Computer Buying Guide for Freshmen


One of the most essential modern requirements for a college student nowadays is a computer. Used for both schoolwork and leisure, the kind of computer you get is a very important decision that will affect the next few years of your life. Unfortunately, buying a computer can be an intimidating and daunting task. So take a minute and slow down, and consider some important points so that you get exactly what you need, and nothing that you don’t.\


This is the most important question you’re going to have to ask yourself before you purchase a computer. This simple but fundamental question lays a lot of the groundwork for what you’re going to need to decide, research and buy.

Primarily, take into account if the machine be used primarily for simple tasks, such as word processing, web surfing and email, or will higher-end tasks be used, such as graphics editing, gaming, watching movies, or video editing?

If you are more the former, rather than the latter, I would suggest looking at whatever is most cost efficient in any of these categories. Even buying the simplest of computers available on the market will give you everything that you need. The more you plan to use the computer for, the more you should take each category into account.\


A LAPTOP or NOTEBOOK system is what you see people carrying around. Small, compact and square, these systems have an internal battery and usually the ability to connect to a network both through a hard line to the wall of wirelessly. Be careful with laptops. Portable and compact does not exactly mean “unbreakable”

Able to take advantage or wireless networks. Small and decently light. Extremely portable and easy to transport/bring to lecture halls, libraries, etc. Easy to take home over holidays and/or ship out for service. Easier to collaborate with others on projects due to portability.

You’ll need to keep an eye out on battery life, or at least keep your AC adaptor on hand. Laptops also tend to be a bit more expensive and most of the processors aren’t as fast at performing higher end tasks, such as graphics work or games. They usually don’t have too much wiggle room in terms of upgrading. Laptops are also one of the most commonly stolen items on college campuses, so keep your eyes on it. Fragile and more prone to failure/breakage.

A DESKTOP system is the kind you’ll usually see planted on or under people’s desks. They are usually large and rectangular.

You’ll basically get more bang for your buck. More space, memory and components for a smaller amount of money. Desktop processors tend to outperform laptops in higher end tasks. Easily expandable and upgradeable. Difficult to steal.

Not portable. Takes up a decent amount of desk or under-desk real estate. More awkward to transport/ship for service.


RAM is “random access memory”. Basically, the more RAM your computer has, the more operations/programs it can run at once. Windows XP recommends a minimum requirement of 128MB (megabytes) of RAM. Other options include 256MB, 512MB, and 1GB (gigabyte, which is 1024 megabytes). Unless you plan on doing any kind of gaming or image processing, 512MB is your best bet. It will allow you to run multiple programs at once, such as word processing, Internet browser and email, without much slowdown at all. If you do plan on doing some higher-end computer work, 1GB of RAM is highly recommended. If you really feel like you won’t be using your computer all that much, or only dealing with one program at a time, 256MB will suit you.

If you are worried about how much RAM you might need in the future, ask if the computer you are interested in has any spare memory slots when you purchase it. You can purchase sticks of memory separately in the future and have them installed to up your ram. For example, if you purchase a computer with 512MB of RAM, and it has an extra slot for memory, you can purchase another 512MB stick of RAM later on, install it, and then you’ll have 1GB of RAM.


This section deals with how much storage space you’ll want on your hard drive. In order to give you a better idea of just what “space” on your computer means, take a look at this breakdown.

1,024 Byte = 1 KB (Kilobyte)
1,024 KB = 1 MB (Megabyte)
1,024 MB = 1 GB (Gigabyte)

A typical 5-page word document will take up about 60KB of space. A typical 3-minute mp3 file will take up about 2.5MB. A medium sized photo or image could take up anywhere from 100 to 200 KB. Think ahead and figure out just how many of any given type of files you are going to have on your computer. Will you delete things when you are done with them? Or will you want to keep them around for future use? Will you be listening to a few songs, or be burning your entire music collection onto your hard drive for listening? Will you be trading photos with friends and putting images from a digital camera on your drive? Will you be doing gaming, higher end image or video work? These are all things which will increase the amount of hard drive storage space you’ll need.

Lower end users should consider hard drives of space between 20 and 40 GB, or higher depending on your music/image storage needs. If you are doing any kind of image or video work, you should definitely be considering a hard drive at 100GB or higher.

Like RAM, you can expand your hard drive space in the future if it has enough physical space inside the tower to do so. Ask a salesperson about this if you are interested. Buying a plain hard drive is a lot cheaper than you might think, and is installed easily.


The big factors in buying a video card are how much gaming, video editing or viewing you plan on doing. If you don’t fit into these categories, any low-end model from ATI or NVIDIA will serve you well.

Even if you’re a big gamer, you probably shouldn’t end up spending anymore than $200-300 on a video card. There are ones that goo for $500 or higher, but even those are overkill for even higher-end gamers. This is easily accomplished at trusted review sites such as or

(This section is not much of a factor if you decide to get a notebook or laptop)

Monitor size really boils down to personal taste. The larger the monitor, the higher screen resolution you can set your display toâÂ?¦which basically means that you can fit more things on your screen’s viewable area at one time. Take a trip to a store that sells monitors to get a better idea of how large you want your monitor to be.

There are two types of monitors available: CRT and LCD.

CRT monitors are the larger bulkier monitors that have been around for a while.

Cheaper. Better color quality.

Heavy and Large. Generates some extra heat.

LCD monitors are the newer, sleeker and thinner monitors that have been starting to become much more popular recently.

Much smaller, lighter, and aesthetically pleasing. Less heat generated.

More expensive. Lower color quality.


There are CD drives, DVD drives, CD burning drives and DVD burning drives. This category depends largely on your needs. Most computers come with a CD drive. These are able to read CDs placed into them, but not much else. CD burners are able to both read CDs and burn onto blank ones (both data and music). DVD drives are usually able to read both CDs and DVDs (both to watch movies or read data). DVD burners are able to read CDs and DVDs, as well as burn data onto blank CDs and DVDs.

Most people that end up getting anything more than a CD drive tend to get two disc drives for their computer, usually a DVD drive and a CD drive, for convenience. Like all the other categories of this article, this choice depends largely on what you’ll be doing with you machine.


I can’t say I’m a leading expert on this subject, but I can tell you what I do know.I have been both a Mac and a Windows user in my time, several years each. They each have their ups and downs. I’ve found that a Windows-based machine (usually known as a PC) is much, much easier to upgrade in terms of hardware (things like hard drive space and memory). Windows is also known for having a wider variety of software (programs) available for it, including most video games.

Macs (also known as Apples) seem to be simpler machines in terms of how one navigates around doing basic tasks. The upside to this is that they tend to be friendlier to the extremely new user, but are sometimes harder to customize for the power user. There is also the argument that Macs are less susceptible to viruses and spyware, which use to be true. However, more sophisticated programs that target Macs are now being found.

Like I said, this is by no means an end all argument on the issue. It’s merely what I have encountered in my experience. Overall, I would say that the Mac Vs. Windows argument boils down to personal preference. The best course of action would be to see if you can try out what is available at your library/school, or what your friends have. See which kind of system seems to click with you more.


Other things to consider picking up for your system:

-Speakers/subwoofer (depending on your audio needs)

-Mouse and Keyboard (though they are usually included, there are many other options, including wireless)

-Printer and Scanner (printer scanner combinations are also available)


There are many resources available online for you to browse through both pre-built and customizable systems.

Pre-Built Systems

Video Cards


Customizable Computers/parts

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