Buying a laptop:your student guide

Enticed by the sales and back-to-school deals for students, many of us will be tempted to buy a new computer around this time of the year. Laptops are especially desirable among the busy, mobile student crowd. In the event that you find yourself contemplating buying a shiny, new electronic friend, there are a few things you should consider:

Apple or PC?

The Windows PC is the computer you know from your childhood as it’s the one your parents are most likely to used. It’s also the most widely available on the store’s shelves and the least expensive to buy. Opinions tend to vary about the PC; some think it runs just fine and others entertain a love-hate relationship with the old clunker since that faithful day it decided to wipe out their entire hard drives. The Mac, on the other hand, tends to have a better reputation on the street. A cult favorite among graphic artists and video producers, it has been recently acclaimed by consumer guides and independent tech critics as the better computer. The bottom line is, PC and Mac are capable of doing the same tasks but, experts say, with varying ease and quality.

Walt Mossberg, whose column appears monthly in The Wall Street Journal, is a proponent of Macs. In his spring 2006 buyer’s guide, Mossberg said that Apple “makes the best-designed hardware, the best operating system and the most secure machines in the consumer PC market.”

But what’s the difference exactly?

“Apple designs their own computers and use their own operating system on their computers. Dell [and other PCs] does not have the Dell operating system. They use Windows,” says Elias Makos, a Tech Instructor at Concordia’s Journalism department.

Makos, a PC user for years before he switched to Mac, says he believes that PCs are more popular only because “it’s what’s on the shelf.”

“I used to defend my PC. I’d say ‘What are you doing with a Mac? That’s a piece of garbage!’ But now that I’m tech savvy, I know better.”

The only potential drawbacks he sees to Macs are that Apple doesn’t offer gaming-specific desktop towers, like those from Dell, and that some Web sites don’t work with Mac web browsers. “The reason why is because they [are programmed to] only work with Microsoft Explorer protocols. But that’s easy to change.” Makos says.

While they do have some quirks and bugs, experts agree that Macs usually get less error messages and have to reboot less often than Windows PCs.

Another difference is that Macs tend to be slimmer, more esthetically pleasing and have better quality screens than most other brands. And Mossberg writes that, in his experience, Apple (and IBM) laptops tend to have the best wireless reception.

Mac OS or Windows?

Macs run on the OS X operating system that isn’t susceptible to the many thousands of viruses and spyware that plague Windows computers. PCs are prone to these infections and require installing antivirus, antispam, antispyware, antipop-up and firewall software for protection – often at an extra cost to the user.

Thus many experts, including Mossberg and Makos, considers Mac OS X to be “more modern and more secure than Windows XP.”

“There’s been over 100,000 viruses for PCs and zero for Macs. The market share is 90 per cent for PC and 10 per cent for Mac [and that’s] a conservative estimate,” Makos says. “You would think that then there would be 90,000 viruses for Windows [and] 10,000 for Macs. There are cell phones that have 10,000 units out there in the world and there are viruses written for them. There are millions of Macs out there. There’s zero. [That’s because] the foundation of the Mac operating system is inherently more secure than Windows.”

Mossberg advised in his column that if you are buying a PC, it would be wise to opt for one operating under the new Vista system. Vista, a new and improved Windows, looks and works a lot like Mac OS.

Note that Apple now offers the possibility of running Windows on Mac (you have to supply and install your own copy of Windows, around $200.) Users running Windows on a Mac need the same protection as PC Windows users.

Specifications (or ‘specs’)

Mossberg suggests the following specifications when buying your laptop:

-At least 512 megabytes of memory.

-As much hard-drive capacity as you can afford.

-Multiple USB 2.0 ports.

-At least three hours of battery life in standard mode.

-A screen and keyboard you like.

-Built-in Wireless Networking. The newer “g” version.

-A suitable size and weight. Lightweight models are great for travel while heavier ones might work better as a multimedia centers replacing desktops, even doubling as TV sets. Mossberg proposes two choices for middle of the line laptops: the Sony Vaio S series, at 4.2 pounds, and the Apple 15-inch PowerBook, at 5.6 pounds.

He also notes that it isn’t always necessary to pay extra for faster processors, as even the slowest laptop processors can perform the most common computing tasks.


Generic laptops are available on the market for as little as $500, while Macs begin at $1,249. Makos advises any student looking to decide between Mac and PC to look at the cost of ownership (the overall cost in terms of time and money,) rather than just the initial price tag. Makos says that because of the upkeep and virus protection, Macs will come out ahead of PCs. He also notes that Macs come with all the programs and have extra features such as a built-in video and still cameras, plus a remote control so you can play music and DVDs from across the room. He says the best strategy is to compare the specs of a Mac with those of generic PC laptops.

“If you line up the specs side-by-side, Mac usually ends up being a better deal,” he says.

In addition, Mac offers a permanent student discount of about 10 per cent.

Other considerations

-Extended warranties. If you do end up buying a laptop on the cheap, it is recommended that you go for the extended warranty. While it is a waste of money if nothing goes wrong, if something does goes wrong, you will be glad to have it.

-Style. Well, at least, that’s a consideration for Makos. “[Mac computers] are beautiful. When was the last time you looked at an HP and said ‘Wow I gotta get that in my house! That’s gorgeous!'”

Please note that this guide is intended for mainstream computer users who plan to use their computers for tasks such as surfing the web, downloading music, writing essays and doing minor photo and sound editing.


Related Posts

Read more
This past academic year at The Concordian has been one for the books. Between onboarding a mostly-new staff…