Things No One Tells You About College: Computers

You should always assume that at some point in your college career, you're going to break your fancy toys. College students live an annoyingly nomadic existence. You have to haul all manner of things around on your back from class to class every day, and then they chuck you out of your dorm at the end of the year. So one of your priorities, when buying electronics for school, is to either get something that will survive anything short of thermonuclear war, or something that can be repaired easily and cheaply.

Survival largely depends on brand; some brands are good at making things rugged, some brands produce dainty fragile devices that quit working if you unexpectedly turn them sideways. Macbooks are notoriously hardy, especially if you spring for a Macbook Air with almost no moving parts. IBM/Lenovo ThinkPads are heavy as hell and not for moving around, but are constructed like tanks. Dell also has some Inspiron models that are intended to be "desktop replacements", which can creep up over ten pounds, but which are virtually impossible to destroy. Moggie had one she called Balthazar who survived being dropped onto ice more than once.

How easy it is to repair things depends on brand, model, and where the nearest repair shop is. Apple, for instance, has a pretty good reputation for being able to repair or clone and replace their Macintosh and iWhatever equipment, but if you're going to school in Moose Balls, MN, and the nearest Apple store is two hours away by snowmobile, this is not a lot of help. My university used to deal with Dell, and they had excellent customer support for both our institution and our students, although you had to be willing to mail your computer off to their repair center for a physical fix. Hewlett-Packard computers are proprietary as all hell, cannot be parts-swapped, and their "repair" process is either so inept or so Machiavellian that I can only figure it's designed to make you give up and buy a new one whenever something breaks. That goes double for anything they might still claim comes from "Compaq".

If you're handy enough to take your laptop apart without letting pieces explode all over the carpet, never to be seen again, I would personally recommend something like a Toshiba Satellite. They have the most idiot-proof modular design I've ever seen in a notebook computer, and could probably be reassembled by a trained chimpanzee with a set of electronics screwdrivers. I just transplanted a hard drive into one, and it required the removal and reinsertion of six whole screws, four of those being on the drive bracket itself. Parts are also cheap -- I kill keyboards on the regular, and replacements are $17 plus shipping. ASUS also seems a good bet, mostly because I did technical support at my university and I don't think I ever saw anyone walk one in.

For external hard drives, you cannot beat Western Digital. I once essentially had to throw away a perfectly good WD drive, because it had worked flawlessly for thirteen years and still refused to die, but at 525MB it was smaller than CD-R blanks and totally useless. Their MyBook series of drives goes up to 2TB at the time of writing. They are unkillable, and while some of the old ones have feet, the new ones are designed to go on a shelf exactly like the name suggests -- the ventilation holes are where the page edges would be and the activity lights are on the curved "spine", so as long as you remember to leave some air space behind them, you actually can shelve them like books. The non-ventilation sides are also sealed, so if you're really desperate you can put your sandwich down on it temporarily without ill effect.

Do not bother buying any computer that you cannot pick up and fuck off to the library with when your roommates are being drunken louts. If you need a larger monitor and extra storage for animation, CAD, or graphic design work, buy a laptop, and then accessorize it with a TFT screen and some external storage drives.