (not) to choose a computer for college

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It may be broiling hot outside, but the thoughts of many of our nation’s youth are on the beginning of college in a few weeks. Off to the halls of academe they will go, clutching something I couldn’t have imagined in my Pleistocene Era college career: A portable computer.

But which platform to select? What to buy? What if my school mandates something?

I’ll get to mandates in a moment, but let’s consider first which computer platform might be best for the fall rush. Here’s an unambiguous answer: It depends.

There’s no doubt that computers running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 7 operating system are generally less expensive than Apple Inc.’s line of portables, the lowest-priced of which begins at $999. You can get a very good Windows-based machine for half that, or less. On the economic side, then, it would appear to be a no-brainer: Get the Windows machine.

Life is more than mere economics, however, with apologies to Milton Friedman and Arthur Laffer. Windows computers are inexpensive, at their base level, but be certain your comparisons are equivalent. A Windows laptop with 2 Gbytes of RAM and a 350 Gbyte hard disk drive is less money than a Mac equivalent, but if the Mac starts you out with 4 Gbytes of RAM, a better display screen and greater reliability, the price differential might be worth it.

There are many good PC brands out there: I favor machines from HP, Acer and Toshiba; many friends have had success with Dell, but others — well, they’re more likely to swear at a Dell laptop than swear by one. Sony is also well-regarded in some circles, though its models seem a bit pricey for my taste.

You can, of course, buy just about any kind of laptop running the Macintosh OS X operating system you want — so long as it’s made by Apple Inc. The firm will not license OS X for other makers to use. That’s their choice, and so far it’s served them well in terms of consistency and reliability. It does limit some consumer options, however.

The trade-off seems to be worth it, however, inasmuch as Apple’s products routinely and consistently top the quality and user-satisfaction surveys … conducted by PC-oriented magazines and websites. In fact, I have one very good friend who insisted on an Intel-based Apple MacBook, so she could run Windows on it peacefully!

But customers of Apple generally tend toward the Mac OS, and here, I think, is a key advantage. OS X, as has long been discussed, is built on a core of the UNIX operating system, one of the most rock-solid OSes known to humankind. It’s less susceptible, though not impervious, to virus and bot attacks, and this inherent stability is something many users cherish.

What of Linux, you ask? Yes, this is also a UNIX-based operating system, and, yes, you can get inexpensive laptops running Linux. But the range of applications for Linux is somewhat limited; the Mac platform, and certainly Windows, have exponentially more useful applications available than Linux.

Along with a stable operating environment, and more applications people might actually wish to use, the Mac offers an additional, concomitant advantage: Because Apple alone makes the devices OS X runs on, the hardware tends to be more uniform. With fewer different devices and subcomponents to support, OS X has an easier go in life. (Try finding a Windows device driver for an esoteric video card and you’ll understand what I mean.)

Things are moving toward greater uniformity on the Windows side, I think. At some point, a given version of Windows will have to “sunset” certain devices and hardware that’s older than the late Milton Berle’s joke catalog. But until then, the Mac has a clear advantage, in my opinion.

How to bridge the price gap? Buy used from an online seller such as Small Dog Electronics (www.smalldog.com), where you can save money. Apple’s online store (store.apple.com) and Apple’s retail stores often have “refurbished” models, or very recently discontinued ones, at lower prices. You can buy these with extended warranties, if desired, to take the worry level down.

And if your school mandates a given platform, get the best deal you can, which may not be in the college bookstore. Caveat emptor really applies here.

Email mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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